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The Protest Families of Pro-Democracy Hong Kong

A protester detained by riot police

Dale de la Rey/AFP via Getty Images

A protester detained by riot police during a rally against the new National Security Law, Hong Kong, July 1, 2020

They met at a crossroads in October 2019. That day, Hong Kong’s people came out in their tens of thousands, to protest the proposed Extradition Bill, which would allow the territory to detain and transfer citizens to mainland China. Hoikei was there in the city’s southern Kowloon district of Yau Ma Tei by herself (she asked me to use a pseudonym to protect her from possible arrest or other official reprisal). A petite figure in a black T-shirt and balaclava, she was carrying an umbrella—not for rain, but to shield her face from surveillance cameras. This was the protesters’ uniform.

The boy was in black, too, and on that day, his fourteenth birthday, he had taken on the task of directing traffic. “The road is blocked,” he called out. “Cheung Sha Wan is this way.” He’d mistaken the name of the district the road led to. Hoikei had heard that some of the protesters were very young, that many of them lived in the outlying New Territories and rarely came to the city center. She suspected he was one of them.

Hoikei had also heard of some supporters offering protesters rides if either they didn’t have money to get home, or the government had imposed an informal curfew by closing public transportation earlier than usual. Within the movement, these people were called ga jeung, or “parents,” doing favors that only car-owning adults could. Often, these were one-off encounters, but sometimes these protest parents offered resources and emotional support as well.

Hoikei gave this boy her number. A few inches taller than her, he at first assumed they were the same age and asked, “How come you have a car?” (In fact, she was twenty-six at the time, though when I met her, over a year later, I saw how she could still pass for a university student.)

Hoikei, in turn, saved the boy’s number in her phone under the name lau sang—Mr. Lau—so that if the police ever got hold of her phone, they’d think he was a business contact. For his personal security, I will also refer to him as Lau.

They walked to the Prince Edward police station together. When they arrived, Lau put on his protective gear, and advised her to leave—already, earlier that day, police had fired tear gas rounds at protesters. The first time Lau had seen tear gas canisters, a few months ago, he remembered being amazed that something so small could produce so much gas. As he had only two plain black T-shirts, which he wore for the protests, he quickly learned that tear gas doesn’t wash out. His protesting clothes continued smelling of it, mingled with the scent of detergent.

They didn’t meet again for the first month after exchanging numbers but stayed in touch. Each week, she asked if he would be participating in a demonstration. He’d reply, “I’m going out today,” and “I’m back home now,” accordingly. She knew that some of the protesters didn’t want to get too close to others, didn’t want to share too much. She wasn’t sure she’d see him again.

*

There had been pro-democracy protests before. Since 1990, people have gathered every June in downtown Hong Kong to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing. People marched to protest a proposed National Security Bill in 2003, and there were the street sit-ins of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. None of these had seen demonstrations on the scale of the nearly two million participants—one in four Hong Kongers—who marched in the streets in June 2019. The protesters didn’t believe the government explanation that the Extradition Bill, proposed in February 2019, would apply to only a small number of people. Those on the streets saw it as an end to the city’s autonomy—a fast-forward to 2047 when the 1997 arrangement struck between the UK and China for Hong Kong to preserve its semi-autonomous system of governance will expire.  

After several months of street action and violent clashes between protesters and police, the government withdrew the bill, but in that time, the protesters’ demands had changed. In response to police brutality, mob attacks on civilians, and Hong Kong government inaction, they demanded more—the bill’s withdrawal, amnesty for arrested protesters, investigations into police brutality, an end to calling protesters “rioters,” and universal suffrage. 

Riot police officers standing guard

Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Riot police officers standing guard ahead of a pro-democracy march in the Central District of Hong Kong, June 9, 2020

Instead, the government allowed police to expand their armory, and four months after the first march, around the time Hoikei met Lau, an eighteen-year-old protester was shot in the chest with a bullet, at close range. The protesters had, by that time, coalesced into two camps: those who practiced nonviolence and the “valiants”—as they’re colloquially called—who believed that violence was warranted. Lau was one of the latter. Initially, there were sharp disagreements between these groups, and then a concerted effort followed to maintain unity among the ranks. 

