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Polyrhythmia: Hong Kong’s Yoga of Defiance

Martine, the new yoga teacher, was at the counter ordering something. Great, I thought. Here’s my chance to chat with her. How’re you liking it here, I asked.

“Love it,” she said. Her Aussie voice brimmed with energy. “The yoga scene is really huge in Hong Kong, somany people taking their practice seriously.” She flashed a brief, dazzling smile, then frowned. “But the marches and the demonstrations, they take some getting used to.”

I nodded. “That’s part of life here. Hong Kong’s the city of demonstrations.”

“But why? Do they really think they can make China change its mind?”

I mentally wound myself up for a long discussion. “Actually it’s a story that goes back a long way, to the British.” Then I realized she may not be up for the big picture of Hong Kong’s culture of protest. So I took a different tact.

“Look at it like yoga,” I said. “Hong Kong is practicing its own kind of yoga. It sits on its mat, going through the poses, sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, letting its body respond to each asana in its own way. This releases some tension. Some poses are held a long time. Sometimes the release reaches deep, into the fascia and tendons. That’s what these marches and all the Lennon Walls do. They release the deep tensions inside the body of Hong Kong.”

She nodded, as if she almost got me.

“We could even say,” I continued, “that there are a fixed set of asanas in Hong Kong yoga.” I was getting into the theme.

“You mean like demonstration asana? Or extradition asana?” She said, smiling.

“Yeah, or tear gas-asana,” I added. We both laughed.

“But not so funny when you remember people have already died. We’ve already had four suicides,” I said.

Awkward silence ensued. She began to fidget with her bag, then picked up her stuff. “Off to my class,” she said, waving goodbye.

Not long after I also walked out of the studio. The air, as usual, throbbed with humidity. Another July day in Hong Kong. Wicked hot. Can’t fight it and can’t change it. I walked onto Percival and waited for a streetcar to clank by. Turning the corner I saw the marchers, a surging mass of black moving down Hennessy Road. I moved towards it, then began to weave between the bodies until I too had joined Hong Kong’s yoga of defiance.

_________

Let’s move down Hennessy. The sky is painfully bright. The sun bears down with noon-time ferocity. We can keep a steady pace, if we hustle. We pass under the Gooseneck, the concrete underpass filled with life. We see the fortune tellers on their stools. We walk by the park across from Tonnochy, so tiny it barely fits a few old men. At the Cal-Tex station we turn left onto Johnston Road. Sweat trickles down our ribs in tiny rivulets. We inhale, we exhale, together.

On the streets the people of Hong Kong breathe breath as one; we inhale the grit and sounds of the streets, the trollies the footsteps the buses. We are one mass pulling down the packed streets, pieces peeling and re-emerging and peeling off constantly.

This is a practice, a practice of dissent. In another place, the yoga mat, the yogi also practices. He moves with care. The yogi seeks awareness. Each breath brings refocuses the mind. With each exhale there is a release.

Hong Kong, a single body. Today it is a body in pain. It stretches in agony. The yoga of Hong Kong helps her meet the pain, to push through it.

________

The demonstrations are now in their tenth week. The veneer of nonchalance is shattered. It’s not simply a question of wagging fingers at the young. The violence on the streets shocks everyone. Now the middle-aged members of my Anglican congregation are worried. “If it goes on like this, I’m out of here. Who wants to live in a place like this?”

But what has changed? The streets still pulse. Every storefront buzzes with activity. The children rush out every Saturday to their tutorials and music classes, pulled along by an anxious mothers. The technicians, the repairmen, the retail workers, the barristers doctors nurses — all rush, rush madly rush to the next task. The fabric of life is intact.

Except when we march. And Hong Kong has been marching.

_____

Current events this year boiled over on June 6 in opposition to the proposed extradition law. Ill-advised. Asinine. Unnecessary. There’s no end to the invectives we can throw at this move by the Carrie Lam government, from our all-knowing position of hindsight. At the time, the move, the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation, felt like just another boring announcement.

A Hong Kong man, Chan Tong-kai, had escaped arrest in Taiwan. He had probably killed his pregnant girlfriend and left her body in his hotel room. Serving time for a minor offense in Hong Kong, he should be extradited to Taiwan to face the music. But he can’t be — there’s no mechanism for sending people charged with crimes back to Taiwan. Or to most other jurisdictions. Hong Kong has extradition agreements with only a handful of places — the UK, Australia, Canada, the US, Singapore.[1] Not Germany. Not Italy. Not France. Not Brazil. And not even neighboring Macao. And certainly not….

