When Sam Yip Kam-lung ran in the 2015 District Council elections and lost to pro-establishment candidate Chan Choi-hi, residents in the Western District thought this was perhaps the last they would see of him.
But just three months later, the umbrella soldier – a term coined to describe a new generation of young people who entered the political arena following the 2014 Occupy protests — returned to the district with a new project: “Sai Yau Office”.
Sai yau means grapefruit in Cantonese, but it is also a pun on “friends of Western District” — a reflection on the group’s mission statement, which was to work towards a democratic society through community building.
The office went on to host community photography classes, set up mobile book exchange counters, and teach senior citizens how to use mobile phones (whilst filtering “fake news” circulating on their Whatsapp groups). The venue was also opened up to NGOs.
Even more importantly, it monitored what took place within the Central & Western District Council, which has long been dominated by the pro-establishment camp.
Now, after one and a half years, the office has left its premises on Chiu Kwong Street in Western District. But Yip promised that this would not be the end of their work; with or without a physical venue, the spirit of Sai Yau Office will live on.
A shadow district council
Sai Yau Office, founded by Yip and six others, opened its doors in February 2016. Three of the executive committee members, like Yip, were district council candidates who had failed in their bid for office in 2015. They pooled the resources left over from the campaign – election subsidies of HK$14 for each vote that they received – and rented a space together where they could continue promoting democracy in the district and work for the community.
Yip’s political enlightenment came during the protest involving the demolition of Queen’s Pier and Star Ferry Pier, but he said he only “dedicated his life to politics after the Occupy protests.” Having grown up in Western District, it became natural that this would be the first area he became active in. “Western District is where my roots are. I care about everything here.”
Yip believed that politics often had a direct impact on the living conditions in a district, even with small matters such as the cleanliness of the brick pavements. “You look around you [and see all these things that are wrong], and then realise it’s because the district councillors aren’t doing their jobs.”
Western District, Yip remembered, was not always a pro-establishment stronghold. Up till 2007, the seat in Sai Ying Pun was held by Lai Kwok-hung, formerly of the Democratic Party and later a pro-democracy independent candidate. Later, with the increasing influence of the China Liaison Office – located in the heart of Sai Ying Pun – his seat was won by the pro-Beijing DAB’s Lo Yee-hang, who is still district councillor today.
As for the constituency he ran in, Yip was up against Chan Choi-hi, who was originally pro-democracy but later switched camps. Chan, the boss of a discount electronics shop that once competed with the likes of Fortress, yielded a certain influence in the region. By 2019, Yip said, Chan would have served as councillor in the district for 32 years.
The fact that Chan had changed sides was almost irrelevant to voters. According to Yip, if the residents of a district are used to seeing a certain candidate, they will continue to vote for that person.
“District Council is also a facet of politics – but those in a community, especially the elderly, they don’t see it as politics. They think, as long as you demonstrate concern, you provide services, and you’re a familiar face – that’s what a district councillor is to them.”
But Yip did not want to focus on services. To Yip, the biggest setback of the pro-democracy camp – including his own performance at the District Council elections – was that the focus had been too heavily tilted towards service-provision, rather than using actions to demonstrate what democracy meant.
“It means that everyone has a voice, and there is mutual respect. It’s not about what you successfully ‘achieved’ for the neighbourhood… it’s whether you made sure the process was transparent and the citizens could decide for themselves,” he said.
“We also have to realise that we can’t always blame the pro-establishment camp, with say, what happens in the Owners’ Corporations. They really did manage to find this number of people to go to the meetings and make themselves heard.”
Owner’s Corporations are legal bodies which that govern the management of buildings – they are traditionally dominated by pro-Beijing forces.
“Then you have to ask yourself, [how] did they mobilise enough people? And what can we do to change this?”
This was how Sai Yau Office became a “shadow district council” that monitors the pro-establishment councillors. This included relaying information they’ve heard from the district council meetings to the public, and speaking up during the discussion of motions in meetings. Yip himself is a co-opted member of the council’s Traffic and Transport Committee, and regularly sits in on other District Council meetings as well; at times, he even live streams them.
One notable instance of keeping the pro-Beijing councillors in check, Yip recalled, was when the government proposed building covers over pedestrian walkways, but the majority of the suggestions for locations chosen for these plans were not brought forward for discussion during the meetings.
“We questioned what criteria they used to [eliminate other suggestions]… but the Transport Department did not tell us. During the meeting, they refused to reveal more details, and there was a point when the pro-establishment district councillors – including the chair of the council Yip Wing-shing – pointed their fingers at us and accused us of not looking at the documents.
“But that document, in fact, was never circulated… there were details about the other proposals, and why they were rejected, but it was only given to pro-establishment councillors during site visits,” Yip said.
“I told him we were not objecting or filibustering for the sake of it, but we would not endorse the suggestions without public consultation. In the end, we forced the district officer to make the document public.”
