The Umbrella Movement
Hong Kong Chinese University, 2014.
Despite the late afternoon, the last rays of light still clung to the corridors of the university. Cantonese filtered through laboratories and libraries as lecturers and students alike streamed from the buildings. A small gathering of students huddled around a phone near the university’s entrance, their eyes fixed on a news segment.
“Pro-democracy umbrella protests spread to Tsim Sha Tsui as students fight against China’s growing presence in Hong Kong.”
Yellow pamphlets were passed between hands, quickly, quietly. A young man stood slightly separate, his hands almost plain without the yellow sheets of paper.
“Many feel that China’s control over Hong Kong’s electoral process is stepping over the line. Some have said that it no longer falls under the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, established after the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997.”
“Here,” the students whispered, trading stationery like weapons. “Use this one.”
“Student leaders such as Scholarism founder Joshua Wong are giving Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying until tomorrow to resign or they will ‘occupy’ government buildings.”
Yellow paper and multi-coloured pens were scattered on the floors, pages adorned with large Chinese characters stacked haphazardly around a young woman. Her eyes flitted intermittently to the news report as the group around her added to a growing pile of origami umbrellas, hung in yellow chains on their bags. The word ‘scholarism’ lay flat across her red shirt as opposite her, the young man fiddled with his phone, the bright colours of a game flashing with every swipe.
“Eric, are you coming to the protest tonight?”
The young man looked up, cheeks heating under the group’s attention. He looked at the banners and yellow umbrellas stowed in their backpacks, shifting his glasses slightly.
“I’m not really into this.” He laughed nervously. “You know my parents, Michelle, they’re strict. They’re –”
“Eric,” Michelle interjected, her attention diverted from the banner that she was decorating.
True universal suffrage!
“This isn’t just about you. Almost all our parents disagree with the pro-democracy movement. My mum’s from mainland China and I’m still going. Don’t you want to vote for someone who isn’t chosen by the Chinese government for once? Don’t you care about what’s going to happen to Hong Kong?”
The young man hesitated, his hands fiddling with his phone even as the street lamps flickered on and the buzz of peak hour traffic grew louder. He almost felt compelled by her argument, the same one she used every day, the words she stole from Joshua Wong’s rallying speeches and lay at his feet like a gauntlet. Yet, they both knew his answer, lodged in the back of his throat.
“It’s time,” said another student. “Joshua said we should start going in as soon as possible. Bring the tear gas masks.”
The group began gathering their things, movements that would be mirrored through all of Hong Kong that night, yellow umbrellas becoming beacons. Even still, Eric hesitated. Michelle turned back. “Coming?”
His classmates paused, yellow banners trailing behind them, and for a moment, he thought they looked like soldiers, charging into battle. He gave an apologetic smile.
“Maybe next time.”
A news report lit up the dark living room.
“Tonight, ordinary citizens and students alike join the movement that has involved so many young people of today.”
Somewhere, a clock chimed nine times.
“A Hong Kong university professor has proclaimed ‘This may our last chance to fight for democracy. The young people of Hong Kong have discovered that this is their future at stake. We stand out together and hold our values together.’”
Eric paused, his hands resting over the keys of his laptop as the camera panned across the crowds of people. In the corner, he thought he saw a young woman in a red shirt, a yellow poster covering half her body as she marched.
He hesitated for just a moment, then he rose quickly, hands snatching a jacket, a gas mask and a yellow banner.
The sky was dark against the fluorescent lights of the shopping precinct but nothing would quell the tide of students in the streets, a song that spoke of victory on their lips. Eric marched with his classmates, his flag embellished with characters waving around his head.
Strike, for my future!
Police lined the edge of the shops, patches of dark blue uniform among the bright lights of Hong Kong. Their heads covered by helmets and gas masks, reinforcements pushed through the throngs of people, smooth shields in front of them as they formed a wall.
A soft clink echoed, then another, as metal canisters fell to the ground before him. In the smoke, he couldn’t tell who was police or student as the people scattered, dropping banners and umbrellas in their haste. Somewhere, Joshua Wong was yelling into a loudspeaker, the sound drowned by the rush of voices in the streets. There was a tug at Eric’s arm.
Hands covering watering eyes, white flashed across his vision and Eric didn’t know if it was a street light or a camera or if he was going blind from the tear gas. His eyes stinging and streaming with tears, Eric felt the crowd against his side, thousands of bodies pressing closer and closer together, herded blindly as they crumpled and fell against the concrete, caught like flies in the metal webs of crowd barriers. Eric gasped for breath as water was poured over his face, his vision still clouded. The blurry figures above him – voices high and frantic – stumbled away. There was a crash of glass beside him and all he could hear was his heartbeat and the cries of the people, their song scattered on the pavement.
“Leung Chun-ying step down!”
As Eric ran, more clouds of tear gas exploded in the crowds. Turning the corner, he saw Joshua Wong struggling on the ground, his loudspeaker abandoned in the stampede. He watched him clamber to his feet, eyes darting towards the approaching police. Eric’s hands reached for the handle of the loudspeaker, his feet never faltering. He took a deep breath and screamed:
“For true universal suffrage!”