Ten things we learned about Joshua Wong from the Netflix documentary Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower
Film about to become available worldwide to 100 million-plus subscribers shows Wong became Hong Kong political activist after realising limits of prayer, didn’t buy Benny Tai’s rules for Occupy, and feared going to prison
The story of Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung is set to reach a far wider audience than China would have preferred this week when a documentary about him, Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, becomes available for streaming to the 100 million-plus Netflix subscribers around the world on Friday. The film previously won the audience award in the World Cinema Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Directed by American filmmaker Joe Piscatella, the 78-minute feature follows the rise of Wong from founding the pro-democracy student-activist group Scholarism at age 14, in 2012 – which takes up more than one-third of the film – to his participation in the 2014 Occupy protests in Hong Kong, in which thousands of activists occupied major roads for 79 days, and finally the founding of the political party Demosisto in 2016.
Pro-Beijing viewers are advised to stay away to avoid a heart attack, however; Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower paints an unbalanced portrait of Wong as a courageous leader of opposition to the Chinese Communist Party. Comments by liberal talking heads pepper the film, which doesn’t hesitate to mention cases of human rights violations such as the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown or the recent Hong Kong bookseller saga.
Packaged as an introduction to contemporary Hong Kong politics, the film contains little that a keen-eyed Hong Kong resident wouldn’t already have glimpsed from the news in the past few years. Here are 10 lesser-known facts about Wong that the Netflix film nevertheless brings into focus.
1. Wong grew up in a deeply religious family
It is well known that Wong was raised in a devout Christian family, with his father, Roger Wong Wai-ming, often making headlines for himself as the convenor of an anti-gay group, the Family School Sodo (Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance) Concern Group. The documentary reveals how thoroughly Christian their lives are. An early scene, captured in 2012 when Joshua was 14, provides a glimpse into the Wong’s family life: one shot of their bookshelf shows a row of nearly 30 books – all faith-based titles – while the next sees Wong Snr reading one on the sofa next to Joshua.
2. Christianity indirectly introduced Wong to his comrade Derek Lam Shun-hin
When Wong was recruiting members for Scholarism, the student activist group he founded, he knew he could count on Derek Lam Shun-hin, whom he had already met in a Christian fellowship in their secondary school. Lam would become a member of Scholarism and, later, the party Demosisto. “China is a rising darkness that destroys the things in Hong Kong. But if you want to defeat Darth Vader, then you have to train some Jedi,” says Lam in the film. He also says: “We are totally not Chinese people. We are unique. Hong Kong people is Hong Kong people. Bruce Lee is Hong Kong people.”
3. Wong’s first meeting with Hong Kong’s head of government, Leung Chun-ying, came about via a Facebook event
In March 2012, Wong participated in a Facebook event for which the most-liked post would guarantee the user a chance to meet Hong Kong’s then chief executive-elect. “I just shared the post to my Facebook, and shared to Scholarism’s Facebook page,” Wong recalls. “And finally, I get around a few thousand likes and I can meet CY Leung and ask him, ‘Why do you still need to implement the national education?’” Wong adds that he was then a Form Four student who still had an exam the day after he met Leung.
4. Wong became an activist because he realised praying didn’t help much
Wong says: “I remember that I visited a poor family when I’m 13 years old. While I visited them, we would preach the gospel and also pray for them because I’m a Christian. And one year later, I went back to that family and visited them again. During that moment, I just realised that just trying to pray for them would not bring the change. It’s necessary for us to change by action.”
5. Wong was used to being stopped by police even in the early days
It was an integral part of his Scholarism duties to raise public awareness of the pro-Beijing “moral and national education” curriculum, and Wong recalls being approached frequently by police when he was handing out flyers. “The attitude of the police forces is quite negative towards the activists,” he says. “The policemen will come and ask a lot of questions. It’s really ridiculous for the policemen to come and to tell the activists, ‘We want to protect you. That’s why we keep our eyes on you.’ Because what they want to do is just to protect the ruling class instead of the grass roots in Hong Kong.”
6. Wong’s mother considered her family “low-profile”
In an interview conducted after Scholarism led demonstrations that forced the government to retract its decision to make “national education” a compulsory subject in Hong Kong public schools, Wong’s mother is shown going over news clippings of her son. “If you had asked me a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she says proudly. “We are a low-profile family. We don’t want to be famous. Joshua is not trying to be famous. We all said, ‘This is a miracle.’ So amazing. How could this really happen? They say it’s the first social movement to achieve its goal since the handover in 1997. And it was the only one initiated by high school students.”
7. Wong didn’t believe in law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting’s Occupy Central initiative
It is a common view that Wong and his fellow student activists changed the nature of the Occupy Central campaign on the eve of the “umbrella movement”. In the film, Wong insists that “we are not trying to hijack the Occupy action. We are just trying to mobilise people to join the civil disobedience. The problem is: Benny Tai planned the Occupy action to be a formal, organised activity – just like holding a concert or a ceremony. But the participants of a social movement are quite organic. You can’t force them to directly follow your rules and regulations. Social movement is social movement.”
8. Even Nathan Law Kwun-chung hesitates to hail Wong as the face of the umbrella movement
Demosisto president Law says of Wong: “I think he was not the only person – I was not the only person – of Occupy Central. But I understand the logic. Having a person as an icon is easier than having a group of people. His reputation can help broadcast our message.” Wong sounds comfortable enough with the spotlight, however, saying, “Being famous is just part of my job. If you need to increase your influence, if you need to let people support your idea, the first thing you need to do is to let others recognise you.”
9. Emotions did begin to overcome Wong as the umbrella movement dragged on
Wong shows great composure throughout the documentary, so much so that he’s labelled a “robot” by his colleagues. In one rare moment of candour, however, he does admit about his Occupy experience: “Some days I have cried and I think that I can’t continue and I was really tired and I want to stop, but it’s not the time to cry. Because I have commitment in this movement.”
10. Wong was afraid to go to prison
After he stormed the government headquarters on the eve of the Occupy protests, Wong had to face the legal consequences. “The maximum penalty is to be put into jail,” he says in the film. “Mentally, I already expected to face the penalty – maybe put into prison. But I’m not really ready for it, actually.” Wong was subsequently given 80 hours of community service for his convictions for unlawful assembly and inciting others to take part in an unlawful assembly; Wong has since lodged an appeal.
Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower will be released on Netflix on May 26.
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