An old Chinese saying:
“With Patience and Saliva, the Ant Swallows the Elephant”
The irony and relevance of this proverb’s origin has not been lost on me over the last week as I have observed first-hand the “Umbrella Revolution” taking place throughout Hong Kong’s most critical public spaces.
With a movement of this size and temperament, in a city of close to 8 million and geographically with one of the most densely packed populations in the entire world, it is hard to find the words to describe the sheer scale and complexity of what has been going on here. Truthfully I am not really even going to try to pass any significant editorial comment – this is not an observation of the concrete politics of the movement against its detractors, assessment of the various rights and wrongs; as a foreign national living here I have felt that my opinions would struggle to be relevant regardless – I have always found it important to speak opinions from informed or well-considered positions, and the stakes involved in this struggle means my input in this area would be unhelpful.
What I can and must pass comment on however is the human element, from a ground level, of what has been occurring; for I have seen in the last week the full spectrum of human behaviour with dazzling highs equalled with dizzying lows. Here are snapshots of what I saw…
Snapshot 1: With Patience…
Canton Road Occupy Protest
A small crowd of people are occupying Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, primary shopping destination for the Mainland tourism industry. Though streets were cordoned, the image is bizarre – 50 people sitting calmly in the middle of the road – on every side of them imposing shop fronts with the names “Louis Vuitton”, “Cartier” and “Burberry” – Starbucks swilling Western tourists are rubbernecking or take photos on the periphery with casual indifference – what look to be subcontinent labourers push through the throng with trolleys of concrete and construction materials, sweating with the strain and heat – Mainland visitors with soon to be filled suitcases stand at the pedestrian lights next to where I lean, waiting for the green man to change though there is no traffic (one colleague of mine said this symbolically might be because “you don’t ever mess with the Red Man” – either that or a “business as usual” counter protest…)
The occupiers have two microphones set up, and offer their second to the crowd for them to share their views. After several seemingly positive messages, which appear to be complimentary to the movement, an older man storms through and snatches the stage. He is a Hong Kong Resident, of 70 years, and lives 10 minutes away (I was lucky to have willing translators nearby my perch…)
For 15 minutes, he chastises the sitting audience. He attacks their motivations, their integrity, their character. He labels their actions selfish and evil, as they are hurting Hong Kong. He swipes his fist aggressively at the group leaders, sometimes moving closer in his obvious frustration at them. He tells them that they don’t deserve to have the street they sit on. He speaks of his shame to be a “Hong Konger” because of them.
Apart from two apparently drunken men who start to heckle him but are hushed, the sitting protesters remain silent. And they listen. Not once do the leaders make a single move against the man, even when he is motioning towards them for a fight. The seated audience look pensive, but by and large they listen. It is obvious that many have some reply to what is being said, but they sit resolute – attentive.
In the face of this, the man tires. He hurls some last invective, spits to the left, drops the microphone and walks off. Undeniably he was brave, and had genuine grievance behind his anger. All eyes watch as he walks away. He cut an almost noble figure as he walks down the middle of the road into the throng of the everyday.
And the seated crowd clap. One or two with obvious mocking, but mostly with genuine appreciation. There is a distinct absence of animosity. The Occupy leader slowly walks to the centre with a smile on his face, and in English says:
“That is what we are fighting for – that man is the best case for democracy I could have ever placed at this gathering today.” And with that he offers the microphone again to the crowd…
And I could not recall ever bearing witness to a scene quite like it.
Snapshot 2: …And Saliva…
Things are taking a far nastier turn down at Mong Kok. I exit the MTR and am immediately struck by the noise coming from everywhere – there is electricity in the air, literally from the lightning building overhead but more from the distorted look on all the faces of those in the area – part bewilderment, part sadness, part anger. I feel my expression quickly joining suit.
I was in the area three nights before, and the cordoned area was quiet and a quarter as empty as it is now. The difference is that before the Movement was sitting in the middle, as people walked by or through in what seemed like an almost carnival atmosphere, to now where the middle is a seething mass of shouting and looking outward, while the pavements are filled with small groups of older and increasingly drunk looking men peering across at the Occupiers.