Did I mention China? Sure, the China factor lurks there in the background, always. Let’s be honest — nobody trusts the Chinese legal system. Gui Minhai, the Causeway Books publisher kidnapped in 2015 and rearrested in 2018, and, apparently, still under detention, is a case in point. No one here trusts the Chinese legal system, one that may be subject to the current political campaigns of the month. Apparently, the Carrie Lam government did not consider this fact — or, they thought they could get away with ramming through the new law without considering it.

But the marches, the chants, the Lennon Walls are not simply about China. We can list several other elements.

Incompetence

No one minds the idea of an agreement with Taiwan. Sure, the man who admitted to killing his girlfriend should be sent back. Headmitted to the crime. As for Macao, no one minds much either way. Well, almost no one. Joseph Lau, Chinese Estates Holdings property magnate, has been wanted there for five years. Up till not he has been safe in Hong Kong, protected by the lack of an extradition agreement.

Under the Hong Kong system new laws are not summarily announced, as they are under some legal systems. A proposed law must first be read at the Legislative Council, and voted on or amended, before being finalized, approved, and published. There is a procedure, one established long ago by the British colonial regimes.

The proposed law is scheduled to be read in the Legislative Council on June 12. It never happens.

Marching and Occupying

The current spate of protests started June 9, with a large mass protest down Hennessey. This road runs from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to Central, a distance of some four or five kilometers. Nearly all marches nowadays take this route, which conveniently passes by the large aggregation of government offices near Admiralty, and ends in Central near the Supreme Court building, which is not far from the governor’s mansion (oops, I mean the Chief Executive’s quarters) and, just down from the American Consulate on Garden Road, and the China offices of the Chinese government in Hong Kong. Everything is conveniently close.

The June 12 protests were more than a march, however. They were a targeted occupation of Harcourt Road area around the government offices.

June 12 stands as the date the anti-extradition protests took a different turn. Hong Kong tried a new asana.

And Pepper Spraying

It became a pitched battle between protestors and police. The police used pepper spray, tear gas, beanbag shots, and rubber bullets, tools almost never used in Hong Kong protests. The government later labelled the violent actions a “riot,” a charge carrying a sentence of up to 10 years. Amnesty International, observing the events, confirms that the police used excessive force. Net result: the bill is suspended. It is not dead. Quiet protests around Harcourt Road continue.

On June 16 there is another mass protest down Hennessy, this one numbering two million. Protests are coordinated by an organization called Civil Human Rights Front 民間人權陣線. The opposition is unified behind five demands publicized everywhere:

• Complete withdrawal of the extradition bill

• Carrie Lam’s resignation

• Release of all those arrested in connection with the protest.

• An investigation into the police actions on June 12.

• Retraction of the characterization of the protest as a riot

None of these seem likely to happen. Yet the government is now visibly under strain from the escalation of street pressure. Carrie Lam, so far silent, holds a press conference on June 18. She apologizes for her inept handling of the bill, but goes no further. Judging from the look on her face, her contrition itself is contrived. No one is mollified.

Organization

48 NGOs and political parties established the Civil Human Right Front in 2002. The immediate reason for establishing the group was to coordinate protests against Article 23. That proposed measure resulted in 500,000 people taking to the streets in an emphatic expression of discontent that foreshadowed the current movement. Today the Front is an established NGO; it is affiliated with the United Nations and sits on the Universal Periodic Review Steering Committee.[2] It serves a legitimate functions in Hong Kong’s civil society. For instance, the Front is the organization that organizes the annual July marches, which have become a tradition.

But it’s not just the Front that supports these political actions. There are the pro-democratic political parties. Some have been around since Tiananmen in the 1980s.[3] Some have been outlawed as too extreme. And there may be others who don’t make their presence public. All are using the social media platforms ITHK and Telegram, and organizing fluid resistance. “Be Water,” Bruce Lee’s quote, is the phrase that encapsulates their tactical position. Like water, demonstrators should flow in and out of empty spaces, at times sitting calmly, at times crashing like a wave. Clearly this generation of protesters have learned from their experience of Occupy in 2014.

