By: Albert Au
This story is part of Paradigma’s Global Voices series- a platform to give Paradigma a bold, defined and global perspective through a personal voice.
July 1st commemorates the handover of Hong Kong as a former British colony to the People’s Republic of China. But instead of celebrating with fireworks at Victoria’s Harbor this year, thousands flooded the streets dressed in black. It was as if the people of Hong Kong were about to collectively grieve upon the death of someone so dear to them. Thousands marched in the midst of humidity to collectively protest against the Hong Kong government’s highly controversial extradition bill.
Earlier this year, the Hong Kong government proposed a bill that would allow anyone residing in Hong Kong, regardless of citizenship, to be ‘handed over’ and tried using the laws and courts of Macau, Taiwan, and troublingly, Mainland China – whose legal system is still under the control of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This would also erode the legal and cultural autonomies that Hong Kong has enjoyed for many years.
The movement against the extradition bill occurred throughout the year but only intensified in early June — one that also called for the resignation of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, for endorsing the bill. Though the protests were largely non-violent in nature, on June 12th it concluded with police officers dispersing the crowd using tear gas, pepper spray, and batons. After June 12th, videos showcasing police brutality featuring the excessive force used upon unarmed protestors continued to swarm news channels and social media, the movement was catalyzed further.
I moved to Hong Kong for work on June 25th. When I arrived, my father was standing stiff, gazing into the Television as they highlighted clips of policemen dragging and beating up protestors. I sensed an uneasy silence as I dragged my luggage across the room. Still motionless with his arms on his waist, my father then broke the silence with a low commanding voice, ‘JANGAN pergi ke Wan Chai ya, lewatin Wan Chai sama gak boleh, Papa sudah bilangin ya’- which roughly translates to ‘Stay out of Wan Chai at all costs’, which was where the protests were concentrated.
But as someone who is drawn to social movements, being a part of something as huge as the Hong Kong protests was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I made a conscious decision to do the one thing my dad specifically forbade me to do.
“I felt a profound connection with the people of Hong Kong, as if I was finally one of them”
On my commute to the protest meeting point at Causeway Bay MTR, everyone was wearing black and talking to each other. Everyone irrespective of age, sex, ethnicity, was doing so – to a point where I wasn’t able to distinguish between strangers or friends. The congested train felt strangely alive and for the first time, I felt a profound connection with the people of Hong Kong, as if I was finally one of them.
The moment I reached the surface, friendly faces turned serious, building a much somber vibe altogether.
And so for around three kilometers, we shouted 香港人加油 or ‘Semangat/ Jia You Orang Hong Kong’ until our lungs gave in. Many held flashy posters up – condemning police brutality, denouncing the classification of the protests as ‘riots’, and the resignation of the Chief executive.
Throughout the street, many were atop trucks and stages– giving emotional and absolutely dramatic speeches. There was a spectrum of emotions from grief to anger to excitement, mixed with a flurry and simultaneous chants, cheering, speeches, and outcries.
After arriving home all sweaty and dehydrated, my phone was filled with notifications from social media. Word of me joining the protest spread as quick as a forest fire among my family and friends both in Hong Kong and Indonesia. Most of them were concerned about my wellbeing; others like my mom chided me for risking my safety.
But everyone questioned why I participated. Born to a Hong Kongnese father and Chinese Indonesian mother, I do not speak Cantonese, and therefore did not understand most of the slogans, speeches and banners.
I once also did not understand why South Vietnamese monks willingly burned themselves to death to protest against an authoritarian government. Why people of varied backgrounds decided to occupy Manhattan’s financial district for months on end. Or even why a lady in Burma had the courage to walk up to a line of armed soldiers pointing their rifles towards her, just so that she could convince them to lower their arms.
When I entered a state university in Jogja as a first year — Universitas Gadjah Mada — joining a social movement, particularly in Indonesia (with Pribumi-s/ non-Chinese people) was the last thing on my mind. I grew up believing Chinese Indonesians like myself didn’t have a place in Indonesian society. We live in sealed and guarded complexes– spent our time in places popular amongst Chinese Indonesians and grew up discouraged from using public transport. And so I learned to keep my mouth shut tight and to either flee to Singapore or lock myself in the house the very minute anything political starts to surface.
But that all changed when a friend of mine introduced me to a movie called “GIE” in 2017. A movie on Soe Hok Gie, a young Chinese Indonesian political activist back in the 1960s. Watching and reading about Gie was like staring at the mirror for hours. Not only did I see myself in Gie, but I also saw what could be if I did not let my “minority” status stop me from helping others. And so I start focusing less on what I am, and more about what I know and how I can contribute.
Gone were the insecurities of “What if they don’t listen to me because I’m Chinese?” or “What if I get hated on instead of being listened to?” Having attended an international school growing up, I wasn’t fluent in speaking/writing Bahasa, but I still religiously read about our nation’s history and politics. I made my intentions clear: I want to help.
The repertoire of using my former ‘disabilities’ as my newfound source of strength pushed me to become involved in various grassroots movements and organizations – of which most if not all had nothing to do with me.
I joined 7000 students outside my main university building from dusk till dawn to protest against the ambiguous increase in school fees.
I stood with survivors — many of them 70 years old and older — of the 1965 Indonesian communist purge as they hold banners exclaiming ‘#menolaklupa’ [never forget] or portraits of their missing loved ones.
Together with a handful of other students and lecturers, we began an on-campus movement – #kitaAGNI (we are AGNI) that quickly became nationwide news after a fellow student was raped and denied access to not only her rights but also the truth, as she was blamed by campus authorities in every way. (Note: Agni is the alias of the Universitas Gajah Mada student who was raped)
The truth is, I too used to repeatedly quarrel with the notion of “What’s in it for me if I join?’ or “Everyone in the movement looks so experienced, how will I even help if I join?”
But instead of feeding those thoughts, I asked myself: “Will I be willing to live with the shame and regret of deciding not to help despite fully capable of doing so? Will I be fulfilled with the decision of prioritizing my own petty needs above those whose lives are at stake?”
I’ve learned to become resilient, fearless, selfless and deeply compassionate after risking everything for what I thought was for the greater good. Being able to say “I help to make that happen” brings me an unparalleled sense of fulfillment and achievement. That is something I would have never experienced if I had lived my life content inside my comfort zone.
Albert Au is a social activist and risk analyst based in Hong Kong. He graduated from Universitas Gadjah Mada in 2019 with a degree in International Relations with a concentration in Peace Studies.
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