With Patience and Saliva…

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

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…

Occupy Mong Kok - 11.30PM October 3, 2014

Occupy Mong Kok – 11.30PM October 3, 2014

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.


Bias and the Bully: Heralding the Daily Whaleoil Blog

“I’m sorry for being a man right now”

I like Coke. but I also like all other manner of drinks – Sprite, tea, coffee, Powerade. My preference doesn’t mean I can’t see an argument for other drinks on occasion. Every drink serves a purpose – a beer after work, a soda in the sun, drinking water kills a fever. People don’t argue about the “need” of drinks, only the flavour; but we do need them. Give me some time with this analogy, it is leading somewhere. Why the analogy?

I’m annoyed.

I like debate. I like people having differences of opinion. You can’t shut me up on certain issues. There are, however, irrefutable things that we can all understand despite individual preference – the need to drink at certain occasions being one of them. And the need to not argue the little things like what type of drink we have, but that we actually do drink something to cure our problem of thirst -that we actually focus on the problem at hand.

And last week, I feel like a critical NZ debate moved away from what we, as a country, needed to talk about; it moved to what certain people wanted to talk about. People who were selling something – an idea, some advertising, some readership – whatever. That, in my opinion, is bias – and I hate it.

If sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, then bias is the highest form of mis-information. As I grow older, I am seeing there are irrefutable things that, on reflection, I just can not stand for. These things seem to drift through our society. I’m tempted to raise the issue of people wearing sunglasses inside right now, but will resist. Despite this, I am absolutely sure that I cannot handle two things currently:

Bias. And Bullying.

So. A man in New Zealand, upon hearing the the national statistics regarding our domestic abuse rates – and the horrifying nature of the weighting of these statistics against women – decided to say something that he obviously felt was his first and only reaction – he said:

“I’m sorry for being a man right now”

He said this to a packed audience at a NZ Women’s Refuge Meeting. He heard what was said by those present, felt the room for what it was – considered how he felt about the terrible nature of our “clean” society – and apologised. They clapped. They appreciated what he had said on personal level. They encouraged the moves that were talked about to try and help remedy this scourge – they thanked him for stating something that many men would not have the gumption or self awareness to do so. Outside of politics, this was a step forward in the national conversation of trying to stop it

Instantly, the level of vitriol, of misguided abuse, of pious sanctimony and insular self- satisfaction that spewed forth afterwards – almost immediately – was mindblowing; it was calculated, it was brutal, it was deliberate – it was election year – and I couldn’t help but feel a little ashamed of my country for that reaction. That’s why I am pissed off.

In every society, there are issues that leap outside of the political spectrum. Murder. Rape. Violence. While we disagree on how to handle these things across the political divide, we all agree that they are a problem. What the man said wasn’t wrong. It merely threatened those who had never really thought of the issue in that way before to think about a problem that we all had.

The Herald instantly ran a butcher job through John Armstrong. Other outlets followed suit (like above). Comments were opened up (which doesn’t always happen for other issues) and men from every corner of the country chastised, berated, scolded and harangued this man. But they missed the actual point of the argument.

They got stuck arguing which drink they wanted, and didn’t realise that they needed a drink regardless of what flavour it was – there is a problem; they couldn’t see what the actual problem was.

Bias has a terrible memory and a bloody long reach. An important issue was instantly clouded by “good” men screaming to the world that they were good, but this mindset is precisely the problem that causes this tragic element in society. Because we all say its not us. We say “I don’t do that.”

But men do it. It is us. That’s fact. Don’t spin it, don’t take it personally, don’t evaluate how there could be an error. It’s fact. Don’t remove the dialogue from the problem, then reattach it onto someone who purely comments on it. Whether what he said was right or wrong is immaterial. What is not immaterial is that an actual discussion on a terrible indictment on NZ society was railroaded for the sake of a political smear.

I’m a man. I, too, think I’m a good guy. I have seen the problem, from more than one angle, in my own life. But until I as a man say that I am a part of the problem, then by either intention or through casual avoidance, I too perpetuate the mindset that “it’s not us” – when it clearly is.

Bias swings us around to make us look elsewhere, to help us avoid the true, naked nature of the problem at hand. In this case, it didn’t help create or change anything, other than a beat up of one man in an election year – from the statistics, there are plenty of other men out there who need a beating, the men who use their fists and not their words or understanding to deal with a problem. They avoided the vitriol. They got away with it. And they were probably putting the boot in on this man just as hard as anyone else. And that’s not right.

I’m not a natural  “feminist” – from what I can see many of them have their own set of bias and bullying tactics which I don’t want to get into, but I am welcome to be informed on the concept – but I can see a problem for what it is, and see the need for all of us to sit down and choose a drink (preferably non-alcoholic, considering the subject matter) and talk about it. And solve it. Or try to. And not give a shit about “politics” for a second, and try to fix the actual problem – help those in desperate need. 

We could probably agree on that right?

The Pathless Forest

If Modernism was
Two paths, in a wood,
Slightly differently travelled

What is today?

Are we now just standing in the middle of a forest
Devoid of obvious pathways
Or obvious direction forward?

I stand there for a while

To the left is a tree falling

Next to 2 birds in a bush
Damning that wretched hand

And to the right is a campsite with many, many cooks spoiling a BBQ broth,
Yelling: “Many hands make light work!”

And behind them a thousand bemused and wide-eyed teenagers screaming:
“What the hell am I supposed to do!”
As they frantically upload
Preferentially framed party photos

And above a hundred helicopters make sight through the thicket
With trained guns on us all
And loudspeakers repeating endlessly:”Kim’s Wedding Dress! Kim’s Wedding Dress!”

Now I look ahead, and hundreds of slightly greying BoomBabies
With comfy shoes and pastel shirts and foldout chairs
Gnash their teeth in controlled aggression at those of us behind,
Growling: “You have it easy. In my day there was none of that!”
And I wonder what they mean by that exactly…

And everywhere in this pathless forest there is noise,
And people yelling,
Or crying and laughing,
And colours so bright and grotesque and appetizing and out of reach
And futures so vague and vibrant and vapid
And viable

That I almost feel like I could step forward anywhere at all
And it wouldn’t make a difference

And so I look down
And I see the small space of this forest that I inhabit
With two small feet
Planted firmly
Which seem more solid than all the world and its possibilities
And I feel strong

Strong enough to move forwards
In this pathless forest