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Not all Hong Kongers joined the front lines, but many became part of rapidly expanding mutual aid networks. I heard of a woman who took spare clothes down to the street, so that protesters could change into them. She then walked her small group of protesters past police, pretending that they were all family, just out for dinner. I heard of cars that stopped by protest sites, their owners opening the trunks to drop off bottles of water and umbrellas. 

Finally, Beijing stepped in. In June 2020, a year after the first mass protest, China’s legislature approved the National Security Law, wedging it directly into Hong Kong’s constitution. Under these new powers, Hong Kong’s most prominent opposition politicians have been detained on charges of conspiring to subvert state power, and denied bail. Jimmy Lai, founder of the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, was accused of colluding with foreign powers and arrested, his assets frozen. Protesters have been charged under laws that outlaw political speech and for shouting protest slogans that have been equated with inciting secession. Amid this atmosphere of repression and fear, some have started to inform on others, calling in to a new national security hotline.

*

One day during the protests, Lau didn’t respond to Hoikei’s texts, so she began to check social media posts, looking for him. As the repression escalated, she was worried the police would kill someone. She stared at the faces of those arrested that day, wondering if she could even remember what he looked like. He’d taken off his mask in front of her only once, and then briefly.

He replied three days later. “I was arrested. Didn’t you see me in the Telegram groups?”

The police had detained him for spray-painting the storefront of a Maxim’s bakery, one of a chain owned by a large conglomerate that had become a target for protesters after its founder’s daughter, Annie Wu, had criticized the protests before the United Nations Human Rights Council. Lau had run from the scene, but some passersby grabbed him and held him until the police arrived. They’d found a paint can and a hammer on him. (Five months later, he was charged with criminal damage, possession of an offensive weapon, and intent to damage property.)

Hoikei thinks it was after Lau’s arrest that he started to open up to her, as he saw that she cared. In this moment of fear, an informal family began to take shape.

Lau started contacting her more frequently. She began meeting up with him, too, together with her husband, nicknamed Kafai, and taking him out for meals. Between themselves, Hoikei and Kafai came to call Lau their “son,” an adoption informally processed through the protests. They gave him money to buy food—and, like parents, worried when he spent some of it on cigarettes.

They learned that Lau spent all his own pocket money on buying protective gear for his friends. Hoikei crowdfunded hundreds of dollars from her friends and acquaintances to support his activism. He claimed the outfits he bought were military grade, but Hoikei and Kafai felt it was more like protective gear for paintball games, nowhere near what the police had. Lau had wrapped his own full-face respirator—retailing for over a thousand dollars, it was gifted to him by a stranger on the street—in self-adhesive reflective tape to dazzle image-capturing equipment. He had learned this technique from reading threads on an online forum named LIHKG, which had morphed into a Reddit for protesters. Tips he picked up there on how to upgrade his civilian gear saved him from losing an eye to a police sponge grenade.

After his arrest, Lau took a class to learn how to bind wounds, practicing emergency medical techniques on a plastic dummy. He became a first-aider to injured protesters, bandaging cuts, splinting fractures, washing tear gas from people’s eyes. These skills even enabled him to treat an old man not involved in the protests who had simply fainted in the street nearby.

Lau’s best friend at school, Wazai, did the same course. The two had bonded after getting into a scrap when they were both in detention for not doing their homework. Now, aside from drinking and smoking together, they went protesting—equipped with gauze, saline solution, slings, and inhalers acquired with the prescriptions of asthmatic friends. Once, Lau saved Wazai from arrest when a police car stopped right by them. Lau grabbed Wazai by the arm and they sprinted off before the officer could get to him.

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About a week after his arrest, Hoikei got another call from Lau. He was panting; she could tell he was running. She thought the police must be after him again.

“Come and help me! Quickly!”

“Who’s chasing you?”

“My mum! She wants me to go home, but I don’t want to. I’ve run to the sports ground and she can’t see me. Come get me, I want to go to your place!”

“Why don’t you want to go home?”

