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2019-20 Hong Kong protests: Storytelling through the best and worst times

By Heidi Lee

When I watched the Hong Kong Police Force fire tear gas into a crowd of  protestors through a livestream, I couldn’t have guessed how their actions against a controversial extradition bill would turn into a call for greater independence. Nor could I predict the the government tightening its control on press freedom, shattering of my hopes and dreams as a journalist.

Hong Kong’s summer of 2019 protests are only the latest in a long history of our struggle for independence, that all stem from our city’s colonial history. 

Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula were ceded to Britain in 1842 and 1860 respectively; the rest of Kowloon, the New Territories and 235 surrounding islands were leased to Britain from the Qing Empire in 1898 for a term of 99 years.

At the end of those 99 years in 1997, Hong Kong became an autonomous region whose political and cultural influence was split between Britain and China. Citizens enjoy greater freedom, democracy and trade compared to mainland China, made official by the One Country; Two Systems policy. 

I was born in Hong Kong in 2000, during a time where the city was growing fast as one of the world’s top financial hubs; the flashing traffic lights and impatient honking harmonizing with the endless human chatter to create a hustling symphony. 

But behind the luxurious facade, fears grew for the termination of the One Country; Two Systems policy. When the policy expires in 2047, Hong Kong will fall fully under the authority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

In the Hong Kong government’s anticipation of 2047, I was forced to learn Mandarin despite my first language (and that of the majority of Hong Kongers) being Cantonese. I was taught a Han-Chinese history that didn’t align with the narratives taught by my family. 

Growing up, I remember hearing the rhetoric of “Hong Kong belongs to China.” But I was too young to understand why that sentence made me uncomfortable.

Novelist Jeannette Ng’s article Beyond Authenticity: the Spectre of Han Hegemony calls out the notion that there is only one acceptable cultural narrative and identity for all Chinese people.

As modern China is built on the Qing empire’s colonial possessions—including Tibet, East Turkestan and Southern Mongolia—China claimed “sole authority and ownership” of minority ethnic groups in those regions, which “reinforces Han hegemony,” Ng writes. 

I was sent to Canada in 2015 to escape the seemingly inevitable Han-Chinese cultural assimilation, or “Sinicization,” of my city. The Umbrella Revolution–A protest for universal voting rights originally promised by the CCP–that failed a year earlier was evidence to that fate. 

I would say I was from Hong Kong whenever people at my new school asked. “So you’re like… Chinese right?” was the typical response. International students from mainland China, were unaware that my mother tongue had always been Cantonese, mocked my Mandarin. 

But in spite of the unpleasant memories, I was determined to learn more and apply myself to journalism. I wanted to better represent the Hong Kongers who are so often misrepresented. I wanted to continue to make a change even though I was not physically there, especially after I witnessed the willingness of protesters my age to defend our city. 

I will never ever forget how hurt and hopeless my father looked when I told him I wanted to raise my voice through reporting for our people. He was afraid that the massacre at the Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989–when tens of thousands were killed by Chinese troops–would happen again with me in the crosshairs. 

My family suggested I take advantage of my Canadian passport, assimilate into western society and leave my life in Hong Kong behind. My dream has become a secret to my grandparents because of their pro-China stance.    

I was surprised when my journalism courses taught me against being an activist, and that I shouldn’t report on issues I’m too personally involved in unless I remain objective. But how can I be unbiased while watching people die in my hometown? 

I attended rallies in Canada to stand in solidarity with Hong Kong—vocalizing my support for the protesters as journalists are taught not to. However, when I learned that my best friend was arrested in Hong Kong, it became difficult to see the point; I felt at that time that no matter how hard I tried to raise international awareness, nothing would ultimately free my peers as violence escalated every day back home. 

On Nov. 19 2019, journalist Desmond Cole shared his story with myself and classmates when he came to Ryerson to talk about the line between journalism and activism, and his identity as a Black man in Canada. 

“My relationship with Hong Kong allows me to be a perfect fit to tell stories that journalists here could not”

“The purpose of journalism is to amplify voices that otherwise go unheard and stand up for those who are unable to do so themselves,” he said. “If journalism isn’t about justice, then I don’t want it.”

My relationship with Hong Kong allows me to be a perfect fit to tell stories that journalists here could not. My age, background and personal experiences don’t make me biased; they allow me to connect with my sources on a deeper level. 

My role should never be to tell people to stand with Hong Kong. Forcing myself or anyone to be an activist is no different than the CCP government forcing their way on HongKongers.

Instead, as a HongKonger with access to Canadian platforms, I am here to tell stories about the city that I love. My knowledge and experience can change how HongKongers are portrayed in the media. It is more than just a former British colony or a Chinese-owned financial hub. After I wrote a few stories for Hong Kong Free Press, an independent English online newspaper in Hong Kong, the path became clearer. 

Hong Kong is where all walks of life come together to fight for a cause. The unity in the community and their heroic acts illustrate an epic chapter in history. 

In his book City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong, Australian lawyer Anthony Dapiran wrote that “at the barricades of the city on fire, a new Hong Kong identity was forged.” 

I can still vividly remember the sublime moments of the 2019 protests—Lennon walls filled with creativity and encouragement; when protesters joined hands and formed “the Hong Kong Way.” They took their smartphones and lit up the night, and I heard the slogan “liberate Hong Kong” echoing in the city.  

I also remember a volunteer medic who got shot in the eye, the first protester who fell to his death, the twenty-one-year-old man who died during a clearance operation, a police raid on a local newsroom, violent clashes in the subway station, the 12 protesters who are currently detained in China. 

These are all painful losses that HongKongers equally share. 

They remind us that being a Hong Konger is not just how you look or the language you speak—it is not defined by race, but your love for this city. 

These experiences  define what it means to be a Hong Konger—a group of revolutionary people with the willingness to embrace our pain and strive for a better tomorrow.  For that kind spirit to be documented and represented accurately, journalism is needed more than ever during our best and worst of times.   

With files from YorkU Hong Kong Politics Awareness Group 

Heidi Lee is a news editor at The Eyeopener. 

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