A Tiny Truth Possibly Neglected
by Lian-Hee Wee
Trash everywhere, nothing appeared to be in order. Yet something was amiss. I trained my eyes on certain details and saw on the ground an unopened packet containing a bun. Beside it was a clean-looking red jacket, some unfinished bottles of water, and battery packs. Clothing and food items were the majority. There was also protective gear like yellow helmets and goggles, some cracked, all used. Many helmets had stickers of Pepe the Frog, the LIHKG Pig, the protest mongoose that symbolises immunity to police venom, and other innocent artworks for justice and freedom. All these were dear items, very important. The youths trapped on campus had communicated that they were running out of food, and water. They had also fended off tear gas, rubber bullets and other powerful weapons. The police continued to besiege the campus. There were no umbrellas. Something was very incongruent.
I shall not belabour the details of how and why I entered the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus, nor shall I expound on the people I met and their stories. On my mind then were two things: the reason I was here, and a silent, very personal, hope. I am afraid I failed both, which are now weights that disqualify my heart from fluttering.
Amidst this messy hallway, a table very clean, with nothing on it but a piece of paper bearing the words “keep clean”. There were used bandages scattered on the floor, and some unopened ones sitting primly on a chair, as if they were Victorian women. It was eerie that the lights were on, that there was air-conditioning when there was no one insight, and all was very quiet. As I walked, the entrance to a toilet slid into my field of view. It was difficult to get into because the floor was covered with the same discarded items that greeted me when I first crossed the barricade into the campus grounds. Both the men’s and women’s doors were propped open. Blue walls, pink walls—the floors indistinguishable. As I peed in the urinal, I notice something amiss again. The receptacles weren’t dirty, not even the toilet bowls. Janitors had not been able to service the campus for some days now. The estimated thousands trapped on campus who used the toilets had a certain conscientiousness.
I found one of the larger canteens. There were many people there, seated at tables, chatting softly or just napping. It gave me the impression of a concentration camp. I tried to make conversation, and asked if anyone knew the people I was trying to locate. Most of them did not know one another, they just knew that they were in this together. A fraternity of strangers with the same love for their city—a spirit of freedom tampered by the rule of law that distinguished Hong Kong from China. Except that, in the present context, law enforcement appeared to know little about the law, and were proud to break it with impunity. The paradoxical nature of the mess persisted—the trash on the ground was not trash.
A boy said he had turned 18 that very day. It must have been surreal for him since it was the same day a new police order took effect: 19 November, everyone over 18 on campus faced arrest and could be charged as rioters.
Really? Youths have a right to be on campus! The police laid siege to a university that had otherwise been buzzing with student activity, albeit uniformly those very critical of the Hong Kong government. Rioters they were not. Yes, they had protective gear. Yes, they have improvised weapons like bricks and catapults. But if you saw how they were dressed, you might conclude differently. Casual tees and denim. I saw some girls in very pretty dresses but with their make-up needing touching up. They held their boyfriends’ hands firmly, not for security, but to offer courage. Rioters? Terrorists? At the time of writing, 11 Hong Kong and Chinese officials are on the US OFAC sanctions list for their crimes against the Hong Kong people.
I walked through the other buildings, storey by storey. The peek windows on some classroom doors were shattered, a necessary destruction to unlock the rooms. Often, if the room had two doors, only one of the windows was broken. All offices appeared intact. Glass on notice boards were not shattered. Student artwork on display remained untouched. Professors’ research postings on the walls had not been vandalised. In some rooms, there was evidence of occupancy: makeshift pillows, blankets, personal belongings, messages sometimes scribbled on walls. “The sentry points are not tourist attractions.” “Careful, uneven ground.”
I found the umbrellas. They were lined along a bridge to make it harder for the police to see who might be crossing. The bridge floor was largely upheaved, barely walkable. The bridge was not going to collapse, but it certainly did not look safe. Walking across it, I had strong lights shone at me from the police below. These flashes were accompanied by the usual shouts of “cockroaches!”—the appellation given by the cops to protesters since 8 September—a Cantonese echo of the language used in Rwanda a quarter of a century earlier. Against the police arsenal, I only saw one archery bow. It was reported that an arrow had buried its head in a cop’s calf muscle; protesters have had eyes put out by “less lethal” weapons, bodies broken by batons and lives ruined by sexual assault at the hands of the police.
Deterred by the inaccessibility of the other end of the bridge, I turned back and found a first-aid station run by Médecins sans frontières. I was surprised because MSF had earlier gotten flak for refusing to help PolyU.
My water ran out, so I made way to the convenience store. It had been broken into. All shelves emptied. A girl offered me a clean paper cup, and I helped myself to some Cola-flavoured Slurpy. A boy who was with her went to give leave some money at the till. He had assumed that people like me would not deign to pay. Ashamed, I insisted that it would be my treat, and put down by own cash ahead of his. The till had not been broken, with lots of cash lying around it. This was no longer newsworthy, since Hongkongers had already done so at MTR stations in June and July when the MTR opened their gates to allow protestors to leave. Alas, the MTR had since decided to align itself with the regime rather than the people it promised to serve.
As I prepared to leave, an MSF doctor gave me a pair of goggles and a yellow helmet. Before I declined, she explained they had been salvaged from the trash on the ground.
So, this is the tiny truth. Contrary to impressions given in news coverage, the damage had largely not been wanton, but careful. Those trapped needed safe resting spaces. Bricks were dug out because everything had to be improvised for defence. “Trash” on the ground was abandoned by those hoping to break through the ambush lines. Gear and other valuables were left behind so that those who remain had resources to survive. I know this, because I saw the girl who gave me the paper cup hastily lighten her bag. As I looked on in helpless dismay, she made me promise to relay her most important secret. If she fell while trying to break out of the siege, I was to inform the “brothers and sisters” on campus where she had hidden the eight gallons of water and 32 bowls of instant ramen she had brought in in the early stages of the police siege.
I failed her. I am still looking for her to say I am sorry I hadn’t been able to pass on her message.
Author’s Note: This piece was written on 17 August 2020. The siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University took place between 17 and 29 November 2019. In reality, police had been harassing PolyU much earlier, probably since late October or early November. 17 November would be when things became destructive.
How to cite: Wee, Lian-Hee. “A Tiny Truth Possibly Neglected.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 18 Aug. 2020, hkprotesting.com/2020/08/18/truth/.
Header photograph © Oliver Farry.
Lian-Hee Wee is a professor of linguistics who imbibed from his teachers the responsibilities of speaking sincerely and truthfully even when licensed by creativity. His libertarian political views are founded on a sense of empirical rationalism that naïvely believes rights and responsibilities apply to all including predator-prey relationship. On his recent 47th (prime number) birthday, he became certain, from what he had seen of the youths of Hong Kong (or anywhere), that there is hope for the future if he and his peers would step aside and help rather than jump forward to lead.