The Elephant in the Room

Due to the escalation of protest activities on university campuses, Drexel University discontinued its Fall term programming in Hong Kong on November 14, 2019. The Office of Global Engagement and Education Abroad facilitated the safe departure of Drexel students after months of careful monitoring of the situation including guidance to students to avoid all protest activities.

So far, I have been willingly avoiding any discussion regarding the protests because I mainly wanted to focus on describing the things one can see in Hong Kong as a tourist. Nevertheless, I promised I would dedicate a post in presenting the protests the way I have experienced them as far.

Up until early November, the protests were mainly taking place twice a week on a regular basis. Sometimes, certain highways or train stations would close down (especially the central ones) as a result of vandalism or the government’s effort to retain the elaborate subway stations intact. Yet, at some point during my stay there, there was a sudden twist in the way events were taking place. Cases of violence were reported on both the protestor side and the Hong Kong police side. Videos of protestors getting shot point blank with rubber bullets came out. A policeman got shot with an arrow to the leg. Rumors about protestors having been found dead emerged as well. After some point, I could not determine which sources provided the truth for how violent the protests were actually becoming, so I can only talk about what I actually witnessed.

On Halloween night, there was a protest taking place very close to where I live, so I decided to go see what it is all about.  Many protesters were wearing their usual all-black attire along with the infamous Anonymous Guy Fawkes masks. The movie “Joker” had been released recently, and you could see many people wearing make-up similar to that shown in the movie. The protesters were yelling pro Hong Kong slogans again and again. About 200 feet ahead was a group of riot police well equipped with riot shields, rubber bullet guns and tear gas launchers. They were carrying banners on which it was written that if the crowd failed to disperse then they were going to throw tear gas. After a while, I decided to leave in order to get back home. On the way back I heard some loud noises and soon I began smelling some very weird smell in the air. It turns out it was tear gas. Since, I was quite far away, I only got exposed to a little bit of the gas so at first it wasn’t bad. Yet, after a while I felt a very uncomfortable sense inside my throat. I can only describe it as the burn you feel when you eat spicy food but imagine feeling that burn inside your nose and throat. Surprisingly enough, the gas got as far as the front of my apartment. I assume people directly exposed to the gas would have to suffer incredible pain.

The second very direct experience I had with the protests, was when the protestors seized most of the universities in Hong Kong (including HKU). As there was no room for studying in my 15 ft2 studio, I would usually just go study at the HKU library during most days. Thus, with finals approaching, I decided to pay a visit to the library once again during that time. Like always, I would take the subway to school, but this time there was a catch. I could not get off at the HKU station. All the elevators were blocked. So, I got off a bit earlier and decided to walk to campus. What I saw once I reached campus was extraordinary! The road outside the university was covered in thousands of laying bricks that were used to hinder any incoming vehicles. The footbridge right above the road was full of even more bricks that were placed on the ledges in order to be thrown down the road at will. Every single staircase/elevator leading to the main campus road had been barricaded off. The campus was almost entirely inaccessible. After a while, I managed to get through some debris and actually get to the main campus. There were a few protesters walking around here and there, but not much else. The pavement had been ripped off so that the bricks could be used for the barricades and the roadblocks. Hallways throughout the campus had been completely blocked by chairs and tables that had been put there. There was graffiti slogans written everywhere on the walls. The environment was reminiscent of an apocalyptic scenario.

When I got to the library I was actually quite surprised to see there was absolutely no one there (even though it was noon on a weekday). It turns out that most of the mainland Chinese students had already left while many international students were about to leave as well. We, the Drexel students, were about to follow…

Pok Fu Lam road. The main entrance to HKU campus.
Makeshift roadblock created by the protesters.

Subway station elevators getting damaged.

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