The Changing Nature of Play, Leisure and Public Space for Children and Young People

Robert Doyle and Lisa Whittaker

On 23rd March 2016 YouthLink Scotland and Play Scotland will bring together leaders in youth and play work to discuss the play needs of children and young people aged 8-18 years. The (Re)Imagining Youth team will give a keynote presentation at this event discussing findings from the Glasgow fieldsite. The following blog highlights some of the key themes to be  be covered in the presentation, but is written from the perspective of one of our research participants, Robert Doyle, a former playworker. Robert’s reflections on practice are linked to some of our core research findings, contributed by Lisa Whittaker, research assistant on the project.

In his influential new book, Policy for Play, Adrian Voce (former playworker and government advisor on the 2008 Play Strategy) describes, in fantastic detail, children and young people playing in the street. Children skipping, playing hopscotch, running around randomly and noisily, “screaming with delight”, much as we (the authors) did when we were younger (and as readers might have too).  But as Voce acknowledges, this scene is no longer an everday occurance for children and young people. He offers many reasons for this including the increase in cars on the roads, the commercialisation of public spaces, and the need for adults to supervise and facilitate children’s play and structured activities.

Scratch football

Figure 1: Playing in the street in 1950s suburbia (Source)

A recent summary by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights the social value of public spaces , but recognises that ‘the concept of what “public spaces” are changes over time. This is something we discovered in (Re)Imagining Youth, where we set out to explore what ‘leisure’ means to young people living in Glasgow today, the kind of leisure opportunities available to them, and the ways that youth leisure changed since the 1960s. Nowadays many leisure activities, like playing a game of football, cost money. The commercial function of many public spaces favours those with money and excludes others. Young people in (Re)Imagining Youth told us that there are  increasingly few free public spaces available to them and little opportunities for unregulated leisure that doesn’t involve consumption.

Figures 2,3&5: Leisure spaces in contemporary Glasgow (Photos by R. Doyle)

Many urban areas of the UK have undergone significant regeneration in recent years. This is often led by privatisation and commercialisation. We focus here on the changes that have occurred in Glasgow, one of the (Re)Imagining Youth research sites, and the city in which Robert has worked. In Glasgow de-industrialisation and the shift to a service-based economy has resulted in unemployment, urban decay, welfare dependency and poor health for many people. There have been repeated efforts to ‘regenerate’ public spaces, most notably in the East End of the city in preparation to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The result has been the demolition of many community facilities to make way for car parks and sports venues which are too expensive for local young people to use.

Glasgow also became one of the first cities in Europe to reach a population of one million. The city now has 35 million cars licensed for use on the roads.  This is an incredible increase from 5 million in 1960.  The number of cars travelling on our roads and parked in our streets has undoubtedly had an effect on the way that children and young people interact with the spaces around them.  For many youngsters street play is only permitted – and safe – on specific days where barriers are erected to keep cars out and adults in hi-vis jackets are on hand to supervise.

Figures 5&6: Leisure spaces in contemporary Glasgow (Photos by R. Doyle)

These changes in the nature of public spaces and play and free time are illustrated in  the following interview extract from (Re)Imagining Youth. Lisa interviewed Eddie, a father in his 50s, his 24 year old daughter, Denise, and 16 year old son, Alan, as they walked around their local neighnourhood in Glasgow. This walking interview revealed several differences in Eddie’s experiences of childhood play compared to Denise and Alan’s experiences. For example, Eddie said ‘They (Denise and Alan) had a lot of structured play. We just made up our own games and done our own thing’. In another discussion Eddie described the type of play he and his friends engaged in as youngsters:

Eddie: aye you would do things like jumping off dykes n that, see who could jump off the biggest dyke, then you would get things like you would put a pole on in and you would have the high jump so you were jumping on to this mattress on the other side and then we had the hop, skip and jump or the triple jump but we called it the hop, skip and jump and then you’d mark it.

