It was day one of the student strike.
The atmosphere on campus was electrifying, buoyed by a sense of excitement and expectancy. The hallway crowds were noticeably thinner, lecture halls conspicuously emptier. A friend marveled that his morning lecture had just one or two locals show up, the rest a handful of hapless exchange students.
That afternoon, thousands of students flocked to the main rally venue at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Boycott organisers, academics and pro-democracy leaders gave rousing speeches to the captivated participants, who sat for hours under the sweltering sun. At 2:20 p.m., a leader of the biggest student organisation stepped up to the microphone, officially declaring the start of the class boycott.
When I met a new friend who was planning to attend the rally that evening, I jumped at the chance to tag along.
We took a train down to Chinese University in the late afternoon. Upon stepping out of the station, I was greeted by the sight of a miniature Statue of Liberty. The bronze figurine of Libertas was clutching the tablet of law in one hand, a raised torch in the other. Yet a black cloth had been thrown over her crowned head and barricade tape strung across her shoulders. A huge signboard proclaimed: “Do not cross…”
It was a rather foreboding sign, one which the students evidently wanted to express with regards to the selection of their chief executive.
The sun was starting to set as we made our way towards the main square. Having thinned out considerably since noontime, the remaining participants were sitting or standing about, solemnly listening to the discussions on democracy. They were decked out in their signature white and yellow, or clad in shirts shouting democratic slogans–a Gandhian quote on a boy’s back pronounced “an unjust law is itself a species of violence; civil disobedience is the inherent right of the citizen”; another had on a Guy Fawkes’ shirt that declared, “Beneath this mask, there is an idea–and ideas are bulletproof.”
All this took my breath away. After all, it was my first time witnessing political activism on such an immediate and massive scale, let alone one organised by 15- and 16-year-olds. (What did I care about back when I was their age? How to part my fringe so that it’d fall fashionably across my forehead, leveling up my fire-poison wizard on MapleStory, getting the attention of that boy across the classroom…)
As I observed them, I couldn’t help but wonder: Would us Singaporean students ever arrive at such a stage, where we would willingly sacrifice the concrete rewards of obedience, the assurance of good grades, and the stability of our future careers for a faint glimmer of hope such as this?
26 September. On Friday, the student strike shifted to the square outside the Legislative Council’s Complex and a nearby avenue.
Youths passed out flyers, yellow ribbons, and rubber wristbands inscribed with the words “Brace Up for Democracy, With Love & Peace”. Hundreds of students sat or milled about Civic Square, listening to the ongoing discussions, holding up banners of protest, and even doing their homework (they were, after all, missing classes).
High above their heads, the crimson flags of the Mainland and Special Administrative Region fluttered in the wind, each blending into and becoming indistinguishable from the other. An old man wearing a red cap stopped to scold some of the participants, who looked on at him with bemused smiles. Another elderly man in white came to their rescue with a sharp-tongued retort, which was met with a burst of laughter and delighted applause from the youngsters. On the ground was a huge printed placard of Chief Executive Leung’s face, bearing vampire-like fangs and cartoonish evil eyes. A bespectacled girl and a grey-haired woman sitting nearby welcomed my friends and me to borrow books from a stack propped up next to them. Their covers displayed their symbolic importance–they were on legal systems, good governance and democratic practices. (I spotted a Lee Kuan Yew biography in the midst of them.)
As we passed a corner, we were greeted by the sight of hundreds of youngsters sitting cross-legged on the pavement beside the Council building, listening to a tall, lanky youth giving an impassioned speech. Policemen stood beside metal barricades walling the students in, so that they wouldn’t spill out onto the streets. They eyed us warily as they signaled for us to keep on walking. The students hollered in solidarity, pumping their fists in the air as their leader reached the climax of his monologue.
In retrospect, one can remark that 26 September was the pinnacle of the student movement.
It was before the intensifying illegalities, the clashes between the protestors and police, the violence and batons. It was before tear gas was fired at hundreds of youths, before the umbrella emerged as a political icon, before the rippling effects of anger and disbelief brought on wave after wave of Hong Kongers out onto the streets in defiant solidarity. It was when the student movement was at its peak, when those around me could still talk about it with bright-eyed idealism and hopefulness.
It was before I woke up one day to find that Hong Kong had changed overnight. And whether for better or worse still remains to be seen.