30 Sep 2014 22:00
Hong Kong (01 October 2014) — Together, they resemble a Spartan phalanx. Every self-respecting protestor carries this weapon – usually concealed in a backpack or handbag – and he or she would not contemplate leaving home without it. It has been the weapon of choice for Hong Kong protestors calling for the democratic right of universal suffrage. Indeed, even sightseers with tunnel vision strolling through any of the several protest zones in Hong Kong would see this weapon in abundance. Arms dealers, generally in the guise of student activist groups, are blatantly hawking these instruments to all.
What is perhaps even more remarkable is that these weapons are being given away to normally peace-loving Hong Kong citizens free of charge. It has become a powerful and popular symbol representing the protest movement that has swept through Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China. The umbrella.
A humble artifact has become a potent weapon of mass obstruction in the streets of Hong Kong.
On 28 September, as thousands of disgruntled citizens took to the streets, protestors armed with umbrellas were out in full force. Umbrellas were swiftly put to good use as members of the Hong Kong Police wearing full riot gear and lining barricades surrounding the government headquarters in the city’s Admiralty district fired streams of pepper spray at a restless crowd. Even those not directly in the firing line unfurled their umbrellas just in case.
These simple but effective devices certainly proved their worth in this first round of clashes. Protestors took shelter behind their dome-shaped canopies and efficiently shielded themselves from the capsicum jets. Realizing just how potent these defensive weapons actually were, police officers made it their business to tear umbrellas from protestors’ hands, rendering them defenseless. Indeed, the police had soon amassed an impressive mound of damaged and mangled umbrellas. Cracked ribs, pierced canopies and bent shafts were spotted in several umbrella graveyards just behind the police line.
However, every weapon has its limitations. Even deftly wielded umbrellas proved no match for the volleys of teargas canisters fired by police that night. Instead, protestors resorted to other defensive weapons in their arsenals to combat the acrid and debilitating smoke – goggles, face-masks and cling-film.
Since that fateful first day, protestors have professed ongoing infatuation with their umbrellas, causing some to name this the “Umbrella Movement” or the “Umbrella Revolution.” As peace and calm returned to the occupied streets of Hong Kong, umbrellas were used to fend off the hot sun as protestors settled in for a long day of civil disobedience. On the last night of September, umbrellas also served admirably as thunderstorms and heavy rain lashed Hong Kong. The umbrella again proved its weight in aluminum and fabric as demonstrators sheltered themselves from the weather.
The pro-democracy sit-ins have taken on an almost carnival-like atmosphere. Thousands are content to sit in clusters on once busy roads, avenues upon which expensive European luxury cars belonging to tycoons normally rush between urgent appointments and lucrative deals. Now there are numerous stalls offering free water, free food and free umbrellas to all. As one student volunteer explained, the arrays of umbrellas of all sizes and colors were available to all, and they had all been donated anonymously.
The usual Chinese entrepreneurial spirit has been surpassed by an overwhelming sense of bonhomie and friendship. In fact, there is not one money-making stall to be found at the protest sites. Instead, students help people to clamber over roadblocks, while others spray cooling water on passers by. There is a genuine sense of purpose and friendship.
Ravin Wu and a group of friends started a roadside exhibition where people can express their feelings about the protests by writing messages on old squares of cardboard. By mid-afternoon of the first day, several hundred sympathizers had already laid out messages on the asphalt. On many of the messages were images of umbrellas. Ravin agreed that the umbrella is an apt icon. “It helps protect us,” he acknowledged.
Another remarkable thing about the protests is the environmental concern being displayed. There has been no wanton looting and sacking in this city. Rather, teams of young people go around and pick up rubbish before taking it back to a collection point for recycling. By the end of the third day, the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Association (HKEPA) had collected 100,000 plastic bottles for recycling.
Ricky Fan, the HKEPA’s chairman, revealed his non-governmental organization also recycles umbrellas. He disclosed some statistics that portray just how valuable the umbrella has been. However, these figures also reveal the lifespan of an umbrella is remarkably short. On the opening day, when police confronted demonstrators, some 1,600 battle-damaged umbrellas were collected for recycling. On day two there were 650, as remnants were cleared from the protest site. There were still 410 salvaged on the peaceful third day. Clearly, umbrellas are still being put to heavy use, even if not in confrontation.
Fan explained that aluminum parts of umbrellas will be recycled, while other components such as the canopies will be used by students for artwork and other such evocative uses. The trusty umbrella, this icon of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, has acquitted itself well so far.