But Denise and Alan explained that things have changed:

Denise: you couldne do that nooadays, you’d need adults there to try and facilitate that…I suppose its because weans nowadays are used to having adults there and they need to be organised

Alan: even then people would still go tae ma Da and say is this right? For the reassurance and the rules

It is often said that a number of children and young people living in our society today have lower levels of resilience than the generations who have gone before them. This may be because children and young people nowadays are less likely to take ‘healthy’ risks such as climbing a tree, building a den or jumping the dykes.  Several studies have revealed that more children today tend to play inside rather than outside, so are less adept at managing different forms of risk in their everyday lives. While working as a Play Ranger in the East End of Glasgow, Robert developed open-access play sessions in a number of communities across the East End. The focus of these play sessions was ‘free play’, which meant that the sessions were unstructured and the activities were all child led.  Participation in free play is incredibly important to children and young people’s personal development.  Access to their local environment and the opportunity to engage with it is essential for the development of children and young people’s wellbeing.   Similarly, the opportunity to play with loose parts and experiment freely increases children and young people’s levels of creativity and ingenuity.  It is during free play that many key life skills such as decision making, risk assessment, communication skills and common sense are gained.  Giving a child agency to play organically and explore their physical and social environment at an early age goes a long way towards equipping them with the skills required to navigate more difficult terrain as they approach their teenage years and adulthood.

It has been argued that the changing nature of children’s play and free time is not only effecting individuals, but also but society as a whole. Resilience is not only important to children and young people’s transition into adulthood from an individual perspective, but is also crucial to the cohesion communities and society as a whole. The opportunities for children and young people to play, explore, belong and express themselves in their early years no doubt help shape the citizen that they become.  We cannot exclude children and young people from their communities. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 31) which establishes the right to play for all children and young people up to the age of 18. We have to make sure there are activities and opportunities that they can get involved in.  Early intervention through play should be an integral part of this process. Communities need tangible leisure activities for children and young people that are consistent, reliable and accessible to all.


(Getting a) Malling: Youth, consumption and leisure in the ‘new Glasgow’

New blog by Ali Fraser originally posted on


By Alistair Fraser, University of Glasgow

The following extract is excerpted from chapter six of the book ‘Urban Legends: Gang Identity in the Post-Industrial City’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press). The chapter, titled ‘Learning to Leisure’ (pp. 139-164) traces the leisure lives of a group of young men from Langview, a deindustrialised working-class community in Glasgow. The boys – aged 14-16 during the period of fieldwork – demonstrated a clear desire for traditional forms of work and leisure, but found opportunities for both thin on the ground. As a result, their leisure lives often resulted in friction with the ‘new Glasgow’, which privileges privatised, commercialised and delocalised leisure.

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How did you spend your free time as a teenager? Discussing (Re)Imagining Youth with elderly residents at Bield Housing

Lisa Whittaker

Public (or community) engagement stimulates a wider understanding of academic research by enthusing the public about current issues, the creative process and the aspirations and outcomes of our research projects. It is becoming increasingly important within academia that we connect and share our research with the public. Further, effective public engagement is mutually beneficial, everyone learns from each other through sharing of knowledge, expertise, skills and experiences.

The University of Glasgow has hundreds of public engagement activities every year as we seek to share our world leading research and promote dialogue around our work. As engagement becomes an ever more integral part of working in a publically funded institute, Glasgow is committed to offering the help and support needed to ensure Glasgow stays at the forefront of engaging with the wider community. Support for public engagement at the University of Glasgow is embedded within our Knowledge Exchange strategy. It is important that we recognise that academic journals have a relatively narrow, specific audience and readership and it is important that we look for ways to take research out of academic institutions and into communities to share our research and have discussions with people who may interested and/or benefit from the research.

    UoG Sheltered Housing

Figure 1: University of Glasgow poster advertising sheltered housing initiative

When I first heard about the opportunity to talk about research at a local sheltered housing complex I thought it was an excellent opportunity and really well suited to (Re)Imagining Youth. I was really keen to share our research with a group of older people who could share their thoughts about the research and also reflect back and share stories from their teenage years. Having also recently started a Knowledge Exchange and Community Engagement post with Glasgow University and Glasgow Centre for Population Health I believe events like these are extremely valuable and something which academics should be embedding in the research process.

I attended a short information session at the University, which was a great chance to find out more about Bield and the residents there from Isa, a volunteer with Bield. Isa explained that every Tuesday evening residents come together to take part in some social activities. They had recently expressed an interest to hear from guest speakers and have some educational/informative evenings which was how the opportunity to link with the University had first come about. It was agreed that I would be the first researcher to go along and share our research with the residents on the 14th July.

