Book review: Umbrellas in Bloom is a Hong Kong writer’s take on the 2014 protest for democracy
Writer gives a solid account of the background to the events, but doesn’t add any new insights or uncover anything fresh about the events
Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s occupy movement uncovered
by Jason Y. Ng
In the autumn of 2014 Hongkongers experienced a social and political event that changed our home forever. Now, we can relive that experience with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight in Jason Y. Ng’s new book, Umbrellas in Bloom.
Ng, a Hong Kong freelance writer who regularly contributes to the South China Morning Post and has written two previous books about his home, provides a detailed and comprehensive account of the 79-day protest and social phenomenon, adding valuable historical and political context that might have been lost on the casual observers of the protest.
The book – which has forewords by student leader Joshua Wong and political commentator Chip Tsao
– will be particularly useful for English language readers who were not able to follow the coverage of Chinese-language newspapers, read the signs of protestors, or understand their chants, and therefore missed some of the more nuanced messaging. In particular, Ng offers an easily digested explanation of Hong Kong’s Byzantine political system and how its disfunction led to the protests.
This is particularly valuable in a society that is generally viewed as politically indifferent, as Ng aptly describes. “Grotesque as it is, the topic of electoral systems rarely comes up in everyday conversation … Most people would rather get a rectal exam than listen to a three-hour lecture on separate vote count and corporate voting.”
The author spends a considerable number of pages examining the social, political, economic and cultural issues that have brought the SAR to this point.
“There is something to be said about a city where people can afford luxurious European vacations and six-figure Swiss timepieces, but still don’t have a decent home to return to at day’s end.” And then a few pages later, he writes, “Income inequality, wealth entrenchment, government-business collusion, diminishing freedoms and growing mainland political interference are but some of the burning problems facing Hong Kong.”
Ng writes in a righteous and partisan tone that will ring true with other sympathisers, and captures the indignation of Hong Kong people who know they have been lied to and let down by our political leaders. “In the end, the city waited seven years for nothing. In our long and arduous struggle for democracy, every disappointment we begrudgingly swallowed and every concession we reluctantly made was all for naught.”
The author has written an excellent summary of the movement, offering solid context and explanation, but the title’s promise of it being “uncovered” remains undelivered. There is little new material, and his analysis and insights, while interesting, are not groundbreaking. However, even a comprehensive summary of the events was politically charged enough that the publisher, Blacksmith Books, was turned down by one printer because it was owned by a “blue ribbon” supporter.
This is unsurprising, given Hong Kong’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index has declined every year since C.Y. Leung took office, dropping to an all-time low of 70th, below countries such as Bosnia and Papua New Guinea.
While Ng goes to great lengths to place himself in the middle of the story – as a Hongkonger, a journalist, a sympathiser and one of the tutors offering his services on Harcourt Road – this is not an insider’s account. His experience of those days was not all that dissimilar to others who were sympathetic and supportive of the students and spent time at the protest site while standing back from the real action or political discourse.
At 10:30pm on September 28th, the day that police fired tear gas at the students, Ng writes: “Home had never felt safer and more needed. I took a shower and sat idly in bed. What had transpired in the last few hours suddenly hit me, as images and sounds finally sank in. I started to sob, and my hands shook despite myself. Tonight in Hong Kong, there were prayers, tears and a lot of unanswered questions.”
At times Ng’s language strays well outside the boundaries of partisan journalism with no clear benefit, such as when he writes of the loyalist wing in Legco’s pro-Beijing camp: “Many of them are mercenaries hired by the Liaison Office and other Communist operatives to say and do whatever they are told.”
However, he also includes some entertaining and well-selected reminders of the farcical views within the pro-Beijing camp.
“Zhang Rongshun, vice-chairman of the Standing Committee’s Legislative Affairs Commission, called the Nominating Committee a “brilliant invention” and a “contribution to democracy.” He told reporters that “the more I look at it, the lovelier it gets.” Liaison Office Director Zhang Xiaoming compared it to a “beautiful maiden yet to be discovered.””
This book is short on characters, given that it is the story of how Hong Kong’s most admirable and most deplorable acted during the city’s darkest hours. There is little dialogue, and those people Ng does describe do not come alive on the page. He does not capture the drama and tension of the story, but rather picks it apart and shows us the pieces, their flaws and relationship to each other. While disappointing from a storytelling perspective, it does serve the purpose of clarity.
Ng has also used a hodgepodge of styles and formats, which detract from the book’s aesthetic and flow. He has included tables and graphics and both photos and illustrations, drawn by his brother Daniel Ng. He swings from the diary-style personal experience of living in Hong Kong during the movement to expositional chapters about local politics, and from there to opinion writing. The book starts with an introduction and two forewords, and ends with an afterword, extensive appendices and a glossary. More focus and better editing could have produced a more elegant story.
Umbrellas in Bloom is a necessary and worthy read for those who want to better understand Hong Kong and the events that unfolded in 2014. It will be especially valuable to those have newly minted permanent residency cards and are eager to exercise their right to vote in the Hong Kong Legislative Council elections this September. And it is also a good reminder that the Umbrella movement had some sizeable accomplishments, even if it did not win the big prize.
“We have gained a number of things: social awakening, battle wounds that didn’t kill us but made us stronger. We have also managed to capture the world’s attention by exposing China’s hypocrisy and expressing our collective want for self-determination.”