It’s been more than nine months since one could walk unhindered through the area under the HSBC headquarters. Before October 15 last year the area was mostly unoccupied, except on Sundays when domestic helpers met for a boisterous rendezvous.
Then the Occupy Central campaigners moved in. The site became a community, drawing anti-capitalists, homeless people and travellers who set up tents and stayed. They trucked in the comforts of daily life, such as couches, desks, gas cookers, lamps, African drums, airport trolleys and a bookcase with tomes such as Noam Chomsky’s Understanding Power and Bertrand Russell’s Human Knowledge.
Now, HSBC has decided it is time to claim back the site, which is the bank’s property but was designated a public passage in an agreement with the government in 1983. The bank has filed a lawsuit with the High Court seeking the right to evict the occupiers.
The case has been adjourned to August 13 to allow the occupiers to file their defence.
So what are these people campaigning for?
“The anti-capitalist ideas we promote have inspired some people to reflect on the problems of capitalism,” says campaigner Jojo Wong, 22, who works part time in a bookshop and is a freelance graphic designer.
She says the problems of capitalism in Hong Kong boil down to injustices such as the power of property developers and big conglomerates and an uneven distribution of wealth.
Tiv Wong, 27, a freelance corporate videographer who joined the movement at the start, says: “In Hong Kong, there is no fair access to resources for ordinary people. There are a lot of injustices because of capitalism. We care about society and we’re here to fight capitalism.”
On October 15, Tiv Wong joined 300 demonstrators, including young social activists and “Lehman Brothers victims”, at Exchange Square to protest against capitalism, and specifically against an array of issues such as the Mandatory Provident Fund and nuclear energy.
The protest was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Zuccotti Park, New York.
Wong used to think it made sense for everybody to focus on making money and buying a flat. But the demonstration changed her outlook. That evening she followed the demonstrators to the HSBC headquarters, where some pitched tents and slept overnight.
The number of campers grew and peaked at more than 200. Today, there are about 10 living full time at the site, mostly homeless people and travellers. Another 10-odd core members of the movement, mostly young professionals such as Wong, visit several times a week.
Tiv Wong says the occupiers’ initial objective was to “experiment with small-scale co-governance”. To that end they held weekly group discussions on ideology and action plans. They took a loudspeaker to the street during Christmas, calling for shoppers to think about the meaning of consumerism. They hosted gift giveaways, screened films and ran a “free school” that taught everything from yoga to the history of hip-hop music.
“We can’t quantify how many people have been inspired by the movement, but a lot of things have grown out of it, and our ideas have somehow spread to some people in the community,” Jojo Wong says.
Alan Chiu, 48, who is homeless and a former information technology administrator, sleeps at the camp every night. He is certain of the merits of the movement.
“You can say the impact has not been substantial, but this movement serves as a good starting point. It has provided a foundation for people to reflect on capitalism in this financial city,” Chiu says.
“We’re somewhat like the Paris Commune [a left-wing movement that controlled Paris in 1871]. Everyone shoulders some duties and selflessly fights for a cause.”
The camp has always welcomed homeless people, including some introduced by an American volunteer who arrived every midnight with food donated by Kowloon shops.
“It’s entirely right for this place to accommodate the homeless,” Tiv Wong says. “These are people who are looked at with contempt by society. It’s not that they don’t want to work. They just can’t afford the high rent in Hong Kong.”
Travellers with no particular political cause also came to the camp. Brad Taylor, 42, an American, stayed recently. “It’s a good place for travellers to exchange information on what’s going on in the world,” says Taylor, a product developer.
“People are waking up all over the world. I am delighted they’re here,” Taylor says. “But I feel they could have been more organised. I asked them what alternative they had if they wanted to tear down the current system. They couldn’t answer. They’re upset at the way things are going and they feel like they should protest. It can’t hurt.”
But not everyone is appreciative. Homeless Englishman Leo Head, 62, who was introduced to the plaza by an American volunteer six weeks ago, is not impressed. “It’s like anarchy here,” he says. “It’s all a game. The boys and girls come here to jam and laugh. I’d call it a youth club. It’s not an adult organisation. What have they achieved?”
Head, a former actor from Brighton, has no qualms about the HSBC’s plan to clear the space. “The whole thing is an eyesore,” he says. “The other night an unknown gentleman came and upturned everything. I can see it’s going to finish, whatever it was. No one is supporting it.”
There is some truth to those words. Occupy Central’s Facebook page has 6,100 fans; substantially fewer than the 33,000 Facebook fans for Scholarism, the teen organisation that campaigns against the national education curriculum.
A banker who passes by the Occupy Central site every day says the campaigners’ problem is that they are detached from the system they are fighting.
“We need people like them to remind us of the problems related to big corporations. But I’m not sure how much influence they can have if they stay outside the system. It may be more effective if one is within an organisation,” says the banker, who declined to be named.
Tiv Wong says the movement is relevant – it conveys a message that Hongkongers need to hear.
“I think we’re cast as a group of lazybones and a waste of life. But do we all have to work 12 hours a day? If resources were allocated more fairly, people wouldn’t have to work so many hours,” she says.
“What we’re promoting is something off the mainstream. It takes time to find acceptance in Hong Kong. Just give us some time.”
Published in Money Post on 6 August 2012