Under the Lion Rock

In case you haven’t seen, this is the banner to top all Occupy Hong Kong banners:

Lion rock

 “I want genuine universal suffrage” Photo credit: Lam Yik Fei, Getty

What’s impressive isn’t just the banner’s size (28 meters long), the creativity of the climbers, or their daredevil energy (see a behind the scenes video here.) All of those are extraordinary, but none as striking as the symbolism behind unfurling it on Lion Rock, a mountain and local landmark that instantly conjures up nostalgia and a powerful yearning for home for countless Hong Kongers abroad.

Much of this has to do with the 80s hit Cantopop song “Under the Lion Rock”, a gentle ballad that speaks to the trials and tribulations of old Hong Kongers who built up the gleaming city from next to nothing in less than half a century. On the far edge of Kowloon, away from the more Westernized, middle-class Hong Kong Island, Lion Rock (yes, it does look like a lion’s head from certain angles) looks down on a dense, sprawling urban jungle that’s still largely working class. It’s the unchanging guardian of the city that saw it grow through the years, from slums and fishing villages to glass towers and shopping malls brimming with Cartiers and Chanels.

Hong Kongers over 50 always say that teenagers today have no idea what their generation went through. And they are right. I know, for one, that my father was brought up in a virtual slum, where the kitchen was communal, had barely any electricity, and was infested with cockroaches. There was one basic shower to share between several families. I know because that was where my grandmother lived, as recently as the ‘80s. Like many others, she ran away from mainland China and settled in the city, building up a life from scratch. I know all this, but it’s an old Hong Kong that was fading by the time I was 10. Creaking old houses and slums gave way to modern public housing. Families were no longer making meals out of tinned fish and plain rice. The economy took off. Many saved up, bought apartments, and drive their kids to school in BMWs.

That rags-to-riches story is what many know as the ‘Hong Kong spirit’. But students today are bolding proclaiming the spirit of their age. The anonymous people behind rock climbing group “Hong Kong Spidies” had this to say about where they got the idea to go up Lion Rock: “The older generation often lectures young people and calls them ‘useless youths’. But in the occupied zones we have seen everyone fighting for democracy and for social justice. They are working even harder than the way Hong Kongers made money in the past. This is the real ‘Hong Kong spirit.’” [my translation)

It’s a thoughtful stunt, and a powerful rebellion against the single-minded capitalist drive that characterised Hong Kong for decades – the kind of materialistic frenzy mainland Chinese cities now see. Who’s calling these kids ignorant or useless?

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What I saw in Hong Kong


I’m back in London after a frenetic two weeks in Hong Kong covering the Occupy protests, and I’ve been trying to collect my thoughts. It’s not been easy. On the one hand I have been constantly reminding myself not to take sides as a journalist and report as objectively as I could. On the other I cannot help but be moved by what I saw in the protest zones, and what is essentially the most significant political event in the recent history of my home city unfold before my eyes.

And so I opt to note down some of the scenes I saw that stayed with me, without (too much) theorizing or commentary. To show, not tell.

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“My parents are crying for me; I am crying for the future”

In Mong Kok, the smaller, grittier offshoot protest site, I saw students and retired men in groups of three or four, sitting on the ground or standing by the pavement, debating heatedly or listening to each other’s stance patiently. They were complete strangers, brought together by what’s happening to Hong Kong. In Admiralty I saw men helping students build new study desks in the main protest zone’s growing ‘study corner’: A makeshift but remarkably well-equipped and organized section of the road where students catch up on their studies as they protest. When I asked one if he was a volunteer, he replied: “I’m just doing what I can to help.” I often saw volunteers and donors wander by, handing out assorted supplies (water, band-aids, cake slices, even socks.)

