Lehman Brothers

Rebel without a pause: how the activists did it

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 October, 2011, 12:00am


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If the Occupy Wall Street movement has a ring of deja vu about it for Hong Kong, that's because the city has its own version of street occupation in protest of 'corporate greed' and 'devil banks'.

Almost every weekday since December 2008, the pavements outside various bank branches across Hong Kong have been occupied by disgruntled Lehman Brothers minibond holders seeking compensation from the banks that sold them the minibonds, which became worthless or nearly so after the unexpected demise of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

The protesters, many of them over the age of 60, aired their grievances by drumming, banging on gongs, putting up banners with strident messages (for example, 'The financial centre of Hong Kong is dead' and 'Bankers are w**kers), and ceaselessly playing recordings about their plight through loudspeakers.

Mock-ups of funeral parlour altars were erected on pavements, with ghostly black-and-white pictures of Hong Kong finance officials.

The noise - literally and figuratively - of the campaign was remarkable. Many bank branches repeatedly called in the police; DBS Bank, the Bank of China and Chong Hing Bank had sought injunctions against protesters; and the media covered the campaign.

And it was effective. In May this year, 16 of the banks in question agreed to repay about 31,000 of the 40,000 'Lehman victims' up to 96.5 per cent of their investment.

The movement has faded since that agreement was announcement. But some protesters dissatisfied with the settlement are still lingering outside bank branches, and some have joined the Occupy Central campaign at the HSBC headquarters in Central.

Money Post pieces together an oral history of Hong Kong's protest movements, what has held elderly protesters together through years of campaigning, and what the minibond activists think of the Occupy Wall Street campaign.

Investor and activist Li Hon-ming, about 40 'We started off with street demonstrations and protests outside the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and the Legislative Council. Later we marched into bank branches, stopped customers in the queue and told our stories to them. This way, we managed to force the banks to close temporarily. We later moved outside the banks and stayed on the pavements.

'We used a lot of props, from drums to fake coffins to funeral wreathes. The idea was to grab the attention of the Hong Kong public and tourists. We wanted to show them what the banks and the government had done.'

Eddy Chan Ho-wai, convenor of the Allied Victims of Lehman Products 'We had one organiser responsible for each bank branch. We arranged for there to be a certain number of protesters at the banks, depending on the branch size, and we had about 100 volunteers who made calls and organised things. Drumming was particularly good for some granny protesters who had been sleeping badly since they lost their money. After a day of drumming, they got exhausted and would sleep better at night.'

Investor Chan Biu, 66 'Initially, it was embarrassing to come out. I would wear a mask and a cap as I didn't want my relatives and children to know I had lost US$10,000. We also had strangers saying we were greedy. That hurt because I wasn't. Our courage and confidence grew gradually. Many of us were old people. We have weak bladders and need to go to the toilet frequently. That wasn't easy when you had to protest. Now here in Central I can easily tell you the closest place where you can relieve yourself.'

Jonathan Mak, Mong Kok resident and advertising copywriter, 35 'For many months I saw an old lady protesting outside a bank near my home. Poor her. Imagine getting to that age and losing a big part of your savings to an obscure product promoted by an ignorant bank teller. It wasn't about greed. Everybody in Hong Kong wants to build up wealth. She's no different from us. It was unfortunate the banks' staffs had to endure the noise, but the protesters' actions were understandable.'

A newspaper vendor in Central who does not want to be identified 'They're still doing it across the road from my stall. There were days when the noise got so bad I lost my temper with customers. Now I'm used to it. But these people are a nuisance. When you invest, you know there's a risk. Besides, haven't they got 90 per cent of their money back already? Why are they so greedy?'

A group of finance workers in Central who took out a full-page advertisement in several Chinese newspapers in April 'It seems Central has gone from being an international financial centre to a melting pot of funeral parlours.

'Did it ever occur to them that they have actually infringed upon people's freedom to make use of public space? Have they considered properly the idea that their way of seeking 'justice' has crossed the line and gone beyond what Hong Kong people can tolerate?'

Eddy Chan '[The minibond protesters and the Occupy Wall Street] are both against corporate hegemony, social injustice, and the greed of the movers and shakers. Obviously, the protesters in New York are younger, whereas many of the Lehman victims are elderly.

'The goal of the latter has always been specific: to get back their money. The objective of the New York protesters is ideological, with talk against capitalism. I understand their demands, but we wouldn't want to get into that kind of debate.'

Chan Biu 'We don't mingle with these young people, but I support their cause [the Occupy Central movement]. We Lehman victims are occupying a small area here [at the HSBC headquarters in Central]. The media gave the impression that all Lehman victims have got a 90 per cent payout, but that's not true. I only got 60 per cent, and I plan to keep on fighting.

'We protest during the day and come here afterwards. There's a sense of solidarity here, and it somewhat empowers us.'