“I will go back, but I don’t want to go now.”

Lau’s mother was a nurse who herself volunteered as a first-aider at the protests. They were fighting because Lau wanted to go near the front lines, where the action was, while she wanted him to stay with her, farther away. Hoikei told him he should message his mother to say that he didn’t want to go back now, but that he’d be back at 12:30 AM. She told him that’s what she’d done when she was a teenager, though this wasn’t in fact true.

*

A man receiving first aid

Miguel Candela Poblacion/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A man receiving first aid treatment after riot police pepper-sprayed a crowd inside the New Town Plaza shopping mall in Shatin, Hong Kong, May 13, 2020

It was January 2021 when I first met Hoikei and Kafai, at a fabric shop owned by Kafai’s parents. It was hard to find somewhere safe these days, he said, so they waited for the staff to leave and rolled down the grille on the storefront. Only then did they speak with me.

The couple had met as university students, on the streets during the Umbrella Movement of 2014. Now married, they weren’t planning on having kids, they said; Hong Kong just wasn’t safe.

When Hoikei first met Lau, Kafai was still serving out a hundred-hour community service sentence for his part in earlier protests. The unrest had divided Kafai’s family: when he’d got involved in the protests, his father had joined the other side, picketing the Apple Daily. At one point, his father even threatened to disown him.

By contrast, Hoikei’s family were pro-protest, and had supported her on a previous occasion she’d “fostered” a boy, sixteen years old, whose father beat him every time he went out protesting. Clearly traumatized, the boy would wake up his foster family, shouting in his sleep, “No! Don’t come closer!” and lashing out. He started seeing a counselor, paid for by 612, a relief fund that has raised millions of dollars for people arrested, injured, or harmed in the protests.

Hoikei and Kafai hadn’t heard the words ga jeung used before, in the “protest parents” fostering sense, until the latest round of street action in 2019. Previous protests had seen many small acts of aid, such as white-collar workers buying McDonald’s for protesters who slept in the streets during the Umbrella Movement. But this was a deeper commitment, more like raising a teenager.

When Lau dropped out of school, fifteen months after he started protesting, Hoikei and Kafai took him to work at their pet care business. He had not been good at school to begin with, and his grades got worse as he neglected study for protesting. He didn’t have many school friends.

Lau was not always easy to manage. He had a tendency to say whatever was on his mind, sometimes with little sense of personal boundaries. Once, Lau accompanied Kafai on a visit to a client who kept a lot of rescue animals in her cramped flat. Lau announced he could never live in such a small and dirty apartment. Kafai told him off as soon as they left, though usually he tried hard to coach Lau and give him cues, rather than lectures. But Lau was also a kind boy. He treated Hoikei’s cat scratches. And when she told him off for throwing cigarette butts on the ground, he started carrying around a little bag for them.

Kafai and Hoikei wanted Lau to be closer to his birth family, though they themselves had not been close to their families at Lau’s age either. Lau hadn’t told his parents too much about his activism, as he didn’t want them to worry. They supported nonviolent protest, and while Lau understood this attitude and believed that peaceful resistance was still important, he thought more extreme tactics were needed as well.

A week before Lau’s court hearing, I met him in another shop owned by Kafai’s parents. His hair had grown long into a Korean boy band hairstyle, and he wore shiny trousers and a black T-shirt with the words “hip-hop” printed on it in white. He told me he’d gone to his first demonstration when he was six years old, along with his father, to protest against the introduction of Chinese nationalist education in schools. Until the protests, Lau would usually have stayed at home on Saturdays. The demonstrations now occupied his weekends. They’d also given him purpose, fighting for Hong Kong’s future.

I asked him if he had any regrets. He said no, though he recognized that joining the movement as one of the more radical protesters had brought more problems for him. He had warned protesters two years younger than himself of the consequences of following his example. He had friends who made murals and protested in other ways, and he accepted that there were other forms of resistance.

