For Hong Kong youngsters, protests bring taste of freedom

For Hong Kong youngsters, protests bring taste of freedom
Protesters take cover from pepper spray with umbrellas as riot police clash with tens of thousands of protesters blocking the main street leading to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Sept 28, 2014.

HONG KONG - A month on the streets has given young Hong Kong democracy protesters a taste of life outside the city's cramped shoebox apartments -- and away from the prying eyes of overprotective parents.

In this city of high tower blocks and even higher property prices, many Hong Kongers reach their 30s before they get married and move out of crowded family homes. Space, tranquillity and privacy are all in short supply in one of the most densely populated spots on earth.

But at the main protest camp outside government headquarters, where thousands of youngsters have been gathering since Sept 28 demanding free leadership elections, there's a little more room to breathe.

They may be camped on a concrete highway, but their sprawling tent city offers free snacks, a study area, and a place for young lovers to enjoy a late-night stroll.

There are suspicions that more goes on in some of these tents than earnest political debate, but bashful protesters insist it's simply a chance to make new friends with the same lust for democracy.

"It's just easier to break the ice and start a conversation here. It's very open," said Serene, who works as an office manager by day and comes to help run a supplies tent by night.

"And it helps having somewhere to hang out that's a bit different."

Generational divide

In sharp contrast to Hong Kong's usual go-getting culture, there's something of a hippie vibe at the camp, where the strumming of guitars can be heard late into the night, and the lyrics of John Lennon's "Imagine" flutter on a banner overhead.

A generation once dismissed as materialistic can now be seen busily recycling litter or working on protest art, though many hours are still spent checking social media on smartphones.

"Before the occupation I saw Hong Kong as a city just focused on money. But now we've shown we can come together and fight for our dreams," said 22-year-old Judith Chan as she sat making wire keyrings in the shape of an umbrella, the symbol of the pro-democracy movement.

Like many students involved in the protests, she feels she'll look back at these as the best days of her life.

But in a scenario playing out across countless Hong Kong dinner tables, she faces awkward conversations when she goes back to the small apartment she shares with her mother. There's a stark generational divide to these protests, with many parents complaining that their children are wasting their time.

"My mother thinks politics is something dirty," said Chan, a social sciences student. "It's nice to come here for a while, because at the moment it's not always easy at home."

Many of Hong Kong's older citizens escaped poverty or political persecution on the Chinese mainland, and toiled long hours to give the next generation a better life.

Some now believe their children and grandchildren should be grateful for the status quo in the former British colony, which enjoys civil liberties not seen on the mainland under the deal reached when the city was handed back to China in 1997.

"People think the generation born in the 1990s are idiots, born and raised in a rich era," said Chan. "They think we don't know anything because we've always had easy lives."

'Graduate, get a job, die'

But parents fret over their children's future in a city where property prices have skyrocketed in recent years.

The average rent of a tiny 300 square-foot-flat is now some HK$8,000 a month (S$1318) -- while the average monthly graduate salary last year was just US$1,650 (S$2108) , job search website jobsDB found.

Rising inequality has fed the protests, with demonstrators angry at a government they believe only looks out for the financial hub's powerful tycoons.

But they also voice frustration at their parents for insisting they focus on getting a good job rather than bothering themselves with politics.

"Graduate, get a job, have a family, buy a house and a car, get old, die," is how 24-year-old Jeff Chua summarised his parents' attitude.

Hong Kong's traditional parenting style, which he described as "very involved", also piles on the tensions -- a factor he said stemmed from the fact that many are forced to live at home long into adulthood.

"Every night I come here, my mum still calls me asking when I'm coming home. And I'm 24!" Chua laughed, rolling his eyes.

But strong parenting, he suspects, may also be partly responsible for why the protests have been so remarkably well-behaved, despite the fact that so many young Hong Kongers are enjoying a taste of life away from their parents.

Alcohol is rarely seen at the protest camp, which demonstrators say is a deliberate bid to show they are determined to win free elections, not simply having fun with their friends.

"Seriously," marvelled Chua, "Can you imagine how much beer there'd be at this protest if this was Europe?"

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