I have worn a yellow ribbon every day since witnessing firsthand the events of Sunday 28th. I am supportive of the democracy movement, and of the principle of civil disobedience. But what now compels me most to wear it is not politics but the memory of what happened.
I wear it for friends who were hit, as I was, by tear gas. I wear it to honor those lashed at by policemen conditioned to fear a peaceful gathering. These were people who did nothing to warrant an attack; people, like the police officers on the ground, who found themselves caught in a game not of their making.
But I also wear the yellow ribbon in solidarity with a crowd of people who represented the very best of this city. A people with the courage to stand up for those most fundamental values that define a mature and civilised society. It is not just about the democratic ideal, a panacea the students see as a necessary step towards safeguarding a way of life that is under threat.
Our press may be more free than on the Mainland, our police more independent and our legal system more just, but is this a comparison we should be making? And can we honestly say these institutions, these values and the fundamentals of the Hong Kong way of life have not been eroded?
I wear a yellow ribbon with pride at the way so many Hong Kong people gathered in solidarity. I salute how under extreme provocation so many could behave with a consideration and dignity that has amazed the watching world. I wear it to say that this good nature is what makes me proud to be a Hong Kong person.
And yet, to wear this ribbon I have also seen the ugly side of my home. I was shouted at by rural toughs close to where I work. Their objection was not my politics but my skin. I was told I was a meddling foreigner, an American imperialist, and, most interestingly, a supporter of the Japanese. In fact I was born in Hong Kong, I am Eurasian, am mostly of Chinese “blood”.
I celebrated the handover in 1997 with a genuine sense of joy that Hong Kong people, my people, would finally rule not a city but their home. I was delighted that my people would be citizens not subjects. But to these toughs, stoked not on patriotism to their people but to a party they did not know, I was a foreigner.
These toughs were people I had walked by each day for many years. I am sure we have mutual acquaintances. But now I am no longer their neighbor, no longer part of their community. I am not welcome.
I was fortunate. Other friends have been assaulted. A friend reporting for the BBC was attacked, as was another friend who was video documenting the scenes. They did not wear a yellow ribbon.
In Mong Kok last Friday young girls and women were threatened with rape by angry old men as a small but vociferous crowd of blue ribbon wearing supporters egged them on. As one student was being hit this crowd chanted “Kill him! Kill him!”. The student did not fight back.
That night I found myself standing beside a Mainland family calling on the police to protect the students. “Do you support the students?” I asked the father. “They were beating him”, he replied in perfect English, “and the police did nothing”. “You don’t beat people,” he said. As the father spoke I noted his son lookiung up at him. These were the words of a father. As I left them the family continued to shout, in poor Cantonese, “protect the students”.
With my yellow ribbon in my pocket I spent about an hour standing with the angry old men. There were about a dozen, but they had the voice of a mob. A young couple approached me. They looked like students, with their soft, bespectacled faces. They were in fact in their late twenties.
“Don’t stand too close,” said the young man. “They tried to attack me,” said the girl. “They thought we were students,m” they said. I asked them whether they supported the protest. They said they did, but were scared to take part. They were in Mong Kok shopping and had passed by the wrong side.
What I heard as I stood among this crowd was frightening. A man, wild as a bull, waved three small Chinese flags. Soon he was striking out at his supporters for not being “patriotic” enough. They called the students traitors. They accused them of being supporters of the Japanese in World War Two and of British Imperialism. I heard one person accuse the students of denying the Nanjing massacre.
The comic absurdity of what was lost in the tension of the moment. There was little actual violence, but the menace that this crowd exuded was palpable.
Contrary to rumors I had heard there were few speaking Putonghua. The majority spoke Cantonese, and by their accent were most certainly from Hong Kong. However were they local residents? From the police I understood many in the group were known Yuen Long triad members.
The suspicion that they did not truly represent local dissatisfaction was raised further the following day when other triad groups were seen deployed to protect the student protestors. Were these local triads staking their turf?
It is worth recalling that the occupation in Mong Kok was from the beginning supported by local truck drivers who, to take the word on the street, work for the same local triad leader who also supported the students in their anti-national education protests two years ago. The choice of occupying Mong Kok may not be as naive as some commentators have had it out to be.
Whilst there were certainly local residents in the crowd who were angry with the students for the way their protest was disrupting their livelihoods, I do not believe the confrontation on Friday was initiated by local residents. It all seemed too staged, the reaction too extreme and the accusations too reminiscent of the staples of patriotic thuggery for it to be representative of frustrated residents.
Wearing a yellow ribbon has also revealed the uncomfortable prejudice and ingrained racism that exists in more sophisticated circles. It was the yellow ribbon that initiated a conversation that has hurt me more deeply than any beating.
On seeing me wearing the ribbon recently an elderly “uncle”, a family friend and a man who has known me all my life, reminded me that Hong Kong is part of China. I replied that I knew this, but that I supported the democracy movement as a means to protect a way of life we were promised would be respected. “We must keep China to the spirit of their promise, of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong”, I said.
Shaking his head in disappointment rather than in disagreement I was told that it did not matter. “Hong Kong does not exist”, he said. The British never had authority here, he told me, because the treaty that established the colony was illegal. “China can, and always could, do whatever it wants”, he said, as “British common law is illegal”.
