Six days in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central
28 days after the Occupy Wall Street protests started in New York on 17 September 2011, activists began gathering in the walkthrough plaza underneath the HSBC bank building, in Central district, Hong Kong. The initial group of activists were young and vocally anti-capitalist. But as their numbers dwindled, homeless people — the bottom 1% of the 99% — also began inhabiting the plaza. By the time I arrived in the camp on 15 July 2012, the Activists had stopped living there full-time, the Homeless were occupying the space, and HSBC had filed a court request to have the camp removed.
What follows is a diary of Occupy Central with notes on both groups – Activists and Homeless – who in the past ten months have occupied the southern third of HSBC plaza.
Monday 15 July
Alan Chiu, a bespectacled former systems consultant who tied his greying hair up in a ponytail, said around 20 Occupy Central Activists were still regularly protesting at the site, though as of the camp’s six-month mark they had stopped living there. Now, he said, the group held meetings on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings. Chiu said he had been with Occupy Central since the start, and was the only protestor I met that still spent substantial time at camp outside of the activists’ meetings. Chiu’s anger with Hong Kong’s government was still burning strong when we spoke.
“Public officers have taken extra authority, but no responsibility at all,” he said. A Marxist who hates the CCP, Chiu still dropped by the camp most days to check up on residents and generally served as a hands-off caretaker. Despite his dedication to Occupy Central, Chiu’s name did not appear among the defendants in HSBC’s court filing to have the protestors removed.
Aside from a blanket listing of “The occupiers of the ground floor of 1 Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong”, the bank named three main defendants, two Homeless and one Activist: Wong Chung Hang, Ho Yiu Shing, and Mui Kai Ming. The first is an older Fujianese gentleman who cannot care for himself and relies largely on other camp members for food. The second, who prefers the title Master Ho, splintered off from the movement following an altercation over leadership — the Activists didn’t want any — to form his own encampment nearby. The third is the brother of deceased Hong Kong film and music star Anita Mui Yim-Fong and is connected with Occupy Central through his participation in protests over HSBC’s handling of his sister’s will. Though I never saw him during my time in camp, Mui recently told the Associated Press that he would “absolutely” not leave Occupy Central.
Wong Chung Hang’s name also shows up in notes provided by HSBC to the courts covering the one and a half hours that three bank representatives spent at the camp on the morning of Tuesday, May 29. According to the three pages of notes — a sliver amongst the inch-thick stack of records and surveillance photographs submitted by the bank alongside its petition as evidence — the representatives met with both Wong and Master Ho. Wong is given one sentence of description: “After the Representatives notified Mr Wong about the Bank’s request, Mr Wong seemed calm and receptive.” Under a final section titled “Observations after the discussion with the Group and Mr. Ho” the report stated that “The Occupiers understood the message conveyed by the Bank and the reason why the Representatives were there to talk to them.” Wong’s own understanding of the situation receives no comment.
The notes also mention that the Occupy Central activists present during the visit told the representatives they personally rejected its offer to assist them in vacating the premises — a claim corroborated by the Activists’ own accounts — before adding that the movement would need to hold discussions before reaching a collective decision–a process they said could take months and involve up to a thousand people.
By the time I arrived even Alan Chiu had stopped participating in the Activists’ meetings, though he was still on friendly terms with them. I learned of their schedule from him when he suggested I come back the following evening at 10 pm.
Tuesday 17 July, 10pm
The Activists that did show up on time occupied themselves as they waited for the rest to show up. The trails of cigarette smoke slowly multiplied above the camp’s den, and an iPhone pumped out rock music from a pair of tinny portable speakers. Some members surfed on their various Apple gadgets (iPads, iPhones, a Macbook Pro) while others painted watercolors or recorded their cohorts using high-end SLR and video cameras. The Activists all ate Subway on Tuesdays, I was told, to take advantage of a two-for-one deal. Also popular was imported Heinekin, an empty six pack of which soon sat crushed on a nearby coffee table.
During the meeting the camp’s residents mostly snoozed in tents or on the remaining open couches, though one elderly man decided to treat the Activists as a captive audience for his renditions of classic Cantonese songs. After about an hour his tremulous falsetto tapered off, allowing Winnie Lee to introduce herself. Lee, a Singaporean immigrant with a squirrely disposition, said she’d worked in Hong Kong for ten years. While she and her six-year-old daughter didn’t live in the camp, Lee said they often came by for the company and free food. When I asked what she thought of the Activists, Lee laughed.