The Mothers

On June 15 some 6000 barristers and mothers from Chinese University gather in Chater Garden to demand Carrie Lam’s resignation. They gathered a petition signed by 44,000 decrying the Chief Executive’s statements at her press conference on June 14. They came back on July 5. This time the count was 8000 (1500 by police estimates).

The numbers are small, the symbolism great. Mothers are the social conscience of society. We have seen mothers make statements in Chile, Argentina, and after Tiananmen. Mothers can call out anyone, including generals and errant officials.

The Elderly

The mothers were not the only demographic group to spring to life. 9000 (police count 1500) elderly marched on the night of July 17. This action was organized by Rev. Chu Yiu-ming, one of the three original Occupy organizers. The presence of the elderly underlines the fact that this protest wave is not just young people letting off steam. There are plenty of dissenters, and support is broad.

Siege

Like other government offices, Police Headquarters are near Admiralty. During the next large march held after June 12, on June 21, many of the protesters move to surround the headquarters building itself. They stand all night, scrunched in the streets in front of the shiny high-rise. Some throw eggs. Some shine laser lights into the eyes of officers observing from the building — an action later deemed to be an act of violence. No one from the besieged building can get in or out, including the commissioner of police. 999 calls go unanswered, according to later police statements.

Counter-Demo

A smallish counter-demonstration to show support for the government is held on the next day, June 22. Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, Secretary for Justice, rejects the possibility of not charging those arrested for taking part in the June 12 demonstrations.

On August 3 sees another protest, this time in support of the embattled police.

The Lennon Walls

They are everywhere now, in all the universities, in the main Shatin shopping center, outside MTR stations, on pedestrian overpasses, and of course covering the wall outside Legco, on Harcourt Rd. Lennon walls first started in Prague in 1980 following John Lennon’s murder. During the Prague Spring of 1988 the same wall became a site to record expressions of frustration with the government.

Hong Kong’s original Lennon wall started during the Occupy Central movement of 2014. The walls became outlets for the amazing outpouring of artistic expression that accompanied this 79-day passive occupation. Today’s walls are smorgasbords of post-its, newspaper articles, and drawings, expressing refined as well as crude sentiments. They are now a fixture of Hong Kong street politics.

G20

A small march delivers a letter to the Hong Kong offices of 19 of the G20 countries. The Chinese representative office is not included. The letter requests the overseas governments to bring up the Hong Kong protests at the upcoming G20 summit in Osaka. The same letter is published in some ten international papers on June 28, after an online funding campaign collected over $600,000.[4] When asked, President Trump mumbles something. Not likely. Nevertheless, another move calculated to make China angry.

And A Blank Space at the Top

Which is the point, it seems. These manifestations are all about going to the limit, to provoke. There are no kid gloves. The demonstrators seem intent on any measure to get their point across. Yet nothing seems to bear fruit. The government has been deaf. This deafness, interpreted by some as determination, is increasingly seen as plain ineptitude. Nearly all summer there have been few official announcements or speeches. Even the conservative commentators who fill the pages of the South China Morning Postnote that the government has virtually ceased to function. “The government,” notes David Dodwell on Aug. 5, “needs to crawl out of its bunker and show it is not a puppet leader.”[5] “As for a functioning government,” says conservative commentator Alex Lo, “Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her top ministers have taken a leave of absence for weeks now.”[6] Net result: the police have been left to manage on their own. There is, in other words, a void at the top.

Or is this appearance of government ineptitude a massive set-up, prelude to an ambush into which the demonstrators walk to their own detriment? Probably not. The blank space at the top has been a fact ever since the handover in 1997. In fact it isthefundamental issue. The chosen leaders have no credibility, and never had any, because they were never chosen from below. The sooner Beijing wakes up to this reality the sooner a deal can be mediated.

______

Join again the marchers on Hennessy. We dance down the street, like dolphins at sea. We are surrounded by other bodies twisting in motion, each one filled with a fierce presence, an uplift. A thousand feet touch the ground at once; we braid into a dynamic whole, serpentine scales soundless, rippling through the air. We are one body in yoga, on one mat, in the asana of defiance.

______

Monday, August 5. The day of the massive strike. The yoga studio is still open. But most MTR lines are halted. Buses don’t run. Hundreds of flights are cancelled as air controllers call in sick. A rally is planned at New Town Plaza in Sha Tin, sight of a very violent confrontation July 14. The Cross Harbour Tunnel will be blocked for the second time. Protesters also occupy major roads around the Wong Tai Sin district.

Carrie Lam finally holds a press conference today. She defends her lack of communication, saying she’s actually been in meetings every day for the past two months. And she says she will not resign. “The government,” she says, “will be resolute in maintaining law and order of Hong Kong and restoring confidence….We all love Hong Kong and have made various contributions to its stability and prosperity … it’s time to say no to chaos and violence.” Repeating the same line as always. Nothing new will issue from her lips, it seems.

Protests have escalated over the past two weeks. The demonstrators appear to be well-organized and strategic. As Alex Lo notes, perceptively, the protestors use a guerrilla strategy of showing up in one place then moving quickly to another. The centrally-directed riot police, burdened with equipment, cannot keep up.

— -

Hong Kong’s Polyrhythmia

Step back and view all this from a distance. The Hong Kong demonstrations are combustible events, perturbations in the surface of normalcy. They recur every few years — we have seen marches stretching back to the June 4 protests of 1989, the massive march in 2003, and the Occupy movements of 2011 and 2014. A sequence of defiance, they form what the French theorist Henri Lefebvre calls cyclical rhythms that erupt into the everyday.

Lefebvre saw rhythm as a window into the everyday. For Lefebvre the spaces of everyday interactions are where great forces engage in combat. The everyday, he wrote, “is simultaneously the site of, the theatre for, and what is at stake in a conflict between great indestructible rhythms and the processes imposed by the socio-economic organization of production, consumption, circulation and habitat.”[7] Organic, recurring cycles are the fabric of life. The quantified time of watches and clocks, in contrast, is imposed by our particular historical moment . For Lefebvre these two rhythms are locked in a “bitter and dark struggle” around the use of time.[8] Ultimately the two are drawn together into a kind of “antagonistic unity.”[9]

Lefebvre contrasts dull, repetitive, “measured” time with differentiated rhythm that is not uniform. The easiest way to picture this is the distinction between theideaof a wave, the abstract wave patterns, and the actualwaves of an ocean.[10] In rhythm analysis the researcher hones awareness to the deeper and multitudinous discordances between linear and cyclical. One grasps the perceived object — a leaf, a house — polyrhythmically,“in its place and approximate becoming.”[11] Starting with and rooted in a deep awareness of the multitude of rhythms produced by one’s own internal organs, the individual can conjecturally grasp rhythms that pierce all levels of the universe. “Without knowing it,” says Lefebevre, “the human species draws from the heart of the universe movements that correspond to its own movements.”[12]

The rhythmanalysist is always listening out.[13] She not only observes, she also hears (in the double sense of the word: noticing and understanding).[14] “…She separates out through a mental act that which gives itself as linked to a whole: namely rhythms and their associations.”[15]

One feels, for instance, the grand cloud of murmur hanging over a crowd. Like waves on a beach, the multiple strands create clashes of cycles, the polyrhythmic.

__________

In bhujangasana, cobra pose, the yogi stretches the torso up, allowing the spine to arch to the limit. The Hong Kong demonstrators practice this same move, as a single body. The massive creature stretches, hoods flaring. Electricity courses through the nadhi lines along its sides. Its chest soars high. It breathes in the air of Sheung Shui, its ribs rub the towers of Admiralty, its tailbone presses into Causeway Bay. The eyes bear down on Central, then soften, roll, and melt into sky. The cobra stretches toward a single state, the point of equilibrium, of liberty.

_______

For Lefebvre all cycles relate to a cosmic origin, the movement of planets and stars. All cycles connect localized space with the universe. Cyclic rhythms entail perpetual interaction between the whole and every body. Such cycles are measured in duodecimals, twelves, and recur. Linear rhythms, in contrast, are man-made and mechanical. They project away, toward infinity. They are measured in decimals, in tens, in the language of precision and science. The do not recur.

