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Interview: Evans Chan on his new Umbrella Movement doc ‘We Have Boots’ and the legacy of Martin Luther King

By Daniel C. Tsang

We Have Boots, Evans Chan’s 66-minute sequel to Raise the Umbrellas (2016), premiered in Hong Kong on November 18, to acclaim in the Chinese online press.

An InMedia write-up called the film “an epic.” A Stand News column said that together with Raise the Umbrellas, Boots offers the best introduction to the Umbrella Movement for its inclusive vision.

Evans Chan

Director Evans Chan. Photo: Cloud.

Q: Why did you make a sequel to your already comprehensive documentary of the Umbrella Movement?

This sequel to Raise the Umbrellas is about the Umbrella Movement’s fallout, or political backlash if you will, since the movement’s cessation four years ago. There is nothing unusual about my doing something like that.

I’ve been chronicling Hong Kong’s political trajectory since the post-Tiananmen years, which was the backdrop to my first film, To Liv(e).

I’ve covered the origin of Hong Kong’s social activism, in the 1970’s, in The Life and Times of Wu Zhang Xian, and the Sino-British handover of Hong Kong in Journey to Beijing.

Then I made Raise the Umbrellas. Didi Tatlow, who was raised in Hong Kong, made the observation that changes in Hong Kong since 1997 had been in slow motion, i.e. until 2014; then changes kept accelerating at a dizzying pace.

occupy central art umbrella

“Umbrella Man”. Photo: HKFP.

From the triumph of the “Umbrella warrior” candidates in the Legislative Council election in 2015, to the trial of the Occupy Nine Leaders right now, there’s been a lot of troubled water under the bridge.

Q: Why release and premiere Boots at the Hong Kong Arts Centre right as the trial of the Occupy Nine was beginning? Why not wait till the trial is over?

I didn’t intend to make a sequel. What happened was Lingnan University’s Cultural Studies Department worked with the Hong Kong Arts Centre to present a mini-retrospective of my work in November of this year.

Raise the Umbrellas hasn’t been screened in Hong Kong for a while. Naturally, we want to include Umbrellas in this retrospective.

I decided to add a 30-minute “bonus,” intended for the upcoming DVD release. My original idea was a short film about the proliferation of public/protest arts during the Umbrella Movement, since I had conducted interviews with many artists at the time.

However, back in Hong Kong in August, I decided to interview some more Umbrella Movement players, to spice up the “Umbrella Art” short with an updated angle.

umbrella movement occupy trial

Photo: inmediahk.net.

Oh boy! I ended up encountering, rather unexpectedly and hauntingly, a very sombre mood. Four interviewees – LegCo member Shiu Ka-chun, student leader Tommy Cheung, and the two Occupy co-initiators, Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man – were all reacting to their upcoming trial.

And the screening slot given by the HKAC a year earlier was actually on November 18, the eve of their trial. The timing was totally coincidental.

For Boots’ next screenings in Hong Kong I plan to expand and update the film. By the time both films are released on DVD, I’ll be able to include the verdict and some aftermath.

Q: Your new documentary covers the disqualification of lawmakers and candidates for election. Are you optimistic about Hong Kong’s future on the road to democracy?

As Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man said in the film, Hong Kong’s democratic movement is an ongoing process, decades in the making and likely to stretch decades ahead.

It is a bit of an irony that now democracy appears to be such a “necessary” and “sacred” journey. The truth is Hong Kong, not having enjoyed full democracy, never saw such an urgent, widely-mobilised demand for democracy until 2014.

The underlying causes had to do with an extreme polarisation among the citizenry in terms of income, resources, and trust in the system, particularly in its rule-of-law functioning.

umbrella movement occupy trial

Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man. Photo: In-Media.

These problems are still with us. That means the road ahead will be rocky for Hong Kong, regardless of the outcome of the Occupy Nine trial.

Did I paint a “bleak” picture? Probably. Am I optimistic? I don’t think my pessimism or optimism is worthy of discussion. What I’ve noticed is that the attitudes displayed by people like Tai, Chan, Shiu or Cheung seem in accord with one of Gramsci’s best-remembered sayings – ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ I hope I’ve answered your question.

Q: Boots goes further than your previous film in linking Hong Kong to struggles elsewhere. What lessons do you see Martin Luther King or others like Gandhi offering Hong Kong activists?

Already in Raise the Umbrellas, Martin Luther King’s influence on Benny Tai’s conceptualisation and launching of Occupy has been highlighted. I did have Tai read a passage from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – “There are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.”

You know – during my first interview with Benny Tai at the onset of the Umbrella Movement – I asked him about the inspiration behind his Occupy campaign. When he mentioned “Birmingham,” I was stunned, because one of the people I came to know and admire in New York was Harvey Shapiro.

Shapiro was a poet and a former editor of the New York Times Book Review. King’s “Birmingham” piece was Harvey’s “epochal assignment,” said the New York Times obituary of Harvey in 2013, the year he died.

Then a year later, in 2014, Shapiro’s epochal assignment had inspired an epochal event in the history of Hong Kong, my native city. That seemed to me a staggering coincidence.

occupy-hk-928-second-anniversary-umbrella-movement-1

Hundreds of protesters marked the second anniversary of the pro-democracy Occupy protests. Photo: Stanley Leung/HKFP.

And actually, the producer of my Umbrella films, Williams Cole, is Shapiro’s step-son. So there is King DNA in the making of my Umbrella films, and in the Occupy/Umbrella Movement itself.