He was also pessimistic about the immediate future of the protest movement. The government crackdown was too intimidating; there were too many others like him, waiting for their hearings. Some were preparing for the next stage of opposition; others were preparing to leave Hong Kong. He, too, had toyed with the idea of fleeing the region before his hearing. His father had enrolled him in a school in Germany, though he didn’t speak German and his English was poor. Serving a sentence would delay his start date. He chose not to leave, because to do so would make him forever a fugitive, unable to return to Hong Kong without facing yet more serious charges. He stayed, even though he felt he was the sort of person society didn’t want.

*

Lau had his last meal before his hearing with Hoikei and Kafai at his favorite diner. His ga jeung had little appetite, but Lau ate. They’d asked if he’d rather eat with his parents, who were also attending the court hearing, but he said he wanted to go with them. Instead of his usual attire, he dressed like Kafai, wearing a neat blue shirt and jeans. He smoked several cigarettes, and Hoikei said nothing.

Only blood relatives were permitted inside the courtroom, so Hoikei and Kafai waited in the corridor outside, along with some of Lau’s protest friends. The judgment came down in only twenty minutes. They knew the outcome was not good when Lau’s mother emerged, crying. Lau had been found guilty on all charges. He was placed in custody for the next three weeks, to give a social worker time to assess him and write a report, after which the court would decide his sentence.

When I caught up with Hoikei and Kafai a week later, they said Lau’s greatest fear was that everyone would forget him, especially a girl he liked, and he wondered if their relationship would survive his prison sentence. He wrote to his ga jeung often, the letters repetitive and sounding depressed—“It’s gray,” “I feel down.” Only occasionally did they find a flash of his sarcastic humor—“Although it’s National Security Education Day, we are still doing British military drills.” He signed all his letters “Mr. Lau,” closing with the message, “Stay strong!”

He was allowed two visitors for fifteen minutes a day; both his actual and his protest parents came regularly. He was the only boy on his block who got visits almost every day. Most of the young men there were gang members, and they stole his M&Ms. His parents helped him contact his friends and delivered his mail. Hoikei and Kafai hoped that Lau now understood how important his birth parents really were. A quarter of an hour a day was probably more time than he’d spent talking to his parents for the last year. “We’ve got to thank the Party for that,” joked Hoikei.

When Kafai first visited Lau in detention, he went with Lau’s mother. Kafai thought Lau seemed uncomfortable about this new connection between his two families, and sensed that Lau couldn’t be his real self in front of his parents.

When I went to visit Lau, it was with Lau’s father. He looked weary—Lau’s sentencing was the next day. He had only seen Lau a few times, since so many of his protest friends wanted to visit. I told him I thought Lau was mature for his age. His face remained impassive, and he flatly contradicted me: “He’s immature. How can anyone be mature at that age?”

I asked what he thought of Hoikei and Kafai. He said he didn’t mind that his son idolized them; nor did he have a problem with the protest movement as such. He thought the couple were good people, yet he had doubts about his son’s other friends. A medical examination had showed cannabis in Lau’s system, something that could affect his sentence. I said I thought Lau was a good person. “You could call him naive,” he replied. “Or stupid.”

He left me in the small waiting room while he saw Lau, next to a glass cabinet that displayed some examples of the exact items you could bring in: a small tube of Darlie toothpaste, a blue Bic ballpoint pen, and a 37gm-size packet of M&Ms. Twenty minutes later, he was back. When I asked what they’d talked about, he said Lau was worried about his best friend, Wazai, and asked his father to go see him. I got the sense that, to his father, Lau tended to put friends before family.

*

On the day of sentencing, both Lau’s families waited outside the courtroom in a corridor painted in dreary institutional colors, a notice about the 2003 SARS epidemic that no one had gotten around to removing still on the wall. This time, more of Lau’s extended family were there; his father had only told them about Lau’s arrest after he’d been found guilty. Lau’s grandmother cried, a tissue pressed to her eyes.

A man with a comb-over and large glasses approached Lau’s father, not an official but one of the many live-bloggers who followed protesters’ cases and posted the outcomes to Telegram groups. Since Lau was a minor, only his family could be admitted to the courtroom, and his name was kept private. The blogger was there to meet Lau’s parents and tell them about the organizations that could help them. 

