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The Hong Kong Tapes: “I’m white, I’m not going to get touched”

The Hong Kong Tapes are a series of conversations with Australians living and working in Hong Kong, a region currently under immense duress. The opinions expressed are their own.

Tape two: Matt*

On a day-to-day basis as an expat, I’m not impacted too much. But my case is going to be very different to a local’s.

For me, I’m white. I can go to the protests and I know I’m not going to get touched. Locals have to think twice about their transport and the areas they’re going through, because the police might grab any of them at any time.

I keep track of the protest schedule and check Twitter to see the hotspots so I don’t walk into anything unexpected, but besides that, life goes on for me and most of the locals.

On the weekend I was walking through Victoria Park in Causeway Bay and kids were playing basketball and soccer and people were walking and eating lunch.

Everyone’s trying to get on with their lives as much as they can, but in general things are a lot quieter around the city – less people out and about after dark.

But when the media cuts up these stories, you see absolute chaos.

Don’t get me wrong, chaos is exactly what it is in some areas.

Some boys I work with showed me photos of Mong Kok and Kowloon, and it looks like a disaster zone.

In the last couple of weeks, it’s been kicking off big time on Kowloon side. There’s been no huge protests because the police won’t approve them anymore – and most people won’t come out because they know there’ll be trouble.

The island side is a little bit less impacted, but as it’s gotten worse, the government has closed the train stations by 10pm or even earlier. You used to be able to get a train until midnight. Last week in Causeway, the stations were empty by about 8:30pm.

It’s an unofficial curfew.

When protestors first tried to disrupt the trains, they totally blocked the train network and I ended up working from home.

Mid-November was probably the craziest. We had like three or four consecutive days of strikes that disrupted transport.

On the first day, a man told me he usually takes an hour and a half to get to work. He had travelled four hours and was still on the other side of the water on Kowloon side. When he gave up, it took him five hours to get home.

One day there was a protest in Tai Kwun during lunch while I was at the office.

“Are you going?” one of my co-workers said, “they’re coming, they’re coming.”

I was like, “what are you talking about?”

“Oh, the protestors are coming!”

This guy is Kenyan, so I thought he would have seen worse things than protests, but when I asked why it mattered, he seemed shaken.

“Aren’t you leaving, aren’t you leaving?” he said. “They’re coming!”

“It’s fine, I see it every weekend.”

I don’t know if they’d seen the protests yet or not, but the whole office was scared. They all ended up leaving.

The situation isn’t too widely spoken about at work. I know some of the locals are very supportive of the protests but it’s just not a subject you raise.

I was talking to some expats a couple of weeks ago and thought – man, these guys are so ignorant. But really, it’s less ignorance and more about not showing your political hand.

I know a few of the guys are strong supporters, but I can’t really go up and say, “Hey…what do you think about the protests?”

Instead things are said in passing, and I see them nodding like they agree, but there’s no real open discussion – especially if there’s someone in the office who might be pro-government.

Yesterday a local was showing me photos of all the road blocks that he had to get through in Mong Kok to go to work, but that was the extent of it. I never asked, “Oh, are you going to head out tonight and support them?”

You just leave the conversation there.

On the train I don’t even openly look at Twitter, just in case someone next to me is pro-government. I’ve heard from a few of the locals that you never know who that person next to you is – and there’s always potential for them to attack you for having a different view.

One of my coworkers was actually part of the big human chain at PolyU in Mong Kok, where they were passing supplies down to the frontline.

Luckily, he left just before the police came in from both ends of the road to trap and arrest a lot of people.

We’ve had a lot of near misses.

I was in Central the other night. They had put bamboo poles all across the roads and set roadblocks. I left seven minutes before the police came and rounded up everyone.

Another night I was there and riot police had their pepper spray out. Luckily I didn’t feel it, but I got out of there after one tear gas round.

One day I was going to my favourite overpass after some of the protests. A part of the route is indoors, and when I went through it my nose was stinging and eyes immediately started stinging and starting to water, just from the leftover tear gas.

I’d hate to really be amongst it, put it that way.

But generally, I don’t really bat an eyelid if there’s something going on around where I am.

One of my favourite restaurants never closes during protests.

One time, riot police had just chased heaps of protesters out of Causeway Bay and there were still 20 out the front of the restaurant. I just walked up and went in for my meal.

I know if I wasn’t white, there’s no chance I’d be doing that.

I’d be arrested on suspicion.

Truthfully, my life as a foreigner during the protests isn’t a real representation of what it’s like for a local at the moment – it’s actually a bit embarrassing to talk about my life during the protests when I think about how different it is.

I truly can’t imagine what it’s like having to worry about being targeted by the police or my fellow citizens every day.

Image by Rachael Sharman

*Editor’s note: name has been changed to protect the identity of the person in this story.