Occupy was launched both as a political and enlightenment campaign. It drew on the global tradition of civil disobedience from Thoreau, Gandhi to King.

King’s sayings are often cited by activist organisations, including Civic Passion. I remember seeing a famous King dictum – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” – printed on Civic Passion’s publicity material.

Whether the civil disobedience tradition can take root or survive in Hong Kong or Greater China is anyone’s guess. It has to survive not only official suppression but also rival, militant discourses.

For example, there were Malcolm X advocates during and after the Umbrella Movement. This rivalry between non-violence and militancy in effecting social change probably will be with us for a long time.

Q: You feature four of the people currently on trial over Occupy. If they all end up being imprisoned, would you believe them to be political prisoners?

If they received inordinate imprisonment sentences I’d consider them political prisoners.

Amnesty International has already warned of the case’s “chilling effect on freedom of peaceful assembly and expression” in Hong Kong. And it also urged the SAR government to “stop politically motivated prosecutions against peaceful protesters that are aimed at deterring participation in peaceful assembly and silencing critical voices.”

Q: Post-Umbrella Movement reflections on the future path for Hong Kong activists runs as a theme linking the various people you interviewed. Were you surprised at anything they said?

There can’t be any totally surprising “statements” from them. Boots is not an investigative documentary. Boots and Raise the Umbrellas are artistic responses to the world that I know and care about. Content-wise, they summarise issues, provide historical perspective, and hopefully dig into corners of the interviewees’ psyches.

In the case of Boots, I’m trying to convey the Umbrella activists’ “styles” under duress, their “styles” in facing tremendous political and legal odds, and their “styles” in confronting their future.

That “style” is of course at once personal, political and ethical. I’m not a huge fan of Ken Burns’ documentaries. But I found his idea of documentary being an “archaeology of emotions” useful.

As distinct from reports and books, documentaries are able to present social and political actors in their flesh. I’ll be gratified if I can convey a glimpse of an interviewee’s emotional core, which accounts for what motivates them: who and what they are versus what they do or have done.

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Agnes Chow. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In the case of Ray Wong, we could be jolted into realising the fragility of an activist’s commitment. In the cases of Demosistō’s Agnes Chow, or the artist Kacey Wong [both interviewed in Boots], we can see the continued blossoming of their activist passion, though in very different domains.

With the four on trial, the stake may be even higher, because part of the civil disobedience project is to create a structure of moral appeal that can transform the law-breakers into figures (martyrs? heroes?) who are more than mere delinquents.

How successful or consequential is their moral appeal will be for the public to see and judge in the coming decades; and for the audiences of We Have Boots to discuss and evaluate.

Q: Chinese University of Hong Kong sociologist and Occupy Central co-founder Chan Kin-man has already taken steps to resign from CUHK, effective January 1, 2019. He gave his last lecture on campus before over 600 people. Do you wish you could have included his last talk in your documentary? 

I was among the 600 people in the audience. And I have footage from Professor Chan’s moving farewell speech to an institution where he taught for a quarter of a century.

His lecture took place just a few days before the premiere of We Have Boots; it won’t be possible for me to integrate the lecture footage into the film yet.

Q: Your documentary begins with historian Arif Dirlik discussing Hong Kong and how China treats it. Dirlik passed away last year. How important is Dirlik to activism in Hong Kong?

Professor Dirlik was a great personal friend, a mentor, and an outstanding scholar. He was an advisor to my Umbrella films. In Raise the Umbrellas, there is a segment to which he contributes substantially.

The last thing Dirlik did for me two years ago, even as he was dying from lung cancer, was to issue a statement in support of Raise the Umbrellas after its premiere was cancelled by Asia Society in Hong Kong. Dirlik taught at CUHK for two years. It’d be an exaggeration to say that he had any influence on activism in Hong Kong.

His background in researching Chinese Marxism made him an “acceptable” figure in China for decades. But towards the end of his life, his disillusionment with “socialist” China was palpable.

chan kin man last lecture

Chan Kin-man. Photo: Ezra Cheung.

Besides working with me on the Umbrella films and my docu-dramatic film, Datong: The Great Society, some 15 years ago he gave a very interesting interview to Lenny Kwok, founder of Black Bird, Hong Kong’s pioneering activist rock band. Rereading it now, I found what he said very poignant, very touching:

“I’ve got colleagues in the US, political scientists, who think that China should unify. There are foreigners who advocate a ‘greater China’ or something. I don’t know what all of those are supposed to mean.

“To me, it is really very important that these various Chinese societies achieve some kind of democracy. And I don’t see how you can achieve democracy in a country this size ruled from Beijing, according to habits which are very dictatorial.

“I try to conceive of it in reverse, that the government in Beijing, instead of fearing that if Taiwan separates out, then maybe Tibet would follow, and then Xinjiang too. I think that’s what they are afraid of.

“But they also could use Taiwan, or Hong Kong, as an example of creating democracy slowly from the bottom up rather than controlled from the centre. This could happen. Why not?”

Q: Will you make another sequel?

As long as I’m not done with filmmaking, I’ll make another film. And Hong Kong is always on my radar. But how directly any of my new films will be related to the Umbrella Movement, I don’t know yet.


Daniel C. Tsang is an Honorary Research Fellow in Social Science at HKU. He blogs at Subversities.blogspot.com. He was born in Hong Kong.

Interview: Evans Chan on his new Umbrella Movement doc 'We Have Boots' and the legacy of Martin Luther King