Loitering within tents: how Occupy movement is continuing to spread message in the community

After the protests, rank-and-file supporters are adopting more constructive ways to bring their movement to the community

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 March, 2015, 6:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 March, 2015, 10:03am

It's been several months since the last Occupy protesters' barricades were cleared from across the city. Yet two dozen tents cluttered with books and mattresses remain pitched on Tim Mei Avenue, just east of the government headquarters in Admiralty.

The small crowd gathering here is a far cry from the sea of people that filled Harcourt Road last year at the height of sit-ins. None of the student leaders or activists who became household names figure among this crowd; yet the motley crew, who come from different walks of life, seem just as keen to spread the spirit of the Umbrella movement - and they're taking a more constructive approach.

Retired garment trader Simon Wong, who runs the tent community's library, is among the unlikely holdouts.

"Many people still use the library at night and I couldn't find any reason to leave although I no longer sleep here as I did during Occupy," says 70-year-old Wong.

When the government revealed its proposals for political reform in 2012, he took the time to study the Basic Law in detail and was dismayed by what was being offered.

Although he enjoyed "a carefree and comfortable life" after retiring in 2010, Wong says he felt compelled to join the Occupy protests.

"From August last year, I bought oranges and began going to the city's 18 districts to explain how the selection of chief executive through pre-screening [by the 1,200-member election committee] is no different from having to choose between several rotten oranges."

Launched during the sit-ins, a mobile "democracy classroom" continues to offer talks about affairs of the day such as the recent budget address.

The idea is to bring informative presentations into the streets and to other informal venues, says Chen Yun-chung, an associate professor in cultural studies at Lingnan University who founded the mobile classroom. While barrister and former Civic Party legislator Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee was giving a series of talks on the rule of law at the Admiralty site, others were held at venues such as the Southorn Playground in Wan Chai.

Chen and his team are in discussion to extend the talks on various aspects of social justice to campuses across the city.

A number of groups have also since sprung up to reach out to the broader community.

Repair Hong Kong, for example, was set up by construction workers, electricians and plumbers. After putting up barricades and helping to fix generators during the Occupy protests, the workers have gone on to help poor families with home repairs.

"We didn't want to just pack up and leave after it ended. We wanted to make use of our expertise to help the needy," says co-founder Chick Chi-leung. "The group has 66 members serving different districts. This is more about community care than spreading political messages."

They have just helped a disabled couple fix up their public housing flat in Tai Wai, installing an exhaust fan and removing crumbling concrete from the toilet ceiling where water seepage seemed to have damaged the masonry.

"But as fixing the ceiling involves changing the structure, we helped the couple contact the Housing Department to get the work done," Chick says.

"Throughout the sit-ins, some groups were collecting plastic bottles and unused materials for recycling. Our group also helped with such initiatives. Over the Lunar New Year, we collected stainless steel bowls which were thrown away after being used for poon choi festive feasts and distributed them to kennels and anyone who had a use for them."

Chick and fellow worker Yu Kin-hung were among several repairmen who stopped working over much of the 79-day Occupy period to lend their support at the barricades, but they now see a more pragmatic role for themselves.

"[Earlier] we were shouting for democracy at the top of our voices. As the [sit-in] has ended, we want to go beyond shouting and take concrete action to help Hong Kong," says Yu, who has made more than 100 new friends at the Admiralty site.

"We can't achieve democracy only by staging sit-ins. We're handymen who are not good with words, so maintenance is our top priority. We want to help those in need, no matter what their political views are."

While one team in To Kwa Wan visited subdivided flats to help residents repair broken light fittings and replace old electrical wiring, another team collected furniture from an elderly centre in Tsuen Wan that had closed and distributed them to other elderly centres. Ultimately, Yu says, they hope to cover the entire city.

Another outreach effort has emerged from Yellow Day, a loose alliance of about 100 people, mostly in their 20s. The group stages activities on the 28th of each month (to commemorate September 28 last year when police fired a barrage of tear gas on demonstrators).

