Among the tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters who are sweeping through the streets of Hong Kong are scores of former Vancouver residents. Three of them share their first-hand accounts of the Occupy Central protests with Andrea Woo.
Maggie Lee, 31, was born in Hong Kong but moved to Canada as a child. She attended the University of British Columbia, majoring in food science, and in 2006 returned to her place of birth, where she now works as a scientist. Ms. Lee said that while she supported the Occupy Central movement, she initially did not feel compelled to action – until she saw that Joshua Wong, the baby-faced 17-year-old leader of a student movement, had been arrested.
"In the beginning, we didn't know what to do. These kids were being grabbed off the street by policemen. They're only kids, in high school or in university. [My friends and I were] on the fence at that point because we don't really feel like we belong here in Hong Kong – because we grew up abroad – but we feel for them because we know that this is not right. They were protesting in peace and being removed in violence. We were feeling for them. All of a sudden, we learned tear gas had been released. That was the breaking point when most Hong Kong people took to the streets. I think a lot of the people just couldn't stand it any more. When they heard that, they couldn't take it any more. They realized the government had gone too far. A lot of people started walking the streets with cling wrap and lab goggles and disposable raincoats. They didn't know how to protect themselves against tear gas."
Jackie Chan, 36, was born in Hong Kong and lived in Vancouver from the late 1980s until the early 2000s. A Simon Fraser University graduate, Mr. Chan has since moved back to Hong Kong, where he works in sales and marketing. After seeing news footage of riot police firing tear gas at protesters, he ventured out around midnight, wanting both to support the student protesters and see whether what he saw on television reflected the reality of the situation.
"From what I saw [in Mong Kok], police were calm. They didn't use any violence at all. Unfortunately, some of the crowd was taking advantage of it. I think they were being quite aggressive, trying to intimidate police in a couple of cases. There was one incident – I didn't see the whole thing develop, but I saw part of it – where three or four police officers were trying to direct traffic and people would keep storming in. The police were asking the crowd to move away, so the cars and motorbikes could pass, and people were jumping on the opportunity and just storming them, saying 'Why don't you just shoot me' and making crazy statements like that. There were probably 100 people surrounding the three or four police officers.
"I was quite impressed by a couple of things, though. There were a couple of students making announcements, managing the crowds quite well. On the other side of the road, there was a parked police car and a couple of guys had climbed up and were sitting on top of it. The student organizers told them to get down and they did, which was good. We didn't want any trouble. They managed the crowds quite well. There were also water and supply stations managed, again, by the kids, which I thought were quite well organized."
Kelvin Chui, 37, is a former Vancouverite and Simon Fraser University graduate who now operates a trading company in Hong Kong and a shoe factory elsewhere in China. After learning about the escalation of the Occupy Central movement, he decided to show his support by joining protesters at the Central Government Offices in Admiralty.
"It was impossible to get into the office because there were so many people and people just kept arriving. I gave up on that and went to Admiralty Centre and sat there for about 30 minutes, with what I thought was 400, 500 people. After that the organizers told us they were planning to march to Connaught Road Central [a major thoroughfare in Central] to support people there, so I followed. When I did, I found out there were not 500 people, but more than 1,000. I don't know where they came from. We went toward Central and arrived at Cotton Tree Drive, where the organizers told us to stay for a while. That's where we were met with a lot of police, [but] I don't think they knew what to do to stop us from crossing the street. They were not that aggressive at that moment – no weapons, no pepper spray. We stayed there for another 30 minutes and then marched to Connaught Road Central to join the main force. I felt the urgency. It's really difficult to just sit at home, watching and knowing all this. I'm pretty sure there weren't enough people to make the movement successful, at that moment, I hope my presence will make some difference."