“Hong Kong is a great place for bullshit. In China everybody has to shut up, but in Hong Kong people can talk all they want,” Lee said, waving a hand toward the Activists, who were talking to members of a visiting youth union.
“They all just talk talk talk, it seems like they do nothing.”
At around midnight Charles Lecroart, a tall Belgian with a five o’clock shadow and short curly hair, walked into camp with sandwiches, pasta, bread and boxes of mango juice. Lecroart said he’d passed out drunk one night on a sofa in Occupy Central and decided to stay when he woke up. “In Hong Kong you see a lot of people alone that need help,” Lecroart said. “Here, they can help each other.”
I picked up a loaf from the table to check its price: $118, or about two fifths of what a Hong Kong resident working for minimum wage earns in a 10-hour day with no meal breaks. Curiosity piqued, I asked where Lecroart had gotten the food.
Wednesday 18 July, Dumpster diving in Hong Kong
22 hours later I found myself nervously standing watch as Lecroart and two university students pulled garbage bags from the dumpsters of an organic supermarket. I’d been brought along on the condition that I not reveal the store’s name or location, lest word get out and the food supply dry up. The students were members of the Leftovers, a squad of charitable dumpster divers who filch food bound for the dump and delivered it to local shelters for the indigent. The bags held a bounty of premium comestibles marked up and marketed to Hong Kong’s health-conscious, all still sealed in air-tight packages inside the black waterproof sacks.
A mountain of food large enough to feed a dozen families quickly grew at my feet: baguettes, fresh pasta, sticky-sweet mochi cakes, styrofoam bowls packed with rice, prime cuts of beef, 16 bottles of premium soymilk and tray after tray of sushi slipped from the black bags. I had finally loosened up enough to start tallying the payload when an angry voice came from the doorway behind me:
I spun around to see Mark from Minnesota step out of the shadows. Mark was a permanently barefoot American with with long stringy hair and a scraggly goatee. His glasses weren’t the right prescription, but he had managed to preserve one of his own contact lenses which he occasionally popped in to read a battered copy of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. The Chinese government had deported Mark to Hong Kong after arresting him for traveling illegally in Tibet on an expired visa — though not before putting him in a Chengdu prison for 30 days.
“What are you doing out here in the open?” Mark asked, pointing up at a security camera fixed on the patch of well-lit asphalt where most of the food lay. “You’ve got to get over in the shadows or the guards will see you!” he said.
When all the food had been retrieved, the group split up the night’s haul. The Leftovers took about half of it to give to homeless shelters, and about a third went back to Central for the Occupy camp. Mark announced he would take the remainder to some vagrants near the Kowloon ferry terminal. On the way he explained he wasn’t doing so out of the goodness of his heart: “I just hate to see food wasted,” he said. Mark said he’d been surprised when he arrived in Hong Kong that nobody he spoke to had heard of dumpster diving; the Leftovers squad had formed under his guidance.
As we approached the HSBC building I asked him why he’d stopped living in Central after two and a half months. He said it was because life in Central was too comfortable, too easy. “Getting attached makes you weak,” he said.
Back in camp Alan Chiu, Charles Lecroart, Winnie Lee, her daughter, Master Ho and a few others were gathered in the dining area feasting on the harvest from the dumpsters. Two passing tourists from the Atlantic African islands of Cape Verde had come into camp to ask what it was, only to be treated to dinner. Sitting nearby in one half of a love seat and mumbling softly to himself was Wong Chung Hang, the addled man from Fujian listed as a defendant in the HSBC court papers. Mark from Minnesota, who liked to refer to Wong as his Fujianese grandpa, offered him a plate of tofu and encouraged him to eat a little. With a bit of coaxing Wong began shakily spooning the bean curds into his mouth.
Thursday, 19 July
When I arrived in camp Thursday evening the Activists were busy cleaning up the camp’s eastern third—everything but the tents. Watching from the dining area Mark remained caustically aloof. “It’s great,” he said, “I just wish they’d do stuff like this more often.”
As the other Activists spruced things up I sat down with Chin Tang, a freelance designer who said she had been with the movement from the beginning. Chin said the group had decided not to fight HSBC in court on account of having rejected the legitimacy of the government, as well as the concept of private property. She said the camp served as a commons where possession was meaningless and everything was available to anyone who needed it. “We believe that humans can gather together by themselves. We don’t have to be ruled by the government,” Chin said. “We also have a policy of not calling the police.”