Taking part in activities like this encourage me to think about how I present research to various different audiences, so far in this project I have been involved in explaining the research to local people of all ages and academic colleagues at conferences. This was the first time I would present to a audience of elderly people. I prepared a short presentation but tried to make this as visual as possible, including lots of photos from Time of One’s Own, (Re)Imagining Youth and also David Peat’s collection of photos from Glasgow in the 1960s which are in the National Galleries Scotland. I was also keen to find out more about Bield Housing.

Bield Housing 2 Bield Housing 1

Figures 2 & 3: Bield Housing community engagement event

Bield Housing have been providing quality housing and services for older people in Scotland for over 40 years. Bield have grown from humble beginnings, starting out with one housing development in Bo’ness. We now provide a wide range of housing and services for around 15,000 people across 22 local authority areas. I arrived at Castlebank Gardens in Anniesland on the evening of the 14th, I was a little nervous and unsure of what to expect but excited to meet the residents and really keen to find out what they thought of our research.

I gave the presentation in their dining room, a bright comfortable room, and it was great to see a really good turnout of around of 12 residents who were all in good spirits. I gave a short talk for 15 minutes using the power point slides and then we all moved into another room for a comfy seat and some coffee and cakes.

Bield Housing 3 Bield Housing 4

Figures 4 & 5: Bield Housing community engagement event

Everyone seemed really interested in the research and we chatted for another hour. A couple of the residents had been to Hong Kong, one man had travelled there when he was in the Merchant Navy, they asked if I had been to Hong Kong and when I said I had been lucky enough to visit they were keen to know more about what it is like now and how it has changed.

When I asked what they thought of Jephcott’s findings in Time of Own’s Own that young people in the 1960s spent a lot of time going to the cinema, the dancing and cafes they thought she was “spot on” and they could all remember doing these things when they were younger. They shared stories about going to the Saturday matinee films, and “going oot for a lumber as long as your shoes were polished”. One of my favourite quotes from the evening came from Jim who talked about going out to the dancing and his parents telling him that he had to “come home the same day he went out” meaning before midnight. I wondered about how different things are today with many young people and students not going out until close to midnight sometimes.

We talked a lot about the changes that have occurred since they were young, particularly the privatization of space. The men in the group talked about playing football in the streets and on Glasgow Green when they were teenagers. One man told us that he used to try to get sent off in the last 10 minutes of the game so he would be the first one in the communal bath.

Perhaps one of the most striking stories of the evening was shared by a lady called Irene who described being a young child of 5 or 6 on a family farm in Eaglesham when Rudolf Hess, Hilter’s right hand man landed on their farm land. He had injured his ankle and was invited into the farm house for a cup of tea, Irene can remember peeking out from behind the door of the room she had been sent into with her sister to see what was going on. She remembers the Home Guard coming to collect Hess and the way he saluted when they arrived. This story isn’t directly relevant to our project focusing on youth leisure but it demonstrates the power of research to evoke memories. Irene had never shared this story with the other residents before and everyone was so interested to hear it.

I had a really great evening with the residents at Bield, it was great to hear their thoughts about our research and their own personal experiences. I hope I have provided a good start for other colleague to go and share their research with this lovely, engaging group of people. I would recommend events like these to all academics and encourage them to think about engaging with the wider community and thinking about the different ways we can talk about what we are doing so it can be of interest and be understood by different audiences. With special thanks to residents at Bield Housing, Castlebank Gardens, Anniesland, Isa Rao, Volunteer at Bield Housing and Jamie Gallagher, Public Engagement Officer, University of Glasgow

We are nearing the end of (Re)Imagining Youth and we have a few more public engagement events planned. We are holding two exhibitions about the project, the first at Hong Kong University in August and the second in Glasgow in November – more details to follow!  Susan and Lisa will also be taking part in the Explorathon event at Glasgow Science Centre on 1st and 2nd August.

New authorship of protestors in Umbrella Movement

Guest blog by Carmen Tong, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Hong Kong

A discussion of the diverse role that young people played in the Umbrella Movement and the problems and potentials involved in youth-led politics.

Photo - Carmen's blog Figure 1: Young protesters

Young people in Hong Kong today, and probably young people everywhere, have long been stereotyped with an apparent lack of interest in politics. Frequently accompanying this stereotype is a debate on generational shifts in young people’s political interests and the weakening of their participation in formal political events. In the recent Umbrella Movement, however, these stereotypes were shattered. Statistically, 61% of the protestors were age 29 or below, and only 15% had never previously participated in any rally, protest or demonstration (1). In other words, not only was the Umbrella Movement led by young people (the two student groups Scholarism and HKFS), it was also a social movement dominated by the younger cohorts who were not novices in social activism.

