The Big Parade

It’s official. I can no longer remember exactly how many times I’ve walked this same walk with thousands of other Hong Kongers. Fifteen times? Twenty? And I’ve been in Hong Kong just half the year, for only three years! I’ve marched in July’s sweltering heat and sudden rains, I’ve marched wearing gloves in a January cold snap, I’ve marched with an umbrella under drizzly and sunny and (lately, all too frequently) white-grey pollution skies. I’ve marched alongside David, and Hemlock, with Leung and Wilson and Veronica and Mr. Lo and Patrick and San Ching and Ming and Po Ying.

And, yesterday, once again, another Daaih Yauh Hang, 游行, the Big Long Walk. It’s not really that long. The distance from Victoria Park to the Central Government Office is probably about 2, 2 and a half miles. But it seems to get longer and longer. Kind of like the Hong Kong government’s so-called “democracy timetable.” In 1997, Hong Kong was supposed to have the opportunity to vote for its leaders in 2007. In 2007, Beijing said no way, that was never the deal. Talk began to float about suffrage in 2012. But three weeks ago, right in the middle of the Christmas doldrums, a hastily-convened meeting of the National People’s Congress rubber stamped–excuse me, passed–a declaration that Hong Kong people must wait until 2017 to (maybe) vote for their Chief Executive.

So: Sunday, 3pm, Daaih Yauh Hang.

Why march, over and over and over again? Doesn’t it dilute the power and impact of the pro-democracy movement to hold marches so often? You hear this argument a lot and the typical retort from the pan-democrats is this: In Hong Kong, ordinary people have almost no political power, and the government is not accountable to the public. So street protest and civil disobedience are the only political tools available for people to make themselves heard.

It’s a linear line of reasoning, and it has a point. But I don’t particularly like this argument. It’s too simplistic, and it leads to simplistic conclusions, aka The Numbers Game. If “only” 100,000 people turn up to protest for the right to vote in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong’s population is 7.8 million, does that mean that  just  1.25 percent of Hong Kong people support the right to vote? If the march organizers predict a turnout of 10,000, and only 8,000 people show up, does it mean the march is a failure and represents a government victory? Finally, by insisting on this straight line between turnout and public opinion, you end up playing the endgame that has no end: how many bodies really did participate? Every march leads to the same ping pong match between the police, the press, and the organizers. Yesterday, the police counted 6,000 heads. The organizers counted 22,000. Apple Daily will report the higher figure, Wen Wei Po the lower one. (As a participant, and march veteran, I will tell you that the truth, as it often does, lies in-between. The march was definitely bigger than the police estimate, smaller than the organizer’s–I’d guess around 12,000-14,000.)

The pan-democrats need to let go of this notion that a Hong Kong march is a quantifiable demonstration of public will. Of course it isn’t. Not in Hong Kong, not anywhere in the world. It is much more than that. History records the results of popular discontent, not the exact numbers of the participants. We remember and are moved by the power of the passions. Exactly how many people hacked open and burned chests of tea at the Boston Tea Party? Does it matter if it was 500, or 1,000, or if those people really represented the majority opinion of the American colonists at that moment? What counted was not the scorecard, but the revolution. What counts are the sparks that set the world on fire.

A march in Hong Kong is a spark. As I have marched, over and over again, I’ve come to see these activities as kind of political ritual, a local form of art. The form and players are as defined and refined as in any Chinese opera. You know exactly what will happen, exactly what to expect. Yet, each time the play unfolds, it is a bit different.

I meet Veronica at 2:30 at Tin Hau MTR Station, on the eastern side of Victoria Park, and we grab a cup of coffee and some buns to keep us going during what we know will be a long afternoon and evening. I’ve already packed a bag with March Essentials: a bottle of water, a collapsible umbrella, an extra sweater (for January: if it is July, you pack sunscreen, more water, a hat). I’ve got my cellphone in my pocket, so I will know if somebody’s trying to get me while I’m surrounded by loud traffic and chanting. (The cellphone is a march essential–the only way to make sure you can hook up with your march buddies when you get separated). I’ve also got some small change handy in case I need to make a fast donation, or want to buy a march souvenir.

Even though Victoria Park is lovely, a rare Hong Kong patch of public green that hasn’t been concreted over by developers or their government enablers, the assembly point of the march is always the most tedious and uncomfortable part. No matter if the march organizers have predicted a turnout of 10,000 or 100,000, there’s always a enormous brigade of cops swarming around, doing their best to annoy and discourage the marchers by herding them into small corrals or snake-like queues marked with police tape and portable metal gates. I’m sure there’s some international consulting firm that’s teaching contemporary crowd control techniques to police forces everywhere, because the herding tactics used by the HKPD are quite like the ones I experienced at the hands of the NYPD when I marched against the Iraq war in New York City in 2003.

You gotta be shrewd in these early legs of the demonstration, because if you don’t pay attention, you might find yourself, as Veronica and Wilson and I did at the last march a few weeks ago, stuck in a pen with the entire membership of the Hong Kong chapter of the Falun Gong. Now, I don’t care much about the Falun Gong one way or another, and I’m glad they come out for all these pro-democracy marches, but they make for very dreary march companions. They spend most of the time walking in formation, saying nasty things about Jiang Zhemin, and thrusting free copies of the “Epoch Times” newspaper into the hands of bypassers.

The long wait in Victoria Park’s holding pens may seem like a downer, but it is the essential prelude to any pro-democracy march. It gives you lots of time to memorize the afternoon’s official slogans (The chants shouted at every march are written and agreed upon by the organizers in advance, one of Hong Kong’s stranger protest customs. The other odd tradition is that groups will spread their banners out on the ground, then ceremoniously raise them as the march begins). So as we waited for a friend, avoided the Falun Gong, and finished our coffee in Victoria Park with the other demonstrators, Veronica and I quickly memorized the main slogans of Sunday’s march:

Yi ling yat yi seung po syun!

