*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the protestors.
I have a lot of memories from Hong Kong’s year of chaos. I vividly recall the pang of being tear-gassed for the first time, and the surprise I felt when it induced nausea. I also remember being petrified when an explosion shook the air around me in Mong Kok.
The strongest memories, however, were not of conflict but hope. Following one protest, as I was standing waiting for a ferry, I found myself humming Glory to Hong Kong. Upon hearing this, an old Hong Konger turned to me, smiled, then nodded his head in appreciation. During the siege of the Hong Kong universities, a cry went out for people to donate provisions, and whole blocks of Kowloon were filled with people contributing everything from tampons to petrol.
For me, the protests were not about violence, but ordinary people fighting for the future and soul of their home. Nothing highlighted this to me more than a BBQ restaurant in Mong Kok. On Saturday 2 November, with Mong Kok swamped as it ever was with angry residents demanding democracy, I met Richard, a Hong Konger who introduced me to Kowloon BBQ and helped me understand his home.
Richard, like most protesters, is not only brave and intelligent, but unflinchingly kind. Having been involved from the start of the protest movement, he trained as a medic, hoping to aid injured colleagues. He was well acquainted with Kowloon BBQ, having helped to save the life of the chef many years ago – a bond that unsurprisingly lasts to this day.
Kowloon BBQ is the smallest restaurant I’ve ever been to. The kitchen is open and no larger than that in a dai pai dong, the chef is always buzzing about, in a vest and sport shorts with a cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth, making the sort of things that Hong Kongers live on – noodles, barbequed meats, and fried vegetables all smothered in sweet or spicy sticky sauces. The smells and sounds of sizzling Cantonese food are ever-present in the humid air of the restaurant.
The couple who run the restaurant greet everyone with a smile and a joke. Customers often stay put for hours on end, eating a little too much, drinking a lot too much, and discussing life. The restaurant like many in Hong Kong belongs to the loosely formed yellow economic circle. Yellow being Pro-Democracy, blue being pro-China. It was in this sweaty, chaotic, and friendly place that I began to understand what Hong Kong means to Hong Kongers.
Drawn in by the support the owners had for the protests, the restaurant was always full of interesting characters and buzzing with the latest gossip about the movement. The walls displayed protest slogans and sketches of mascots and activists. Writing on the wall compelled customers to ‘add oil’ and fight in ‘the revolution of our times’.
In this setting, I’ve had my most human interactions with ‘professional’ protesters. Richard introduced me to a protester, Wong, who was in charge of a ‘troop’. His responsibility was to command a small band of protesters, who would be asked to vandalise certain Chinese owned businesses or create roadblocks on specific streets. Being caught involved using such aggressive protest tactics would inevitably lead to a long prison sentence. Many of Wong’s colleagues have been arrested or fled to Taiwan.
Through conversations with Richard and Wong, I realised the intricacy of the protest movement. Wong was part of a small telegram group, in which targets were chosen and plans laid out. The protesters were leaderless, like a school of mackerel guiding each other. Telegram groups became the nervous-system of the movement.
As I raised concerns about elements of the protests, I realised they were more considerate than if viewed externally. One day, after a large protest, I witnessed an old man in a wheelchair trying to enter the MTR. Protesters had firebombed the elevator leading into the station meaning disabled access was no longer available. The man waited a long time and had to be physically carried into the station. Even though I supported the movement, it was hard in that moment to internally defend actions that had disproportionately impacted the elderly and disabled.
I retold this story to Richard, ‘I agree, actually this is very sad’, he admitted. He explained how a message was circulating on many telegram groups imploring people not to damage disabled access points. The protesters’ focus was to improve people’s lives, and he said, where possible, protesters made each other aware when they hurt their fellow Hong Kongers too much.
Often, late at night, tables would be pushed together as customers and staff shared a hot-pot. It was not angry thoughts that focused the conversations on these nights. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions would deplore how the Hong Kong governments responded to the crisis. However, talk would quickly move to how those in the restaurant could assist the elderly in finding masks or help street cleaners, who were often wearing the same mask for days on end.
More often than not, conversations led away from protesting and politics altogether. Conversations would float to pop culture, or even my failed attempts at Cantonese – I would often provide entertainment by cursing loudly “Diu Lei Lou Mo!” “Puk Gaai”. Despite arrested friends, and an increasingly strict hand of the law, the sound that emanates from Kowloon BBQ most nights is not shouting or crying, but laughter.
On my last visit there I discovered that the young delivery boy and girl, both only 14 years old, were out on bail having been arrested for protesting. More recently, I found out that the owner of the establishment was being harassed by the authorities due to the restaurant’s yellow ties. In truth, it will be harder for restaurants like Kowloon BBQ to exist and continue to have the character for which they are known. Vocal satire and dissent are now all but banned in Hong Kong, but as long as bars and restaurants like Kowloon BBQ still exist, Hong Kong’s soul will continue to live on.
Photo Caption: Hong Kong protests (Credit: Studio Incendo via Flickr).