The Faces of Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement: Study Time

November 11, 2014 Updated: November 11, 2014

HONG KONG— “Tong,” as he wanted to be identified, is in his last year of high school—at a well-known institution in Hong Kong that is funded by businesses that have close ties to China. None of his school-friends or teachers knows that by night he becomes an important figure in the longstanding protest at the main occupy site here, called Admiralty, around government headquarters.

The camp takes up the two main highways of Harcourt Road and Connaught Road—12 lanes at its widest. A few weeks ago, Tong began hammering together tables and little wooden stools, from scraps of wood salvaged from a nearby landfill. Now, the study corner stretches 50 meters, and provides hundreds of students each night with a place they can both protest and continue with their studies.

And the students on site actually do study.

Christy Chan, 17, a secondary school student, was writing a speech for her English language class recently. “This is my fourth time coming here to study. I feel like I can support them, express my views, and study at the same time.”

Chan was by herself and says she doesn’t joke around with friends when at the study tables. “Other people need the seats.”

Franco Lee, 29, a civil engineer, comes to study for about two hours most weeknights. The other night he was reviewing how high-rise buildings are constructed, for a professional qualification exam next year. “I want to be here because I can take in the speeches, and show my support for the movement,” he said.

Tong estimates that dozens were involved in putting together the site.

They didn’t get permission from anyone to pull it together. Not that there is even anyone that could have provided an official permission. The entire camp, which has been going since late September, operates on a voluntary basis, and there seems to be no individual or group with overall authority.

Before the 50 meter long area now used for study, other students had jerry-rigged tables by perching particle board across the concrete road separators. Tong tacked the rest of the study corner onto that.

“I was just hammering together tables and stools when a couple of uncles saw, and wanted to come help,” he said. The Chinese word “bobo,” which means uncle, is a respectful term of address for an older man. “We didn’t sleep for 24 hours.”

Later, Japanese tatami mats were donated, and students knelt around the early makeshift tables to revise their homework.

Then food came—biscuits, chocolates, and koala cookies. Beverages, too—coffees, cold tea, and bottles of water. Then an electricity generator. Then chairs. Then large tables not cobbled together by scrap material. Then large tents, donated by someone Tong calls “an ordinary Hongkonger.”

“Some people say it’s foreign forces that are organizing this and putting up the funds,” he said. “But I’ve done a lot of it myself. The cleaning, lights, electricity. I’ve made friends with people and balanced interpersonal relationships. I’ve learnt a lot.”

Tong’s motivation is both pure and subversive: he wants the younger generation, his generation, to exceed in their studies and professional life, become the elite of the future, and in so doing transform Hong Kong’s government. “We need to arm ourselves with knowledge. Knowledge can be used to do battle,” he said.

“We want these people to study and remember why they’re here, so they can resist the political and business bigwigs. The only way we can change this society is through studying politics and entering the elite circles.”

On the stakes at play for Hong Kong, he said: “I know how dark a place China can be,” rattling off human rights abuses, media propaganda, and public scandals like milk powder laced with poison.

“We know the Chinese Communist Party has already infiltrated Hong Kong’s politics and government.” Part of the umbrella movement’s struggle, he said, is about resisting this encroachment and maintaining Hong Kong’s traditions and values.

“Here we have our own thoughts about things and sense of social responsibility. Hong Kong and the Mainland are separated by one thin line, but they’re world’s apart.”