While it was the student leaders who caught the international and local spotlight as the organisers of the Umbrella Movement, many other young people engaged with the movement in a variety of ways – sitting in and sleeping over, attending public lectures and discussions,volunteering their time to assist with supplies arrangement and cleaning the streets, reading and studying, creating symbolic artefacts. At times these youthful engagements were the cause of negative publicity – a hotpot gathering and street football event created accusations of sabotage and were immediately stopped by other protestors. These diverse actions could be seen to indicate lack of solidarity but multiple goals and interests are always the norm in a social movement. The ‘dare to be different’ attitude represents the spirit of the young but such types of protests beyond orderly bounds is still deemed radical to many in Hong Kong.

The pluralistic actions in the movement were further fanned by young people’s use of social media, by protestors or ‘keyboard fighters’ alike. Students from mainland China, aiming to seep the news through the Internet blockade of the movement imposed by the Chinese government, used puns and allusions in Weibo and Wechat (the Chinese version of Twitter and a counterpart of What’sApp respectively) to reach friends and family behind the Great Firewall. Local students created Facebook pages (from news verification to political reform concern groups [1] [2]), participated in translation for multilingual updates, and organised aid and resources for other protestors by using Google Documents. Over the course of the Umbrella Movement, independent web media gained unprecedented support in terms of attention (likes and share) and provision of clues, photos and analysis by young netizens (2). Although acting individually, young people have collectively made the Internet a new dimension of the public sphere where everyone executes his/her citizenship by being a citizen journalist.

The young protestors not only engaged with the Umbrella Movement in pluralistic ways, they also had different interpretations of the nature and direction of involvement. One of my students wrote about having a transformative experience in the movement, from being a [passive] participant in the sit-in to active social deliberation and lobbying – by running a Facebook page with a few friends. This redefinition of the active-passive dichotomy seems odd at first glance but it truly makes perfect sense – she is the one in charge of the Facebook page she created while she was merely a participant, an observer, or a follower in the ‘real’ scenes of the Umbrella Movement. This may also give a hint as to the disputes over the ‘big stage’ in the movement – with some protestors proclaiming to demolish or abandon the central stage set up by the organisers, in both a real and symbolic sense. In late November, some protestors started questioning the role and function of the central organisers. The divide then turned to fragmentary attempts to remove the street barricades around the central stage in Admiralty in early December and climaxed with the setting up of a new student group, Student Front, that stressed a non-withdrawal stance on occupy and would ‘counter violence with force’ when necessary (3). While the disputes developed into debates of leadership, organisation and conspiracy, I believe it is a signal to understand anew the young generations’ interpretation of subjectivity and collective identity in social movements. It is clear that young protestors in the Umbrella Movement have a new authorship of thinking and acting as protestors. Yet their decentralised actions are nonetheless brought together by a collective cause. Their collective opposition to the ‘fake’ universal suffrage proposal was the uniting force that triggered them into action; it is also the same uniting force that channeled them into all kinds of different actions. The collective identity of ‘Hong Kong protestors’ was constructed and realised by their pluralistic experiences over the course of the movement where sameness and differences were both contained. The diversified, plural and decentered interests and actions are the essence of the ‘Hong Kong protestors’ identity, as well as the key elements of the ‘genuine’ democracy that the umbrella community, and their like-minded comrades in Hong Kong, were and will, keep fighting for.

Dr Carmen Tong is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Hong Kong, with research interests in media and cultural studies, student culture, identities, gender and sexuality. She has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Hong Kong. Further information available here: 


(1) A study was conducted in the three protest areas (Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok) by a team led by two PhD candidates in political studies during 20th to 26th October. 1,562 people were surveyed with a response rate of 97%. The analysis was published in a local newspaper (Ming Pao) on 29th November. A copy of the report can also be found here (in Chinese):

(2) InMedia HK summarised their experience in the Umbrella Movement. Their Facebook page had 180 thousands followers before the movement. The figure rose to 390 thousands by 12th November. (in Chinese)

(3) Related disputes and the setting up of Student Front were reported only by Hong Kong’s local media like Apple Daily News, Oriental News and Hong Kong Economics Journal. (in Chinese) (23rd November 2014) (2nd December 2014) (7th December 2914) (11th December 2014)

