Figure 1: Umbrella revolution
The umbrella is a unique cultural object in Hong Kong. Used as a shade from the beating sun, as a shield to ward off the wind; to force your way through the busy streets, or to save a seat in a crowded restaurant; they are bought and lost, or broken and replaced, on a weekly basis. On rainy days, from above, they can be seen blossoming in every colour along the packed shopping areas. In the last few days, however, umbrellas have taken on a new usage – as protection from the jets of pepper-spray that have been aimed in the faces of protesters. In turn, they have been interpreted as weapons by riot police, and forcibly grabbed. In the process, the humble umbrella has become a totem for the Occupy Central movement that is currently taking life in the city: the so-called umbrella revolution. Umbrellas – and yellow ribbons, the other symbol of the protest – can now be seen across the city, prompting the playful Facebook group 遍地開遮 Umbrella Everywhere! advising citizens to ‘occupy’ space with their umbrellas wherever they go.
Yesterday morning, I joined the protest. I had no umbrella, but what I saw astonished me. Thousands upon thousands of Hongkongers, young and old, crowding the roads surrounding the central government offices. Collectively they redefined the space – from a spaghetti-junction choked with taxis, buses and fumes to a spontaneous space of quiet defiance and interdependent conviction. Determined young people weaved through the crowds with shopping-trolleys of water; makeshift first-aid tents stood alongside caches of food and ubiquitous umbrellas; crews cleared litter and gathered plastic for recycling; international film-crews jostled to capture the flowering of a peaceful civil disobedience. As the day wore on, more and more people gathered on the streets: in marked contrast to the ugly scenes of teargas from the previous night, the sight was breathtaking. The spectacle of many thousands, holding lights and mobile phones aloft, can be seen here.
As the eyes of the global media have quickly gathered on Hong Kong, it may feel like this chain of events has occurred spontaneously, but it’s been a long time coming. Occupy Central has quietly been gathering support for the past 18 months – deliberations have at times felt protracted – through successive stages of consultation, polling and recommendation. The civil referendum run by the University of Hong Kong in June 2014 garnered nearly 800,000 participants. Before, during and since this build-up, Hong Kong’s young people have played a central role. The Scholarism movement, which mobilised around efforts to introduce a programme of moral and national education in 2011, instigated a campaign of hunger strikes and demonstrations. One of the leaders of the student movement, unassuming firebrand Joshua Wong – the subject of a recent documentary, Lessons in Dissent – has at the tender age of seventeen played a leading role in the movement.
The sociologist Lui Tai-lok wrote in 2007 of the ‘four generations’ of Hong Kong people that shaped the social and cultural landscape of the city. At the time, the so-called post-80s generation were making waves through political protest on broad-ranging issues relating to environmentalism, inequality and human rights (this report details some of the shifts in attitudes that underpinned the politicisation of post-80s youth). Scholarism now represents a new generation of post-90s youth politics: a young, fearless, social-media savvy generation whose objectives are focused squarely on democracy. In this spirit, the Occupy movement has inspired solidarity protests around the world, including Glasgow.
As a symbol of this continuity and change, the umbrella feels particularly apt. The word comes from the Latin umbella, meaning flat-topped flower, and from umbra, meaning shade – a flower that protects. Whether there is revolution to accompany it or not, the #umbrellarevolution represents the blossoming of a powerful, protective, and flexible form of youthful post-90s politics that bodes well for the future of Hong Kong.