Yauh Chau, Yauh Yit


Saturday morning, Long Hair calls. “I’ll be protesting on Paterson Street this afternoon, why don’t you meet me there?” He doesn’t say who or what he’ll be protesting, but when I get to Causeway Bay around 3pm, I’m not surprised to find a Regina Ip rally in full swing. She’s sitting on a chair in the middle of the pedestrian street in front of a banner that says “Show the power of Facebook! Show your support for Regina!” Apparently, Ip is using Facebook as a campaign tool which strikes me as a terrific tactic–if you are running for freshman class president. (Catfight alert! Anson Chan has joined the Facebook campaign, too–and she has four times as many “friends” as Regina…)

I glance around, and sure enough, to Ip’s right, there’s a long bamboo pole swaying to and fro above the former Security Secretary’s head. At the top end of the pole is a bright red banner with lots of hand-lettered Chinese characters I can’t read. At the bottom end of the pole is Long Hair.

“What does this say?,” I ask him, and he
smiles. “Hard to explain. It’s like a Chinese poem. I say that Regina
Ip is like a toilet stone.” As I stand there, looking totally
bewildered, Long Hair’s assistant, Peter, trying to be helpful, chimes
in: “Chinese toilet stones.”

“Never
mind,” says Long Hair. “I’ll explain it to you later. Too bad you are
late. You didn’t see me hand my petition to Regina. She said I was a
nice person, a gentleman. That’s because I opened a door for her once
at Legco. She was very surprised and didn’t expect it, so she
hesitated. And then the door slammed in her face. Accidentally of
course. “

He is playful, gleeful, grinning and dancing
restlessly from one foot to another. Long Hair lives for these street
confrontations. “Look at her–see how nervous I make her? She cannot
relax because she knows I am right here. So I will
follow Regina around for the next two weeks. This is a war!”

Ip
is wrapping up. She finishes her speech and heads to a waiting car,
surrounded by her security guys.

“Hey, we’re going to go out now to
support some of our district council candidates. Want to come?”

Of
course I can’t refuse Long Hair’s invitation to get an inside look at
Hong Kong’s district council elections. So I wait while his supporters
roll up the “toilet stone” banner, and we head for the Cheung
Mo-mobile, a white panel truck completely painted over with Long Hair’s
caricature, his name, and various political slogans. The van is the
nerve center of Long Hair’s mobile protest
operation–in the back there’s a huge stack of black speakers, a couple
of loudhailers, cartons overflowing with leaflets, folding tables, a
couple of bamboo poles for banners. When we get stuck in traffic at the approach
for the Eastern Tunnel, passing truckdrivers wave, and taxis beep their
horns or roll down the window to yell, “Waaay! Cheung Mo!.

We’re
headed for Kwun Tong, where one of Long Hair’s long-time colleagues,
Chan Po Ying, is running for district council in a three-way race. The
district, which has 14,422 voters, consists of seven buildings in a
public housing estate, Tsui Ping South. Chan, a single mother of 51 who has a masters degree
in social work, is a community activist. For seven years she ran an NGO
for women workers that’s headquarted in Tsui Ping South estate. Now she
is running for the council seat here under the banner of the League of Social Democrats.

The common wisdom about Hong Kong’s district
council elections is that the voters aren’t concerned with big issues
like universal suffrage, but with the everyday problems in their
communities–sidewalk cracks, dangerous intersections, smelly garbage.
That’s why the pro-Beijing DAB is supposedly so sucessful getting their
candidates elected at this level–because they concentrate on the
little problems, the local stuff. (And because they, notoriously, have an endless Yangtze River flow of mysterious funds–enought to take busloads of elderly people out for outings and lunches on
election day).

The LSD doesn’t have lunch money, but Po-Ying’s background in community work, and her track record as a
social worker in this housing estate would seem to make her a very
attractive candidate.

We pull into the estate, a grey
institutional block of deteriorating high-rise buildings (the estate
dates from 1989, which in Hong Kong terms means it’s ancient). This is the other side of
“boom boom Hong Kong”. Sad laundry sags from racks sticking out of most
of the windows.

The estates around here were built to house the workers
in the nearby factories–Kwun Tong was once one of Hong Kong’s major
manufacturing centers. Now most of the factories have moved across the
border. The people who live here work as low wage cleaners and store clerks. If they work at all. Since the current economic bubble has lifted property values in all Hong Kong’s neighborhoods, not just the rich ones, rents are soaring, and
nobody who lives here now can afford to move out of their dingy, but
subsidized, government housing.

In the distance, I see a band of
about 20 young women and children wearing yellow vests. They are
holding bright yellow banners on poles and chanting, “Chan Po-Ying! Tauh sam hou!” Vote Number 3! Chan Po Ying.

Po
Ying–whom I’ve known casually for about three years–spots me and
waves excitedly. A campaign supporter runs over and grabs my hand, “Gan ngodeih la!” Follow
us! At this point, Long Hair decides to bail. “I  better go to Shatin
now…I’m late to help my buddy running for DC up there. Stay here with
Po Ying, you will find it interesting.” He jumps in the
Cheung-Mo-mobile, and speeds off.

