Hong Kong’s protesters are trying to break free from the “old seafood” generation

Hong Kong’s “old seafood” government.
Hong Kong’s “old seafood” government.
Image: REUTERS/Issei Kato
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For over two months, Amy has not been able to go to sleep without a quarrel with her parents. Her parents grill her about her whereabouts everyday. And conversation inevitably turns sour when it touches upon her participation in the anti-extradition bill protests, now approaching the three-month mark.

Amy, in her early 20s, and her dozen friends have been among the many black-clad, masked young protesters who are part of Hong Kong’s biggest political movement since the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests. She and her friends carefully choose their level of risk—instead of going on the frontlines to fight tear gas, they organize first-aid supplies and pool money to buy individual MTR train tickets for protesters so that they won’t leave a digital footprint.

“Parents think that they have seen everything and know better, treating us like kids,” said the university student, who only identified herself as Amy for personal safety reasons. “What we want is different from what they want. We value our rights as a citizen. Freedom and democracy are more important than slaving ourselves away for money.”

The rift within Amy’s family parallels that between Hong Kong’s young and its ruling class, sometimes referred to in Cantonese by the slang term “old seafood,” a common way to refer to elite and detached “old farts.” While many older Hong Kongers do support the movement, many others believe the young should focus on working hard and getting ahead, or think that young people are being enticed to take part in the protests by an invisible “black hand”— foreign interference.

“This is the Hong Kong government’s ‘old seafood’ mentality,” said Baleros Irving Alfred of Reclaiming Social Work Movement (link in Chinese), a collective of licensed social workers who have been supporting young protesters. “They think they know best. They believe that people would only do something if they are paid… But young people prioritize freedom and justice over money and food.”

Wisdom of the youth: extinguishing tear gas canisters with roadblock cones.
Wisdom of the youth: extinguishing tear gas canisters with roadblock cones.
Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Hong Kong’s “old seafood” government

Hong Kong’s protests began in June in response to a proposed extradition bill, which would have allowed suspects to be extradited to mainland China to stand trial, a change seen as a dire threat to the city’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework. The largely leaderless protests have been marked by a high level of organization as they crossed the city, from an occupation of the airport to a human chain across Hong Kong on Friday (Aug. 23)—and have continued unabated despite escalating clashes with the police and warnings from Beijing.

Hong Kong’s protest is leaderless in part because so many of the protest leaders of 2014 have been prosecuted or sidelined—steps seen by many young people as examples of how the “old seafood” generation, in alliance with Beijing, is preserving the status quo. Edward Leung, seen by some as the spiritual leader of the current protests, is in prison for his participation in unrest in Mong Kok in 2016, after being earlier barred from running in legislative elections over his pro-independence views; others, such as Nathan Law, have been stripped of their lawmaker status.

These young politicians represent a post-materialist generation, which advocates individual freedom over working relentlessly to buy a home and get ahead. In the 2017 documentary film Lost in Fumes about Leung’s journey from university student to a political rising star, Leung said that had he not entered politics, he would’ve taken an easy job that pays enough to get by, but that gave him time to play the guitar.

Social worker Alfred said he and his colleagues have been working with a number of cases of young protesters who have had disputes with their families, especially as the protests have escalated. Cases of young pro-democracy protesters being kicked out of their homes by their parents are not uncommon, he said.

Alfred recalled one case where a young man fell out with his mother because he quit his job at McDonald’s in Admiralty after the shop’s manager agreed to sell burgers to the police even though the shop was closed. He and his colleagues have also been reaching out to counsel young people they deem at high risk of suicide based on their social media messages.

Not all quarrels with family are caused by political differences. A 19-year-old frontline protester who identified himself as Hope said his parents support the protests but they have tried to stop him from going for his own safety. The most intense arguments happened when he was out for three consecutive days from August 3 to 5, as protesters organized a general strike.

“They said it was dangerous and some of their friends’ children were already arrested,” Hope said, via a Telegram chat. He tried to reassure his parents that he was fine when he went home after those protests, covering up the bruises on his fingers and shoulder where he had been hit by a tear gas canister.

His maternal aunt and uncle were much harsher. “They said to me: ‘you go out to protest because you get paid!’”

“Trust them”

Since the start of the protests, city politicians—including chief executive Carrie Lam herself—have compared the protesters to children, questioned their love of Hong Kong, and expressed skepticism they have the skills to organize protests of this scale.

Days after a million people marched on June 9 to demand the controversial bill be withdrawn, Lam said that acquiescing to the demand would be like a mother giving in to her spoiled child. Later that week she agreed to suspend the bill—but not withdraw it as protesters are still calling for, along with other demands that include universal suffrage in voting for the city’s leader.

This month, Lam said Hong Kong’s economy was at risk from the actions of protesters who “have no stake in the society which so many people have helped to build,” a statement that angered many (link in Chinese). She called for dialogue last week after 1.7 million took to the streets on Aug. 18, confirming the movement shows no signs of flagging. But her initial meeting on Saturday (August 24) featured prominent figures of her own generation. Lam last month invited student union leaders for talks, but they declined saying that the talks should be public, not private. On Monday (Aug. 26) Lam met some 20 young people at a closed-door meeting set up by the Beijing liaison office.

“Carrie Lam is the archetype of old seafood—complacent, condescending and worshipping the authorities. The current order is in their favor so they don’t want to change,” said protester Amy.

Earlier this month, pro-Beijing veteran Ip Kwok-him, a member of Lam’s cabinet, said in a radio interview that “young people are not smart enough” to come up with protest strategies. His comments echoed those of Regina Ip, another pro-Beijing politician, who said protesters’ use of AirDrop and Telegram must mean there is a “very powerful big boss” behind the scenes. 

But some Hong Kongers say they have seen up close how deeply invested the young protesters are in the city’s future.

A 40-year-old protester who identifies himself as Fai said he has been on the frontlines on many occasions. At first, he tried to drag young people away before tear gas was fired, but gave up after he was given the cold shoulder.

“It took a while to sink in. They are grown-ups from a different generation,” said Fai. “To avoid being ‘old seafood’ I can only tell them to be careful. The future is theirs. We have to trust them.”