Politics of belonging under the Umbrella, Part 2

Guest blog by Beatrice Lam, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Hong Kong

A reflection on the role of mainland Chinese in the Umbrella movement, and the tensions exposed between mainlanders and Hong Kong people in the process

In Part 1, I talked about some of the negative responses of mainland students to the Umbrella Movement. What struck me more, however, were the views from those who sided with the protesters. They appreciated what the protesters were doing. They witnessed the spirit of Hong Kong, and saw what marked Hong Kong as different from the PRC. They did not participate in the sit-ins, protests, or ‘shopping tours’, however, and found themselves to be the outsiders of the movement because they are not Heunggongyahn. Moreover, they felt that even if Hongkongers could successfully fight for universal suffrage, it would mean little to them, and to people in mainland China, for the PRC wouldn’t change. In other words, they do not see themselves belong to the Umbrella community; they do not see they have any role to play in the movement.

To be truthful, there were local protesters who actively excluded mainlanders from sites of occupation. They taunted or swore at persons who were presumed to be mainlanders (e.g. because of their accent), even if these persons were fully supportive of the movement. One should also be reminded that protesters from mainland might choose to deliberately make themselves invisible by wearing masks, shades and/or caps as they busied themselves around the occupation sites, for fear of being captured on the camera. This has the unfortunate effect of further marginalizing their voice in the movement.

The antipathy of some local protesters towards the presence of mainlanders should be understood in the context of China-Hong Kong integration. From imported labour in the 1980s, female spouses and children since the 1990s, to the more recent border-crossing of tourists, students and professional migrants, mainlanders have always been seen as different, if not inferior, to ‘local’ Hongkongers[2] – a drain on public resources, invaders of local space, and a threat to local culture and identity. The narrowing of the economic gap between Hong Kong and China notwithstanding, cultural boundaries continue to be redrawn as Hongkongers try to reassert their Heunggongyahn identity against the increasing political intervention from Beijing. So people say: Mainlanders are uncivilized, because they eat on the MTR, pee in the street, and spoil the children[3]. We can be proud of our freedom of speech and press and the rule of law in Hong Kong; you, mainlanders, are brainwashed[4]. That the SAR government sought an extended public consultation about the revision of the anti-discrimination ordinance, with the aim to better protect mainland Chinese persons in Hong Kong, only fueled the avalanche of abuses targeted at mainlanders on social media platforms during the movement. It is in this sense that we can understand why mainlanders were found unwelcome in sites of occupation, and why some mainland students see themselves as no more than bystanders of the movement.

The fact that some mainland students see themselves as outsiders in the movement should also be understood in terms of the discrepancies between the respective interpretative frameworks of ‘democracy’ employed in the PRC and among local protesters. Democracy in the PRC is one defined primarily in procedural terms, the practice of which variably configured by local power relations[5] rather than enabling the public to influence and participate in government decision-making. It is also one that must align with the kind of nationalism that has been promoted since the early 1980s: an emphasis on national pride and loyalty to the Chinese Communist state[6]. The pursuit of democracy as represented in the Umbrella Movement is however one geared towards self-determination – deciding how we envision our home and participate in the practice of our visions. It is about enacting our rights as citizens, and is constitutive of our identity as Hongkongers. Some protesters see Hong Kong’s pursuit of democracy as pivotal for the democratization of the PRC, its ‘motherland’; whereas others believe that democracy can only be realized in Hong Kong when ties with mainland China are severed[7]. Either way, such framings of democracy are deemed politically incorrect from Beijing’s perspective: because ties between Hong Kong and her Chinese ‘motherland’ are supposedly eternal and indissoluble, there is no room in the ‘unified’ nation of the PRC for ‘self-determination’ and ‘(local, Hong Kong) identity’. Put simply, pursuing democracy in Hong Kong, through formal political processes or citizens’ participation in the civil society, is ‘unpatriotic’ from Beijing’s point of view. This is why mainland students, with their upbringing in their discursive context of PRC’s nationalism, do not necessarily see the pursuit of democracy in the way local protesters do. We continue to struggle to bond with one another in terms of our identification as political citizens.

