HONG KONG—I was picking up a Beijing friend from the MTR the other day. She was carrying a huge suitcase and we were just about to walk up the stairs to the exit when we realized it was pouring outside and we didn’t have an umbrella. Many people at the exit were caught by surprise, just like us. We were all stuck there thinking what to do.
“Please do not stop here and block people from going out,” a passer-by suddenly yelled at us in putonghua—also known as Mandarin, which is primarily spoken on the mainland—with the heavy Cantonese accent of a Hong Kong native. “You are making it impossible for us to move!”
“We would be moving at light speed if it weren’t raining outside!” I yelled back in putonghua. “Blocking the stairs is the last thing we want to do.”
It was the first week of the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong. Public transit was just getting crowded as the streets were blocked by protestors, most of whom are young people outraged by the Central Government’s final decision to screen candidates for the city’s so-called “universal suffrage” which is due t0 happen in 2017.
“That guy was so irritating!” my friend said to me afterwards. “Did he just yell at us because we were speaking putonghua and he wanted to show some superiority?”
I shrugged, “Yeah, I don’t think he would have said those things if we were expats.”
It’s my sixth year in the city. When I first came here, I was just out of college, had no idea what June 4 really was and thought everyone in Hong Kong was as good looking as they are in the TVB dramas. People were nice to me when I tried to practice my broken Cantonese.
“Are you from Canada? Your Cantonese has a foreign accent,” they would always say.
“No, I’m from dai lok (the mainland).”
Which was fine. But dai lok has become more of a toxic word than it should be. The city has been getting more expensive as money and people from the mainland flows in—rents are going up, hospital beds are filled by mainland pregnant women, and the MTR is full of mainlanders who eat, drink, talk loud, and cut queues. And the song “Locusts World”—using the derogatory term that some Hong Kong people use to describe mainlanders—became a hit.
Later that night, my friend and I went to Admiralty, the main base of the Occupy Central movement, where protesters are demanding that Beijing allow the free nomination of candidates and that the current chief executive of Hong Kong step down, among other things.
We walked up and down the streets, taking photos of people, banners, signs, posters, and umbrellas that have become the symbol of the biggest civil unrest in decades in Hong Kong.
“I don’t know too much about Hong Kong politics, but it is also really annoying that any information about it is censored in the mainland,” my friend said. “I need to document this moment for myself.”
It has been more than two weeks since protestors occupied Admiralty and parts of Causeway Bay and Mong Kok. There was violence, but largely things have been calm. Food, showers, tents, sleeping bags have been organized for the people who have such faith in democracy, and want to fight for a brighter future for the former British colony, which returned to Chinese control in 1997.
But some of the people in the streets now might have been the ones who went to the luxury stores in Tsim Sha Tsui, singing “locusts” at mainlanders who came to Hong Kong to blow lots of money shopping.
“Hong Kong is going nowhere with people protesting for something impossible, while ignoring the fact that China has brought about so many economic benefits to the city over the years and truly cared about its development,” some of my friends from the mainland, who have been in Hong Kong for just one or two years, wrote on WeChat—a popular instant messaging and networking app created by Chinese internet giant Tencent, which censored pictures and texts regarding the protests shortly after they broke out, according to many users.
“Hong Kong has run out of gas for economic growth. There’s competition from mainland cities and mainland talents. People don’t see their lives getting any better anymore, which is the underlying reason why they go to the streets. They think democracy will solve it all,” others said. “These people are just wasting everybody’s time. I wish they had known better!”
These fresh arrivals in the city have probably seen more aggression than amenity towards mainlanders either in local media reports or their everyday life.
My other mainland friends, like myself, who have lived in the city long enough to understand both sides, feel inspired by the pro-democracy protesters’ efforts, as we do every year when local people gather in Victoria Park commemorating the students killed on June 4th 25 years ago. But we also feel sad because the outcome of the movement is probably not going to be what most people desire.
“It’s like forcing a guy into an arranged marriage with a rich but super ugly girl. No matter how rich she is, you just can’t do it!” one of my friends commented—and I’m pretty sure China is the rich woman in that analogy.
“But I’m afraid the authorities will just wait till everybody gets tired and goes home and then it’s business as usual,” predicted another friend. “Beijing will not be bound by any morals or formalities of political movements. They stick to what they deem right.”
I decided to come to Hong Kong to study journalism, six years ago, because I thought it was a city of free speech and democracy. When I first saw the annual vigil in Victoria Park, I hoped that one day this part of history could become public information in the mainland. Maybe there is a chance that we could make every mainland city like Hong Kong: no censorship, free speech, and very Chinese, and also respected internationally.
Now Hong Kong is at a historical turning point, and that hope seems to be dimming. But at least people are still in the streets, fighting for what they believe in, and that—and in contrast to the political apathy I see in some of my WeChat friends’ comments—is more than enough for me to admire.