Wazai was there, too. Lau’s father said that his son wanted Wazai in the courtroom, and then whispered to me, “Today, he’s a cousin.” I heard him ask Wazai if he wanted to come over for dinner, to eat seafood—usually bought as a treat in Hong Kong. He also spoke to Hoikei and Kafai, telling them he knew about Lau’s weed use; later, they told me they’d cautioned him not to smoke too much (“What’s too much?” he’d said). The father also told them that the girl Lau was writing to didn’t want to receive his letters anymore. “I’ll leave it to you to tell him,” he said to Kafai and Hoikei.

We were still talking when Lau appeared. He was flanked by police officers on either side, holding him by the arms and marching him to the courtroom. I barely recognized him: gone was the long hair and earring; he was in the same clothes as his first hearing. “Stay strong!” Hoikei called out.

The court ordered another report to assess whether Lau was a suitable candidate for a correctional facility for drug users. His sentencing was again postponed.

The party moved to the parking lot to wait for Lau’s police van, taking him back to detention, to come out. It was raining hard when the van emerged. They all called out: “Stay strong, Mr. Lau!”

The van turned out of the lot and stopped before the traffic light. Lau’s mother, unsure if her son had heard or seen us, walked up to the van and called to him. Ten police officers immediately surrounded her, yet she didn’t walk away, staying by the van’s side until one of them shouted that she was now officially warned.

We didn’t speak any more to one another, but knew to disperse, walking away in groups of four or fewer, so that the police wouldn’t charge anyone for violating the coronavirus regulation against public gatherings.

A week later, I visited Lau after his preliminary sentencing hearing, together with Kafai. Through the glass partition, Lau was the most animated I’d seen him, his eyes fixed on Kafai’s. I could only hear Kafai’s side of the conversation—disjointed updates for someone already familiar with his life. He spoke about the indie band My Little Airport’s upcoming album, about his own father who had just come out of hospital after having a stroke, the Mother’s Day flowers he could send on Lau’s behalf, a plan to go to the seaside and pick up rubbish with Wazai.

Kafai passed the phone over, and Lau told me his days were endless loops. He was happiest in these fifteen minutes when he had visitors, after which his mood spiraled down until the next day. He said he still didn’t regret what he’d done, only what he hadn’t—the novels he hadn’t read, the relationships he hadn’t developed.

There was no clock—we only knew our fifteen minutes were up when a guard appeared. We left some writing paper with a guard for Lau to get later. On the way out, we passed a woman with graying hair, clutching five bags of M&Ms.

*

Mike Lam speaking to the press outside a Hong Kong police stattion

Lam Yik/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Mike Lam, a pro-democracy business owner, speaking to press outside Ma On Shan police station after he was charged, along with scores of other activists, with breaches of the National Security Law, Hong Kong, February 28, 2021

People are no longer gathering in large numbers to protest these days. Hong Kong police arrested more than 10,000 people over the course of the 2019–2020 protests, and a quarter of them currently face charges. There have been more than six hundred convictions so far. A whole cohort of protesters are either already in prison, waiting for their hearings, or know someone who is.

Occasionally, some are still posting on forums, calling on people take to the streets again, but few now respond. Some former protesters have already left the country—such as the prominent activist Nathan Law, and the other boy Hoikei had helped, who fled to London, fearful he would be charged.

Friends have asked why Kafai and Hoikei continue to look after Lau, instead of simply referring him to social workers. “If we want to make a change,” Kafai wrote me recently, “we need some actions in person.” With the National Security Law in force, the new slogans of protest are anodyne—they need to be. Instead of “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” people say “Drink water” and “Sit up straight” to one another. But these are understood as statements of solidarity. As political speech is restricted, the everyday has become political.

In mid-May, Lau was sentenced to a term in a correctional facility for drug addicts. He thinks he’ll be out in November. His birth family still wants him to leave the region after he’s released. Kafai and Hoikei will miss him if he goes, but they want him to learn more, see more. Lau himself is unsure whether to stay or go. If he remains in Hong Kong, he told me, then even if he can’t get back into the school system, he wants to find something to do. He wants to be part of society.

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