Sorry for the inconvenience
Well, it has been an interesting day. I've spent about three hours of it standing in queues, which I suppose is better than it could have been. The supposed flight to Dubai at 4pm turned out to be a non-starter, and eventually I was issued with a new boarding pass for the 2am flight tomorrow morning – 24 hours after the original one. When I first went to queue at the airline desk in the Departures hall at around 9.30am, the protesters were sitting in a large block in the centre of the Arrivals concourse downstairs, sporadically singing and chanting. The thing that struck me immediately is how young they all are; most would be in their late teens or early-to-mid 20s, I would think. All students. They don't want to live in a Communist state; and they don't want to be beaten up by the Police. Fair enough.
I've had some interesting conversations today, including with a young medical student from Shanghai, who was standing in the queue next to me. He told me that he is a product of China's One Child Policy, and that his mother was pregnant with a girl when he was about 12, but she was not allowed to have the baby and the family was very sad about it. He says he has no wish to marry or have a child of his own, because life for children is not pleasant – the main thing he is concerned about is the cruelty that he says is meted out at school, both by teachers and bullies. "And the food is often very bad quality for children, too. Many things are contaminated." He wants to move to Taiwan, and says many of his friends share his feelings.
At one point, the protestors on the level below began to sing, and he checked his phone and told me what they were singing. 'Maybe you know this song, it is a famous one? "Do You Hear The People Sing", it is called.' So we were serenaded by that popular West End (or Broadway, as the American press has it!) anthem, on and off. When I'd finally got my new paperwork, I went downstairs to see what was happening. There was actually quite a lot of singing going on – I came across a quartet of young women giving a rendition of a song I didn't recognise, reading the lyrics from their phones. They sounded like children in a school concert.
Everywhere I walked, young people smiled, offered me leaflets and apologised for the disruption. Above all, they were so polite. I was photographing posters on a kiosk when I was approached by a reporter, who said she was from The Guardian. She wanted to know what I thought about it all. I said I understood where these young people were coming from; I'd been following the story only vaguely before arriving in Hong Kong, and knew about the simmering resentment over the Extradition Bill, but not so much about their concerns with police brutality which, in my book, is not OK wherever it is perpetrated.
When I was a child, the adults seemed to talk endlessly about anti-Vietnam War protests. Meanwhile, closer to our Dublin home, the late 1960s and '70s was the era in which we had the IRA bombings euphemistically referred to as "Troubles". Rather more recently, we've lived through months of tear gas in the garden and roundabouts aflame, rocks vs. the rubber bullets that were whizzing about as we attempted to drive up and down the main road near our home in Bahrain. (Inevitably, people occasionally die as a result of being shot with rubber bullets; or they can lose their sight, as has happened to a nurse in Hong Kong recently). Our elder daughter was kettled and batoned by Police while protesting peacefully in London in December 2010. A hundred years earlier, Suffragettes were being treated brutally by Police and onlookers on the streets of London…. plus ça change.
There's so much to say about this subject, and not enough space. Suffice it to say, I think that as humans, in the 21st century we need to be far better at dealing with protests like this. Various messages that I received throughout the day suggested that the TV news coverage of these protesters made them seem rather scarier than I found them. Yes, they are disrupting the airport and that is certainly a major problem for both passengers and the authorities – but frankly, I think the airport could have handled things a great deal better. This evening, the protesters blockaded the entrance to Passport Control and Security – effectively stopping passengers from getting to their flights. But by then, most flights had been cancelled anyway, as the airport suspended check-in at 4.30pm.
At one point a group of young Western male passengers made a break for it and rushed the protesters from behind the barriers put in place by Airport Security to keep "us" separated from "them" (standing quietly behind their barricade of luggage trolleys!). There was a great kerfuffle as all the press photographers in the 'DMZ', or expanse of empty floor between the blockaders and the blockaded, surged forward to try and capture some good, violent action. But in fact there wasn't much, and I think the passengers may have succeeded in getting through to where they wanted to get to, though I lost sight of them. Then some of the protesters hurried over, pressing bottles of water on us and apologizing again.
Some more time passed…. I've missed out several things that I did today, including an afternoon trip to Kowloon on the MTR. Sometime around 10pm, (after the Buddhist monk had come to bless the protesters) I was tiredly looking on my phone for somewhere to spend the night, as the Regal Hotel was a) far too expensive, and b) fully booked and my flight had again been cancelled. An endless announcement played over the tannoy, telling us that "Hong Kong Airport is severely disrupted and all flights are now suspended. Would all passengers please leave the terminal as soon as possible."
As I scrolled through my phone while leaning against the wall in the concourse leading to the MTR station, masked young people kept approaching me with bags of chocolate bars and other snacks, and asking if I needed help with what I was doing. They were endlessly apologetic. Eventually I caught the MTR to Tsing Yi station, where there was a loud argument going on by the doors to the taxi rank. Two young men came and asked me where I wanted to go, respectfully requested the arguers to stop – apologised to me for the behaviour – and took me outside to a creaky local taxi. They instructed the driver in Chinese, and told me not to pay more than HK$30 for the ride.
Off we jolted to a hotel located in the middle of a container terminal, where there's only WiFi in the lobby, and one Green Teabag in my room. If I want breakfast in the morning, I must ask the Concierge, but it will be "only one drin, and one bret." Two sticks of half-melted KitKat for 11.30pm dinner – thank goodness I'd had that wrap from Pret at five o'clock. Rather different from the Executive Suite with mirrored cathedral ceiling last night. But 1/20thof the cost. To be honest, I'd have happily paid a bit more for something less monastic, but it would have been less novel.
It's really been a surreal day. (A few more pics on Flickr.)