View From the Gaai Tauh

Gaai tauh,

is the Cantonese word for street, or crossroads. It literally means “street head”. If you hang out around Long Hair, you’ll soon learn the word, because battling for public opinion in the street is what he’s famous, and infamous, for. “You should stay in the gaai tauh and forget about LEGCO” was the thrust of the attack that DAB candidate Gary Chan Hak-kan hurled at Long Hair during their LEGCO debate.

Hmmm. Talk about pot-calling-kettle. Yesterday, while passing leaflets for Long Hair in Sai Kung, I witnessed about the fiercest, nastiest street fighting protest tactics I’ve seen during my time in Hong Kong. And it was not Long Hair leading the charge at the gaai tauh–it was the shamelessly aggressive DAB troops. They blocked and elbowed us when we tried to hand literature to the passers-by. They surrounded us with bodies and blocked the view of our banners.

And, the most shameless of all–they bussed in voters so elderly and frail that I feared for their health under the blazing, 33 degree midday sun. The DAB is admitting they bussed voters to the polls, but they claim they stayed within the bounds of the election regulations, and didn’t tell them who to vote for.

Oh yeah? So what were those little cards with a big X on ballot position 10 that I observed clutched tightly in the bony, trembling hands of straw-hatted, cataract-ridden grannies being led by DAB volunteer’s hands to the polling station?

Gary Chan Hak-kan was there, in Sai Kung. I didn’t observe him leading the parade of dear, frail Ah Pohs, but I saw him on the scene, handing out water to the ladies that were scheming to push us away from the voters. My mother used to say that the character of a man is not how he wins but how he plays the game. Well, Gary Chan won his seat in LEGCO, but the DAB played a nasty game of gaai tauh.

Meanwhile, far from the street, in the studios of NOW TV, TVB and RTHK, the pan-Democrats are weeping and wailing and rending their garments. Audrey Eu was spotted crying in Chai Wan. Ex-Legco rep Sin Chung Kai hit the television rounds to proclaim that the pan-democracy movement was in peril. Ditto Ronny Tong.

But I’m looking at the results today, and guess what? The pan-democrats have held their line. I haven’t looked at all the Functional Constituency results, but they still have at least 23 seats, enough to keep LEGCO from becoming the government’s rubber stamp.

So why, then, all the wailing? I think it is because the democrats who did well in this election are not the smooth, professional and middle-class democrats that the media dotes on. Instead, the winners were the street fighters–Democratic party stalwarts like Albert Ho and Cheng Ka Foo, and the Sunshine Boys of the LSD–Wong Yuk-man and Leung Kwok Hung.

Long Hair did brilliantly, grabbing the best share of pro-democracy votes in NT East district, and defying the polls that said he’d be lucky to hold onto the last seat. Wong Yuk-man came in with the highest pro-democracy total in his district, Kowloon West. The third man in the LSD troika, Chan Wai-yip, held onto his NT West seat that nobody thought he had a chance of winning.

In this Hong Kong election, it was the economy, stupid. The party of the wanna-be tycoons, James Tien’s Liberal Party, went down in flames. The Civic Party won its seats in professional, middle class Hong Kong island, but fell down elsewhere–who would have thought that Long Hair would out poll the smooth, Oxford-toned barrister Ronny Tong?

In other words, the big news isn’t that the pan-democrats are dead–it’s that the shape of the democracy movement is changing. The democrats with a populist, gaai tauh appeal, who can go one-on-one with the DAB in the streets, were the winners. The democrats who landed in the helicopters are the losers. The old-school, Hillary Clinton HK democrats wiped the floor with the high-falutin’ Obama-types in the Civic Party. It’s that simple.

So I wonder why the press I’ve seen so far just doesn’t get it? The report this morning in the NY Times acknowledges the populist angle, but then goes on about how the DAB’s high numbers indicate “Chinese national pride after the Olympics.” Please. Having been out on the gaai tauh all week, I recognize this spin for the drive-by analysis it is.

Listen up: It wasn’t about the Olympics. People in Hong Kong aren’t so foolish as to conflate pride in being Chinese with blind support of a dysfunctional Hong Kong government. The DAB grabs big numbers because they have money, manpower, and the shamelessness to drag anyone with a heartbeat to the polls. They are as cunning and ruthless as Karl Rove, and they will shove and push and send out the attack dogs. In Hong Kong, everybody knows that if you want a favor done, they are the go-to boys.

But the big story of LEGCO Elections, 2008, is that in spite of all the DAB’s power, they still couldn’t knock the pan-democrats out of the box. Because there are some pan-democrats, like Leung Kwok Hung, who are not afraid to play the ground game on the gaai tauh.

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