“I thought I came here to study, but instead I get Molotov cocktails thrown over my head,” says my German roommate, as he casually walks in from a night out in Hong Kong.
I feel that this has been the theme of my study abroad experience in Hong Kong, especially in the last few weeks. Even from my dorm room, I can smell the remnants of tear gas in the air after the police fired upon protesters at a nearby mall. Although this unrest has been a nuisance in terms of travelling, I still feel completely safe in Hong Kong and urge others to keep an open mind, despite the negative media coverage from American news outlets.
While coming here, I had so much fear regarding my safety in Hong Kong. It increased when I learned that I would not be living on campus, but instead 20 minutes away from it in a nearby town. I always regarded myself as safe when I was on Drexel University’s premises, so I used that same logic for Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; if I am at the university, I will be fine. But, after speaking to a former exchange student, I knew that luck was on my side in terms of accommodation. So I made my way over to Hong Kong, hoping for the best. To my surprise, I came across possibly the best roommate I could have had and some pretty awesome neighbors from all across the globe.
Despite this positive turn of events, I had some concerns about living in Tseung Kwan O. Although the location was away from all the action on Hong Kong Island, I thought there would still be side effects from the unrest. But, as I learned in my first month of living in Hong Kong, this really wasn’t the case. Everywhere I went, there were people chanting in Cantonese, which we quickly understood as protesters peacefully speaking their mind. Similar to climate change and women’s rights marches, it was just people there to voice their opinion. Whoever passed by those groups could hear the determination in their voices. Everywhere you go, you would see how much the citizens of Hong Kong care about this topic. Even sitting at the waterfront at Victoria Harbor, other visitors around us would erupt in chants, feeling proud about this current movement.
In the last few weeks, however, I have seen the number of protesters rise and have felt it firsthand. Even in the very residential town I live in, I could see more and more people wearing all black with black face masks. The movement is mainly led by the younger generation, but elderly still help out in any way possible.
For example, my dorm is situated between two parallel streets, with a mall on either side of my building. There is a bridge that connects the two, and every day, a batch of new, very creative posters lined the walls, floors and ceilings. Most were in Chinese, but I stopped to read the few that were in English, just to gather more perspective on why Hong Kong is protesting.
As I was walking by one day, a banner had been crumpled due to the weather. As there were teenagers putting up new posters, this elderly man stood and fixed it. It was surprising to me, as I thought the older generation would condemn the violence. But as I kept walking, I remembered what a local street vendor had mentioned to my roommate when he was walking downtown: “we have been waiting for this moment our entire lives.”
The older generation still remembers very vividly the return of colonial Hong Kong from Britain, Tiananmen Square and the rapid increase in the Chinese government’s power over the past decades. So this must have seemed inevitable when China tried to increase its power over Hong Kong.
Still, there was no reason to worry, as the protests were not near me. The international students I live with continued to go clubbing, and I took a spontaneous trip to South Korea. In short, it felt like what study abroad is supposed to feel like.
That all changed when Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, passed the law banning face masks at public gatherings. After this, the protests became more violent than they ever had, and I got to see it first hand. It became real to me when I went to see a movie, and I couldn’t get a taxi back because the drivers were too scared to go in my area. In the two hours I watched the movie, it went from protesters spray painting the local Starbucks to a small-scale war. My friends sent me videos of police shooting tear gas at crowds and whole subway stations on fire; the whole subway system of Hong Kong quickly shut down. We were able to take an Uber back, but at that time, I learned how to handle myself with composure in a time of crisis.
The same thing happened the next weekend, but this time, I stayed indoors and observed the chaos from the safety of my own dorm. I had friends that were “brave” enough to go out and take videos of the teargas being fired, but what I saw amazed me. The protesters were so coordinated, purposely setting a distraction somewhere to gather police, while making a disruption somewhere else; it was like sending the police on a wild goose chase. The organization required for this was something I had never seen before. In the end, although the subway station was closed due to destruction from the last protest, there was still damage done to the area. Any store or company that had backed the Chinese government, if it was still open, was destroyed. We walked by a local bakery that had all of its glass destroyed, and the Starbucks was eventually destroyed after the initial spray painting.
After all of this, however, I still feel completely safe in Hong Kong, Sure, it is a nuisance to get around since the metro system, Hong Kong’s main mode of transportation, is down, but after seeing the protests up close, I understand that I need to be cautious when traveling or just stay indoors. Hong Kong is such a large place, and even if there is fire and teargas on the next street over, the smartest thing to do is stay inside. Most of the time, when the American media shows an image or video of a protest, it’s not from a location near to me. But still, I just avoid that area.
Yes, it may seem like a dangerous place to visit, but with the right precautions, tourists can have a great time even with the unrest. People go about their day normally, as anyone else would in the world, and I just follow suit. Everyone goes to work and school, so weekdays are the same amount of boring and blah as the U.S.; it’s just the weekends where precaution is needed. Overall, I think that the protests are dangerous and I should avoid getting in the middle of them. But if I continue on with my life and only observe, why should I, or any other traveller, be scared?