By Farah Master
Hong Kong protesters have created a self-sustaining village within a month of taking their call for democracy to the streets, setting up changing rooms, tents for hire, a study area, first-aid stations and even their own security patrols as they ready for the long haul.
What started out as hastily built barricades against police pepper spray and tear gas, relying mainly on cling film and umbrellas, has evolved into a fully fledged campus with carpeted stairs, water coolers, WiFi and gas-fuelled generators supporting mobile phones, desk lamps and amplifiers.
And when rain pounds the village, which straddles a major thoroughfare in the heart of Hong Kong, dozens set to work.
“It’s instant architecture. We are just improvising,” said 31-year-old artist George Wong. “When it started to rain, over a dozen people made a cover over the study area within 15 minutes.”
Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows it wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms and specifies universal suffrage for choosing its leader as an ultimate goal.
But Communist Party leaders in Beijing have insisted on screening candidates for the job first, prompting the popular, and in the most part courteous, dissent.
The student-led protesters now appear to be settling in indefinitely, even though the government is powerless to change the financial hub’s “Basic Law” mini-constitution and go against Beijing rule.
The protesters have blocked major arteries on both sides of the picture-postcard harbour, with police sporadically clearing barricades in places. The camp at Admiralty, home to government offices and next to the Central business district, is the best organised and most settled.
Supporters say the site has developed organically, without a main organizer, but there are distinct teams in charge of areas like security, medical care, recycling and art work. Team members break into three shifts, morning, afternoon and night.
Alvin L, a snowboard coach in Vancouver who grew up in Hong Kong, is a member of the defence team, equipped with a walkie-talkie and whistle.
“There are several teams who share information. We have a defence line checking how many cops there are. If someone whistles, we can help direct people where to go.”
DRYING RACKS AND TOOTHBRUSH HOLDERS
The medical team, made up of more than 200 people, works across four main stations in Admiralty. Supply stations stocked with toilet paper and saline water to Nescafe and granola bars – all free for any passersby – are dotted every few yards and manned by around 40 volunteers.
“We are starting to see more people building for shelter and improving the infrastructure in Admiralty,” said Johnson Yeung of Civil Human Rights Front, the main organizer of an annual march for democracy coinciding with the anniversary of Beijing’s violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters on June 4, 1989.
Beatrice Chiu, a member of the Democratic Party, said numbered tents were available for rent – provided demonstrators registered their identity card number and kept the tents clean.
Large tents are available for people to get ready for work in the morning with holders to store their toothbrushes next door.
Drying racks made from string attached to street lamps hang clothes and towels while a temporary shower area has been dismantled to expand a 30-metre study area with wooden tables, desk lamps and stationery. A nearby board covered in pastel Post-it notes advertises free lessons ranging from Korean to engineering and ethics.
Suited office workers ferry bowls of congee and tea around tents while some protesters sit outside their tents reading newspapers and smart phones.
“I usually go home to shower after work and come back here at night,” said Karen Tsang, a teacher, as she zipped up her tent to leave for work on Thursday. Tsang says she uses the nearby toilet at a nearby building while others have been going to McDonald’s and KFC and using facilities such as the shower room at nearby squash courts.
Protesters say the camp has been funded by themselves, sympathetic businesses and others willing to donate food and supplies.
“We will not accept people’s money. Everyone can bring supplies,” said Alvin. “Even (airline) staff have been bringing hand wash and toilet wipes.”
Environmental awareness also appears to be strong.
The artist Wong, dressed in brown flip-flops and fuchsia shorts, detailed how to recycle each part of a bottle by peeling off labels, separating the caps and then flattening the plastic for the recycling team to collect.
“We are all helping each other,” he said. “It is all self-motivated. For instance, when the drain starts flooding, we go to mop it up.”