Every time I visited the protest sites, I saw a spirit of community, of civic engagement, that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in Hong Kong before; at least not on this scale. I have covered Legislative Council elections and taken part in Tiananmen vigils in the past, and been impressed on those occasions by a sense of civic duty rarely seen in the bustling daily life of the city. But those experiences do not come close to matching the atmosphere of determination and defiance in Hong Kong this past month. To me, the initiative of the students, their self-organization, and the outpouring of support for them have been nothing short of astounding.

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I also saw an abundance of creativity and humour. I visited the protest zones about every other day, and every time I found new homemade flyers and art that made me pause for thought or laugh out loud. I took in origami umbrellas, vast and growing post-it message boards, posters both hand-drawn and professional, banners that reference local comedies by Stephen Chow, and numerous artists sketching or displaying their wares. Satire and comics referencing breaking news would appear on the streets in hours. Cheeky shrines and mini altars materialize at the barricades and become more elaborate everyday. Off the streets, not a day went by without at least a few bizarre and amusing snippets from the vibrant local press and social media. They kept us journalists sane, and reminded me how quick-witted Hong Kong people are.

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I’m not saying everything the protesters did was perfect. On the first night of major clashes between students and police in the tunnel outside the government’s headquarters, I spent ages trying to figure out why tensions first flared. I was told it all began when students rushed to confront police over a rumor that a protester had been arrested. I interviewed several protesters the next day; no one knew if the rumor was in fact true. Several said they wished fellow protesters would stay calm and not be so aggressive. Over the past few nights similar scenes of scuffles and chaos repeated themselves on the TV screen, as protesters escalated their tactics to reclaim streets earlier cleared by police. The mood in the newsroom was weary. It seemed to us that the focus had shifted from pro-democracy demands to winning a street battle with police. Meanwhile back in Admiralty, the peaceful main protest zone, student leader Joshua Wong acknowledged that hotheaded protesters insulting or confronting police do not help swing support toward the movement. “Do not forget our original purpose,” leaders urged those gathered.

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What a student told me one morning last week stayed with me. He knew the movement couldn’t go on forever, without public opinion on their side. “But we just can’t bear to leave without getting anything in return,” he said. My heart melted a little, listening to this earnest 21-year-old sitting cross-legged on the concrete, eating a McDonalds burger as he faced off with a line of policemen.

Many Hong Kongers have condemned or dismissed the students as politically naïve troublemakers who have no idea of their actions’ repercussions. That may be true. But supporters say they take part with  赤子之心 (chì zǐ zhī xīn), a Chinese idiom broadly translated as ‘a child’s heart’ or ‘the innocence and kindness of a child’. I realize their dogged pursuit of a better future is unlikely to get anywhere in the short term. But as I keep telling the cynics: To try and fail is better than not trying at all.


“Although there may be disappointment, do not despair”

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What does Hong Kong want?

Over the past few months a popular refrain from those disillusioned about the future of Hong Kong has been making the rounds on social media, newspaper articles, and among friends and family: Hong Kong is dying.

Yesterday that sense of despair, long just a fug of grumbling frustration hovering in the background, burst to the fore. Masses of student protesters fled as the streets of Hong Kong Island, typically filled with luxury cars and men and women in smart suits, choked in noxious clouds of tear gas. Riot police were pictured pointing rifles at civilians (no actual shots were fired, thankfully). My Facebook and Twitter feeds erupted with shocked outrage and condemnations of police brutality. Some posted pictures showing students bruised from the clashes.

What’s going on in Hong Kong, you ask? Don’t Hong Kong people already enjoy much more freedoms than their fellow Chinese across the border in mainland China?

A bit of brief background. A constitution agreed upon between the British and Chinese side before the city’s handover in 1997 guaranteed rights to Hong Kong – freedom of expression, a legal system based on Britain’s, a high degree of self-autonomy – that makes it a Special Administrative Region in China. “Hong Kong people to govern Hong Kong,” as Deng Xiaoping put it. The constitution also says that the city should eventually elect its leader by “democratic procedures”.