20 meters from the Exit, a man is being held back as he bellows at a short young bespectacled man in business clothes. Finding myself in the epicentre I am quick to move outwards – I feel like I am prying into a family argument. People are beginning to rush over, and support for both men starts to steadily grow behind them. The older man starts to lunge, someone throws a water bottle and a short frenzied moment is only broken when a young policeman forces his way through and doggedly pushes the older man away. The crowd disperses to the next burst of volume.
On the corner of Argyle and Nathan Road, it is a mosh pit of epic proportion. People have climbed the bamboo scaffolding, are sitting on raised MTR entrance-ways, are standing on fences – and police are formed in lines down the centre of the road, stoic looks sealed in their eyes. The elevated people are yelling at someone below them on the other side of the street, and their chants get taken up down the half-kilometre stretch of peopled sea. Television crews perch at every angle. Men walk determinedly around the sides, shouting and rallying others to join them – for which cause I could not say.
Waves of noise rise and fall as police I cannot see drag offenders I cannot see through to less impassioned areas, all to the tune and raised fists of the collective thousand in the middle and the rush of people chasing the activity, trying to get a glimpse of the action (one thing though is that for the first and only time I can see a benefit of a “selfie stick”…). Foreign Television correspondents take live feeds at every corner. A young man is carried out from the middle by another with a thin trail of blood from his nose. A man pushes an unwieldy trolley of clothes with some difficulty through it all.
Thankfully I am mostly invisible as I stand on the “neutral” pavement at a respectful distance. I am occasionally approached by other English-speaking people – one young Asian-American man called “Lucky”, from New York, stands next to me awhile. “I’m an impassioned kind of person, I take up causes,” he states between cigarette puffs. “I was in Japan travelling and heard what was happening – I just had to be here. Triads and shit man!” I ask him what links he had to Hong Kong – “Not much really; I don’t know if this is my fight, but I was there for Occupy New York and London, and that was crazy. I like to get involved. I’ve never been one to shy away from something like this.” He looks around and says he is going to get a closer look at the middle, and I watch him walk into the mass and disappear.
Conclusions: …The Ant and the Elephant?
I can’t help but think that Lucky’s particular brand of activism is probably quite unhelpful in the larger scheme of things. The comments on the streets with the people I talked ranged from conspiracy theories about Beijing flying in methadone Clinic patients to start fights to genuine grievance amongst the working class residents of Mong Kok that the protest was impacting them, the poor, the real Hong Kong, in an adverse way. No matter what is said about the counter protest, this seems to be hitting the battlers of many Mong Kok residents more keenly than any stubborn adversary in a government office. Like I said, these are not things I know enough about or am qualified to pass comment on, but one thing is certain – the first snapshot in this post had a far more effective argument than the second.
It would be impossible for the organisers to have foreseen the kind of impact their movement would have, and through no fault of their own maybe they stopped being “the ant” when things got too big; their message muddied in the swirling tide of attention, the positive message of peace battered by an unrelenting opponent and the attraction of unprincipled malcontents to “being part of something cool”, without the belief in the principled cause the creators had established. Maybe those angry old Mong Kok men had become variations of an albeit more aggressive and emotional type of Ant themselves.
This is the essential problem Hong Kong is faced with – an idealistically pure cause, up against the harsh and pragmatic reality of surviving in the actual world of today. The fundamental emotion or observation I have is one of sadness – for the pure protesters, for the desperate locals – that there can be no change without struggle, and no struggle without loss, and that nothing gold can stay.
Below is a photo I took at an unnamed secondary school on Monday morning, the day after the police tear gassed peaceful protesters in Admiralty. That morning I saw fellow teachers openly crying in our school assembly, and the students below decided to boycott classes in protest against the police action. It was 32 degrees celsius, 83% humidity. They agreed with school management to finish at lunchtime. There was no shouting. They did their homework. And they showed patience.
This sentiment, of peace and pride, is the most powerful thing I have seen in the last week. Simple, quiet, off camera – yet noticeable with its conviction in all who see it – perhaps, judging by these secondary school students, the greatest impact this movement has had will not be felt today, but could possibly be felt in a few tomorrows.
And so perhaps true patience, combined with a well-controlled amount of saliva, could potentially indeed swallow an elephant with enough time.