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PHOTO ESSAY: Hong Kong’s democratic dreamers

Hong Kong
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© Priyanka Boghani

It’s been over a week since the Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) movement, or the campaign of civil disobedience, swept through the city where I grew up. Instead of the usual bustling scenes of trams, taxis, cars, green-and-red minibuses and yellow double-deckers clogging the streets, there is now a sea of democratic dreamers.

They are pushing for something that Hong Kong was promised during its handover to China: universal suffrage. With recent announcements made from the Chinese government that Hong Kong would not gain the right to vote for their Chief Executive without a Beijing committee screening the candidates first, people – most of whom are students – have resorted to civil disobedience as the only way to make their voices heard.

What has resulted is a display of an almost utopian peaceful protest. Garbage is neatly organized in recycle bins, blue tents are pitched with food and medical supplies, and when the heat and humidity reach unbearable temperatures, a few students take it upon themselves to gently use spray guns with water to cool their fellow protesters.

Outside the government’s office, there is a wall of multi-coloured post-its named the ‘Lennon wall’, with words of encouragement scribbled on them. There are decorated umbrellas, a projector screening messages for Hong Kong’s protesters from around the world and posters with quotes from famous freedom fighters from around the world. Large banners are strung across footbridges with lyrics from Les Miserables: ‘Do you hear the people sing?’

If anything, the streets have turned into a cultural exhibition.

The most symbolic icon yet has been the umbrella. It has been used to shield protesters when police used teargas and pepper spray on Day One, when it rained and when the harsh morning heat drummed down. Umbrellas are scattered along the roads, some upturned, some housing a sleepy student and, most recently, one on a statue, symbolizing the kind spirit of the protester who extended his yellow umbrella over a police officer during a downpour.

There have been scuffles and threats of disorder, too. Over the weekend, gangs with blue ribbons made their way through the crowds in Mong Kok, a district in Hong Kong’s Kowloon area, tearing down protesters’ tents.

Police and Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive, CY Leung, also threatened to use ‘appropriate force’ if the streets were not cleared near the government offices.

Today, protesters’ numbers are dwindling; some are taking shifts to boost attendance, while others go home, shower, attend class or go to work. And while negotiations take place behind closed doors, there is still a strong sense of determination on the streets.

Priyanka Boghani

Tens of thousands of people gathered outside Hong Kong government offices in Admiralty on 29 September, blocking a thoroughfare.

Priyanka Boghani

On the morning of 30 September, protesters who camped overnight used the symbolic umbrella to shield themselves from the harsh sun in Causeway Bay. ‘I’m missing my class this morning because my fellow friends here need numbers in the morning. Many people go home in the morning to freshen up and the numbers dwindle,’ said an 18-year-old student.

Priyanka Boghani

The protest sites has turned into a cultural exhibition, a project screening messages from people all around the world. ‘At the moment, we’re not afraid of CY Leung’s remarks. We’re all together, that’s what matters,’ said Ling, a 21-year-old student whose mother had repeatedly implored her to come home and go to school.

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani

The umbrella-man statue stands barricaded. Isaac, aged 24, stands next to it with his law books. He works in the first aid camp and has been taking shifts in the day. ‘I’m now feeling quite pessimistic about the outcome of these protests. I hope there is progress from this discussion with the government,’ he says.

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani

The demonstrators clean up after themselves, recycle waste and ensure that the streets that they’re sleeping on are clean.

Priyanka Boghani

What’s usually a busy street turned into a four-way pavement. As one citizen observing the protest said, ‘Some parts of Hong Kong look apocalyptical. Is this a sign of the end nearing? The end of Hong Kong’s one-country, two systems.’

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