In the 17 years since the handover, progress to reach that goal has been dismal. Despite growing demands for reform, Hong Kong’s leaders since 1997 were all selected by a few hundred people and appointed by Beijing. This was supposed to change by 2017, the year when Beijing said Hong Kongers could, for the very first time in its history, get “universal suffrage” and directly vote for their city’s leader.

It was a pretty ambiguous and qualified promise – many questions were raised about how exactly the elections will play out — but a promise nonetheless. That was why Hong Kongers cried foul in August, when Beijing laid down its conditions. A pro-Beijing committee of 1,200 people, representing a tiny proportion of the public, will select a maximum of three nominees before voters get to choose which one becomes leader. Various proposals for more representative nomination, such as by the city’s 60 elected lawmakers, were rejected. It will be “one person, one vote”, but not democracy by most standards.

What’s interesting about recent developments is that it is students, not politicians, who have led the rebellion. Politicians had threatened, but ultimately failed, to launch Occupy Central, the civil disobedience movement aimed at pressuring Beijing to rethink its hard stance on Hong Kong. In any case, Hong Kong’s public has long lost their faith in politicians – a sentiment that is largely the result of a dysfunctioning political system that leaves the Democrats forever in the opposition. Impatient at the stalemate, student leaders called a week of “strikes” from school to make a statement. Students also led the past few days’ sit-ins. Many in the crowd targeted by tear gas on Sunday were teenagers just 17 or 18 years old.

It’s important here to note that many feel the students do not represent the “average” Hong Konger. Locals have been deeply divided about the idea of civil disobedience, and many say the kids belong to the classroom, not the streets. Some call the students troublemakers and say they have no right disrupting the lives of ordinary, hardworking citizens. Others deride their naivety and allege they are simply pawns manipulated by conniving politicians. Many middle-aged, middle-class people (that is, my parents’ generation) side with businesses, which staunchly back social stability over unrest. Hong Kong cannot risk rocking the boat and angering Beijing, they say. Better be pragmatic and tread carefully.

Yet it’s hard to deny two things. The first is that many with a conservative stance have now been moved to support the students after the violent clashes. The second is that it is hard to find a Hong Konger who, however apolitical and pragmatic, can say they are satisfied with how their city is run. In truth, the vague ideal of “democracy” will never move so many people to rebel. Hong Kongers have harbored anger and frustration over a number of socio-economic issues for some time. Skyrocketing property prices deny many a home. A too-cozy relationship between the super-rich and governing officials (the Economist put Hong Kong ahead of Russia in a recently published “crony capitalism index”) is blamed for widespread inequality. An ever-growing influx of mainland Chinese tourists and new immigrants, most bringing a very different culture and lifestyle, left locals outraged because many feel their tiny city – its schools, hospitals, shopping malls, even Disneyland – is now overrun by outsiders. The government, led by a deeply unpopular leader who was selected by a few hundred elites, is widely derided as useless in representing its people. With no solution in sight, opinions were getting increasingly polarized, the tone more pessimistic. “Hong Kong is dying,” many lamented, months before the debate over political reform took an alarming turn this weekend.

At the heart of all this is a belief that “One Country, Two Systems”, the motto coined by Deng, is doomed. Almost two decades after the handover, mainland China and Hong Kong are closer together than ever before on an economic and official level. But the difference in culture and political beliefs seems to be going in the other extreme. Grassroots political movements in the city are stronger than ever. The annual Tiananmen Square vigil, the only one in Chinese territory and the largest in the world, gets more support every year. Hong Kong has clearly not been integrated into the Communist Party’s political doctrine. Instead, it is crying out in defense of its “core values”, the rights that define Hong Kong and differentiate it from any other Chinese city: The right to peaceful protest, transparent and fair institutions allowing people to criticize officials without fear of reprisal, open debate of what kind of government it should have, and genuine participation in civil society.

