Hongkonger Michelle Wong is in her fourth year studying English and translation, with journalism and media studies, at The University of Hong Kong.
The practicalities of our future have driven a wedge between my parents. For months, my mother has been talking about how we cannot live in Hong Kong anymore. She talks of emigration and buying a place elsewhere. The catch – we don’t have the money to move anywhere.
Not anywhere overseas like Malaysia, where my dad, the only breadwinner at home, would not be able to open up a business again. He is approaching 60 and he knows absolutely no one and nothing about the rules and regulations of conducting business elsewhere. Not even anywhere in Guangzhou, where we would need to make a full payment to purchase a flat as we are not local residents and could not borrow from any mainland banks.
Yet my mother mentions it more and more often as the protests get increasingly violent. For the past few months, my mother has gone from being mildly irritated by destruction at the Legislative Council to watching YouTubers analysing the wrongdoings and ridiculousness of the “rioters” every day.
“I never knew Hong Kong people can be this stupid,” she said. “The government is no good either. This has been going on for nearly half a year and they still haven’t put a stop to the violence and destruction.”
Despite my mother’s increasingly radical views, political stance is not really an issue in my family. My dad and I were both supporters of the protest when it started, until the demonstrations turned from blocking roads to throwing Molotov cocktails and beating people because they tried to take a photo. At this point I’ve seen violence on both the police and the protesters’ sides, and I can only hope that physical confrontations on the streets will stop so that investigations and discussions can start.
Although everyone in my family finds my mother’s views too extreme and one-sided most of the time, we would usually not counter her points. Home, after all, is a place not for sense but for sensibility.
The problem came as she started watching mainland property ads aimed at Hongkongers and YouTubers talking about how to buy property in the mainland. She dragged my dad to one of those property talks. My dad came back, unusually quiet and tired, with HK$800 less – the host of the free talk said they would only bring you on tours of these flats if you join their information sessions, which cost HK$800.
Only when my mum was showering did he start talking. “The way your mum was looking at me,” my dad said, “I felt like dinner would not be waiting for me at home in the foreseeable future if I didn’t pay up then and there.”
He had to pay despite being highly sceptical of the talk, the organisation, the sessions and the tours. We have all heard of horror stories of scams that left Hongkongers in mounting debt after they have bought non-existent flats in the mainland through deceitful middlemen. “I am dying here,” he said, “it is simply impossible.” He swore a couple of times. I listened to his complaints and remained silent.
But my mum has her reasons. Living in Sha Tin Central, we have seen protesters running into the malls right below our building and onto our podium to throw our rubbish bins down onto the heads of armed policemen. We have watched through closed windows as black-clad people run for cover when rounds of tear gas are fired. All our CCTVs on the podium are destroyed and we need to pay for new ones. We have been cut off for at least three days as Sha Tin station was closed and no buses could come in because the Tolo Highway was blocked.
My dad could not go to work for four days. I was woken up by police sirens for three days in a row. My brother and I both have our classes suspended for the rest of this semester. My brother, who is studying at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, was unsure if his campus would be ready for class by the start of the next semester, while my dad, a Polytechnic graduate, seethes at the destruction. As for my mum, she takes all this to heart. Plus, she hates the confinement. “It’s one thing for me to stay at home voluntarily,” she said, “it’s another when I am forced to stay home because of this madness. These people are downright despicable!”
The reputation of my generation is tarnished in the mainland, where the big market lies. As a fourth-year student majoring in English Studies and Translation, I am graduating this coming year, yet I have no idea if I will be able to find any jobs in this climate. I was planning to apply for a government job as an official language officer this year, but the recruitment hasn’t been announced and I fear it won’t be this year. I don’t know if any global corporations would be hiring translators from Hong Kong. Translators are mostly hired to facilitate business between mainland Chinese and foreigners, yet both mainland companies and foreign companies doing business in the mainland might be hesitant to take fresh local graduates like me.
Leaving feels like escaping and abandoning my beloved home. Yet I do fear for the future – both for Hong Kong and myself.
