Getting in the face of the Polite Protest

Getting in the face of the Polite Protest

I had been in a public protest as a kid.

I was seven then, and I cried my lungs out at a packed toy exhibition at Raffles City shopping centre, figuring in my little devious mind that I could threaten my mother with public humiliation, and she would buy me the Crash Dummy I wanted.

It took some time, it felt like an eternity actually, but I got what I wanted and I was happy.

Somehow there remains a tinge of shame more than two decades on.

And that shame intensified when I walked through the Occupy Central protest sites in Admiralty, Mongkok and Causeway Bay in Hong Kong.

The stars of the show have been the Hong Kong youth, though it is a somewhat unfair statement to make - there were also senior citizens who played their part by being voluntary builders, cleaners, carpenters and sentries.

Even as the generally peaceful demonstrations have become as much of a tourist attraction as it is a social movement, a walk around the protest sites is thought-provoking.

Occupy Central has been billed as the Polite Protest, and it is not difficult to see why.

It was a hive of creative activity at Admiralty, where the most destructive damage was done when police launched a tear gas and pepper spray attack to disperse protesters at its peak.

The young people have imported the Lennon Wall from Prague, Czech Republic, by pasting millions of colourful Post-it notes with their democratic wishes on the walls of the Hong Kong Central Government Offices.

They hang banners quoting lyrics from legendary hits such as John Lennon's Imagine and Beyond's Boundless Ocean Vast Skies.

At major intersections, they conjure complex formations of barricades, not forgetting to plastic-wrap the ends of bamboo poles so that no protester or police would get hurt if things get chaotic.

Every time a barricade gets cleared, another more elaborate one is erected.

At the foot of the Legislative Council building, students collect food waste to convert into detergent.

Girls bake umbrella-shaped biscuits - the brolly has become a rallying icon after being used to repel tear gas and pepper spray attacks - and hand them out to protesters.

Just outside the MTR station, boys and girls man a charging station where hundreds of cables diverge from a mini-generator, allowing anyone trusting enough to leave behind and recharge their mobile devices, after registering on a basic exercise book.

Portable toilets are set up and mobile toilets are equipped with generous donations of toiletries such as shampoo and moisturisers.

People who were in a heated argument just seconds earlier can calm down to politely explain what is going on to curious overseas visitors before gently asking them to stay safe.


Over in Mongkok, a group of youngsters draw up a map to encourage passers-by to support shops located in disadvantageous nooks and crannies.

"Rent is so high in Hong Kong, the local shopowners are forced into the back lanes where traffic is poor," said Ray Chan.

"Look at how many jewellery shops and branded goods stores there are on the main road. I think the losses they suffer as a result of the protests are not unbearable for these big international corporations.

"In contrast, the authorities complaining that business has taken a hit are the ones who keep increasing the rent such that the small shopowners find it untenable to survive here."

Like the bawling seven-year-old me, the protesters are a nuisance.

Unlike the selfish seven-year-old me, their personal convictions matter as much to them as their consideration for others.

The Polite Protest has to end one day and it is highly unlikely they will get what they want - a truly democratic election and the resignation of their Chief Executive.

But they can still walk with their heads held high, knowing they gave it all they had, within reasonable boundaries, to fight for the future they want, while being generally nice people.

This article was first published on October 18 2014.
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