When I told my old friend that the protestors were not British but Hong Kong people, he told me that they were not “real Chinese” people. When I then told him that my mother supported the protest, he just smiled. “You don’t belong here”, he said, “your family never have”. He said this with genuine sympathy, as if I was cursed by birth never to belong, that my being and the life I have known is a tolerated “illegal” existence.
If we were not so close I would have called him out for what he had just said. But I could not. All I could manage was an appeal, from the boy who had run to him all my life with a smile. ”You’ve been like an uncle to me”, I said. “How can you say that?”
He was noticeably struggling with his conscience. He looked down and he turned his back to me. He seemed to shrink before my eyes. But if his heart wavered his mind was set. His voice lowered. “I’m sorry”, he said, “you can’t change what you are”. “This is China”, he said.
As much as this hurt, am I really surprised? Is this view, that places loyalty to China over personal relations, understandable in some of this city’s elite? In her book Underground Front, The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong, Christine Loh writes of the CCP running a program of re-education specifically targeting Hong Kong’s elite as far back as the 1980s. Could this be one of the concrete outcomes of this programme?
Then there are the school friends who have joked about the violence. Those for whom the protests have been an awkward embarrassment to lives built around the stock market and the shallow razzmatazz of this city. Those who have accused the protestors of inciting violence and of preventing essential services from passing.
The truth, that the protest have been peaceful and considerate, and have communicated clearly that they would do all they could to minimize the impact the occupation may have on essential services, means little to those who do not want to know.
The students have been blamed for decisions others have made. It was the government that closed the schools, and corporate decisions that shut some of the large chain shops on Nathan road. Beijing stopped the tours from China that have hurt so much of this city’s business. But does it not also go to show how much of our high street is no longer serving the local community?
Indeed one of the joys of the last week has been to walk the streets. The city is quieter, the streets less polluted and the masses no longer confined to the sliver of pavements on either side.
For the first time I realized how beautiful Nathan road is, returned once more from a clogged artery to more like the boulevard it was designed to be.
Hong Kong may have been inconvenienced, but how much of the effect on business was a result not of the protests themselves but of the reaction? And as the protest drags out how much is this intransigence a result of dedication to a cause and how much is bred by suffering?
Last weekend I told a friend at the sit-in it was time to leave, to stand now behind the police and the rule of law and those institutions for which you are fighting, and trust in them to see justice meted on those that have done so much to hurt you.
“I can’t”, she said, “how can you ask me to trust the police after what has happened?”
I trust the police. I know she does as well. But when you’ve been threatened and slandered, and when your friends have been assaulted, only the most cold hearted will fail to understand why she feels she must stay.
Wearing the yellow ribbon has shown me this cold heart. It has opened my eyes to the depths to which many are prepared to go to maintain the delusions upon which their lives and their conscience are built. There have been many with whom I have argued.
The students may be idealists, they may not show the sign of forward planning so popular with MBA graduates, but neither did Nelson Mandela. They may fail, but does this deny their right to try? I have been told that they young are foolish and inexperienced by those who in a lifetime have experienced less than what these students have gone through in the past two weeks.
I am told by businessmen who pride themselves on their acumen in spotting opportunity that they have hurt business as others speak of the profits they are making by following the new market for ribbons, towels and umbrellas. The young are being selfish, I am told by the old, for seeking a voice in the future that they will inherit. Each stands firmly to a reality of events that they did not witness.
Yet the yellow ribbon has also been a marker for others like me, searching for a shared reality among those with whom we had been raised. As my heart has been broken by some it has been invigorated by others who, like me, find ourselves witnesses to events as they have unfolded.
“I can’t stand all the lies”, I was told by a friend of my mother who was hit by tear gas on Sunday. She was there, this dowager of the Hong Kong upper-middle class, to express her displeasure at the way the students were treated. “It wasn’t Hong Kong”, she said of the police response.
She told me how she had spoken to her friends of what she had seen but that they did not want to know. Instead of finding support among her friends she found herself being isolated. “I never realised how selfish the upper middle class are”, she said, her voice tinged with both anger and a sense of betrayal. “I have known these people all my life, and now I was hurt, hurt by what I saw, and they just didn’t want to know.”
As I told her that I too had been there, and that I knew exactly how she felt, she said something I have heard several times among acquaintances that have become new friends: “We can’t let the students be slandered in this way. We can’t let this just slip away.”
I wear my yellow ribbon to remind myself of this. To remind myself that whilst politics may be debated, the truth that we witnessed must not be forgotten. Those who were there, those who saw what happened, must not allow the ignorant to define how Hong Kong, as a city, remembers this past week.
The yellow ribbon reminds me of the great ironies of my home. The irony that the young and the educated, those who have made good on the promises of education and international experience, were vilified by as the foolish and failures of this city; that the law abiding forced by desperation to commit a peaceful act of civil disobedience were labeled criminals by those who gave moral support to thugs.
I am reminded of the irony of observing the riot police deployed not to quell a threat but to create it; and of the thugs who threatened to beat and rape students in the name of supporting law and order.
Evan Fowler is a young Eurasian Hong Kong-born essayist