‘Hong Kong is the crying baby that gets the milk (from Beijing)’, according to Global Times, the strongly pro-government Chinese tabloid that is known for its promotion of nationalistic sentiments. The Umbrella Movement has been reduced to an act of petulance arising out of Hongkongers’ frustrations with blocked mobility chances (especially among the youth) and paranoia towards mainlanders’ intrusion (in the form of investors, tourists, mothers giving birth in local hospitals, students crossing the border every day, and parallel imports[8]). Nonetheless, there are also those mainlanders who are grateful for having the chance to learn more about tabooed subjects, such as the Cultural Revolution and the June 4th Tiananmen Massacre, in Hong Kong; they envy the freedom Hongkongers enjoy in political participation, and admire the conviction and courage of local protesters in the Umbrella Movement. For different sorts of reasons and under a variety of circumstances they might have chosen whether or not to participate in the Umbrella Movement – if they did, they often did so beyond the purview of the locals. The sharing of experiences has alerted me to the potential for Hongkongers and mainlanders to bond with each other as actors of a political community. In the process, new collective identities – aside from those of economic agents or patriots, as promulgated in the official ‘national identity’ discourse – can be formed, solidified, and asserted vis-à-vis the Chinese state. Thus, to carry on our fight for democracy, it is not only in the local communities and neighbourhoods where work is to be done. For all the differences experienced between ‘them’ and ‘us’, prejudice and exclusion is ideologically incoherent with the movement’s professed commitment to democracy and celebration of diversity. It is high time for us to confront our politics of belonging and reexamine what our imagined borders mean to us in political terms, in order that we can make the most of what we have learnt from the Umbrella Movement.

Dr Beatrice Lam is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Hong Kong, with research interests in education, social stratification, gender studies, and Hong Kong society. She has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Manchester. Further information available here:


[1] ‘Shopping’ was a repertoire of collective action that was developed in response to the clearing of the Mongkok site of occupation. For an explanation of the inspiration behind, please refer to

[2] It should be noted that many Hongkongers who self-identify as ‘locals’ or ‘natives’ were former immigrants from mainland China. They see themselves as different from more recent arrivals.

[3] For a discussion of how the antipathy of Hongkongers against mainlanders has developed and evolved since the 1970s, please see:

Mathews, G, Ma, EKW, & Lui, TL (2008) Hong Kong, China : learning to belong to a nation. Chapter 4, 6. Routledge.

Chan, E (2000) Defining Fellow Compatriots as ‘Others’ – National Identity in Hong Kong, Government and Opposition, 35(4): 499–519.

For information of the intensifying tensions between Hongkongers and mainlanders, please see:; and

Chan, CK (2014) China as “Other”: Resistance to and ambivalence toward national identity in Hong Kong, China perspectives, 2014(1): 25-34.

[4] For information of how values of freedom of speech, freedom of press and the rule of law serve as the foundation upon which Hongkongers dissociate themselves from mainlanders, please see:

Fung, YHA, & Ma, KW (2007) Negotiating Local & National Identifications: Hong Kong Identity Survey 1996-2006, Asian Journal of Communication, 17(2): 172-185.

[5] This is exemplified in the impediment of democratic governance in villages in rural China, despite the semblance of openness and fairness of their election procedures. For further information, please see:

O’Brien, KJ & Han, R (2009) Path to Democracy? Assessing village elections in China, Journal of Contemporary China 18(60): 359-378.

[6] For further information, please see:

Fairbrother, GP (2003) Toward critical patriotism : student resistance to political education in Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong : Hong Kong University Press.

[7] The former camp is best represented by those who began participating in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong since the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. They see Hong Kong as sharing the same destiny with China, their motherland, in the road towards democracy. The latter camp is best represented by the supporters of the ‘Hong Kong Autonomy Movement’, who aspire to Hong Kong developing into a democratic, self-governing city-state vis-à-vis an incorrigible, authoritarian PRC.

[8] Please refer to footnote 5 for further information.

Politics of belonging under the Umbrella, Part 1

Guest blog by Beatrice Lam, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Hong Kong

A reflection on the role of mainland Chinese in the Umbrella movement, and the tensions exposed between mainlanders and Hong Kong people in the process


Figure 1: Democracy Wall, University of Hong Kong

I do not often come across undergraduate students from mainland China when teaching in Hong Kong. Perhaps just as I saw during my time in the U.K., social sciences is not where you would find many mainland Chinese students. I made friends with the small number that were there; despite this, for all the yum-chas and hotpots, hardly can I recall a dialogue among us about China-Hong Kong relations and politics. I went with friends from Hong Kong to watch the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony live on TV in the university library, the year the imprisoned political dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Peace Prize. Not for one minute had I thought of asking my mainland schoolmates about this, let alone inviting them to come along. And neither did my friends from Hong Kong – it was just the intuitive thing (not) to do. My Heunggongyahn (Hongkonger) identity did not interfere with my friendship with the mainland schoolmates, or our identity work as Chinese in the diasporic space of the UK, but our bond was certainly not based on any political dimensions of our shared Chineseness.

As a result, I am not privy to the thoughts of people from mainland China about Hong Kong, or the more contentious question about Hongkongers’ alleged recalcitrance towards China. I have, however, addressed this issue in classrooms with mainland students. What bothers me is that I have no clue how they receive my teaching. Somehow, I feel that it is unthinking of me not to initiate a conversation outside the classroom if they do not ask or remain silent on the subject. In contrast, local Hong Kong students, at least some of them, have no qualms with criticizing national education as brainwashing, or opining that mainlanders are cultural dupes in tutorial discussion or in their assignments.

It was therefore a surprise that, on September the 29th, the day after the teargas bombing, I was approached by a mainland student who sought my advice about the role of a responsible social sciences student in the Umbrella Movement. She was vague about what happened that led her to ask this question, but I understood that she had engaged in some unfriendly exchanges with others after her posting of information about the teargas on social media platforms popular in mainland China. We have talked to each other more often since then; from her sharing I began to learn more about perspectives from the mainland. At the same time I heard a lot from local protesters, who had a lot to say about their encounters with mainlanders both inside and outside of the movement. Below I share my observations and thoughts.

First, before concern could be shown and an opinion could be given, mainlanders needed to make sure that nobody would know it was them who was doing the talking. It was unwise to talk to outsiders – such as me, or any average Hongkongers. Some mainland students were eager to circumvent internet censorship so as to get the information about the movement across, even if their messages would only make a fleeting presence online. A greater concern, however, was that when one’s information and view got circulated, one risked being misinterpreted for, say, having politically-incorrect motives in the mere act of transmitting information; particularly as the movement was often constructed and understood in the PRC as a riot. This also explains why another mainland student in my class, otherwise quiet in tutorial discussions regarding the subject matter of the Umbrella Movement, described the protests as riots at one point. With these issues in mind, it makes sense why a mainlander would rather not talk about the movement, or to talk in equivocal terms, for example suggesting that one was neutral about it.

Second, some mainland students suggested that democracy is ultimately geared towards access to economic resources and social welfare. With the information I gathered from students, it is hard to deduce further from this seemingly more utilitarian framing of the movement and democracy itself. Having said that, I am tempted to suggest that from mainland students’ perspective, issues of (political) citizenship, self-governance and identity – the terms in which the movement was framed among local protesters – are irrelevant to (the struggle for) democracy. Letting the people speak? Demonstrating how we make public space ‘public’? Exhibiting why we are ready to make decisions about our city? This is the spirit inherited from past social movements in Hong Kong that sought to protect urban and rural neighbourhoods from demolishment under the pretext of China-Hong Kong integration, and citizens from indoctrination by national education, etc. For mainland students, however, it does not strike them immediately that such visions are part and parcel of the Umbrella Movement. Not only is information of social movements in Hong Kong accessible to few in mainland China, but PRC also has notorious record of silencing political dissidents (via criminalization or house arrests), including those whose democratic ideals are expressed in the mildest manner (e.g., the aforementioned Liu Xiaobo.

Lastly, the utilitarian view of democracy was expressed in another way, but with a strong dose of cynicism. Some mainland students believed that democracy is a smokescreen that helps the state justify its rule. Whether it is genuine democracy or not does not matter; as long as people are convinced of the democratic nature of the state, challenges to the latter’s authority can be minimized; this is precisely what the state is looking for. Another view that became increasingly popular among mainland students as the movement entered into a stalemate was one that democracy is a device with which politicians manipulate the people. The common saying is that protesters were ‘pure’ – i.e., ‘genuine’ – in their initial struggles, but as the movement dragged on they became embroiled in politicking. The movement became corrupted, and was thus no longer worth the support of these mainland students. In Part 2, I will talk about some of the views of mainland students who sided with the protesters.