That, really, is what Hong Kong wants – not independence, or anything close to that. But there is no doubt that anti-Communist sentiments and desires for more representative government in Hong Kong seriously threaten Beijing, which have reportedly censored social media to stop mainlanders from getting wind of the unrest. It would be highly interesting to see what happens come Oct.1, the start of the annual national day celebrations known as “Golden Week”, when hordes of mainland tourists descend on Hong Kong.

Like others I will be closely watching the news with great trepidation to see which way the cards fall. I’m not sure what the protests can achieve, and I don’t feel particularly optimistic about Hong Kong having genuinely democratic party politics any time soon. What I do know for certain is that the current model is government is unworkable and social tensions will not go away as long as calls for reform are ignored. Hong Kong isn’t prepared to go back to its apolitical, capitalism-first past. I am truly gladdened that the city’s young people have something they believe in and are courageous enough to stand up for what they want. That can’t be a bad thing for Hong Kong.

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Thinking about Fashion Revolution Day

Last year, in the days immediately following news of the Bangladesh factory collapse tragedy, a BBC crew went out to a Primark branch to gauge whether the disaster made shoppers pause to reconsider where they go to buy the latest in trendy clothing. Even then, with the tragedy still so fresh, the response was lukewarm. Yes, most people agreed that large Western-based clothing chains must have responsibility in ensuring workers’ safety. But ultimately, many shoppers still want to get the most bang for their buck – indeed prioritising low prices over quality or anything else – and they’re not going to stop shopping at Primark any time soon. I say this without judgment, because I too am guilty of often falling for the same temptation.

A year on, some in the fashion industry are marking the anniversary with what they call Fashion Revolution Day. It’s part of a larger campaign (fashionrevolution.org) to get consumers to think about the people and the processes behind the pair of jeans or the T-shirt they’re bringing to the till. There’s much to praise about the movement. One of the most striking things that emerged out of Bangladesh was the difficulty in establishing which brands or chain stores were actually linked to the garments being made in that factory. What came to mind, when I read this, was the horse meat scandal, where an equally complex and global supply chain with dozens of middlemen and agents made it extra hard for investigators to pin point exactly where things went wrong. The campaign cannot hope to untangle this problem right away, but it is at the very least drawing our attention to its existence.
Fair trade is now firmly established in the food industry, and there is no reason why something similar can’t take hold in the fashion world. Of course, the parallels aren’t exact. For a start, food is needed for sustenance; fashion isn’t. But in both cases the ethics are not black and white, and there are no easy answers. More expensive doesn’t necessarily mean more ethical. Forcing countries to enforce standards can rob workers of their living, where any living is better than no living. And ethical fashion, like talk about ethical food, can sound like the concern of bleeding heart middle classes, quite irrelevant to those not so comfortably off. Most people probably can’t be bothered to think too hard about buying a pair of socks.
Vogue UK, I think, considered some of these and other questions admirably. For example: “Suppliers aren’t used to this level of scrutiny and fear of losing business can give rise to greater corruption, while brands wishing to disassociate themselves from the corrosive PR of an inhumane supply chain are often reticent about joining the discussion.” And also: “We could stop buying cheap clothes altogether – but a morally high handed boycott isn’t going to do any good for people in developing countries who will lose their jobs as a result of it, or those in developed countries earning minimum wage for whom a £5 pair of jeans is the difference between drudgery and some semblance of materialistic pleasure. It’s the ethics of businesses we’re buying from that we have to campaign for, as well as keeping own morals in check.” (Read more of it here).
Still, you can’t go wrong with buying less and thinking more about each item of clothing we buy. As I walked down Oxford Street today it was thought provoking to see that while a small group of protesters gathered outside Addidas to question the brand’s responsibility in workers’ wages in China, a short distance away teenagers eager for a cheap wardrobe update were queueing outside Primark. That is likely the way it will continue to be for a while, but it’s heartening to know that subtle changes of attitude aren’t so far away.
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The Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography

I was very excited this week to receive in my inbox a PDF copy of my contributing article to the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography, a new 1,700-page volume of essays introducing the lives and times of more than 100 important Chinese historical figures. That ranges from ancient emperors and philosophers to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. My chosen subject is Liang Qichao, the political writer, journalist and reform activist whose life spanned the late years of the Qing dynasty to the early and turbulent years of the Chinese republic.