Ngoh bat yiu yi lin yat chat ga po syun!

We want universal suffrage in 2012
No phony suffrage in 2017

Unfortunately, we also were forced to listen, over and over, to the Official March Song, “We Are Ready-2012”. An Open Letter to Hong Kong’s pan-democrats: You are in need of a serious makeover in the musical department! I would suggest rock and roll, or anything with a beat. Why not bring in some traditional Chinese drummers with those big gongs from the Cantonese opera. Please, please, anything but those wimpy, badly sung folk rock ballads straight out of a Catholic youth mass. Tell Ronny Tong to leave his guitar at home. And even though it was cool when blogger L
am Kay did a YouTube trash of the Hong Kong Handover song last July, it is NOT cool to turn the yucky Beijing Olympic ballad “We Are Ready” into an anthem for Hong Kong Democracy. Marching anthems should rouse the spirit, not make you want to suffocate yourself in a pile of Hello Kitty pillows. (Still, the video version, complete with documentary footage of protests past and present is pretty good.)

Did I mention that waiting in the Victoria Park holding pens can really make you grumpy?

But then, at last, you break past the tapes and gates and surge through the streets of Causeway Bay, in the peak hour of Sunday afternoon shopping, on a river of happiness.

Like I mentioned before, position is everything in one of these marches. You want to have a couple of march buddies, and you want to find yourself in a good spot. My friends and I prefer the back of the parade, since the politicians and all the press and television cameras are always crowding up front.  I like marching alongside a small, feisty group that does a lot of chanting, like the LSD, who usually march with some interesting prop–a giant marionette puppet of Donald Tsang, or a big coffin. But if I can’t find the LSD, I’m happy to march alongside some lively independent protestors. My favorites are the guys who make their own exuberant hand-lettered signs in Chinese characters. Some are as intricate and gorgeously realized as anything  by the The King of Kowloon:

Other protesters are interesting because they have an offbeat point of view, or are willing to say something that the organizers might shy away from in those “official slogans”. This guy wants to remind everyone that the Chinese Communists promised universal suffrage to the people in 1946. “The Communists Lie!” he shouted to me in English.

We shuffle, slowly now, but with increasing speed, through Causeway Bay. Shoppers gape from the sidelines. Some appear curious or puzzled, some look bored, others smile and clap as we go by. Many, many people snap pictures, take videos. One friend of mine in the movement thinks that the most valuable contribution of any of these demonstrations is the pictures and videos that mainland Chinese tourists carry home to their families: “This is what they do freely in Hong Kong!” (And what you can’t do here in China).

Speaking of contribution, we’re soon heading into the stretch between Causeway Bay and Wan Chai where every march turns into a Carnival Fair. Volunteers with transparent plexiglass strongboxes mingle with the marchers, soliciting donations for the Civil Human Rights Front, the coalition which sponsors most of the big marches, for the Democratic Party, the Civic Party, various unions. Some groups sweeten their pitch with souvenirs–a button, a poster, a sign. This march had some excellent take-homes! The Democratic Party got veteran activist and elder statesman Szeto Wah to do his (famous) Chinese New Year’s calligraphy (the little four-character poetry couplets called fa chun)–they printed up hundreds of his red paper pro-democracy couplets and sold them to passers-by. But the real prize of the march were these T-Shirts being sold by the Confederation of Trade Unions, imprinted with pro-democracy calligraphy by the late King of Kowloon:

Down the hawkers row we wind, passing booths set up by Citizens Radio, where Ah Ngau, “The Bull” and his band are (illegally) broadcasting from the march, even as the Department of Justice is indicting them for contempt of court. But where’s Long Hair? Just a block past the highway underpass where Wan Chai begins, there’s Leung Kwok Hung in his usual spot, up on a ladder, shouting to the crowd, smiling for a million pictures.

A little ways further, Ah Ming joins us. He was in an accident some years ago, and it left him crippled, but he usually joins up at the halfway point, and marches from Wan Chai to the finish. “That’s about what I can still do,” he says. Veronica and Wilson and I slow down our pace. By the time we reach the base of the hill that leads to the Central Government office, there is nobody behind us but a squad of motocycle policemen.

And I’m wiped out. The march has been hard today. Like I said, the Big Long Marches are all the same, and yet different. Some are energetic and defiant, buoyed by anger and outrage. Others, like this one, are infused with a feeling of duty, and necessity. Nobody in this march believes that this, or any march is going change the hard minds of the powers in Beijing. But not to march would be giving up. Giving in. And, even worse, sending a signal that nobody in Hong Kong cares enough anymore to bother.

It was here, in the weary valley at the bottom of the hill up to Government House,  that I thought about skipping out. But it seemed very wrong. Look at Ah Ming. Not to mention in front of me were were a hundred or so very elderly folks pushing their way upward, the lo yan ga from the Right of Abode movement, who march around town several times a week to remind people that their sons and daughters are stuck in mainland China and can’t join their parents legally, because the HK government decided to exclude them from residency.

Like the famous actors of the Cantonese opera, we are professionals. The march must complete its course. The end is near, at the top of the hill. We will laugh, and clap for each other, pat friends on the back in congratulations, say thanks to each other for another long march well done. Politicians will raise their hands in the air, shout words of encouragement, hug babies, send hope forward.

And Veronica and Wilson and Ah Ming and David, and anybody else we have gathered along the way will have a beer together at Club 71, then say farewell. Until we get the call to join Hong Kong’s next Daaih Yauh Hang for democracy.

And we surely will.

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