UMBRELLAS IN BLOOM – Exclusive Interview With Jason Y Ng

Aurelio Porfiri

In 2014, a large group of Hong Kong people occupied certain areas of the city to protest against the government and to ask for universal suffrage. It was certainly a turning moment for the city.

In Umbrellas in Bloom. Hong Kong’s Occupy movement uncovered (2016, Blacksmith Books), Jason Y Ng describes what happened then.

We asked the author about the motivations, the frustrations, the achievements that a movement like this may have reached.

Can you explain with few words, what was the Umbrella Movement?

The Umbrella Movement is a prolonged mass protest in 2014 to demand universal suffrage in Hong Kong as it had been promised by the Chinese government. The protesters, led by a number of student activists including Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, occupied large swaths of the city’s financial and commercial areas and lasted for 79 days. 

Can you explain the difference, if any, between the people of the Umbrella movement and the nativists?

The movement involved a large number of protesters – over a million people across age groups and socio-economic classes. It represented a cross-section of society and demographics. Many of the younger participants were frustrated and angry with the fact that the 79-day movement ended without any political concessions by either Beijing or the Hong Kong government. Those angry youth split from the movement and began advocating for Hong Kong independence, among other things. Their campaign continues after the movement was over.

What was your involvement with the Umbrella movement?

I wore multiple hats during the movement. At first, I was there as a journalist and writer to cover the events. As the movement turned into a prolonged struggle, I began teaching at the main site and volunteering to bring food and supplies to the protesters. 

Why you have decided to write a book like this, after your other books about Hong Kong?

I didn’t think of writing a book during the movement as nobody expected the protest to last that long. However, my journalist/writer instincts compelled me to keep copious notes of daily events with or without a book in mind. After the movement ended, when I noticed the way the authorities tried to control the narrative by framing the protest as a subversive campaign funded by foreign governments, and when I noticed the way the nativists and other splinter groups began calling the protest a waste of time, I knew I had to do something. I knew I had to do the movement justice by reclaiming history.

What was the role of religious leaders during this protest? Were they supportive or not?

Cardinal Joseph Zen, former Bishop of Hong Kong appointed by Pope John Paul II, is an outspoken advocate of democracy in Hong Kong and religious freedom on the mainland. He was one of the high profile protesters who camped out at the main site during the Umbrella Movement. But Zen was by far the exception rather than the rule. Nearly all of the religious leaders in Hong Kong are either silent (for fear of Beijing’s reprisal) or pro-establishment (to curry favor with the political elite).

You have said in your book that there are no winners or losers from this protest. So was really worth it?

There are definitely winners and losers. The movement was one of the reasons why CY Leung, the highly unpopular chief executive of Hong Kong during the movement, lost his job. The biggest winners were the younger generations in Hong Kong. The Umbrella Movement has awakened them to the political reality in Hong Kong. Instead of doing what the government tells them to do – hunker down and go to school or go to work, go to the shopping mall and spend money, keep their heads down and don’t ask too many questions–they are now much more political engaged and ready to hold the ruling elite accountable. Is the movement worth it? I don’t have a shred of doubt in my mind.

There is a “next step”?

Nobody knows. Three years after the movement, Hong Kong citizens are still a bit “protested-out” and “protest-fatigued.” I think that’s okay. We need to take the time to heal, to regroup and to re-strategize. One of the reasons why the Umbrella Movement was powerful was its element of surprise. Nobody expected a single protest to blossom into a 79-day movement that would have such a lasting impact on society. I think–and indeed hope–that the next step will be every bit as surprising and unexpected. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.

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