I’d worked on this a couple years back, and seeing the PDF of the published chapter is the next best thing to holding a copy of the volume in my hands. (I’m double excited because although I’ve published many an article in newspapers, magazines and on websites, I believe this is the first time I’ve published in an actual book.)

In Hong Kong, where I grew up, Liang’s name is known to almost every school child. He is best-known for his involvement in the efforts to reform Qing rule in the last decade or so of the 19th century; the ‘Hundred Days Reform’, led by Liang’s mentor Kang Youwei, is required reading in every Chinese history textbook. Yet revisiting the subject and diving deeper into Liang’s beliefs and writings, I found many new discoveries about his work to be impressed with. He was certainly one of the first Chinese intellectuals of his time to write about Western-style democracy and the people’s rights. To me, his searching and at times tormented questions about China’s political future are surprisingly relevant a century on. His observations about nationalism and his musings about the weaknesses of the Chinese national psyche, too, at times struck me as deeply as if he were writing in this day and age.

I’d encourage anyone with an interest in Chinese history to look up his writings. The link below opens a pdf of my chapter (all copyright to Berkshire Publishing and to myself; please cite if using). Enjoy!

(Pdf file: liang-qichao)


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Oldest-known Holocaust survivor dies at age 110

Sad news yesterday: Alice Herz-Sommer, a pianist widely believed to be the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, died in London at age 110.

Herz-Sommer, her husband and her son were sent from Prague in 1943 to a concentration camp in the Czech city of Terezin — Theresienstadt in German — where inmates were allowed to stage concerts in which she frequently starred.

An estimated 140,000 Jews were sent to Terezin and 33,430 died there. About 88,000 were moved on to Auschwitz and other death camps, where most of them were killed. Herz-Sommer and her son, Stephan, were among fewer than 20,000 who were freed when the notorious camp was liberated by the Soviet army in May 1945.

Yet she remembered herself as “always laughing” during her time in Terezin, where the joy of making music kept them going.

“These concerts, the people are sitting there, old people, desolated and ill, and they came to the concerts and this music was for them our food. Music was our food. Through making music we were kept alive,” she once recalled.

“When we can play it cannot be so terrible.”

Read more about her extraordinary life in the rest of our obituary here. An inspiring story, if there ever was one.

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It’s all Greek … or not?

I’ve no idea why Greek yogurt is so big these days. It’s just yogurt, but thicker. Or so it seems – lawyers will tell me I’m completely wrong.

Turns out that according to two British courts, Greek yogurt has to be made in Greece to qualify as such. Thick, creamy, but not from Greece? It can only be legally called ‘strained yogurt’ – at least in Britain.

Here’s today’s story documenting the Court of Appeal’s ruling in the Chobani v. Fage (better known as Total in the UK) intellectual property rights case.

LONDON (AP) — It’s not all Greek to yogurt makers.

A British court has ruled that Chobani, the company leading the burgeoning Greek yogurt market in the U.S., cannot label its products “Greek” in the U.K. because they are made in America.

Chobani said Wednesday it was disappointed with the ruling, but added that “the fight is not over” and it would continue the legal battle.

The court case was brought by Chobani’s rival Fage, a Greek company, soon after New York-based Chobani launched their products in the U.K. in 2012. Fage has dominated sales of Greek yogurt in Britain under the “Total” brand for decades.

(The full version can be read here.)

On a related food product protection note, Nestle and Cadbury are locked in a separate IP case regarding whether the shape of a KitKat bar can be protected. It’s hard to imagine how four fingers of chocolate can be a trademark, and I haven’t yet read the details, but Bloomberg has a brief story outlining that intriguing case here.

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