I Was Never Taught How To Protest: A Young Singaporean in Hong Kong

Contributed by Lo Hoi Ying

I was never taught how to protest.

I was never taught how to chant slogans, how to punch my fist in the air, nor how to fight for something I truly believe in.

Born to Hong Kong immigrants in Singapore and currently interning in Shanghai, I am often confused about my sense of identity. Although I was only a few months old at the time of the British handover, I grew up speaking Cantonese and spending my school holidays in Hong Kong.

I know the city like the back of my hand. Flaky egg tarts, neon signboards, traditional Chinese temples nestled in gentrified neighbourhoods, hiking trails hidden behind rows of skyscrapers, the familiar lilt of Cantonese and the occasional profanity — there is no place like Hong Kong.

I was overwhelmed with pride when one million people first marched on the streets on Jun 9, and it pained me to read about the violent clashes on Jun 12. I teared while reading the news every morning.

I knew I had to go back.

Photo: Lo Hoi Ying

Freedom is relative

Freedom was a concept I grew up with in both Singapore and Hong Kong. Spending four months in mainland China made me realise that freedom is relative — you’ll never crave the freedoms you’ve never experienced.

Although Hong Kong was promised autonomy and freedoms of speech, assembly and press for fifty years from 1997, the core values — instilled by the British, no less — are being increasingly eroded by the central Chinese government.

Incidents like including nationalistic “moral education” into the school syllabus, the disappearances of booksellers distributing anti-communist publications and heavy-handed laws against disrespecting China’s national anthem contributed to growing resistance against tightening Chinese grip.

Photo: Lo Hoi Ying

The newly-proposed bill allowing the transfer of fugitives to mainland China, which Hong Kong does not have an extradition agreement with, was the catalyst that ignited the anger bubbling inside the city for years.

As an intern journalist in a country notorious for its lack of press freedom, I pondered the possibility of being denied entry at the Chinese border for joining the protests.

Still, I decided to go. After work on Friday, I hopped on an 11-hour overnight train to the southern city of Shenzhen, where I was unprepared for my first sleeper train experience in China.

When the train pulled up to Ningbo station at 11pm, a middle-aged man entered the cabin I was sharing with another woman. By 2am, both of us were woken up by a symphony of sounds coming from the man; thunderous snoring, lip-smacking, snorting and puckering noises do not make a good lullaby. In hindsight, earplugs were definitely a good idea.

Photo: Lo Hoi Ying

Joining the fray

Crossing over to Hong Kong was refreshing: I could finally use internet without VPN and had the privilege to catch Palme d’Or winner Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite in theatres. Living in China meant I had very limited access to foreign movies, an ache for a cinephile like me.

On the day of the march, I arrived at Causeway Bay ahead of the 2.30pm starting time. By noon, the area was bustling with people dressed in black. Various groups were distributing free water, ribbons, posters and t-shirts. One group gave out white flowers to mourn a protester who fell to his death Saturday night.

The energy was electric at the main march on Hennessy Road. People dressed in black lined the streets as far as my eyes could see. They were enraged – recent violence against journalists and youths had brought even more people to the streets.

In a city of seven million residents, over a quarter of them came together to protest against what they saw as a threat to Hong Kong’s autonomy. I was honoured to be a part of them.

Chit wui, chit wui, chit wui,” the crowd chorused for the withdrawal of the bill, among other chants calling for Chief Executive Carrie Lam to step down and for the police to release the “rioters” from Wednesday.

Since only a few lanes on Hennessy Road were blocked off for the demonstration, the march was stuck in a bottleneck for a few hours. Nonetheless, morale remained high and someone in the crowd would start another string of chants whenever the volume died down. At one point, the crowd began shouting “缓你老母” (suspend/fuck your mum) in unison.

Standing among the protesters made me realise that I was riddled with fear. Protests are a yearly affair in Hong Kong; but growing up in Singapore, I had never attended one.

Prior to the match, I pictured myself liberally chanting slogans with the crowd. However, I found those words stuck uncomfortably in my throat.

I have never dared to raise my voice to protest against the establishment. Would chanting the same thing as thousands of others promote groupthink? Did I really believe in what I was chanting? “Power to the people” was a concept unfamiliar to me.

Photo: Lo Hoi Ying

I only had a few hours to spare and could not see the march from start to finish. Although I wanted to display solidarity, I felt more like an outsider who could join or leave whenever I wanted. However, for the locals, this is a reality they have to live with.

The fight is not yet over — Carrie Lam has yet to withdraw the extradition bill and accusations of police brutality have not been investigated. Who knows how many more marches it would take?

I sometimes wonder how Hong Kong will look like when I turn 50, and fear strikes me. Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city would continue to enjoy its capitalist systems and freedoms until 2047. I cannot bear to see a place I love so much lose its freedoms.

Even if the Chinese government eventually compels obedience, I believe it will never win our hearts.


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