Hong Kong 'Umbrella' protest thrives on diversity, from Admiralty to Mongkok

From doctoral students singing Cantonese pop to a working class generation that fled Mao's China, 40 days of demands for real democracy bring a tale of two Hong Kongs.

Liau Chung-ren/Reuters
A pro-democracy protester shielded himself from the rain with umbrellas at Mongkok shopping district in Hong Kong on Friday. Two large camps, one in Mongkok and another in the more upscale Admiralty neighborhood, represent the sharp differences in class, education, and social background of those engaged in the protests.

For 40 days and 40 nights, Hong Kong protesters have gathered in pup tents demanding that China’s leaders allow them real democracy. The “Umbrella Movement” has reached a sort of biblical duration – as students continue to squat on some of the most expensive real estate on earth on behalf of what they say is their future. 

Today, neither students, Beijing, nor Hong Kong officials are taking any apparent lead in the standoff, however. The protesters are settling in: Hong Kong’s postal service is actually delivering mail to individually numbered tents at different sites. Chinese officials are preoccupied by the APEC meeting under way in the capital. Many Hong Kong residents view their leaders as bereft of ideas and as simply waiting for Beijing to direct them. 

Some students are debating whether to go to Beijing (or try to) and force meetings with officials. Others are scaling Hong Kong’s heights to drape huge banners declaring “We Want Real Universal Suffrage” off mountainsides and skyscrapers.

Two sides of an ancient harbor weigh in

But beneath an aura of relative calm, not all is perfectly in sync. From the start, very different Hong Kongers with very different agendas, representing very different parts of the city of 7 million, have been hard at work.

Partly, this is a matter of simple geography -- and is most vividly seen in the two sprawling protests camps of Mongkok and the Admiralty.

The ancient geological cleft that split Hong Kong’s main island from the Kowloon peninsula also created a large harbor, assuring this territory’s future as a world-class port. The two sides of the harbor are like two sides of the tracks. Hong Kong’s buttoned-down Admiralty, and the gritty Mongkok neighborhood, represent a sharp difference in class, education, and social background that is visible in the faces of protesters in the two places, and also seen in the attitudes and the levels of violence.

These differences will likely play a role in how the protests – already in defiance of a court order – might end.

The Beatles and Bruce Lee at the Admiralty  

Hong Kong Island’s main “occupied” area stretches along a highway lined with skyscrapers, major hotels, luxury-car dealerships, and malls offering exclusive brands. Although the protests are called Occupy Central, in fact, Hong Kong’s central business district has been spared occupation. The prime protest tent city is at Admiralty, one-time home to the British Navy.  At one end of Admiralty is the local home of the People’s Liberation Army, formerly the Prince of Wales barracks. At the other end is CITIC Tower, headquarters of the China International Trust and Investment Corp.

The six-lane road connecting the two sides is now devoid of traffic, a field of colorful tents stretching in all directions. It runs in front of the Hong Kong government’s operations center. The complex includes one building for unpopular Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, and another for the almost equally unpopular 70-member Legislative Council. The real estate is attractive for any serious demonstrator.

This is where students from Hong Kong’s top universities as well as some students as young as 13 gravitate, dressed in their school uniforms.

In the past six weeks the students have exploded the myth that Hong Kong youth do not care about the world, or learn only by rote, or lack creativity and simply want to get rich. The half-mile protest area is festooned with art referencing Cantonese pop culture, Japanese cartoons, Michelangelo, and martial-arts icon Bruce Lee.  A banner with the Beatle John Lennon’s lyric, “You may say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one” is draped over a pedestrian bridge.

Protesters do school work by the light of lamps plugged into their computers. Free snacks and drinks are available. The students run a central registry for anyone wishing to set up a tent.

One group is offering guided tours focused on recycling, urban gardening, arts, and culture. Another makes postcards to spread the movement’s message. An archive team is cataloging and preserving the artwork.

In short, they are doing things they have criticized the government for not doing. For the students at Admiralty, the government’s indifference toward core values like Hong Kong’s identity has led the city to policies they abhor, like the destruction of historical buildings, a high-speed rail link with mainland China, and the attempt to introduce so-called patriotic “national education” in schools.

These frustrations snowballed into what is now the “Umbrella Movement.”

In Mongkok, facing down China and the triads 

But over in Mongkok, it’s a whole other story. It is a gritty Kowloon tale of protesters from labor unions, from generations that fled Mao’s China, and of various stripes of working class radicals.

The Mongkok protesters took over a stretch of Nathan Road, in the heart of Kowloon, a main artery. Their bivouac runs between two subway stops. Metal barricades are reinforced with wood pallets; the bamboo scaffolding poles are reinforced with trash barrels. The protest art contains language that family media won’t print.

While store fronts sell gold jewelry and watches to visitors from the mainland, behind the lights are dense and dark neighborhoods that predate World War II. The place is famous for night markets, street-food vendors, snake shops, fortune-tellers, auto-parts shops, karaoke bars, wedding card printers, and one-woman brothels. It’s 100 percent working-class with men and women pushing carts loaded with electronics and textiles around the clock. It’s also a recruitment ground for criminal gangs known as triads that have been accused of beatings protesters and journalists.

Here, the protesters match Mongkok’s tough surroundings. The men are older, rougher, and tanner than the young bookworms on the other side of the harbor. Elderly women join the protest with clenched fists next to temples of traditional Chinese deities and a makeshift chapel with a large picture of Jesus.

Many protesters here represent the generations who fled Communist China to the safety of Hong Kong, and they are emerging to speak of the past and to voice feelings they’ve suppressed for decades.

But the prolonged occupation is exacting a toll on local business, especially small shops. That logically affects triad profits, including protection, and clashes in Mongkok have had a darker, violent side.

'One Umbrella movement, two occupations'

More radical groups within the Occupy Movement here have their own strategies and aims. Raymond Wong Yuk-man, a maverick legislator and leader of the group Civic Passion, recently told Mongkok protesters that their zone is “the last beach head.”

One reporter referred jokingly to the “Mongkok Soviet” – a reference to early workers’ councils in Soviet Russia. The term is not entirely apt, but catches the spontaneous nature of the occupation and its social makeup and political edge – so different from across the harbor where middle-class students prepare for exams while paralyzing the working zone of elites, lawyers, and ladies who lunch.

In a play off the “one country-two systems” formula that Hong Kong and China now exist under, the protest is being called “one Umbrella Movement, two occupations.” Whatever their differences, however, the protesters in Mongkok and Hong Kong Island both continue to say 40 days and nights later that they share a belief that Hong Kong cannot solve its governance problems without a democracy that is recognizable as such.

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