As a person born and raised in Hong Kong, of course I want to stay here as long as I can. I see the encroachment of our autonomy in Hong Kong. I see the wish and need to fight for democracy. Leaving feels like escaping and abandoning my beloved home. Yet I do fear for the future – both for Hong Kong and myself. No one can say for certain what China would do after the protest blows over. Rolling back the freedom of speech? Pushing to implement Article 23 of Basic Law, which makes treason, secession, sedition and subversion chargeable offences? More interference in our judicial system by interpreting the Basic Law? Would I still be able to live here then? Would I still be able to live here when I have no job? Would I be able to make a living elsewhere?
My mum is also partly driven by her friends and family. Everyone has a second resort, in case the situation worsens. My mum wants one for us, too. “Look at the news,” my mum said to me on more than one occasion, “How can you still say that you can live in Hong Kong? Your dad is the only one who does nothing in response.”
Sitting at the dinner table, we were all eating while watching television as usual. I watched my mum talking too much and my dad staying too silent. I escaped to my room not long after dinner but kept an ear open. A comedy is on, yet the only laughter I hear is from the television. Silence seems to amplify when accompanied by canned laughter. How long is this going to last? I pray that the stress on each of our shoulders will not cause a tear in my family that no protest can mend.
Joy Pamnani is a journalism and finance student at The University of Hong Kong and says “I love storytelling and hope to inspire with the stories I tell.”
It was the first time in years I’d had a crush that wasn’t a celebrity. And this time, it just felt right. He’d come to Hong Kong to work as a research assistant for the second time. He was smart, funny, handsome and mature. India wasn’t too far and he liked Hong Kong for his career. I just knew a long-distance relationship would be worth the wait because we really liked each other and both dreamed of a future in Hong Kong together.
Until the protests happened.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, I’ve always considered myself a third culture kid, or TCK. I can’t choose between my Indian and Hong Kong side but I embrace the fact that in different aspects of my life, one dominates another. With food, nothing changes my love for dim sum and cheung fan. On the movies and music side, I like Hollywood and Bollywood.
For years I’ve liked fusion in my identity.
But as things have started to shake up in Hong Kong, I’m starting to question whether the protests could be affecting my identity and awakening this inner Indian side that’s been silent all these years. Would I have to relocate?
My close friends were beginning to notice changes about me. The topic of relocation would come up during conversations with my TCK friends. We also reflected on our identities in response to recent riots. Some of those friends sensed confusion. Others patriotism towards Hong Kong.
However, a few, like me, sensed exclusion. The protests made them feel like outsiders in a city that was their home. They started to shift to the other culture in their identity that was not Hong Kong.
These thoughts arose when I scrolled past my playlists for the past three months. They had been full-on Bollywood. As I was watching the sunset one evening, I realised I wasn’t paying attention to the sunset. I was listening to slow songs by the soulful Indian artist Arijit Singh and looking up the meaning behind the lyrics to learn new words in Hindi.
If music wasn’t enough, my Netflix recommendations were suddenly coming back as Bollywood movies. But these days I was challenging myself to watch content without subtitles and learn new words.
Although it’s not the easiest or most entertaining subject, Cantonese has always been my priority. But I was beginning to question my language priorities. I wanted to improve my Hindi, and I didn’t see Cantonese as necessary if I wasn’t going to stay here.
I was suddenly considering Indian food, too – both for myself and meals with friends. My best friend and I like to find affordable options in central business districts. And suddenly, Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong’s ultimate go-to hotspot for Indians, topped the list. Was I suddenly an Indian food ambassador? Or was there a part of me that believed these Indian meals might just be a daily thing if I left Hong Kong, and it was better to get used to it now than complain about it later?
It came to a point where I expanded my career horizons. My summer internship taught me a newsroom was one of the most depressing places to be in these times of protests and I simply couldn’t write stories about my home being burned to the ground.
I’ve still got at least a year till graduation. Both a silent one watching where the situation in Hong Kong heads, and an anxious one getting myself ready to move to India should the tables turn.
As I reflected on why I was drawn to journalism school in the first place, my answer was storytelling – something I could do anywhere. If I end up in India, Bollywood has some pretty great writers too.
I tossed and turned one night as these thoughts began to dawn on me. Were these just feelings of curiosity in a relationship with a guy living in India? Or was I running away from my Hongkonger side because of political turmoil?
India wouldn’t be perfect, but in fact a step back for me. I’d miss everything from the convenience of the world’s best public transport system to the simple efficiencies of opening a bank account. My boyfriend had been working so hard to graduate and pursue a career in a world-class city. If I moved back to India, would he be able to pursue his dream?
