Around the World: Escape From Hong Kong

Jun 9, 2020Non-fiction, Travel, True Stories, Writing

In my previous post I detailed some of my experiences during my short stay in Hong Kong in October 2019.

I mentioned that my timing for going there had perhaps not been wise. Even before I flew out from Amsterdam the news had been full of coverage of the protests occurring in the city.

What I hadn’t realised was my last day in Hong Kong coincided with the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.

That was when all hell broke loose.

In the days leading up to this the protests had been sporadic. The epi-centre had been in the business district on Hong Kong Island. I had ventured there on one occasion to see the aftermath. I went into this in the previous post.

However, on the other side of the bay where I was staying in Kowloon everything had been peaceful.

This all changed on the day of the Chinese celebrations.

Taking to the Streets

I was following progress of the goings-on using an online feed set up by the protestors. It gave minute-by-minute details of activities in the city. Particularly, incidents where police aggression was prevalent.

My hotel advised me against going out, but I thought, ‘When am I ever going to see this sort of thing first hand?’ So I took to the streets.

Although, a nearby metro station had been ramshackled, the streets were decidedly calm.

A little too calm.

I visited a street market where it seemed to be business as usual. Then I moved over to the next block and stumbled upon Nathan Road.

Nathan Road Deserted

Nathan Road is one of the main arteries in the city. Normally packed with people and traffic, it was virtually deserted. To my surprise I could walk down the middle of the six lane road without being hit by a moving vehicle. Mainly because there were none.

I wasn’t completely alone.

I came face to face with the protestors. Clad in black, wearing masks to hide their faces and carrying their weapon of choice—the umbrella—they were everywhere.

Among Protestors

Travelling in a group of twenty they assembled around a nearby traffic light. Using their umbrellas as shields against the prying eyes of surveillance cameras they cut through the wiring. They then proceeded to the next traffic light and did the same.

I asked a passerby what was happening. He said that further down the street the protestors were going up against police. Where I was standing was essentially a sort of no man’s land behind the front lines.

No one seemed to be in a hurry. There was no panic. It was almost tranquil.

Hong Kong Traffic Lights

The protestors were well organised.

Apart from the black-clad amateur electricians, there were groups of first-aiders wearing big red crosses and groups labelled as press. Most of them carried walkie-talkies.

These people were not rioters, they were clearly a force to be reckoned with.

Further down the street I heard gun shots. Later I read an 18-year-old had been shot in the chest at point blank range by police about 300 metres from where I was standing.

Time to get out of there!

Out of the City

I quickly made my way back to my hotel. Not only had traffic signals been targeted, but the protestors had also systematically shut down all public transport. There were queues of empty buses blocking the side-streets. The only barricades to prevent them moving were flimsy at best.

It was as if everyone was partaking in a standstill. The barricades were only symbolic.

Meanwhile in Beijing the might of the Chinese army was being paraded through the streets. Along with the pageantry of thousands of flag- waving synchronised dancers.

A far cry from what was being celebrated in Hong Kong which was essentially: autonomy.

Hong Kong Standstill

Then I had to figure out a way to get to the airport.

With no public transport I managed to book the last available hotel shuttle bus. To both the surprise of the driver and myself, I was the only passenger.

Somehow he managed to negotiate his way out of the city going the wrong way down one-way streets. Once we hit a main road the city seemed in chaos. I saw a metro station in flames, long queues of what I presume were other airline passengers waiting with their suitcases for a bus which wasn’t likely to arrive, and the occasional police roadblock.

To heighten the whole experience for me, the driver drove like a manic. It really felt like I was in a thriller movie escaping Hong Kong.

The airport itself was cordoned off with barriers and I could only get in with my valid ticket and passport. It’s the only time I’ve ever been searched before I’ve entered an airport.

Once I passed through customs I was stopped by a young man with a tablet in his hand.

‘Oh, no,’ I thought. ‘What now?’

An Interview

‘I’m from the tourism board,’ he said. ‘Would you like to share your experiences in Hong Kong?’

I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. How bizarre can this get?’

‘Sure,’ I said, still shaking from the adrenaline rush of the bus ride.

He ran through a few standard questions before asking about my experiences in the city.

I began to tell him about what I had just witnessed. He put a finger to his lips to silence me and told me with his eyes that we were being recorded.

I played along. I told him about all the wonderful sights I’d seen. He duteously tapped in my responses.

At the end of the interview he shut down his tablet. ‘Sorry about that. They’re listening. What’s really happening in the city?’ he enquired excitedly.

Hong Kong Protest Poster

I told him everything I had seen. He was jealous. He replied that he wished he could be there now, but unfortunately had to work. He was only 16. He feared for the future of his country. And he feared for the future of himself and his generation with the growing influence of China.

The only option he saw was to fight.

I recalled the faces above the masks in the city and realised they were just like him. The majority of the protestors in Hong Kong were not adults. They were teenagers. One of them had already taken a bullet. It did not daunt them. They were afraid of the unknown which was coming. They weren’t willing to stand by and wait for it to arrive.

They had to act now. Before it was too late.

Even now, months later, the fight is still going on. China is continuing to try to restrict the freedom of the people of Hong Kong.

Not only there, but similar battles are now being fought in streets all over the world. I sense a tide turning.

As I did then, I wish him well.

I hope that we all have the courage to stand against tyranny, inequality, and injustice, wherever it prevails.

In my next post I set my sights on sunnier shores.

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