A Hong Kong Scholar Explains the Occupied ‘Village’

November 13, 2014 Updated: November 13, 2014

Mirana May Szeto, an assistant professor in comparative literature at the University of Hong Kong, spoke about her impressions of the occupied area around Admiralty in Hong Kong, at a recent forum held at Hong Kong University.

She sought to address the “moral and cultural landscape” of the individuals who have taken over roads calling for greater democracy.

A lightly edited and condensed version of her comments appears below.

“People are no longer happy to be homo economicus. This is a culture where people operate in groups—and it feels more like a village or a tribe. They occupy, insisting on their original purpose…

“Some are have been through many movements in Hong Kong, and others are new. They together form different groups and networks of communities, where some people act as overlapping nodes, and things just work very smoothly. It’s a hands-on, do-it-yourself—or better yet, do-it-together—culture. People are no longer happy with democracy as a matter of choice, like electoral democracy, but are looking here for participatory democracy. They prefer to participate in decision-making and prefer horizontal organization—and they have a distrust of hierarchical leadership…

“What I also find interesting, culturally, is the domestication of public space. They bring everyday life habits into public space—there’s a sense that it’s no longer a borrowed place and time, but it’s our place, and we reclaim our right to our future… it’s like a living room, a study-area for students, people watching TV together, the ladies room is like a princess’s boudoir…. Because homes are cramped, having all that space to live out in is a great idea…

“I also see emerging a kind of awakening: they actually dare to use words like ‘we’re living under colonial government,’ and ‘it’s imperialism with Chinese characteristics,’ ‘Hong Kong is being colonized the second time.’ They see that China is a new colonizer, and they dare to actually say it.

“Hong Kong has the highest density of security guards in the world. We have rail guards stopping us from walking into the road—enough that it could circle the earth more than once. We’re a well-disciplined people, a very proper and rule-abiding people, which has been trained to be like that in the past decade or so. An earlier generation would never behave that way… We’re more square than people in Singapore… People are ‘proper,’ and also good students. We study late into the night. We bring all these habits into this ‘resistance,’ and what we demonstrate is a kind of calm, and caringness, and self-discipline, and genuine concern for public space and the sharing of space. We have very small homes, so we really value our sharing of space. This is so great, having so much space to use. Having your own desk is actually a luxury.

“People value this and want to stay there as long as possible, to enjoy the sense of community and livelihood. And also demonstrate to the world that we’re not like what other people are saying. It’s a very good protective image for the movement. I think people are very aware that it’s a world of media—we’re spectators as well as performers. People are performatively trying to generate a certain image of Hong Kong, that they think would really make the whole world think we deserve what we’re asking for. We’re overdoing our tidiness in a way. It is a performative image branding gesture. We’re very good advertisers. We’re bringing all our everyday wisdom into building that image, I think.”