Besides, I now consider Hong Kong to be my home, a city where 90 percent of the people don’t look like me. If I moved to India, 90 percent of the people would look like me. But would it feel like home? And how long would it take to have the heart to call India “my true home”?
Being the TCK that likes to be rooted in one place, it’s a tough decision to make between India and Hong Kong. I’ve still got at least a year till graduation. Both a silent one watching where the situation in Hong Kong heads, and an anxious one getting myself ready to move to India should the tables turn.
Lucy Zhang is a Master’s student in journalism at The University of Hong Kong and hopes to contribute to a peaceful society with her skills.
I used to spend November 11, the Chinese Singles Day, shopping online with my college friends. But my year in the University of Hong Kong gave me a whole new experience when protesters shut down the MTR station, blocked elevators and caused the suspension of all classes that week.
I did get the alert the day before that there would be disturbances on our way to school the next morning, so I got up early at 7:30am to go to campus. Students in WeChat groups were already sharing information about which station exit was closed and which road was still accessible.
“Does anyone know which way is clear?”
“Go to the West Gate and climb over the roadblocks set by cockroaches.”
“A lot of protesters in campus, be safe.”
Scrolling messages while I finally reached an elevator that still worked, I saw dozens of protesters with masks on, hiding their faces and facial expressions, moving desks and chairs to block the students.
Fortunately, I strode over the barricades without being stopped, but I could see them trying to build taller roadblocks after I’d got through. I reached my classroom with other classmates successfully, only to be emailed about the suspension of all classes that day.
Mixed feelings of disappointment and unease came to me. What about the next time? What if they keep doing this until next semester? The school will keep cancelling classes? Who is going to protect our right to study?
Radical protesters formed small groups at 7am to disrupt citywide traffic and force shop closures, missed work attendance and class boycotts. The rush-hour disruption affected every citizens’ daily life and whoever is responsible is starting to become a pain in the butt.
But not everyone believes people’s normal lives can be sacrificed for the “greater good”. Forcing people to take sides by disrupting their daily lives could be the opposite of freedom and democracy.
Struggling to find my way back with other classmates, we found most roads blocked by protesters. After a desperate 30-minute tour around campus, we finally found a stair that was not completely blocked. A young boy was pulling a shelf to the stair and we sneaked through the tiny little gap just in time.
Most of my classmates stayed at home that day. At 6:10pm, the Senior Management Team announced that all classes at HKU on Tuesday, November 12, would be cancelled. Intense discussions burst out in WeChat groups.
“We have to raise our own voice, don’t let the world receive only the voice from them.”
“We didn’t pay the tuition fee and come here to be deprived of the right to school.”
Firstly, online teaching is less efficient than face-to-face teaching and it is harder to engage with professors. Secondly, time would be wasted if students stayed in Hong Kong with no classes to attend.
Nevertheless, many were still patiently waiting for school to deal with the circumstances and resume classes soon. But protesters heightened the tension by turning CUHK into a makeshift manufacturing base for petrol bombs and setting the campus on fire on the following day.
Some students started to plan going to Shenzhen or flying home. Students who wished to leave Hong Kong were forming groups to take taxis, buses or the MTR together so they could look after each other. My parents suggested I should stay inside, but I’m tired of hiding in my small apartment and cooking by myself, so I left Hong Kong for Shenzhen by the Express Rail.
For the rest of the day, I ate my fill of braised goose and Chaoshan beef hotpot. The waiters were polite and smiling. I didn’t worry about speaking Mandarin in the street and being frowned upon by others. Hong Kong is great in many ways, but it never feels like home.
I was staying at a free hotel provided by Shenzhen Youth Community under the Communist Youth League. When I got there, I saw a dozen students with their suitcases in the lobby. About 130 students who left Hong Kong were staying in that hotel on Wednesday night.
At 4pm on November 14 we got the message that classes on the Main Campus would be suspended for the rest of the semester and teaching and learning would be accessible online. This means a lot of things.
Firstly, online teaching is less efficient than face-to-face teaching and it is harder to engage with professors. Secondly, time would be wasted if students stayed in Hong Kong with no classes to attend. But if they leave, high rents and tuition fees still need to be paid. Thirdly, for students who wish to do experiments with equipment or study at campus, school facilities and public services in campus are disrupted.