The history of cities is the working out of cosmic cycles confronted with the man-made rhythms of empire. The Mediterranean towns, for Lefebvre, always flourished in a state of compromise between political powers.[16] Citing the example of the great maritime city-state of Venice, Lefebvre notes that these city-states could never dominate in the way great empires could. Unless they were in revolt, their nature was apolitical. Yet the well-tuned homeostasis of the city-state always involved an ambiguous compromise with the dominate power. The city-state, in other words, exemplified a polyrhythmic way of life. Such polyrhythmicity is seen in the many rites that express alliances and shared codes, and other rituals, more inward-looking, that express an inward reality. Profane and sacred rituals are held in a delicate balance. All these rituals and representations are visible in the public sphere, the grand theater of intrigue.

________

Hong Kong is China’s Venice. Hong Kong’s streets, from Mongkok to Sheung Shui, beat with intrigue and encoded gestures. Every night market stall, every restaurant and hair parlor is a stage. Everybody is in costume, twirling in constant movement. But Hong Kong does not reflect the cycles of the Mediterranean. Instead, she embodies the rhythms the Southeast China coast, China’s distant and sandy margin.

And as Lefebvre concludes about the Mediterranean town, we find in such spaces the perpetual struggle between the rhythms of diversity and homogenization. Here the globalizing domination of the center (capital cities, dominant cultures, empires) attacks the multidimensionality of the periphery. In the city-state on the edge, “all forms of hegemony and homogeneity are refused….”[17] The outcome is not always good. Citing Beirut, Lefebvre concludes that “when rhythms of the other make rhythms of the self impossible, total crisis breaks out…”[18]

Hong Kong, this coastal jewel, thrived as a colony. Out of sight of the cosmopolitan capital, it was managed with a light touch. The test of one countries, two systems is whether this balance between the heavy hand of the center and the diversity of the periphery can hold. It may not. Today the state of homeostasis is cracked. Today on the street of Hong Kong bricks are torn up and reused; tear gas and blood fill the stations; cycles are being re-coded. The feet stumble until new rituals form, new truths reassert themselves. The streets invent new rhythms, new asanas, a new yoga.

[1]Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Philippines, India, the Netherlands, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Portugal, South Korea, Ireland, Germany, South Africa and Finland.

[2]“Civil Human Rights Front, Hong Kong,” Feb., 2015, on European Country of Origin Network website,

[3]Parties from the 1990s include the United Democrats, Meeting Point, the Democratic Party, The Frontier, and Citizens United. Early-2000s groups include the Article 45 Concern Group, Civic Party, Neighborhood, Worker’s Service Centre, the Alliance for Universal Suffrage, Neo Democrats, People Power, the Alliance for True Democracy, and Professional Commons. Localist groups formed in the wake of the 2014 Umbrella Movement include Demosisto, Youngspiration, League of Social Democrats, Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood.

[4]“’Stand with Hong Kong’: G20 appeal over extradition law crisis appears in over 10 int’l newspapers,” 28 June, 2019, Hong Kong Free Press website,

[5]David Dodwell, “,” 5 Aug., 2019, South China Morning Post online.

[6]Alex Lo, 4 Aug., 2019, “An open invitation for Beijing to intervene,” South China Morning Post online.

[7]Henri Lefebvew and Catherine Régulier, “The Rhythmanalytical Project,” in Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life(Bloomsbury, New York and London, 2015 [1992, 2005]), 81–92, p. 82.

[8]Lefebvre and Régulier, “The Rhythmanalytical Project,” 83.

[9]Lefebvre and Régulier, “The Rhythmanalytical Project,”85.

[10]Lefebvre and Régulier, “The Rhythmanalytical Project,”86.

[11]Lefebvre and Régulier,“The Rhythmanalytical Project,”89.

[12]Lefebvre and Régulier,, “The Rhythmanalytical Project,”91.

[13]Henri Lefebvre and Catherine Régulier, “Attempt at the Rhythmanalysis of Mediterranean Cities,” in Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life(Bloomsbury, New York and London, 2015 [1992, 2005]), 93–106, p. 94

[14]Lefebvre and Régulier, “Attempt at the Rhythmanalysis of Mediterranean Cities,” 95.

[15]Lefebvre and Régulier, “Attempt at the Rhythmanalysis of Mediterranean Cities,” 94–5.

[16]Lefebvre and Régulier, “Attempt at the Rhythmanalysis of Mediterranean Cities,” 99.

[17]Lefebvre and Régulier, “Attempt at the Rhythmanalysis of Mediterranean Cities,” 104.

[18]Lefebvre and Régulier, “Attempt at the Rhythmanalysis of Mediterranean Cities 105.

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