Despite this, there were still various constraints in the procedures that limited Yip from doing more. For example, during the consultation, only the residents living in the immediate vicinity of the proposed areas were consulted, and the “cross-district” comments were only classified under “other comments.” Moreover, the Owners’ Corporations were consulted rather than the residents.
“What we’re trying to do is to monitor and expose incidents like these. Otherwise – take the Central and Western Promenade proposal for example – there’s a lot that can go wrong.”
Yip also knew that fostering a sense of community was key to a grassroots democratic movement. This was where Tai Ngai-lung, the group administrator of the Western District community Facebook group, “A Time of Change in Sai Wan” – and Lui Yat-nam and Ken Lai, who organised the public viewing of Hong Kong-China World Cup match on Hill Road – came in.
Lui was a member of Yau Ma Tei’s Woofer Ten – a space that promotes the interaction between arts and politics in the community – and while Yip was running for office, he began toying with the idea of bringing the concept over to Western District. Then, as Yip was musing on his next steps after the elections, he proposed to Tai the idea of creating a physical manifestation of his Facebook group.
“I wouldn’t say that the members of the Facebook group were pro-democracy,” Yip said. “It’s just when they see absurd or unreasonable things happening in the community, such as the government’s plans to demolish the Cadogan Street Temporary Garden, which has been there for 19 years – they will react. The members of the group also share community-related news, and sometimes just chat.”
Enraptured by the thought of bringing this online spirit into the real world, the group came together to rent an office which residents could visit in person. The space is open from 3pm till 8pm, Monday to Friday, with the executive committee members taking turns on shifts. The committee also hosts a range of activities – from art workshops to mock exams for secondary students – and speak to residents about political and societal issues.
Again, to Yip, this was not “service-provision” but rather, “community building”; he does not think of this as “helping” others in the community. “I don’t like to use the word ‘help’. We’re all members of the community.” Thus, it was in everyone’s interests to improve it, he said.
Yip admitted that more could also be done to integrate non-Chinese residents living in the area. “There are some Filipinos in the district who have three-star status on their Hong Kong Identity Cards [meaning they are eligible for a Hong Kong Re-entry Permit] but the community has paid zero attention to them. No one taught them how to be a voter… We can do more in this area,” Yip said.
This is especially so since the incumbent district councillors were doing little to improve integration. “They think that throughout the whole of Hong Kong, there are only Chinese people.”
Another challenge was integration between residents with different political views. Yip said that during the course of raising awareness of certain politically sensitive issues, there have been times when pro-Beijing residents will come over and tell them off, such as with the disqualifications of lawmakers.
Yip stresses that their doors are open to “blue ribbons” – meaning supporters of the pro-establishment camp. “We’d still invite you to come have milk tea or a bun with us. Our objective is not just to solve the residents’ problems – it’s also for us to understand each other.”
Closing its doors
But labours of love are often unsustainable, and Sai Yau Office is no exception. Yip admitted that they burnt through their money within their first three months, and had been struggling to build a working model for the long run. It did not help that they ran into obstacles while trying to register as a company and open a bank account – a common occurrence for pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong – and missed their golden opportunity to recruit members.
Finally, two months ago, the office said goodbye to its premises in Sai Ying Pun.
But Yip is still unfazed. “The banner of Sai Yau Office isn’t important. We’re still going to continue with the community work that we’ve been doing, if it needs to be done. I’ll still be there at my street station to talk to residents. Tai will continue running the Facebook group, and the initiatives will live on,” he promised.
One such initiative is a sports group whose members did core training and night runs together every week. Yip said that the group has become “an independent entity” and have become a community in themselves. “That’s what we wanted from the beginning – to establish these different initiatives within the district.”
And will he run for a district council seat again in 2019? Yip said that this has yet to cross his mind. “It doesn’t have to be me. The way we think about it is, if there’s someone who says ‘I want to step forward and make this community a better place’, we will support them wholeheartedly.”
Despite the fact that Sai Yau Office was born out of reflections following a failed venture into politics, Yip did not believe that community work had to be political. “Doing community work is not about getting votes,” he said.
“An intention to run for election shouldn’t be the only reason for doing community work. In a way, doing so would be ‘politicising’ democracy. Because once you think about seats, [your actions] will become election-oriented… the idea of a ‘community citizen’ and ‘community democracy’ should not have this element to it.”
This does not mean that Yip thinks seats were not important. “It comes with certain power and resources. But if you win the seat, and what you’re doing is not something that the residents find acceptable, then it would still be pointless.
“On the other hand, there are things that can be done even without a seat or even a party – something as simple as booking a classroom to speak about democracy or booking a venue to play sports.”
Ultimately, Yip’s belief could be summed up in a simple sentence: “You don’t have to be a district councillor to care about the community.”