Angry at this decision, many students formed a group to write to school heads to raise the voice from mainland students. Ian Holliday, vice-president of HKU, responded: “We took the decision … very reluctantly. Fortunately, we only have two weeks left in the semester, so the impact on student learning should not be too great.”
For the protesters, it could be a victory; for us, it is the end of the semester with no school and more self-learning, and a feeling of losing control over our own lives.
Yang Ziyu, a Master of Journalism student at The University of Hong Kong, was born in Zhejiang Province and interned at Sixth Tone and the Shanghai Center of Photography.
Anybody who is still on campus – you should be leaving now.” I was never a fan of the on-screen banners that come with messaging apps, but I started to keep notifications on, just in case. After reading a message on WeChat, however, I thought for a while, and buried myself into work again.
It was November 13, 2019, the third day of a citywide strike, and the first day that I finally had the chance to grab the popular seat that I never got to try before: a cosy, golden grandfather chair facing the tranquil sea view. There were only a few people still at Chi Wah, the main learning commons at The University of Hong Kong (HKU), which was usually rather packed. I could hear the droning siren of police cars from a distance, as well as the sounds of people flipping over papers or rapidly zipping up bags. They were leaving.
I chose to stay.
As a mainlander, I came to HKU to study journalism, in hope of polishing my skills in a media environment where news is less heavily censored. Although I am not a devotee of collectivism in any form, I was slightly astounded in September when student protesters marched on campus, and shouted themselves hoarse for the first time. “CCP go to hell!” they growled with barely controlled fury, time and again. I should have taken the bitter hatred more seriously, but I held the same view as most people at that time: this civil unrest wouldn’t last too long.
One weekend in November, I gave myself a break by not reading any local news for two days. On the Monday, I woke up to the news of a citywide strike. It is rare to receive an email from school at 9am, but that morning I got five, some in full capitals and all saying, “Stay safe.”
My roommates and I went out on the street, and we could feel the smell of burning rubber in the air. We tried several paths to enter the campus, only to find that they were either blocked, vandalised or both.
“Why do you want to go to school so badly?” shouted one protester, angrily throwing a metal bucket to the ground. “Because it is my right to education!” a student replied indignantly. She tried to squeeze past a narrow gap. Realising the lack of common ground, they soon reached a standoff.
There are certain sounds that you become more and more familiar with every day. The sound of trash bins and barricades of all kinds being thrown on the road, and the noise of heavy metal poles scratching the ground, though it feels as if they are scrubbing your nerves instead. But one day, you get used to all of them. You stop reacting to what might be regarded as “abnormality”. Frequently, I heard this accusation from both sides: you don’t understand love. While protesters would say they only conduct violence and vandalism out of their deep love for Hong Kong, anti-violence citizens condemn them for turning the city into a loveless place.
For the first time, I realised how yawning a gap love can create among people.
I can still remember the night before the anti-mask law came into effect in October, a demonstrator glared at me and shouted, “Give back my freedom!” as I was talking in Mandarin on my phone. Behind him, Maxim’s Cakes, (of which the founder’s daughter had made public anti-protest remarks) was being daubed with graffiti and damaged.
After classes were suspended in most Hong Kong universities, many students from the mainland fled to Shenzhen as a temporary refuge. What the mainstream media hasn’t covered much is that there are also many who chose to stay.
But besides that, my encounters with Hongkongers, protesters and non-protesters alike, have been rather smooth. I came back to campus on a Saturday night, shortly after the police left. The barricades in front of all entrances were piled up even higher. I asked the protesters who guarded the gate if I could enter for work. They helped me carry my backpack and climb over the shaky roadblocks that were almost the same height as me. “Take care,” was the last thing they said to me.
Every time I spoke with protesters, I could see the expression of surprise on their face. And occasionally, that was how I felt as well. As we peeled the political labels off one another, and engaged in simple communication, the hatred, fear and defence mechanisms dissipated.
