Umbrella Movement / September 2016 (Issue 33)

Whither the Incipience; Or, the Beauty of Schisms

by Michael Tsang

Two years ago, four of us at Cha co-edited "Whither Hong Kong" for the September 2014 issue. In the original call for submissions for that special section of poetry, we asked for responses to China's White Paper on the "One Country, Two Systems" principle in Hong Kong, which had been released in June that year. When the resulting school boycotts and demonstrations evolved into the fully-fledged occupation of the Umbrella Movement, submissions for the section surged. Thanks to this foresight, Cha was one of the first creative writing journals in English to be able to publish a feature on the Umbrella Movement.

Not only did the Umbrella Movement protests encourage the English writing community in Hong Kong to produce more socially and politically engaged works, it also helped English writing gain visibility in mainstream Hong Kong society. For example, poet Nicholas Wong and others participated in readings in Admiralty, and Wong's winning of the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for Poetry has been hailed as a Hong Kong achievement and covered in many online news platforms.

But more importantly, the Umbrella Movement was also a breakthrough in terms of social activism. Before the protests, it would have been almost impossible to imagine that so many Hongkongers would pitch tents on a major highway and live with so many strangers for such a long time (the movement lasted seventy-nine days). It was probably the largest assembly of lawbreakers ever in Hong Kong's history; even the July 1st march in 2003 was a legal exercise in freedom of protest. Seeing how thousands of people rallied for universal suffrage in the belly of Hong Kong's political and financial centre, I can't help but recall the line "something beautiful was born" from Louise Ho's poem "Remembering 4th June, 1989," an echo of Yeats's "Easter 1916." Perhaps more beautiful still was that in 1989, Hong Kong people marched to support the students at Tiananmen; in 2014, we slept on asphalt to fight for our own future. To place the Umbrella Movement in the history of Hong Kong's social activism, then: it was the farthest the city was willing to go down the path of nonviolent disobedience. It truly was the last chance for "love and peace."

This sense of solidarity and unity, however, is not the only thing I have found beautiful in the various protests of Hong Kong's democratic movement. I have also been moved by its diversity of opinions and voices. No social movement has one single objective or a completely unified voice. The July 1st march in 2003, for example, wasn't only a reaction to the government's proposal to implement the repressive Article 23 of the Basic Law. Those half a million marchers shouted many different slogans. Some asked for the resignation of Regina Ip, then Secretary for Security, or Tung Chee-hwa, then Chief Executive. Some opposed government-business collusion. Some did not like how the SARS outbreak had been handled earlier that year. This, I think, is what was "beautiful" about that afternoon: one major issue (Article 23) inspired people to get together and voice their many thoughts and concerns. As a result, we Hongkongers no longer believed in the vision of the future that China had thrust upon us; we realised the need to be vigilant about our problems and prospects.

The same is true for how I feel about the Umbrella Movement, although in a much more complicated and ambivalent way. The movement was never just about umbrellas in bloom. I think this is a crucial fact we ought to acknowledge: we must stop romanticising the Umbrella Movement as simply the celebration of a people's will for democracy. It was, in fact, a watershed, before which dissatisfaction against complacent, moderate modes of protest was bubbling, and after which, radicalism had taken over in social activism.

As the Umbrella Movement unfolded, political discussions became characterised by claims of seniority, legitimacy and authority and by struggles for power or speaking rights, amplifying the divisions that had already existed before the protests. I am not just talking about the split between yellow-ribbons and blue-ribbons—those who supported the movement versus those who opposed it. I am talking about schisms within the yellow-ribbons, if we take them as an umbrella group for people who wanted democratic suffrage. During the Umbrella Movement, people unfriended their Facebook "friends," who did not share the same views. For example, I found myself unfriended, not by a blue-ribbon, but by a die-hard yellow-ribbon, someone very close to the main organisers of the original Occupy Central movement.

Why was I unfriended? Because I'd posted a spirited polemic on my wall in late October 2014 arguing whether it might be wise to conduct a referendum at the occupied site to decide the future of the occupation. By that time, the spirit of the protests had started to dwindle, and while its leaders wanted to hold a referendum to gauge occupiers' views about the future direction of the movement, many pointed out the danger of being infiltrated by blue-ribbons or other pro-establishment groups. I was later accused of ignorance because I was in the UK finishing my studies and was told I should therefore not comment on the occupation. I was advised to visit Admiralty (physically impossible for me, of course) and not believe everything I read online.

