By Jason Y. Ng
There are dates on the calendar that bring back uncomfortable, distressing or even painful memories—of natural disasters, of gun violence, of bloody government crackdowns. They give us what pop psychologists call “anniversary blues.”
Today is one of those days.
Five years ago, on September 28, 2014, what began as a mass protest morphed into an all-out street occupation that would go on for 79 days and rewrite Hong Kong’s postcolonial history. On every September 28 since, citizens are forced to confront their mixed emotions about the movement and acknowledge its failure to deliver its promise of meaningful electoral reform.
They are forced to mull over what went wrong and what they should or could have done differently. We are, after all, our own worst critic.
This year, our self-criticism has taken on a new intensity, not only because half a decade is an important milestone but more critically because we have another roiling political crisis on our hands. An ill-conceived extradition bill proposed by Carrie Lam’s government has touched off a fresh round of large-scale protest movement. This time it’s bigger, angrier, and more volatile than the last.
Call it Umbrella 2.0 or Occupy on Steroids. The black shirt protesters, with their signature yellow hard hats, half-face respirator masks and the occasional petrol bomb, have made those tent-dwelling, homework-doing Umbrella Villagers in 2014 look like puppies.
The very spark of the occupy movement—87 shots of tear gas—now feels like child’s play. These days, hardened protesters return those billowing canisters with their bare hands or a tennis racket. Hongkongers have evolved.
If this summer of turmoil has shown us one thing, it is that we have long moved on from the Umbrella Movement. We have outgrown and outdone themselves, so much so that what happened five years ago seems too irrelevant and out-of-date to be worth a mention.
But before we write off this piece of bittersweet memory like an embarrassing childhood story, let’s spare a moment to reflect on its true legacy. It just may soothe those anniversary blues.
Whether or not we like to admit it, the Umbrella Movement was Hong Kong’s first lesson in civic engagement. For generations, citizens were programmed to stay clear of politics because it was “dirty” and had nothing to do with them. The legislature was an exclusive members-only club reserved for the ruling elite.
But the Umbrella Movement changed that defeatist mindset. It deprogrammed citizens, especially our youth, to realise that politics affects them personally. Everything that’s wrong with Hong Kong, from the widening income gap to the wasteful infrastructure projects and the unpopular extradition bill, is the direct result of a non-representative government that we play no part in choosing.
Once we recognise our stake in society and take an interest in the politics that shapes it, everything else starts to fall into place. The collective epiphany that no one is too small to make a difference was what prompted citizens to line up for hours outside voting booths, young activists to run for district and Legislative Council elections, and professionals to form advocacy groups to amplify the voice of their constituencies.
Without the foundation laid down by the Umbrella Movement, how many protesters today could articulate their demand for universal suffrage and government accountability?
Before 2014, very few in Hong Kong had heard of, let alone understood, the concept of civil disobedience. Breaking the law and risking imprisonment to make a political point was unfathomable to most law-abiding and self-preserving citizens.
The lesson began when Professor Benny Tai and his like-minded friends launched Occupy Central and took hold after they were thrown in jail along with dozens of other anti-government protesters, including Edward Leung, the de facto spiritual leader of the black shirt protesters.
If the old Lion Rock Spirit was premised on hunkering down for trickle-down economic benefit, then the new Lion Rock Spirit would be about social justice and the conviction that some causes are worth fighting for no matter the personal toll.
Protesters today refer to each other as yee see, the Cantonese word for martyrs. If it weren’t for the seed planted during the Umbrella Movement, they wouldn’t have been as driven or committed—or as prepared to risk it all for the greater good.
The Umbrella Movement saw a burst of creativity in Hong Kongers that had long been suppressed by back-breaking demands at school and in the workplace. Sleeping on the streets for weeks on end had brought out the painter, musician, dancer and photographer in us, which in turn gave birth to graffiti walls, sculptures, pop songs, parody posters and other forms of protest art.
The movement also altered our relationship with public spaces. Expressways and sidewalks were “liberated” by protesters and reimagined into camping grounds, classrooms, libraries and supplies warehouses. Lampposts, staircases and highway dividers were repurposed into home furniture.
This outside-the-box thinking continued long after the movement ended. In the still-unfolding anti-extradition bill campaign, protesters look beyond marches and confrontations with police. We see Lennon Walls springing up across the city on footbridges and underpasses. As many as a dozen protest anthems have been written and recorded, along with a torrent of flash mobs, human chains and other performance art.
Even our glimmering shopping malls, the ultimate symbol of unabashed consumerism, have been co-opted as an agent of an urban uprising. Pacific Place, Times Square and New Town Plaza now double as sanctuaries from trigger-happy police and music halls for impromptu singalongs.
Those examples, and so many more trace their origin to 2014, the year when Hong Kongers were crowned not only the world’s politest protesters but also its most innovative.
Ten months after the Umbrella Movement ended, I published a book to chronicle what went down during those 79 days. More importantly, it was my rebuttal to heartbreaking accusations that the movement was a failure, a mistake, a farce or a waste of time.
Some of the thoughts I shared in this article were extracted from a chapter titled “Hong Kong 2.0,” in which I marvelled at how the biggest political crisis of our time had brought out the absolute best in us.
In the introduction to the book, I recorded my state of mind at the time as follows:
Not a day has gone by since the last protest site was dismantled that I haven’t thought about the protests and the protesters who turned them into so much more. The Umbrella Movement has shown me possibilities in our future that I didn’t know existed. It has brought out qualities in our citizens that I did not think they possessed. I was given a front-row seat to behold the human spirit in full bloom. If I did nothing else in my life, if that was all that I ever did, it would have been enough.
A lot has happened in Hong Kong since I wrote that paragraph, but I wouldn’t change a word of it. On this fifth anniversary of the movement, I feel nothing but pride, humility and gratitude. There are no blues.
Article originally appeared in Hong Kong Free Press on 28 September 2019.