Be Water: Civil Disobedience and the Fight for Democracy in Hong Kong

SF Urban Film Fest
Mar 19, 2020 · 6 min read

Written by Garima Raheja, Susannah Smith, and Robin Ocubillo Abad

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Courtesy of Mong Kok First Aid

“They would rather die than give up their home, and when they die, they float on a river of trash.” — people’s poetry of Hong Kong from the Bauhinia Project

The SF Urban Film Fest 2020 season focused on Place and the Populist Revolt; and at the program on February 3, 2020, Hong Kong protesters are on center stage.

At a time where youth activists are leading radical social change movements around the world, it is especially poignant to start the evening with Mong Kok First Aid, a film centering the narratives of young emergency medics who are officially neutral in conflict of Hong Kong’s erosion of civil liberties. They offer life-saving services to any and all injured, including police. Yet when a friend alerts one of them to some leaked WhatsApp screenshots from police group chats, the situation takes a turn for the terrifying, elucidating the intense surveillance maintained by the state authorities. As first aid workers see their own faces, their own names highlighted in police discussions, they realize that even neutrality is not safe: their movement, and their lives, are under constant attack. The long history of Hong Kong’s oppression by the United Kingdom and then by China is not forgotten, and the consequences of the Yellow Umbrella Movement of 2014 reverberate through the souls of the seven million that call Hong Kong home. Revolution is not new, but now it’s a new normal. As a rendition of “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Miserables plays on, the young rooftoppers begin to wonder, “has trauma made us forget?”

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Yuli Riswati in Migrant Down the Rabbit Hole

But Hong Kong is not a monolith: Hong Kong’s social tapestry is woven by countless immigrants and temporary residents, many of whom provide domestic services to the working elite. One of these temporary residents, Yuli Riswati, is featured in the next film Migrant Down the Rabbit Hole. Yuli gained prominence as a citizen journalist sharing stories over social media. Yuli’s work was vital in bringing updates to her fellow Indonesian migrant workers in their own language, since many do not understand the mainstream media broadcasted in Cantonese. Her prominence eventually puts her in the eyes of the Hong Kong media, and Migrant Down the Rabbit Hole ends with a stark news report detailing Yuli’s detention and deportation. “What I have right now, I will hold on to forever,” cites Yuli, yearning for Hong Kong, unsure if she will ever be able to return to the place she calls home.

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Courtesy of Old Men Running

The youth are not alone in their revolution. In Old Men Running, we are introduced to several men in their 80’s who are also protesting in the streets. “We come because we don’t want the young people to get hurt,” says Grandpa Chan. He lives off his land, battling eviction every day, but even with his own troubles at home, he understands what is at stake in the protests. But he is not new to this either: he has lived through the history that others only hear of. The elderly protestors fight in the streets by day, and battle trauma and mental illness by night.

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Courtesy of Age of the Valiant

The final film of the night, Age of the Valiant, begins with a simple memory: a protester wearing a full-face mask excitedly remarks how getting that rare 60926 mask was his happiest moment of the summer. Eating at McDonald’s after a long day on the streets, protestors are calling their friends to say, “I’m safe,” enjoying a brief moment of respite, when suddenly the incognito police in their mix begin firing tear gas. Thirteen-year-olds are at the frontlines, McDonald’s is hostile, and life in Hong Kong is changed forever. But yet they march on: “if we lose this war, Hong Kong is left with nothing.”

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From left: Conversations with the Courageous, Lee Wai Kwan, Brian Ng , Alex Yong Kang Chow, Jeffrey Hou. Photo by Omeed Manocheri

As the films dim and the lights turn on, poetry from The Bauhinia Project brings the audience back to San Francisco, back to today. “We are here on the night of the Iowa Democratic Caucuses,” remarks one panelist, “Hong Kong has gotten plenty of attention from the Republicans. It’s time the Democrats talk about it too.” A theme of collective recognition emerges. While the protestors work hard in the streets, the panelists who have been on the front lines and are speaking in San Francisco highlight the importance of global media and movements uplifting their work and galvanizing action.

The films illuminate how cities are venues for political actions of both local and international importance. Protests and rallies achieve mass proportions in cities; concentrated media coverage disseminates imagery of these gatherings in cityscapes. The films of protesters in Hong Kong’s narrow streets, surrounded by buildings rising like fortress walls, are striking and memorable: they place social and political strife within a dense urban context.

Hong Kong represents complex histories of colonialism and post-colonialism, dynamics which continue to resonate even today. The British era wrought indelible impressions on the sensibilities of Hong Kong society, ardently focused on self-rule and self-determination. As a surveillance state, mainland China’s incursion into Hong Kong citizen privacy was a major theme of the evening. Once again the urban context seems a significant determinant of human experience, as mass monitoring through closed circuit television and covert photography are shown as powerful tools of the oppressive state easily deployed within cities. Jamming of local internet signals, which protesters rely upon to organize and warn one another of danger, recall the ways in which colonial powers subjugated occupied societies by controlling mediums of communication.

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Photo by Omeed Manocheri

The panelists observed how methods of resistance vary between age groups in Hong Kong, ranging from convictions of non-violence amongst elders to more aggressive tactics on the part of younger citizens. Art — especially by younger people — also makes up a vital form of expression; with the urban landscape of Hong Kong providing a rich and varied canvas for all forms of creative protest. Murals, graphic design, signs and lettering suffuse the cityscape in accordance with ideals of free speech and self expression.After the panelists share their experiences, their traumas, and their hopes for the future of Hong Kong, Lee Wai Kwan, the young filmmaker behind Migrant Down the Rabbit Hole, closes the evening by sharing an excerpt from a 2000-word email response that Yuli Riswati sent when asked for remarks about her film: “I don’t think citizens should be afraid of the government. It is the government that should be afraid of its people.”

Poem reading from the The Bauhinia Project:

Dive into the panel discussion:

This event took place on February 3, 2020 at YBCA in San Francisco, and was co-presented by Hong Kong Community Cinema and the Bauhinia Project. For more information about SF Urban Film Fest, visit our website.

SF Urban Film Fest

SF Urban Film Fest gathers a diverse, engaged audience and…

SF Urban Film Fest

Written by

SF Urban Film Fest

SF Urban Film Fest gathers a diverse, engaged audience and uses the power of storytelling to spark discussion and civic engagement around urban issues. We focus on what it means to live together in a city and make urban planning more equitable and inclusive.

SF Urban Film Fest

Written by

SF Urban Film Fest

SF Urban Film Fest gathers a diverse, engaged audience and uses the power of storytelling to spark discussion and civic engagement around urban issues. We focus on what it means to live together in a city and make urban planning more equitable and inclusive.

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