Never mind all the sleepless night I'd spent watching live streams of the occupation on the SocREC channel or my joining the demonstration outside the Chinese Embassy in Portland Place, London, October 1st, 2014. Or my actual participation in the Umbrella Movement on December 12th—after having just landed in Hong Kong the night before—where I witnessed the clearance of Causeway Bay. Or the fact that I'd addressed the Umbrella Movement in one of my thesis chapters and was fervently consuming all the reports, posts, photos and videos I could find on social media, traditional news sites and online content aggregators (from InMedia and House News to 852 Post and VJ Media). For this former friend, nothing I wrote was worth debating or even commenting on, by virtue of the fact that I wasn't in Hong Kong and thus knew nothing about the Umbrella Movement nor had the critical or analytical faculty to filter through inaccurate articles. I was only allowed to be a second-tier yellow-ribbon, nodding my head in approval at every decision made by the leaders.

My grievance, of course, is trivial. I use it only to highlight that the Umbrella Movement created as many fault lines and splits as it inspired experimentations in alternative lifestyles (such as organic farming or the creation of DIY wind-energy modules). Yet, while my friend and I have fallen out, I'd rather live in schism than in the lie of superficial harmony. Only when fissures are played out are both sides forced to acknowledge each other's presence, and thus realise that the world is much bigger than what we see and know. This does not mean that we have to agree or even reconcile with our enemies, but it does mean admitting that without acknowledging the existence of alterity, one stands no chance of recognising the pluralistic possibilities of the world.

If Cha and other journals were able to capture and preserve a record of the "unified" spirit of the Umbrella Movement, are we, as writers, editors, critics, teachers and students of the English writing community, now willing to look into the fragmented socio-political spectrum of Hong Kong and create something out of it?

I am, of course, referring to the infamous rise of radicalism and localism that has dominated recent modes of protests in the city. By the time this article is published, Hong Kong may have elected its first post-Umbrella "localist" representative to the city's governing body, the Legislative Council (LegCo). Despite the momentum in their movement, my observation is that opinions of the localists, who are often guilty of impetuosity, tend to be prejudiced by a lack of understanding (or will to understand). A large portion of pan-democrats and educated intellectuals still despise localist sentiments and the online platforms on which they are expressed (such as the Hong Kong Golden Forum). While the Hong Kong Free Press has increased its coverage on localism, its contributors have yet to convey a clear understanding of the political philosophy behind localist causes, such as the recent establishment of the Hong Kong National Party—whose platform includes independence for the city and the replacement of the Basic Law with a new constitution—or the underlying visions for and implications of Hong Kong as a separate nation. There is little discussion in the English-language media on the nuances between the different localist proposals for self-determination, mass participation in constitutional reform, de-facto referendum or the perpetual continuation of the Basic Law. Few in the city understand that the localist camp is internally fractured between different sects, including those who seek outright independence, those who demand a temporary return to British rule and those who see Hong Kong as an autonomous city-state. Most have also missed the ongoing debates on how to define terms, such as localism, nativism, indigeneity, cosmopolitanism; nation, city-state, quasi-state; sovereignty, autonomy; "leftard," "Hongkonger"; the use of force, the use of violence. And few understand that localism is consistently mischaracterised as a youth or student-led movement or that it is often this bias that encourages people to label localist supporters as immature, xenophobic, result-oriented and driven by unruly emotions and impractical ideals.

Viewed in this context, we may be able to see the Umbrella Movement as having catalysed a critical debate on Hong Kong's state of activism, even if the end result is not pleasing for all. Unless one believes that the world consists only of right and wrong, black and white, us and them, I truly think this state of alienated plurality is, for the time being, healthier for the city. By asking "whither the incipience," what I really want to ask is: before we even think about mending the gaps and ruptures exacerbated by the Umbrella Movement, do we have the courage to suspend judgment and try to comprehend what other people are thinking?

And perhaps writing can help convey to us the world of other people, including our enemies. Is the English writing community ready to capture Hong Kong's increasingly radical sentiments? Can we stage the recent Fishball Revolution in a play, write a poem that rhymes "brick-throwing" with "gun-shooting" or pen a story narrating the life and thoughts of a localist? Or are all the splits, polemics and radical thoughts too ugly and "impractical" to lend themselves into aesthetic expression? Looking forward, if Hong Kong's social activism has mutated into a state of chaos after the Umbrella Movement, perhaps what Hong Kong English writing can and should do is move towards a more pluralistic, albeit potentially less unified, space, which encourages and accommodates more writers to write from different (even controversial) perspectives.

 Michael Tsang is a native of Hong Kong, and holds a PhD from the University of Warwick, researching on Hong Kong English writing. His broader research interests are on postcolonial and world literature with an Asian focus. He writes stories and poems in his spare time, and is always interested in languages, literatures and cultures. Michael is a Staff Reviewer for Cha. Visit his Warwick profile for more. [Cha Profile]


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