March of history

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 January, 2004, 12:00am

In 1989, I was in London when Beijing declared martial law, which was followed two weeks later by the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Thus, I missed the one million-strong marches in Hong Kong. Last July, I was in Morocco when more than 500,000 people took to the streets to oppose Article 23 legislation, and so again missed a historic event. So, as January 1 approached, I was determined that, this time, I would march for democracy.

After having lunch at the Park Lane Hotel, I arrived at Victoria Park promptly at 3pm, only to find hundreds of other people outside the entrance. The police said that the grassy area where we were supposed to congregate was already full, and so led us to a different part of the park to wait. As the crowds entered the park, picnicking Filipino maids had to move to make way for the demonstrators.

It was a varied crowd. There was a woman with sunglasses carrying a Yorkshire terrier, and fathers with toddlers riding on their shoulders. There was at least one man on crutches and another in a wheelchair. Representatives of various organisations - including Falun Gong, the Article 45 Concern Group and the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions - pressed leaflets into the hands of those waiting in line. Clearly, various groups saw the rally as a chance to voice individual grievances.

Activists from Greenpeace were also there, as well as right-of-abode protesters. There was even a group waving Taiwan flags. Their presence showed Hong Kong's pluralism, and how they all see democracy not as a panacea but as a vital step forward.

The organisers, from the Civil Human Rights Front, standing on a raised platform, led the protesters in shouting slogans, primarily: 'Return power to the people' and 'Improve people's livelihood'.

They also led in the singing of songs and, because it was New Year's Day, they sang Cantonese songs to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, as well as Christmas carols. Then they switched to the civil rights song, We Shall Overcome, singing in both English and Cantonese. Tears sprang to my eyes and, for a moment, I was unable to speak. I recalled the long decades during which people in Hong Kong had fought for a responsible and accountable government, and for democracy. Now, it seemed, we were closer to that goal than ever.

At long last, the crowds started to move. I found a shortcut by stepping over a rope, joining a group that had arrived earlier, and started to move out of the park. By 4.30pm, I found myself outside the Park Lane Hotel again, exactly 90 minutes after first setting out. The group I joined turned out to be from the religious sector. We marched behind a man carrying a big purple cross. Two other men carried a portrait of Jesus. I walked quickly and caught up with the contingent of the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood, led by Frederick Fung Kin-kee. I passed Emily Lau Wai-hing as she exhorted passers-by to join the march.

I was one of the early arrivals at the Government Secretariat on Lower Albert Road, reaching there at 5.20pm. I had expected a huge throng, but the organisers told everyone to disperse because otherwise other marchers would not be able to enter the area. At the end of the day, the organisers announced that 100,000 people had taken part; and that on New Year's Day, when Article 23 was no longer an issue. If a serious issue were to emerge, no doubt many more people would march.

Taking part in the demonstration was an exhilarating experience. I was finally able to be part of a historic event, albeit probably a minor one. And I am convinced that these lyrics will come true: 'We shall overcome some day.'

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator