17 hours. I was trapped at the airport in Hong Kong waiting for my flight back to the U.S. I hadn’t had any sleep in the airport lounge, as I’d been listening to the distant cries of protestors that hadn’t stopped throughout the night.
Five days ago, around the beginning of August, I’d been excited to go to Hong Kong as a little vacation after completing two years of service with the Peace Corps in China. I was taking a bullet train from Chongqing, where I’d been living for the past 2 years, to Guangdong and connecting from there, where I’d be meeting a friend at our Airbnb. Of course, I’d been aware of the protests, but, up until that point, they were mostly peaceful.
The protests started only a couple months ago with Hong Kong’s extradition bill (meaning to extradite or deport a person accused of a crime). For the uninitiated, the protests were in reaction to the potential weakening of Hong Kong’s sovereignty under the 50-year plan of “one country, two systems.” When Britain released Hong Kong back to China in 1997, it was understood that the transition would be a 50-year process that would allow a gradual reintroduction to the mainland, but would also permit Hong Kong to maintain its own governing system.
Up until June 2019, this plan was guaranteed under a “constitution” called the Basic Law. However, that law was significantly weakened after its inception. The extradition bill would allow the Hong Kong government to detain people wanted in countries and territories with which it has no formal extradition agreements, including mainland China and Taiwan. This was interpreted as a threat to Hong Kong’s democracy and a violation of the agreement because if passed, the law would allow anyone within Hong Kong to be deported and detained in the mainland. (Ives, 2019)
When I first arrived, it was already past 9 p.m. on Sunday night, and I quickly caught a taxi to my Airbnb. I was keenly aware of where the protests would be happening and chose a place that was close to the US embassy just in case. The embassy had established an online alert system for American citizens, and I checked it almost religiously to make sure my friend and I would be safe. Little did I know…
The first two and a half days were relatively uneventful. My friend was only staying a short while, so the rest of my week-long vacation would be spent alone. On the day of her departure, I took her down to meet her bus to the airport while I arranged to meet my tour guide. I’d signed up for a food tour of Hong Kong and arrived early at the meetup point, only to find I was the only one who was going to be on the tour.
My guide took me to an amazing gourmet restaurant where he told me about each dish and its history. That’s when I found out he was a journalist and food critic who used to write for Bon Appetit and other publications. I asked him a lot about what was going on in the protests, figuring that a journalist may have a different perspective. He confirmed my suspicions.
“China is flexing its power,” he said. “People are calling for Carrie Lam [the President of Hong Kong] to step down, but she can’t. She’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. Hong Kongers are used to their freedom of speech, and they view mainland Chinese as being brainwashed. They don’t want that to happen to them. Hong Kong is not just Han Chinese. The people here are multicultural and multinational. China won’t be able to govern Hong Kong as they do in the mainland.”
I felt a deep sorrow then, imagining if suddenly, my freedom of speech was torn from me. My guide kindly walked me back to Mong Kok, where I’d been staying, and told me to be wary of the police.
“Don’t trust any of them,” he said.
I stuck to the sidewalk, looking at the ground, as I walked back to my hostel, until suddenly, someone shouted something. Merchants were scrambling to close the shops, pulling down shutters, and others were sprinting down the street. I was swept up in the crowd as a wave of people dressed in black descended on the pavement. Cars drove through the crowd, several people were waving giant American flags, but I couldn’t hear anything. The chanting was deafening. Most of the protestors were young, around college-aged, dressed head to toe in black with masks covering either half or all of their faces.
I couldn’t run. I tried my best to navigate the crowd until finally, I broke free and rushed back to my room.
The next day, I slept in late, exhausted from yesterday’s events. I went down and got breakfast from the same café I’d been eating at for the past few mornings before setting out to explore more of the city. But something was different. I checked the embassy notice, and it said that a protest was scheduled for later that day, so I figured that I needed to leave the area until it was safe.
I spent most of the day shopping for souvenirs until dinnertime. Most of the shops remained closed for the entire day, even though it was only a Wednesday, but I figured it was to deter opportunistic looters.
It was when I was on the subway to return to Mong Kok that something happened.
I was seated across from what appeared to be a young couple. The boy appeared to be around 20 years old and the girl perhaps a bit older. He was wearing a black shirt and dark blue jeans with wire-rimmed glasses and was chatting quite amicably with the girl seated next to him. It seemed very innocent and normal, until suddenly, the train just stopped right in front of the station I had to get off at. An announcement came on ordering us to stay seated, and the double doors opened.
A wave of SWAT officers stormed in, grabbed the boy by the neck, and slammed him to the ground with the girl screaming and crying next to him. One officer had a knee on his back and was shouting at him in Mandarin, accusing him of all sorts of things. Panic took hold, and I jumped out of my seat, and to my surprise, the officers stepped aside for me and the other passengers as we all rushed out of the train. In my haste, I noticed that several more officers were running in and violently apprehending people, but I didn’t dare stop. I sprinted out of there until I got to the station entrance, the cries of people moaning in pain still echoing in my ears.
The next day was a Thursday. I was going to go to Hong Kong island, the other half of the city (I’d been staying on the Kowloon side of the city) to get dim sum and try some famous dishes. I went down to get breakfast from a well-known café that served Hong Kong milk tea and pineapple sweet buns, but I noticed that the streets were eerily quiet. The only sound was when the odd car whizzed by. As I sat, munching on my bun, I saw something scrawled on a partition in the street.
“NO CHINA,” it read.
I looked around. It was everywhere. All along the walls in the underground passages, the subway entrance, the bridge, sidewalks, everywhere. “NO CHINA” in inky black paint. Flyers of Carrie Lam’s face were plastered alongside it. Each one proclaiming her faults, demanding her to step down, some calling her a “puppet for Beijing.” Then, my phone buzzed with another alert from the embassy. Tomorrow. It would be a city-wide protest.
I took the ferry to Hong Kong island and got off right in the middle of old Hong Kong. After spending most of the day there, I decided to return to Kowloon to get dinner and go home. I went back to my room to drop off my shopping but found myself in the middle of another demonstration. This time it was peaceful, with a few protestors giving speeches in English, announcing that they would take the demonstration to the U.S. Embassy. Ironically, at the time, I was texting a mainland Chinese friend who was concerned about my safety.
I told her I was okay, and she texted me back. “The Chinese government will bring Hong Kong back in line.”
It hit me like a bucket of ice water. What she was being told was a stark contrast to what I had been witnessing.
A few hours later, I went to the Lady’s Market, a famous marketplace in the area, to check out the wares, but when I arrived, the air was heavy with vapor. A mist clouded my vision, which I could only assume was the remnants of tear gas. I pulled out my phone to document what I was seeing, when an older lady dressed in black told me “No photo!” and jabbed a finger at an officer that was standing across the street. I quickly put my phone back in my bag when I saw a crowd of young protestors dashing up the street, police hot on their trail. Clouds of gas filled the air in their wake.
I quickly ducked into a noodle shop, figuring that I’d wait it out there. The sweet elderly women who ran the shop saw my harried expression and served me their best shrimp shumai. One lady assured me that I could stay as long as I wanted, a small amount of solace before I braved the crowds to go back to my Airbnb.
Friday night, the night before I went home to the U.S., was arguably the worst of my experience. I returned to my room early to take a nap and pack for my flight Saturday morning. I decided I was going to book a hotel near the gate so I could go straight to my flight, which meant I had to check in beforehand. I was starving so I decided to get a bite to eat before getting a cab to the airport. When I stepped out, however, it was totally silent. The once buzzing city had come to a standstill. All the shops were boarded up, yellow signs plastered on every square inch of concrete, and the air was thick with the vapor from the teargas. The entire street was barren; not even one car was in sight. Only the stray protestor could be seen milling about among the vacant streets and alleyways.
All the entrances to the shopping district were blocked off by a myriad of chairs held together with plastic zip ties.
I decided I was going to grab a meal and hurry back to my room, but not one restaurant was open. It was only barely 8 p.m. Most of the restaurants around there stay open until at least 3 a.m. on a normal day, so this was extremely unusual. Only one restaurant was open.
McDonald’s (of course).
After grabbing my burger, I decided then that I wasn’t going to wait anymore. I had to get out. Hauling my bags down to the street, I saw that some protestors were moving the blockades to let cars pass, and I finally got a cab. I was relieved when I got to the taxi, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet.
It was nearly 9 p.m. when I arrived at the airport. The cab driver didn’t accept payment and insisted I leave as soon as possible, a small blessing for what I faced when I stepped through the glass doors of the airport. A quiet chant grew louder and louder as I walked to the desk to check in.
“WE WANT FREEDOM! LIBERATE HONG KONG!”
People dressed in the characteristic all black outfits of the protestors were seated cross-legged on the floor in front of the arrivals terminal. They banged paper tubes, sticks, whatever else they could get their hands on, in time with their chants. I pushed my cart to the check in and stopped at a kiosk to put in my information. My flight had been delayed.
“Check in tomorrow at 7 a.m.,” it said. Shoot. I was going to miss my hotel reservation since it was behind the security check. I wasn’t the only one either. The attendant told me that all the flights for the day had so far been delayed, but she assured me I could check in tomorrow. I made my way through the chanting crowd, past arrivals, to the airport lounge.
When I finally managed to find a seat, I looked at my phone to try and check in online, but I was shocked to find my flight had been grounded. That entire night, I couldn’t sleep at all. Completely consumed by anxiety, I ended up staying awake for more than 17 hours. The attendant at the lounge told me I only had to tell the check-in desk what happened to my flight, and they could arrange a transfer for no cost.
The next morning, I sprang up and rushed to the check in, relieved to find that the protestors had almost completely cleared out. It would be nearly three hours before I was able to get on a transfer flight back to the states, but when I finally was able to go to my gate, an airport security officer was waiting for me. When I made it through the security checkpoint, he grabbed my carry-on and ordered me to follow him.
“Get straight on the plane. Don’t look back.” he said.
And I did.
This entire experience, though chaotic, was not regrettable. Most of my experience was good, in fact. At the time, I didn’t see the protests as a bad thing either. I thought of it as my bearing witness to history being made more than anything. It was just a little too close for comfort. I feel like while we all can see what is happening to Hong Kong in the news, it’s very different to actually witness the citizens of Hong Kong fight tooth and nail for their freedom. And it got me to question the biases that the news media puts on the events they report on, especially when comparing the events unfolding in front of my eyes with what mainland Chinese outlets were saying. Quite possibly, my favorite part was seeing people of all different races, religions and backgrounds come together under the same banner for the same righteous cause, which is something I hope to see for the rest of the world someday.
Note: The background provided in this piece on the Hong Kong protests and the controversial Hong Kong extradition bill was based on this New York Times article.