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Sandwiches

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This is the commentary for the gallery for 4 October 2014 on Umbrella Diaries.

I posted this on Facebook on 4 October 2014:

I was able to witness possibly one of the tensest sandwich delivery earlier this morning at Admiralty. Protestors and police negotiators had finally managed to decide on how food, water, and medical supplies could be transported to police lines at the Chief Executive’s Office, which has been blockaded by protestors seeking to prevent Leung Chun-ying from going to work.

Just past midnight, police officers had climbed over the barriers to the overpass, charged through a crowd of protestors and members of the press, injuring at least one sleeping protestor with batons.

Hours later, food and drink had been delivered without incident, both parties had established a standard operating procedure:

1. Whatever to be delivered is to come in transparent packaging and open crates, then delivered through Queensway and Rodney Street by police officers accompanied by protestors.

2. Protestors are to ensure that at least one cameraman from a broadcaster is around to film the entire process.

3. A lone unarmed, un-uniformed police officer is allowed to clamber over the barriers and oversee protestors who will help to load the items onto two trolleys.

4. Once at the other side of the overpass where the Legislative Council Complex is, the items are to be placed on the barriers (pictured in photograph) and the police officer will call to let officers in the Complex know they can approach the barriers from their side.

5. A lone security guard will walk towards the barrier first, followed by at most three armed police officers.

6. The police officer on the protestors’ side of the overpass is then escorted back to the barriers on the Rodney Street side, and asked to declare that no ammunition or weaponry have been transported.

7. The police officer is then allowed to leave.

The protestors also asked the police officer if he could provide a schedule of deliveries to prevent undue anxiety on the part of protestors fearful of being tear gassed, pepper sprayed or beaten by batons. Protestors also complained that the police had not provided a single point of contact earlier, making it difficult for them to assist police in deliveries. Both parties later exchanged numbers.

It was fascinating because it was a lesson in how people can build trust in low-trust conditions, given that all this had been spontaneous and unplanned; no one leader was in charge. In fact protestors had argued among themselves for almost half an hour about the number of policemen allowed on the overpass, and if the police should be trusted again given that they had mislead fellow protestors on Tim Wa Avenue twice in the past two days.

This arrangement broke down the next day when the police broke through the barricades protestors put up at Tim Wa Avenue.

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Public space

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This is the commentary for the gallery for 30 September 2014 on Umbrella Diaries.

A sign that read “It’s NOT for sightseeing” greeted those entering the barricaded Admiralty protest site from Central MTR station. It confused me quite a bit, so I stood around taking more photographs, half hoping that someone would come by to stop me from acting like a tourist just so that I could ask what the sign was intended for.

Hadn’t the scaling of Civic Square earlier on the 28th been a spectacle? The occupation of Connaught Road Central and Harcourt Road had been nothing but spectacular. Had they wanted people to stop taking selfies just to prove that they had been there? Was it even possible to stop people from sightseeing in a place that had become a sight to behold?

Discussion online made it clear what this was all about: The protests were serious protests, not a gathering of ne’er-do-wells. The sign had just been a sign of things to come. On 9 October, some people set up ping pong tables and sat around to have hot pot on Nathan Road, within the barricaded Mongkok protest site.

Many people also gathered in the area where the hotpot had been set up. Some yelled for the crowd to disperse and prevented them from engaging in discussion. The main reasons they proposed were “military discipline” and “public imagine [sic],” arguing that this was a martial conflict with no place for fun or recreation. When asked who was the “general” demanding such discipline, they simply yelled for people to shut up and disperse… (Hotpot, Gods, and “Leftist Pricks”: Political Tensions in the Mong Kok Occupation)

In other words, the ping pong playing, hot pot eating participants had been made to stop because the Umbrella Movement was a serious movement and they had been having fun.

The idea that the protest sites were only for serious protestors and onlookers has remained with me since.

 

 

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Graffiti

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This is the commentary for the gallery for 29 September 2014 on Umbrella Diaries.

29 September began with the stench of sour milk. Volunteers were emptying carton after carton into a drain, which they then flushed with fresh water. Someone had donated fresh milk the day before, believing it would neutralise tear gas. By the morning it had all curdled in the heat.

“We didn’t have time to clean up yesterday because the police were making it really difficult”, one volunteer told us. “Hong Kong protests have always been very clean affairs.”

It wasn’t just about being hygienic; the protestors seemed keenly aware that the simple act of picking up litter and sorting refuse, when repeated by enough people, could also be a political tool. The message: “This isn’t chaos. We’re not just out to trash the city. We’re not destructive.”

In the coming days, headlines like “The World’s Politest Protesters” would pop up all over the internet.

So it was fascinating to see what the extent of “cleaning up” would be. In the evening, some protestors of school-going age began drawing flowers and also large characters that read things like “Democracy” all along Harcourt Road – in chalk of course.

Those didn’t last long.

Just days later, other protestors began using bottles of turpentine, rags, and copious amounts of water to remove graffiti that had been spray-painted on walls and tarmac. One told an NBC reporter that it was his responsibility “to try and be a good citizen (and not) damage Hong Kong“.

cleanup

I stopped in my tracks when I next came upon the graffiti that had read “Democracy”. It was so faint it was barely there. Surely the rain couldn’t have erased it so cleanly?

I was left wondering: Had protestors thought that chalk had not been adequately impermanent? Might they have seen graffiti of any kind as subverting the image they were trying to maintain?

Had the people who were fighting to have their voices heard though universal suffrage been the same people who had policed art, even though it might have been their own?

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Selected comments

“For me, the whole point is about how Hong Kong protests are imbued with a politics of civility – so much of the act of occupying is also intrinsically tied to the act of keeping the space intact and orderly.”

“I would have made mention of the “This is Not a Carnival” slogan. My mind is always stuck on how right-wing pro-Occupy people ousted people having hotpot and playing games in Mong Kok.”

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This is the commentary for the gallery for 28 September 2014 on Umbrella Diaries.

I was in Taiwan when protestors in Hong Kong entered Civic Square on 26 September. The news didn’t make a blip on Taiwanese TV.

Lynn had been Facebook messaging me all week. Talk of a sit-in had been circulating for a long time. Rumour was that the escalation was going to be on 1 October since it was going to be a public holiday.

Everything changed the moment student activist Joshua Wong ran into Civic Square.

27 September

At 2am, Lynn texted: “They took Joshua.”

“You both okay?”

“Sleep deprived but okay.”

I replied: “Ok. Will sleep on your behalf.”

10 hours later, Lynn texted again: “Oct 1 might not happen. This is the Occupy event right now. Who knows what will be left Oct 1. This one is big.”

“Really?”

“That’s why I am saying come! Ok gotta run. We are waiting to be water cannoned.”

28 September

I landed at Chek Lap Kok Airport past 3pm on the 28th, half expecting Hong Kong to feel different given what I was reading on my phone. But the Airport Express was filled with silence as usual.

A supplies station had popped up outside my hotel in Wanchai. Volunteers handed me a used pair of goggles. Then they saw my camera and recording gear and gave me a new pair, still wrapped in plastic. And a bottle of water, for the tear gas.

The scale of the protest only really struck me when I got on Harcourt Road. People gave way as soon as they saw that I was holding on to a camera. The road was jam-packed with people. I had to make sure I didn’t step on anyone.

Then I saw boots. Green coveralls. Black masks. Shields. Batons.

I took a deep breath, and got to work.