Hong Kong Politics & Protest

Working 9 to 5: The Umbrella Movement’s full-time protesters

Gary Yeung looks like one of the lucky ones: a 25-year-old Hong Konger who has travelled around the world, a degree from a University in Australia, and the owner of his own start-up recruitment consultancy, Obelisk. On the face of it, Yeung looks settled – and his life looked normal until a few weeks ago, when Yeung stopped answering his emails or taking phone calls. In fact, Yeung stopped going to work altogether.

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Protestors on the Admiralty protest site weaving items using a hand-made loom. Photo: Vicky Wong.

Yeung suddenly found himself involved with the Occupy Central protests the day police used tear gas on protestors. The event marked a turning point for the businessman, who decided to set up a tent in a corner next to the Admiralty MTR station. Before he knew it, people began donating supplies to his tent, and Yeung found himself managing one of the biggest supply stations on the protest site.

“I never thought I would get involved with the Occupy movement”, he said. “It was the tear gassing and the police brutality that really propelled me to stay and to really get involved with the movement.”

“So I didn’t even tell the office, I just stayed for the first night and then afterwards I said, ‘I don’t think I’m coming back’.”

He shows off his first tent: small, yellow, just about big enough to house one person, now folded away in a corner behind a jungle of bigger tents and towers of boxes containing various supplies including food, toiletries and blankets.

“I wasn’t thinking about my job at the time”, he admitted. “There was an immediate threat and need of help in front of me.

Yeung is one of many people who volunteer on the Occupy Central protest sites, but is one of the few who have quit their jobs or deferred studies to take part in the fight for universal suffrage and the right of Hong Kongers to nominate candidates for the role of the city’s chief executive. For these people, fighting for universal suffrage has now become their full-time job. Other notable examples of people who have left their jobs include Alvin Cheng, an accounting student at Queensland University of Technology who has deferred studies to take part in the protests, and Joe Yeung, an auxiliary police officer who resigned from the force because of the way the protests were being handled by Hong Kong police.

Walk around the site and you will meet people who have done the same thing, from the carpenters building desks and chairs for the study corner, to students taking time off studies to protest full time.

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Protestors on the frontline on the Occupy protest site in Mong Kok. Photo: Vicky Wong.

Another person who made a sacrifice is Annie Lau (not her real name). The 28-year-old worked in advertising for seven years before handing in her notice last month in order to work at one of the first aid tents on the site.

Lau first got involved with Occupy in June this year and started work as a volunteer during the class boycott after students stormed Civic Square outside the Central Government Office in Admiralty. After Occupy Central started its long-advertised sit-in at the end of September, Lau offered to help distribute first aid and medical supplies. She said that on September 28, the day the police used teargas on protestors, she received an email from work saying it was ok for people not to go to work that day.

She confessed she does not sleep on the protest site every night, but was planning on spending more time at Admiralty as she noticed the number of protestors dwindling in the last few weeks.

Outside the Hong Kong island area is Gary Tsang, the 35-year-old who left his job as a merchandiser to be a volunteer with one of the supply tents on the Mong Kok protest site.

He also guards the barricades at night until the early hours of the morning.

“You do what you are physically demanded to do,” he said. “If they say sleep, you sleep, if they say, ‘Wake up, the police are coming’, you get up and get ready.”

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Protestors sit on Argyle Street as police clear out the Mong Kok protest site. Photo: Vicky Wong.

Not everyone who has lost a job because of the protests has done so voluntarily. During the first week of Occupy, the organisers announced that one volunteer lost their job because their boss saw them delivering supplies to the protest site on TV. Walk around the site and you will notice cardboard signs at the front of each supply station bearing the words, “Do not take pictures “.

As the managing partner of his own business, Yeung doesn’t face the same pressures as some volunteers, but he has been thinking about the amount of time he is spending away from the company and the impact it is having on his colleagues.

“Obviously me not being there increases their workload”, he said. He admitted he has lost clients because he went “MIA” and has not been responding to emails. He said for now the company is safe and is not in the red yet, but if things deteriorate, he has considered selling his shares or at least rethinking how much time he will spend in Admiralty.

“Our company is based in the education sector, this is a student movement, so it makes a lot of sense for me to be here,” he said. “If I had a choice I’d close down the company even longer and get everyone to help. But we all have our limits.”

Annie Lau, on the other hand is lucky: she said her workplace is very open and whilst she did go back to freelancing for a while, she admitted she could not fully concentrate with work.

“Although there isn’t a lot of pressure from work, you do worry about your work performance because your mind is somewhere else: you’re always thinking about the protest site and your priorities change,” she said.

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Protestors getting ready to move to the police frontline in Mong Kok. Photo: Vicky Wong.

Gary Tsang said he did not officially quit his job at first. He used up his annual leave to take part in the protests, and has not returned to work since, and can no longer use annual leave as an excuse.

“I think the office will no longer welcome me back”, he said. “The way [my office] communicates is subtle. If I ask them ‘am I fired?’ They will say no, but I heard from the [colleagues] underneath I will probably lose my job when I get back.”

On his company’s website Yeung is described as a ‘firm believer in voluntarism’. A picture of him wearing a smart shirt and trousers appears alongside the quote, ‘Anything is possible until proven otherwise’. A very optimistic person, one would think. But it is clear that Yeung’s optimism is wearing thin.

A few weeks ago he joined a small group of protestors who tried and failed to occupy one of the entrances to the Central Government Office.

“Everyone that is here at the protest site are angry people; how they exert that anger is different,” he said. “People were fed up and they wanted to take action, but it was not organised properly, not a lot of people knew about it, that is why it failed.”

Asked why he personally did it, Yeung said: “People here are getting too comfortable with their tents and their furniture and so on. That’s fine, it’s fine to be comfortable, we’ve been here for a long time.

“But this movement is not stable. It was not meant to be stable in the first place, you know, people need to take action, we’re just sitting here being victimised.”

Yeung supports “escalating” the movement, but stops short of resorting to full-on violence, and instead suggests protestors should consider occupying the Cross Harbour Tunnel or the airport.

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Police at a cross section in Mong Kok watching over the Occupy site on Nathan Road: Photo: Vicky Wong.

Tsang also acknowledges that people are getting too comfortable and complacent. He admits to flirting with the idea of more violent action, but knows it is not the answer.

“If you asked me if I would risk my life for the protests to succeed, I will tell you no,” he said. “If you [ask] me if I want to go to jail for 10 years or more in order for this protest to win, I will tell you no.”

But despite any concerns or misgivings they may have about quitting their jobs, Yeung, Lau and Tsang all believe they are doing the right thing.

After a long pause, Lau said: “If you think what you’re doing is right, then it doesn’t feel like a long time. As long as it’s something you want to do and you think it’s right, then that’s ok.

“It’s hard to say how long I will stay here, I haven’t thought about it or when I will leave.”

Tsang is convinced that Occupy are winning and is willing to stay on the protest site for as long as it takes.

“As far as money is concerned I can stay for a long time”, he said. “We are getting close to the clearing (out of the protesters), so I’m focusing more on that. We are occupying places that the police are unable to clear, so we are winning, this is a reality.”

Yeung however was slightly more cautious when asked how long he was willing to stay on the Admiralty site.

“The thought of me staying here for a year really scares me,” he admitted. “Right now I’m prepared for another month if needed. If not, I’m happy for this to end, in a good way.”

Working 9 to 5: The Umbrella Movement's full-time protesters