November 11, 2019
I texted a close friend and told her that I was thinking about going to Admiralty. A few seconds later, she replied: “Let’s go.”
It was June 12, three days after 1 million people took to the streets and protested against the controversial extradition bill which would allow the extradition of Hong Kong and foreign citizens to China. A few hours after the march ended, the Hong Kong government issued a statement saying that despite mounting opposition, the legislative procedure would proceed and the second read of the bill would take place on June 12, as scheduled.
By the time we arrived, all the major roads and bridges in Admiralty had been occupied by people dressed in black wearing masks. We wore masks as well, which was unusual considering how hot and humid a typical Hong Kong summer day is. But the masks provide basic protection against tear gas, and most importantly, against any kind of identification.
We heard people asking for umbrellas, saline solution, water and plastic wrap. “Why would you possibly need plastic wrap in a protest?” I asked my friend. She only shrugged in confusion. We were standing at the bridge overlooking the Government HQ, when suddenly we heard a shout asking everyone to step back. As we followed the instruction, we saw white smoke emitting from the front gate of the HQ. Tear gas. We ran away in a blind panic.
This marked the first use of tear gas by police in this series of protests.
Five hundred meters from where the tear gas was fired, a piercing feeling spread beneath my eyes. It felt like swallowing a big chunk of mosquito repellent as I breathed through my mouth. People started to pass around plastic wrap. That was when I realized its purpose: to cover skin and eyes to mitigate the discomfort brought by tear gas.
We managed to leave Admiralty shortly after the eviction began, having faced three rounds of tear gas. The police determined that what happened in that afternoon was a riot, meaning that anyone arrested, if found guilty in court, could face up to ten years behind bars. That night, I wrote what I saw and experienced at Admiralty on Facebook, setting the article as “public” and shareable. Little did I know, this decision would haunt me in the days to come.
Anxiety hit as my post was shared several hundred times in a matter of hours. I started to receive friends’ messages reminding me to wipe out any trace showing that I had been to Admiralty that day. I was advised to delete any social media posts and location records on Google Maps and iPhone and to throw away the clothes and shoes I wore. I deleted all the photos on my phone and in the cloud. Friends asked me if I had bought a one-way ticket for the subway without using my registered subway card. Meanwhile, I worried that my visa renewal, due a few days later, would be denied.
On June 16, a week after the first protest, nearly one-third of the city’s population returned to the streets, protesting the bill and police violence and demanding that the chief executive, Carrie Lam, step down. “Five demands. Not one less.” “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” People chanted. After living in Hong Kong for five years, I am no longer naïve enough to believe that any kind of public pressure would work, seeing as the freedom promised to the territory 22 years ago has gradually slipped away and political expression has been repressed since the end of Umbrella Movement in 2014. Yet the events of the following weeks and months surpassed my wildest imagination.
The use of tear gas outdoors seems like a minor danger now. Mobs have stormed into a subway station, indiscriminately attacking passersby with batons and sticks while police did nothing. Police fired tear gas inside a subway station and chased and kicked down the protestors along the escalator. A first responder and a journalist permanently lost their eyesight after being struck by bean bag rounds. On August 31, police stormed into the subway station and the train, beating up protestors as well as passengers indiscriminately, just like the mob.
On October 1, police fired a real shot that hit the chest of a high schooler. On October 5, I awoke to the news that the government had invoked Emergency Law to implement an anti-mask ban, essentially stripping protestors of their one protection against government reprisal. On November 11, three more shots were fired at two protestors, one of whom is in critical condition at the time this is being written.
As I write this article, riot police are deploying to three university campuses, including my alma mater. They have fired tear gas and bean bag rounds on campus.
Since the end of July, legal marches have become virtually impossible, as the police has issued multiple objections to planned rallies. Any assembly risks being deemed illegal. People have been searched and arrested while shopping, walking on the street, and playing basketball in groups with more than three people. Pro-democracy congressmen and activists have been arrested at home and at work, in attempts to further crackdown on the movement.
Over 20 weeks of protest later, the chants of protestors have also changed. “Hong Kongers, keep it up!” became “Hong Kongers, resist!” when the anti-mask law was passed; their chants evolved to “Hong Kongers, revenge!” when a college student who fell from a parking lot died on November 8. The police were accused of blocking ambulance access to the scene for 30 minutes.
On my last day in Hong Kong, the customs officer who checked my passport leaned in to talk to me. I anticipated that he would warn me against participating in the protest and, perhaps, against returning because of the Facebook post I wrote. Instead, he reminded me to use the e-channel next time. I pondered the term “next time.” I have no idea when or if I could ever return to Hong Kong, but I know this much: When I visit the city again, I hope it will be the same vibrant, noisy, busy city where I spent my college years, where people talk loudly and march proudly, where people’s bravery and dedication are answered — still a city of freedom. May glory be to Hong Kong.