Among other activities, they distribute groceries and unused supplies to the poor, and set up roadside booths to promote voter registration and raise awareness about electoral issues.

They also visit different districts every fortnight to talk to residents about their problems, says Lau Sau-yin, a Yellow Day co-founder and former secondary school principal who took a break from her studies in Britain to join the Occupy campaign.

"We don't just talk about democracy and universal suffrage; we also want to find out what concerns are in the neighborhoods," she says.

The public are fed up with the way councillors win votes by offering perks and benefits
Mak Yun-pui, district councillor

This will come in useful for the district council elections in November, which a few members plan to contest. Among the hopefuls is 21-year-old Wong Sui-lung.

Wong, a former aide to a Tai Po district councillor he chose not to name, says the low entry barrier has encouraged him to join the hustings: "You just need HK$3,000 for the registration fee and 10 nominees to contest the election."

Now a part-time clerical worker, Wong is eyeing a seat on the Wan Chai council because the pan-democrats are not fielding a candidate in the district. Twelve of the 14 council seats are currently held by pro-government candidates and the remainder are independents.

Wong's choice of district may prove to be a smart one: "Wan Chai had the lowest turnout rate in all Hong Kong [in the previous poll]. Residents tell me they hadn't voted because there was no democrat standing in their area. So we have gone around the district to encourage people to register as voters and vote."

A couple of other new youth-dominated groups also aim to make an impact at the district council polls.

Ignite Your Belief, which has gathered 100 Umbrella movement supporters since it started in February, pledges financial and logistical support for like-minded young candidates.

Another youth group grew out of the popular online Golden Forum. Mak Yun-pui, a Sha Tin district councillor from the Democratic Party, says about 10 Golden Forum regulars sought his guidance after the streets were cleared last year.

"They wanted to learn about the work of a district councillor. So over the past two months, we have been visiting communities in the New Territories and Kowloon to find out more about district work. We see which districts suffer from a dearth of facilities and I teach them about liaising with different government departments to improve things such as pedestrian safety," he says.

A social worker and Golden Forum enthusiast, Mak says: "The public has viewed Golden users in a mostly negative light as homebound computer nerds only interested in frivolous topics such as entertainment and games. But the Occupy movement has fired them up [politically] and many no longer accept having district councillors come mostly from pro-establishment parties. They are fed up with the way they win votes by offering perks and benefits."

His protégés, who include master's graduates and professionals, reached out to him not because of his party background but because he was also a Golden regular, Mak says.

"The Democratic Party was put in an awkward position during the Occupy protests and faced criticism from all sides. If they went to the front line, they were accused of hijacking the movement led by students. If they steered clear of it, they would be panned for sitting on their hands," Mak says.

"So this new breed of young aspirants, who are not affiliated with any political party, has the potential to win seats.

"Being a district councillor is all about taking the residents' part and understanding their needs."

Political commentator Choy Chi-keung, however, takes a less-optimistic view of their chances.

"Although Occupy led to a political awakening among young people, those aged from 18 to 30 make up only 16.5 per cent of the electorate. Moreover young people have not been active voters in past elections," says Choy, noting that young people accounted for 16.8 per cent of the electoral roll in the 2011 district council elections, but they made up only 12.3 per cent of people who voted.

Still, Choy, a senior lecturer in politics at the Chinese University, reckons this wave of youth activism may be felt in years ahead.

"Occupy might not have a major impact on the November [district council] elections. But the Umbrella youth groups can see the elections as a warm-up for the 2016 Legislative Council election. As [geographical] seats in the Legislative Council are returned by proportional representation, candidates only need to secure 6 per cent to 7 per cent of the votes to win a seat."

Meanwhile, Chick's repair group will also help to prepare the ground for the district council vote.

"In the last elections, pan-democrats contested only 150 of the 430 district council seats. We know of many people who are ready to put up the HK$3,000 [fee] to fight for [the other seats]. We will get volunteers to check the electoral roll to see whether there are any suspicious entries - where many people have registered using the same address."

It seems the days of leaving the field to establishment candidates are over.