Filipinos join HK protests

HONG KONG - It's a "teaching moment."

Armed with cameras and sporting yellow ribbons, a group of Filipinos who are permanent residents of Hong Kong on Wednesday joined the "Umbrella Revolution," which has paralysed busiest parts of the city since Saturday.

They also brought along their children.

"We brought along our kids because this is a teaching opportunity for them to learn that, 'You know, your freedom, you have to fight for it," said Mang Ben, who has lived in Hong Kong for 25 years.

He declined to give his real name for security purposes.

"We brought them so that they will also be aware of what's going on. It's not just for fun. It's also a teaching moment for them," Mang Ben said.

"Hong Kong has given us so much economic benefits, for Filipinos particularly. [W]e want to give back," he added. Democratic elections

For the last four days, Hong Kong has been swept by student-led protests demanding that China allow the city fully democratic elections.

The number of protesters has increased after police deployed tear gas on Sunday in an attempt to disperse protesters who had gathered in front of government offices in Admiralty district.

Since then, however, police have largely stayed behind barricades, just watching as the protesters sit on the streets, blocking traffic and shutting down offices and stores.

"My heart goes out to the students," Mang Ben said, noting how organised and courteous the protesters were.

"They're very well organised. We interviewed some students and they know the issues. That is surprising. They have a good grasp of the issues, what's at stake. That's why we were encouraged," he added.

There are around 185,000 Filipinos in Hong Kong, with 15,000 having permanent resident status.

Around 165,000 work in the city as domestic helpers.

But according to the latest figures from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, there are more than 195,000 Filipinos in Hong Kong.

The figure includes more than 176,000 temporary workers who are expected to return home when their contracts end and 13,000 immigrants whose stay in Hong Kong does not depend on employment.

Around 5,000 Filipinos are classified as irregular or not properly documented.

Consulate's warning

While some Filipino permanent residents here have joined the protests, Philippine Consul General Bernardita Catalla emphatically urged Filipinos to avoid the protest areas.

"While we believe in democracy - our heroes fought and died for freedom and many of our countrymen were imprisoned or went to the mountains for freedom - I would just like to remind everyone that we are here to work and we know there are limits to what we can do here," Catalla told a group of Filipino domestic workers here on Wednesday afternoon.

"Please, stay away from the areas where protests are [going on], we don't want to be involved. Let's always remember that Hong Kong is part of China. Hong Kong is China's Hong Kong," she added.

Catalla said that while Filipinos may sympathize with the cause of the protesters, they should pursue their own "priorities."

"And my priority is to keep your life and employment protected. We are here to work. This is not our country. Our families are back in the Philippines. Let us not get involved," Catalla said.

Mang Ben's group of more than 20 Filipinos, half of them children, walked for about a kilometer from the Central business district late Wednesday afternoon to the centre of the action in Admiralty. It was like a Sunday walk in the park.

They began discussing joining the protests online before deciding to go for it on Wednesday, a public holiday in observance of National Day.

"We come from different backgrounds, some from the church. Many sent private messages online that they wanted to join," Mang Ben said.

"Some said they just wanted to stay on the sidelines so I said that's OK. You don't have to wear yellow but the others here, as you can see, are wearing yellow," he added.

They began with what has become a Filipino tradition for any occasion: taking a group photo, including a "wacky shot."

Along the way, the group passed by a stall where students were giving away free yellow ribbons, face masks, fruits and bottled water.

Some in the group accepted apples and yellow ribbons.

"Now I know why we're here. It's for the free food," Mang Ben told the group in jest.

Mang Ben said the scenes reminded him of the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos dictatorship, although he was in Cebu then.

"We joined in 1986 in Fuente Osmeña (in Cebu City). The feeling is like this. The idealism came back. I felt that the children should also experience this," he said.

"As permanent residents of Hong Kong, we are part of Hong Kong society and we have the rights and the freedoms … so we also share in supporting, being one with the Hong Kong people," he added.

Show of solidarity

When asked why she was there, Mang Ben's young daughter said, "I want to show our solidarity with the Hong Kong people."

Another member of the group said he was inspired after seeing locals refuse the free bottled water and food being offered by the students.

"If this were in the Philippines, we would've probably accepted and asked for more," he said in jest.

Other members of the group noted that there were students with black plastic garbage bags going around asking protesters if they had trash to dispose of.

The group was so impressed when they saw some protesters busy scrubbing off graffiti that had been sprayed on the street.

"This is led by the students. There's Occupy Central, which sort of created the scenario. And the people realised that it's more than that and it evolved into something else," Mang Ben said.

And there are also no portalets, or portable toilets.

Mang Ben asked in one of the stalls that gave out free food where the thousands of protesters relieved themselves and was told that they went to nearby public toilets or shopping malls.

Fear of crackdown

He said there was concern that the situation would deteriorate and the authorities would crack down on demonstrators.

"The fear is there would be a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown so [the protesters] are also careful," he said, referring to the violent crackdown on student protests in Beijing in 1989 that killed thousands.

"But it's very safe here. And with you, the press, focusing here, I don't think that will happen. I hope they will not," he added.

Mang Ben said he was hopeful that the authorities would realise that allowing peaceful demonstrations would eventually be a plus for Hong Kong.

"It will strengthen the city if the world community will know that Hong Kong is a democracy and a place where people have freedom of speech. It will strengthen the society," he added.