Dr Beatrice Lam is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Hong Kong, with research interests in education, social stratification, gender studies, and Hong Kong society. She has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Manchester. Further information available here:


For information of the controversy surrounding the kind of ‘universal suffrage’ stipulated by Beijing, the bone of contention in the Umbrella Movement, please refer to:

Umbrella Sociology

Alistair Fraser

In English, the noun umbrella comes from the Latin umbella, meaning flat-topped flower, and from umbra, meaning shade: a flower that protects. In written Chinese, however, the character used for umbrella is not a noun, but a verb, ‘to block’ (遮, ze). While these roots share a common idea – of defence and safety – they also allude to divergent meanings. One is static and organic, the other mobile and proactive. Both represent something important about the protests.

While some – particularly international – reports have depicted the Umbrella Movement as being relatively homogenous and cohesive, the protests have in fact been extremely heterogenous. As the contributions to this issue demonstrate, participants have been focused on action rather than reaction; on individual acts of resistance rather than a unifying narrative. Indeed, Cantonese-speaking friends tell me that few people actually used the terms ‘umbrella’ or ‘movement’ in everyday discussions. Conversations are more grounded in action: ‘Did you occupy Admiralty?’ ‘Did you sit-in?’ This gap between representation and reality shows the value of sociology in making sense of unfolding social and political events.

In 1959, the sociologist C Wright Mills published a now-famous book called The Sociological Imagination. In it, Mills outlines a way of thinking that links the micro-level of everyday life with the macro-level of structural change, between what he calls ‘private troubles’ and ‘public issues‘. By shuttling back and forth between these levels, Mills thought it possible to relate large-scale political and economic shifts to personal decision-making. Cultivating this approach means not only an ability to analyse the emergent aspects of social life – of history ‘in-the-making’ – but also in grasping the significance of individual action in altering its path. In demonstrating the contingent nature of life, Mills thought that sociology could promote social activism.

Fifty-five years later, this way of thinking remains an indispensable tool in understanding current social change and, importantly, one not reserved solely for academics. In many ways the Umbrella Movement involved the rapid development of a kind of mass sociological imagination, in which a direct connection between individual choice and structural change became obvious for a sizable population. The private troubles of individuals, families and communities became fused with the public issue of political representation, and it became clear that action was possible.

The forms of involvement varied tremendously – from steadfast occupiers to online translators, quiet contributors to logistical coordinators – but were nonetheless unified under the banner of collective action. In this sense, the English roots of umbella and umbra feel particularly apt – these actions represent the flowering of an organic form of grassroots politics that is both powerful and protective. This unifying umbrella brought together people from varying backgrounds and political stripes, and created space for a range of minority groups to have a voice.

Indeed, what has often been missed is that this particular social movement has been a particularly social movement. Though most came to the protest sites for the politics, many stayed for the community. In a city so keenly focused on individual success, where living spaces are so incredibly cramped, the occupy sites were a revelation. Collectively, participants redefined the space – from a spaghetti-junction choked with taxis, buses and fumes to a spontaneous space of quiet defiance and interdependent conviction. The expansive spaces of the protests sites also proved to be fertile soil for the growth of creativity, as art and resistance came together in the form of sculpture, banners, and DIY post-its.

Peering beneath this umbrella, however, reveals a complex range of social divisions: the creation of community is both inclusive and exclusive. During the height of the protests, suddenly you were in or out, for or against, yellow or blue. In this sense, the Chinese verb for umbrella, ‘to block’, helps to clarify more than the English. The protests were mobile, active, defiant – in turn, tensions based on gender and social class became exposed, social boundaries were solidified, rumour and conspiracy flourished. What this shows is that, among other things, social movements must be understood not just at a broad level of abstraction, but at the level of the individual; they are social, human struggles above all.

And this, to me, speaks of why we need sociology. Making sense of major world events through their impact on daily life; shuttling between history, biography and culture; seeking out the cracks between representation and reality: this is the stuff of the sociological imagination. C Wright Mills would, I’m sure, have approved of the Umbrella Movement, as a powerful demonstration of both the ‘task’ and the ‘promise’ of sociology that he spoke of so passionately More than asking what sociology can do for the Umbrella Movement, though, we might ask what the Umbrella Movement can do for sociology. We might, for instance, think of a form of ‘umbrella sociology’ that is both protective yet engaged, unifying yet mobile, civic yet creative. Now that’s an umbrella I’d like to get under.

This blog is an edited version of the article ‘Umbrella Sociology’, published in the International Institute for Asian Studies Newsletter, No.70, Spring 2015. Republished with permission. For the original article, which introduced a special feature on the Umbrella Movement, see: