Dorothy Tse

The Imagination of Collapsible Umbrellas

Translated by Janette Leung

Editor’s note:

This essay first appeared in Ming Pao, a daily Chinese-language newspaper in Hong Kong, on October 2. It was the same day the author gave a talk at the Mobile Democracy Classroom in the Admiralty protest camp, together with fiction writer Hon Lai Chu. 

No one could have predicted the extent to which the Umbrella Revolution has blossomed. At this point in time however, I can’t stop thinking that if it hadn’t been for those hundred or so young people who climbed over the fence and slipped through the opening into a prohibited area on September 26th, at the end of a week-long class boycott, would this surreal scenario, unprecedented in Hong Kong, ever have happened? Aren’t those arrested the revolutionaries from last year’s Korean movie Snowpiercer, who took a gamble and blasted a hole in their train to escape the closed structure of “reality”? What I mean to say is, when the leaders and intellectuals in the train think they have control of the overall structure of “reality” and believe dictatorship is the best way to ensure human survival in a harsh environment, only those who dare to take a risk can break out of the unimaginative “reality” and turn an unknown path into a possible way out.

On the afternoon of September 28th, when Admiralty became a battlefield between the police and the people, when tear gas sent people running back and forth on the streets, the violence lurking under the cover of our everyday lives was finally unveiled as “reality.” This violence did not stem from the riot police or one particular evil leader, but from a greater normality, a reality we thought impenetrable. What was this force that propelled these perpetrators from all walks of life? The fear of losing an appealing job, a good income, a career promised by society, a stable life? How many of us could fight against such fears and refuse to become an accomplice?

The Umbrella Revolution has been overwhelmingly inspiring to us. As someone who writes fiction and “teaches” fiction writing, I was stunned by how it demonstrated the power of imagination. Labelled naïve and foolish by the “pragmatic” Hong Kongers at the start of this movement, the advocates of the class boycott have in fact become pioneers, making history in Hong Kong in the span of a week.

What crime did those who climbed over the fence commit? Thanks to their self-sacrifice and risk of punishment by this reality, they crossed the line for us and inspired us to imagine the impossible. In Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok, in the utopia developed by the Umbrella Revolution, public spaces have been actively reinvented and restructured by the people. We saw the establishment of refuse collection points, supply stations, first aid stations and more, notices and signs issued by the people, and public art created from collapsible umbrellas, yellow ribbons and various forms of graphics and text. Many unnecessary barricades have been removed. Admission is free. People can sing, sleep and stroll in these areas, while constantly reminding each other to remain peaceful, exercise restraint, ignore malicous provocation, and never lose sight of the goal of the revolution. The participants of this movement enjoy unprecedented freedom, as well as the opportunity to shoulder the responsibilities that come with such freedom. The revolutionaries have proven to the public that this form of spatial practice, without spending one cent of taxpayers’ money, may operate even better than strict top-down regulation.

“Creative” education has gained popularity in Hong Kong in recent years. Yet, ironically, a quantitatively-driven, controlling education system has also been strengthened, and has morphed into an overwhelming and self-approving education machine that survives by rewarding those teachers and students who are subservient. If the youth of our society invest their efforts and ambitions solely into satisfying this grades-based machine, we can expect creative education to fail. During the class boycott, my colleagues and I were surprised to receive sincere emails from students detailing their intention to participate and the reasons behind their actions. Even students who were more passive and shy about expressing themselves found the courage to speak their minds. On the streets, volunteer teachers at various locations reported back from time to time an enthusiasm to learn that they had never encountered before. They were asked to stay by the participants, so much so that they could hardly get away. Does this not make the class boycott and the occupation movement an interrogation of and reflection upon the current education system and mainstream values in Hong Kong? And in this new reality we worked together to create, have we not fully demonstrated our trustworthiness and our ability to handle autonomy and self-governance?

Dorothy Tse

Dorothy Tse is one of Hong Kong’s most acclaimed young writers. Her short story collection So Black (好黑) won the Hong Kong Biennial Award for Chinese Literature in 2005 and A Dictionary of Two Cities (雙城辭典), which she co-authored with Hon Lai-chu, won the 2013 Hong Kong Book Prize. Her literary prizes also include Taiwan’s Unitas New Fiction Writers’ Award and the Hong Kong Award for Creative Writing in Chinese. She was a resident at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2011. A co-founder of Hong Kong’s preeminent literary magazine, Fleurs des Lettres, she currently teaches creative writing at Hong Kong Baptist University.