After classes were suspended in most Hong Kong universities, many students from the mainland fled to Shenzhen as a temporary refuge. What the mainstream media hasn’t covered much is that there are also many who chose to stay. As a mainlander who has her own doubts towards Beijing and yet is firmly against violence, I – as one of them – found myself an outsider on both sides. But mainland Chinese “drifters” who are reluctant to leave have a role in the whole movement. Sometimes, outsiders can be the best witnesses.
Diego Mendoza is a journalism student at George Washington University in Washington DC. He studied at The University of Hong Kong last semester.
Dear Hong Kong,
I could tell everyone back home that it was the rows of shimmering neon signs ornamenting the streets of Mong Kok, or the sweet aromas of freshly baked char siu bao pervading the humid air. Perhaps I’ll say that it was the crisp taste of Tsingtao beer on top of roaring cascades after a hike through the jungles of the New Territories.
But that would be a lie.
What made me fall for you were brilliant flames on top of barricades of trash cans; the looks of intimate camaraderie among black-masked strangers. It was hearing thousands of voices chorusing Do You Hear the People Sing? along Victoria Harbour. It was even the sting of tear gas filling my lungs as I sprinted through a sea of glued-down bricks.
The brutality between protesters and police – the marches, the MTR arson and Molotov cocktail explosions that so many exchange students fled from – is precisely what stole my heart.
Sure, as an aspiring journalist I am someone who naturally runs towards mayhem. But more importantly, the people’s political fervour lit a spark within me to become a greater advocate of democracy – you have shown me what it means to be a steward of liberty and justice for all.
Frankly speaking, I initially overlooked your glamour. Having learned Mandarin for more than a decade, and having lived in Shanghai earlier this year, I reckoned my time in Asia was over; I was yearning for some new, flavourful affair. But your programme price was incomparable, and after reading about the curriculum at university, I elected to give you a chance.
When the protests began in June, I could have followed my family and friends’ advice to study abroad somewhere else. After all, if something happened, I was at risk of losing credit for the semester.
I was once afraid to be so openly political – I worried about straining relationships with others or being perceived as too biased in my writing. But my time with you has shown me that cowering behind a wall of oppression only allows the tyrants to build that wall higher.
But when life presents you with unparalleled opportunities, you take them. The trepidation of losing classes was tangible, but the loss of not fully understanding the intricate details of a revolution of our times was terrifying. And so, it became my goal to apprehend your wrath towards authority.
After visiting Lantau Island one day, my friends and I discovered that the airport uprisings had shut down the MTR service; the only way back to our apartments was squatting on the 12-inch-wide aisle of an overcrowded bus slugging through stand-still traffic.
“Wouldn’t it have been easier for you to ride the subway home, instead of trying to study right now?” I asked a 20-something student, her eyes glancing towards me as she looked up from her law textbook.
“I could have got more studying in, but then you wouldn’t have been here talking to me,” she bluntly replied. “Now you and your foreigner friends know what’s going on here. If we don’t cause havoc, Hong Kong as we know it will die.”
We may live thousands of miles apart, but our stories are not much different. Living in the United States, I am too familiar with stories of police officers shooting innocent black men. I am too aware of an unresponsive, distant government that slowly chips away our democratic values.
Where our stories diverge is in the means by which we express our dissatisfaction. The violence and anger I witnessed from your people forced me to weigh my ethical morals against my political values.
Waking up to the news of one protester being shot, only to see the video of his allies first beating a riot officer, had me question the claims from local classmates that the police were the only instigators. And the calls to the police officer that followed – protesters telling him they’d rape his daughter, kill his wife, appalled my soul.
It wasn’t until recently that I began to understand the innate fatal feedback loop that drives your revolution. Yes, there is upright fake news of police burying bodies at sea and pushing protesters from bridges that angers your people. But as a journalist, I also know that without the arson and vandalism yielded from this fury, the outside world would never hear about your battle against tyranny from a lack of coverage.
I didn’t want to leave you, but under pressure from my parents and home university, I had to leave earlier than planned. Returning home, I am now more inspired than ever to join protests and rallies against a government interfering with our democratic rights.
I was once afraid to be so openly political – I worried about straining relationships with others or being perceived as too biased in my writing. But my time with you has shown me that cowering behind a wall of oppression only allows the tyrants to build that wall higher. The people of Hong Kong have shown me how to tear down that wall brick by brick.