Asked for an example, Chin smiled and said that the week before a man with a sword had entered the camp and begun stroking the inner thighs of every woman present with the blade. When talking failed to make him stop she said the group decided to spray the man with bottles of detergent until he ran off rather than call the authorities. I suggested this kind of tactic might not work on the authorities if the High Court ruled against Occupy.
“We are planning on doing something after they clear us out, but I don’t…” Chin said, trailing off. She paused, then told me she’d rather the group not lose the element of surprise. After our conversation she rejoined her friends and together they sorted through piled-up rubbish and reminisced over old anti-capitalist banners from the camp’s salad days.
Friday, 20 July
The following evening found members of the group “Photo Now” using Occupy Central as a venue for their photo gallery. I recognized some of them as Activists who had cleaned up camp the night before. The photographers had hung glossy prints of their work on the laundry lines which ran through the ladders along the camp’s northern border. On a table next to the bookshelf housing the camp’s library of subversive literature they had set out bottles of Italian White wine from high-end supermarket Marks and Spencer. The show had drawn a crowd which held steady at arond 20 to 30 people throughout the evening and managed to attract a few journalists from local publications. But this turnout was dwarfed by those meeting in the camp on the other side of the ladders, where around 50 people had gathered for Central’s eighth monthly ‘Book X Change’.
Participants in the Book X Change brought their favorite books to each month’s meeting, swapped them with fellow members, then returned a month later to share their thoughts with the group via bullhorn. Francesca Chiu, there to share her impressions for the first time, said she had heard about the club from a friend. Chiu — whose next read would be Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words — said the books most members brought reflected issues which loomed large in the city’s collective consciousness, such as its ambivalent relationship with the Mainland and a pervasive anxiety over the possible rollback of rights. She said the group was unique in Hong Kong. “Before the meetings you’re strangers,” Chiu said, “but after, you’re friends.”
Monday, 23 July
At around 6 pm a reporter from Ming Po magazine was interviewing three Activists in the camp’s den, on the north side of which the laundry lines had been stripped of photos to protect them from typhoon Vicente’s imminent landfall. Gloria, an Italian woman who could usually be found lying inert on a couch in the camp’s southeast corner, ambled over and made an announcement:
“I want to get a picture of your cock tomorrow.”
She ambled off leaving my eyebrows an inch higher, but the Activists hardly missed a beat. At around 9:15pm emergency klaxons wailed warning of typhoon Vicente. Most of the HSBC plaza’s storm doors rumbled shut, leaving only two openings on either side. The Activists had left, but the Ming Po reporter had stayed to interview the camp’s residents. While she spoke with Alan Chiu, whose eyes bulged as he skimmed the book about the Occupy phenomenon she had brought with her, wave after wave of pedestrians hurried past the camp toward the subway station on the building’s north side.
Later that night and shortly before meteorologists announced Vicente had become a class 10 typhoon, Mark from Minnesota had stumbled into camp soaking wet and dazed. He dropped the hulking bags of food he’d brought from across the harbor and stumbled around a bit, clutching his back. At about 1am the plaza’s storm doors shut completely in the face of the strongest typhoon to hit Hong Kong in over a decade. Outside the winds tore up the young palms which lined the city’s streets and snapped the trunks of old-growth trees with roots deep in the island’s mountainside forests. Safely ensconced, the residents of Occupy Central were warm, dry and full. The next morning I woke up to find Leon Head, an older British resident, grinning at me.
“Slept like a baby, you did,” Head said.
Next Monday, August 27
On August 13 Hong Kong’s High Court ruled that HSBC could evict Occupy Central so that the bank could maintain the plaza as a pedestrian throughway. Magistrate Reuden Lai told Agence France-Presse that “[t]he defendants can’t provide sufficient reason to continue to live on the property so the court has decided to allow the plaintiff to take back the property.” The deadline for occupants to leave the plaza is 9 p.m. on August 27, the time of which dovetails with HSBC’s request to the court for permission to remove the camp outside of office hours for fear of possible resistance or negative publicity.
Links and sources
Occupy Central website
Occupy Central Facebook page
Photo Now Facebook page
Occupy Central Hong Kong Protesters Enter Their Second Day
Hong Kong: Why Occupy Central?
Hong Kong court approves ‘Occupy’ eviction
Hong Kong: Occupy Activists To Be Evicted
Other stories by Hudson Lockett on Danwei
Photos of Hong Kong’s anti-national education protest
The uncertain return of Beijing wildlife
Xie Yan and the fight against bad conservation laws
Hudson Lockett on Twitter @KangHexin