On Community Building: What Can Be Learned from the Hong Kong Protests
By Erica Lyons
In the Jewish communal world, we spend a great deal of time analysing community. We engage in community building workshops and we attend conferences designed to build community. We speak broadly of the Jewish community and we allocate generous periods of time dedicated to how we can expand our definition of community and make our communities more inclusive, more pluralistic.
I have spent a considerable part of the past three weeks, chagim aside, observing students of Hong Kong engaged in protests. As I walk the streets and watch their actions, I am certain that I must have run into them somewhere – ROI? WJC? AJC? Somewhere else on the Jewish conference circuit?
And though it is highly doubtful that they have been to one of these conferences (or that they are able to define any of those acronyms), local Hong Kong students intuitively understand how to create community and the basic tools of community-building.
I walked through the streets of Admiralty, the main protest site, on September 29 with my thirteen year old son. It is early morning and many are still recovering from the tear gas attacks the evening before. I crouch on the ground to photograph some of the signs, arranged like makeshift mini alters. I read the messages and try to understand their pleas when I am tapped on the shoulder. A student carrying a box of bananas offers me one. Moments later a group of students wander past offering bottled water to the crowd. They thrust a bottle into my son’s hands. “So hot today. Make sure to take care,” he says to us.
We walk past various ‘medical’ tents with red tape crosses and signs on them. There is bee-like activity in the streets as streams of students brush by us carrying boxes of medical supplies.
“Cooling strip?” one young woman asks as she offers us each a pack.
It is day one and they have already organised themselves into a community. They work together to meet communal needs. They have unequivocally allowed my son and I to be part of their community despite the fact that we aren’t Cantonese speakers and quite frankly likely don’t fit into any of their demographics.
There are signs listing what supplies are needed and passers-by, not unlike ourselves, are swept up into the frenzy of activity without really having to be asked to assist. There are groups of students in one section creating banners and signs.
A makeshift stand is created a few feet away. It is more akin to the ‘soapboxes’ of yesteryear though I think it is a Garden biscuit box. There is a democratization to how they protest. Some recognisable figures take the stand and speak, but others seemed to just have emerged somewhere from the depths of the swelling crowds. People gather and applaud.
As the days begin to pass by and the hopeful spirit of day one becomes slightly more seasoned and less naive, this little community grows on an organisational level. There are recycling teams and a makeshift recycling plant. There is a garbage detail. There is a section for those that need translation into English. Others distribute baked goods or pizzas.
One weekend, my daughter and I spend much of the day with the protestors particularly at one of the areas now designated for sign making. They have amassed a great collection of art supplies and children and families sit and write messages of peace and hope. A group of students run this area. They enthusiastically read each one out loud and the small group in the area cheers. Everyone, down to the smallest child, is given a voice and a chance to be heard.
There is an area that has apparently been designated as a fine arts gallery while another area is for the public to post their own messages on brightly coloured papers and tape them to a wall. This wall is later named the Lennon wall. Street signs’ names are changed too to reflect their messages. I walk past a handcrafted ‘post box’ and notice that people have begun to number their tents. There are Facebook pages set up, but also an entire network has been created for communication on walkie talkies and the Firechat Ap which can circumvent network and wifi ‘problems’.
Groups of students have apparently been designated to walk around with spray bottles and offer to spray people to help them keep cool. Others walk by with giant jugs of tea and cups and offer them to anyone they pass by. I am fascinated by the clusters of people who have decided they can best help by offering to hold the hands of people climbing over the makeshift stairs that lace across the once highway barrier. They offer a hand to person after person.
Umbrellas are passed out. And late in the day, when it is likely that there will be conflict that evening, teams of people walk around telling people to take care. They offer goggles for protection from the tear gas too. Helmets are passed out, though a pile of them are still being adorned with protest art and symbols.
There is no looting, there is no stealing. There are designated areas for free help with homework, arranged by subject. On day 21, I notice the study section and open area street library are full. Perhaps exam time is nearing.
And although the community members that inhabit the space that was once a highway adjacent to Admiralty Station are not surprisingly, predominately Chinese, there are a large number of minorities among them too. Likewise, this is a community that has not only eschewed racism but agism and classism too.
They have a universal symbol of their struggle, the yellow umbrella. There are iconic works of art, like Umbrella Man, created too. Porcelain figurines stand on a folding table each carrying a yellow origami umbrella. Another table displays a standoff scene between protestors and the police, all created with lego figures. People politely view the art and photograph it, carefully ensuring that others get their time and space to do so as well.
I watch as a group makes thousands of origami yellow umbrellas. I crouch to photograph them. “Want to learn how?” they ask. I assure them that origami has never been my forte.
I marvel at the community they have created in a space that was once a highway. I greatly admire not only their individual personal sense of responsibility but their understanding of the importance of collective responsibility as well.
I don’t know ultimately what measurable gains they will have made after the weeks they have spent here, but as a young student whizzes past me on a scooter and shouts, “thank you for listening to our messages”, I know that I am proud to call Hong Kong home.
I don’t know where they learned about networking and community building, giving circles, social enterprise and philanthropy, inclusivity and acceptance. There is much for us to all learn from them.
Erica Lyons is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Jewish Life.