Faces of Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement: The Fronts
HONG KONG—The social contours of this city’s main occupied zone have come to resemble something of the real world: the center has the prime real estate, with artwork, a well-stocked study area, tents with food and drink, and a sound stage where the celebrity student leaders come to give speeches.
Maybe a quarter of a mile away in either direction, the scene starts to take on an aspect of the 1980s dystopian classic “Escape From New York”: unmanned barricades with wildly jutting bamboo, tattooed skateboarders, heavy smokers, and groups of young people with hoods and occasionally masks on, sitting around, doing not very much.
Ed Lau says he is in charge of what he calls the “Eastern Front.” His colleague, Jack Lam, handles the Western Front. They communicate with one another and others in the camp via a walkie-talkie system. Lam has taken a break from his work as a construction designer. Lau comes nearly every day after his job as a physical education instructor.
Lau first came to the Admiralty site on Sept. 28 after tear gas was used by police. He was having a fried rice dinner with his mother at St. Mary’s Hospital, and walked from there to the site.
A few days later, they had entrenched themselves. “We raised this blockade on Oct. 1, because of the beating of triads by students,” Lau declared, referring to the second bout of violence that many linked to the government, which caused another wave of protests and a longer term encampment.
“All of us are apolitical—we couldn’t care what happens either way. But it’s our civic duty to protect the vulnerable.”
After assessing who was in charge (no one), and what the plans were if police or triads came (none), Lau said he realized: “This protest action is no good if there is no synergy and communication. So we held meetings to align strategy and establish responses for various scenarios.”
They came up with color codes for various scenarios. Lau laid them out: “Code green is for when one or two people come to verbally abuse or provoke trouble. We just monitor the situation. Yellow is when a number of people with malicious intent come to cause trouble or create violence—in that case half of the people from nearby stations will go and deal with the situation.”
And then there’s the inevitable code red: “That’s when there is a mass police action to clear the area with tear gas, rubber bullets, or worse; or if hundreds of attackers or rioters armed with knives and bats come. We have different types of evacuations for different numbers—500, 1,000, 5,000.”
Lau said student leaders didn’t even know about this plan. “Oh wow, you guys have got a great plan,” one of them said, Lau reported.
It is apparent that the occupied zone operates as a parallel structure to the Hong Kong Federation of Students, Scholarism, and Occupy Central With Love and Peace, which are the public faces of the movement, speaking to the media and meeting with the government.
But the extent to which people like Lau, and those on site, are actually able to wrangle the thousands who stream in, is also an open question.
Gary Yeung, who mans one of the main resource supply stations, dismissed the idea that anyone has an overall plan of evacuation.
“There are so many heroes who want to take charge of this or that, who own this part of the camp or area. If you walk around and tell people ‘I run this area,’ then they’re talking…” Yeung concluded with an epithet.
“When it’s time to evacuate, people are just going to run. That’s the bottom line.”
Over on the Western front, though, Jack Lam considers himself and his team to be making a crucial contribution to the movement—by ensuring that there is still a presence on the front lines, so police do not simply pull down the barricades.
“We came to protect the students,” said Jack. “If not for them, we wouldn’t have this movement, so they must be safe.”
The barricades they hang around at, on the Western front, are mostly absent of other people for now. But Victor, 18, one of Jack’s friends, says that within ten minutes they could mobilize hundreds of people. Sudden crowd formation makes the police less interested in taking action to dislodge the protesters.
“I just need to make some phone calls and we’ll have five hundred people here,” Victor said.