Thank you for your time, Hong Kong, for your everlasting mark on me. With your memories, I know that it will never be “goodbye”, but rather “see you later”.
by Eric Cheung
Since June, large numbers of foreign correspondents, producers, and filmmakers have flocked to cover the ongoing turbulent events in Hong Kong on the ground.
Known as “parachute journalism”, newsrooms deploying reporters to cover events of which they have little knowledge is hardly new. However, critics say this approach gives rise to reports that are superficial or misleading. In particular, foreign journalists may have to rely on official sources for information, which may be biased.
In June, the Hong Kong story presented a challenge for overseas media without a base here, or locally based foreign journalists who do not usually report on the city. International interest in Hong Kong had dwindled since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, so there was an urgent need to understand why a significant portion of the population opposed the extradition bill.
To bridge the knowledge gap, many turned to local freelancers. Within five days of June 9, I had received emails from producers based in Canada, Australia, Britain, and France, asking to schedule interviews on why the bill was such a big deal, or seeking help in arranging a reporting trip here.
At first, most foreign media reports explained the controversies surrounding the extradition bill, and why many were afraid of the new law. However, not many stories contextualised the fear of Beijing’s growing influence over the city. Several high-profile cases in recent years, including the disqualification of elected officials, the alleged abduction of the Causeway Bay booksellers, and the jailing of political activists, were catalysts for the massive turnout.
As the movement went on, there were more analysis pieces. Some stories examined the movement from a socio-economic view, explaining the high housing prices and limited social mobility felt by the young generation. Other articles looked at the role of protest art and how Chinese social media users responded to the protests.
The flood of content was available partly because protesters made an effort to translate material and reach out to an international audience. For example, some volunteers set up Telegram channels to publish instant updates on the ground in English, keeping reporters informed of what was happening on the frontlines. Some users of the LIHKG forum, available only in Cantonese, translated viral threads into English. The Kwan Kung Temple, another Telegram channel set up by protesters, also assisted journalists in pairing up with interviewees.
However, critics of parachute journalism found examples where reports published by overseas media showed a lack of understanding.
One was when foreign media said protesters scored “a big win” when Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the extradition bill’s withdrawal following months of protests. The focus of the movement had already shifted to demands for accountability and democracy and the bill’s withdrawal was not enough to satisfy public demands. Some Hong Kong social media platforms criticised journalists for not understanding this.
Working as a fixer is not an easy job. In my experience, the job requires knowledge of the city’s politics, having the right contacts, and the ability to explain complicated details simply.
Similarly, in December Chinese president Xi Jinping travelled to Macau and praised the city for its success during its 20th anniversary of the handover. Some stories attempted to compare Macau with neighbouring Hong Kong, pointing out Macau has been more “loyal” to Beijing because its residents valued economic order. This missed crucial historical context: Macau came under the firm control of China after riots in December 1967, when the Portuguese government essentially gave in to pro-Beijing trade unions. This was in stark contrast with Hong Kong, where riots orchestrated by leftist groups alienated the general public. The different outcomes have played a role in shaping the two societies today.
Working as a fixer is not an easy job. In my experience, the job requires knowledge of the city’s politics, having the right contacts, and the ability to explain complicated details simply. Generally, foreign publications have limited space for Hong Kong stories. Fixers need to understand what they are looking for, then find the right sources to support the story.
As an example, when clashes broke out outside LegCo on June 12, fixers were supposed to inform foreign reporters of the legislative procedure in Hong Kong and connect them with politicians across the aisle to provide opinions on the bill. When protesters started chanting the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our time” in July, fixers had to understand its connotations with the city’s localist movement, and the evolution of the separatist camp since the end of the 2014 protests.
For me, the most memorable experience has been working with Ben Wedeman, a veteran foreign correspondent based in Beirut. Having spent years covering the Arab Spring, he has been able to draw parallels between protests in Hong Kong and Lebanon, and how similarly their young people perceive freedom and democracy. Global perspectives help explain local events in a wider context.
The social unrest has created numerous opportunities for the journalism community in Hong Kong. As the new year begins, with no end to the unrest in sight, it remains to be seen how the media will continue to tell the story to the rest of the world.
Eric Cheung is a freelance journalist in Hong Kong. His work has appeared in international outlets including CNN International, The Guardian, Reuters, and the South China Morning Post.