I fall in with the little
yellow parade. We weave through the concrete platforms between the
buildings. Then, suddenly, we stop in front of a high rise, and
assemble in formation. Chan Po Ying steps out in front, takes a mike
that is connected to a loudhailer, faces the wall of windows and
hanging laundry, and begins to speak about minimum wage, the hard times
faced by working people, the problems of the estate.

At first
it seems very strange–there are only a few elderly people around
listening. It seems like Chan is literally talking to walls, delivering speeches to the sides
of buildings. But the logic of this form of campaigning quickly becomes
apparent. Since you can’t drive around in the estate (there are only
footpaths and large concrete plinths, typical of Hong Kong’s dreary
institutional public housing architecture), you can’t use a truck with
a loudspeaker here. And since there’s no MTR exit to stand by, nor any
high-trafficked path, shouting at hanging laundry seems like the best way to
make contact with voters in this estate.

Still, it seems like a
lot of effort for very little result. As I troop with the troops, I
fall into conversation with one of Chan’s supporters, a bright young
woman just out of college who worked as an intern in Chan’s NGO office
here. “I hope that Chan will win, but it will be hard. Because there is
another guy running from the Civic Party in this district.”

I’m
shocked to hear this. The Civic Party, the Democratic Party and the LSD were
supposed to be cooperating in the district council races, to make sure
they formed a united front against the DAB. In other words, there
aren’t supposed to be two pan-Democratic candidates running in the same district. What happened?

“I
don’t know,” says the supporter. “They are badly organized.” The Civic
Party sent a “parachute” candidate into Tsui Ping, 26 year old Kwan
Chi-kin. He doesn’t live in the district, and has not been a community
organizer here–he’s an unknown. He will split the pro-democracy vote, for sure.
Incumbent Fung Mei-wan, the DAB sympathizer, will certainly win. (And the following day, Fung handily wins re-election, with 2,838 votes to Chan’s 359 and Kwan’s 887).

“The
Civic Party has only one tactic–to get as much media attention as they
can. But that doesn’t work in a district council election,” sighs the
young supporter. “You need to understand the needs of the grassroots.”
She is too polite to put it more directly: the comfortable lawyers and
professionals in the Civic Party haven’t a clue about how to speak to
the heart of a Hong Kong worker struggling to rise from a shabby
housing estate. Sure, universal suffrage is hugely important,
ultimately, to the future of this worker. But you have to offer
something more tangible and compelling than intellectual and moral
arguments to win the votes and support of people on the other side of
Hong Kong’s widening economic divide.

And even then, politics is
politics is politics, whether you are in Hong Kong or New York or
London. “It’s a big advantage being an incumbent,” observes my buddy
Andrew To (who successfully defended his district council seat against the DAB’s shrill challenger, talk radio host and “legal executive” “Angel” Leung, by a vote of 2,825 to
1,851.)

Andrew and Angel met last month in a raucous RTHK TV debate that has become a YouTube classic. But Andrew doesn’t think the debate made any difference in the outcome. “Not that many voters saw it, although we did distribute a CD. But I don’t think the results at this level have to do with
the media but with voter mobilization. I got almost the same number of votes in this
election as I did last time. People already know who they want to vote
for and I made sure I got all my supporters out. Also, if you are currently in office, as long as you don’t have a scandal, people would be likely to vote for you. It is human nature to not want
change.” Andrew’s right: incumbency is like inherited wealth. Americans usually re-elect their congressmen, and Hong Kongers
are no different. Virtually all the sitting district council candidates who ran yesterday won.

It is also human nature to follow the leader.
And that is what the DAB is all about. They’re taking orders from the
Big Party over the border, demonstrating a lockstep discipline that
Republican Chairman Karl Rove can only dream of. Meanwhile the
pan-Democrats are trying to forge a winning team from a loud, messy
family that includes wealthy barristers, feisty unionists, grassroots
activists and civil servants with expensive hairdos.

The papers today are spinning the results as the “triumph” of the DAB. I wouldn’t exactly call it that. Out of 405 seats, they won 115, and 94% were re-elected incumbents. Respectable, but hardly a rout. If you count up all the pan-Democratic parties–and there are two new ones formed since the last election in 2003–the total number of pro-dem seats is 93. Since the DAB had the lion’s share of the campaign money, and the majority of incumbents, I don’t see much evidence of their political genius, or their surging public support. Truth be told, the DAB aren’t
really great campaigners. Their “platform” consists of repeating the
correct party line, and their repertoire of tactics is straight out of
the old school political playbook: smears, threats and a chicken and
rice box for every voter. It is only compared to the pan-Dems that they look like
pros.

I was in the middle of chewing this over with Hemlock over
breakfast yesterday morning, when I was interrupted by an unexpected phone call:
Long Hair. “Hey, I just finished protesting Donald Tsang at the polls.
I’m on Robinson Road, where are you?” Two minutes later, he had joined us
for coffee, all charged up by his close encounter with his favorite
adversary. But Long Hair, what about the district council elections? “We messed up,” he shrugs. We should have been more organized.”

The voting has just started, but the election is already yesterday’s news to him, Long Hair’s gathering
his stones for the next battle. Oh yes, about those stones: “The poem on my
banner was from a Chinese proverb. In the old days, you know we used to go
to the toilet on stones. The urine would run off, but the shit would
stick and then you could collect it to use as fertilizer in the fields.
So the toilet stones would always be stinky and hot. Just like Regina Ip. Yauh chau yauh yit.”

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