In mid-October of 2011, as the Occupy movement was springing up in more than eighty countries around the world, a crowd of protesters gathered in the public atrium of the HSBC headquarters on 1 Queen’s Road, in the Central district of Hong Kong. They put up anti-capitalist banners and began an occupation of the building. A core group of eight to twenty people ended up living there, forming an autonomous collective; the bank building, they quipped, had excellent feng shui. The squatters identified as anarchists, but they weren’t expressly trying to attack the institution above their heads. Their aim was to change the power structures that governed it. So they tinkered with the space and set up a miniature tent city, complete with a library and a kitchen. They made music, deliberated on political affairs and ideas, and distributed excess food, blankets, and other supplies to the surrounding community. At one point, they stopped talking to the press entirely. The occupiers remained at HSBC for more than ten months, until September, 2012, when they were evicted.
This September, I met with some members of the original collective. They were lounging around the edge of an occupied road in the Mong Kok district, which was then a stronghold of the pro-democracy movement that had begun blocking off some of Hong Kong’s main arteries in protest. “One of the problems of occupying a highly symbolic financial center is that people thought it was supposed to be a spectacle. We never wanted ours to appeal to the media in that way,” a thirty-year-old named Nin Chan told me, as he spun reggae records on a turntable for the group. “What we wanted to see was an exodus from the centers of power.”
Chan, who sported a goatee and a punk T-shirt that revealed a few tattoos, thinks and speaks like a theorist. Before Occupy, he was a graduate student and an essayist, with a background in literature, sociology, and philosophy. He and his friends had arrived in Mong Kok in the weeks after the start of protests led by the student groups Scholarism and Hong Kong Federation of Students, along with a group calling itself Occupy Central with Love and Peace. They were protesting the decision by the government in Beijing, on August 31st, to essentially give itself the right to vet candidates for Hong Kong’s first popular election, scheduled for 2017, and eventually to appoint its leader. Demonstrators established encampments outside the local government’s offices in the Admiralty district, just east of Central; at nearby Causeway Bay; and at Mong Kok, three and a half miles away, across the harbor. The anarchists usually hung out at the margins of the Mong Kok occupation, throwing laid-back parties or hosting performers; on one occasion, a band rapped protest songs in Cantonese.
Following months of ups and downs, the police, backed by a court injunction, have announced that they will begin clearing the Admiralty encampment on Thursday morning; they cleared Mong Kok two weeks earlier. But while Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is imperilled, the anarchists have simply carried on with the same approach they’ve had since 2011. After their forced removal from the HSBC building, in 2012, they consciously turned away from the routines of the pro-democracy movement, such as the annual July 1st rally. In a neighborhood near Mong Kok, they opened a book- and mattress-filled space that they called an “infoshop,” as well as a vegetarian-food coöperative that allows customers to set their own prices. They bonded with migrant domestic workers and dockworkers during a strike in 2013, and, earlier this year, some crossed the strait to join Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, which was protesting that state’s agreement with China to liberalize trade and industry ownership. More recently, they took part in a series of demonstrations against controversial development and construction projects—luxury properties and retail spaces that were designed to integrate the economies of Hong Kong and southern China, and that threatened to displace villagers and farmers in border areas.
At Mong Kok, the anarchists didn’t set up their own camp; instead, they moved fluidly along the occupied road, heading wherever the music was, away from the crowds and the centers of activity. Their numbers fluctuated between twenty and thirty musicians, writers, artists, workers, and students, who sometimes referred to themselves as kaifong (“folks in the neighborhood”). They spent time chatting with curious local residents, and threw street parties inspired by notions of leisure and friendship in the context of resistance. While the pro-democracy movement continued to agitate for specific changes—a repeal of Beijing’s decision (along with an apology), a more open and participatory nomination process for Hong Kong’s chief executive position, and, at one point, the resignation of the current leader, Leung Chun-ying—the anarchists made pamphlets with covers that read, “Who said we needed a chief executive?”
The anarchists shared some of the protesters’ visions, like land justice and welfare overhaul, but not their desire to seek change through established channels. They were unenthusiastic about calls for democracy and electoral reform when Hong Kong’s capitalist system, which they describe as toxic, would remain. These divisions led to tensions, at times, with the more combative and doctrinaire activists in Mong Kok, who tended to regard the anarchists as lacking in zeal. At one point, the anarchists rolled out a ping-pong table and prepared a hot-pot dinner in the streets, inviting other protesters to share the meal. One of the anarchists, a vocalist named Leung Wing-lai, who goes by Ah Lai, told me that the dinner was intended to challenge the authorities by bringing an element of everyday life into the occupied streets, thereby signalling that “this is how we’re going to carry on.” But some protesters were critical of the idea, and the dinner quickly attracted a hostile crowd, led by a group of self-described “radicals,” many of whom belong to a nativist clique that had been one of the more aggressive forces at Mong Kok. They accused the anarchists of trivializing the struggle and turning it into a carnival, and went so far as to distribute a poster that labelled Ah Lai a Chinese Communist Party informant.
“It feels like the ‘proper’ thing to do is to conduct yourself with a certain amount of gravity: you can’t have fun, because people are getting tear-gassed,” Chan said. “But this is our life…. It’s not peripheral to what we believe in.”
The crusade for democracy in Hong Kong, in its current form, is expected to end on Thursday. The pro-democracy protesters have put up a final show of resistance, turning up in large numbers on Wednesday night, a week after they reclaimed a major road in Admiralty following an aggressive foray by police. Others have taken part in fasting, in twenty-eight-hour rotations, in reference to September 28th, when police used unprecedented amounts of tear gas on protesters. But last week, too, Alex Chow, the twenty-four-year-old secretary-general of the Federation of Students, labelled some of the new tactics a “failure” for not meeting their stated aim of “paralyzing government.” Meanwhile, the co-founders of Occupy Central with Love and Peace turned themselves over to authorities, in an attempt to “bear the legal consequences” of the months-long unauthorized assembly. They were released without arrest.
The anarchists were already avoiding the Mong Kok encampment after the hot-pot incident, and, with more trouble in the offing, they have returned to the work they were doing before the protests began. Their band (they call the genre “loosely psychedelic folk”) recently took part in a joint concert and farmers’ market, in collaboration with villagers facing displacement from the government’s development plan. The action posed no direct threat to the authorities, but the anarchists have always seen their fight as a long-term one, and a part of their daily lives. “Elections are where all the desires gravitate,” Chan told me, back in the heyday of the Mong Kok occupation. “But everything needs to change.”
This piece was published by The New Yorker.