I arrive at the University of Hong Kong a little before my 9.30am class to protestors setting fire to road barricades. Cars, taxis and empty buses stop, and staff and students gather to watch the railings melt as black-clad protestors disappear into the campus. Riot police arrive, shouting in Cantonese as protestors in university buildings several floors above throw stones and abuse at them.
I pass protestors and press and squeeze between barriers to enter campus, which has been occupied by protestors. The subway station has been destroyed, graffiti is everywhere and there are protestors guarding entrances, gathering supplies, sleeping in the Student Union and making petrol bombs.
Unsurprisingly, my class was cancelled.
This was the beginning of a citywide ‘general strike’, organised in November 2019 by protestors desperately trying to provoke an unresponsive government. Protestors occupied university campuses, transport was disrupted and took action across the city. Semesters at most universities were suspended, and the police sieged two university campuses. At the University of Hong Kong, where I was on exchange, protestors even prepared themselves for a riot police attack, which included obstructing roads around campus, building a wall on the road and fashioning a bamboo catapult. Thankfully, the attack never came.
The November general strike was the most intense protest I experienced in Hong Kong, although not my only one. On Chinese National Day, walls of riot police formed opposite protestors on the road outside my accommodation. After watching England lose the Rugby World Cup final, I passed onto a main street nearby and found smouldering road blocks, smashed shops and lingering tear gas, the aftermath of a violent protest. However, these were irregular events, and my day-to-day life in Hong Kong was largely unaffected. Protests were usually avoidable and I always felt safe in Hong Kong. I found that the British media exaggerated the extent of the protests, to the point of making it seem like the whole of Hong Kong was on fire – which was never the case.
The protests affected everyone, young and old, local and international, teacher and student, protestor and non-protestor. I found the relentless stream of protest news completely mentally and emotionally exhausting. The International Office were practical and helpful, but I didn’t need them as my main source of support. I was lucky to make amazing friends in Hong Kong, and we supported each other. The mental health of protestors who are experiencing violence must be seriously affected, but so must that of the riot police, of those whose jobs and businesses are interrupted, of everyone who wakes up and checks the news to find more violence, more tear gas and more injustice. The protests can affect your mental health no matter where you stand on the political spectrum in Hong Kong.
It struck me that students, just like me, are having to fight for the democracy I take for granted. The people in my classes were the same ones facing riot police. This made me question myself: if I were from Hong Kong, would I fight? I still don’t know.
My (half) year abroad wasn’t all violence and tear gas. The protests formed an important part of my time in Hong Kong, but there was more to my life there. Before I came to Hong Kong I thought it was ‘just’ a city, but it is so much more. Hong Kong is a beautiful beach, a lush country park, an island of little treasures, a cold mountain and a place of unique, quirky districts with a new discovery around every corner. In my time I made wonderful friends, went on countless breath-taking hikes, ate fantastic food and danced at incredible nights out. At Hong Kong University I enjoyed a flexible curriculum which offered subjects never available to me in Durham. The vibrant city and a huge range of activities made living in Hong Kong the best time of my life.
And then came coronavirus. In January 2020 I felt fresh after the holidays and ready for a new semester. After four days of second semester classes, teaching and learning was moved online once again. Everyone began wearing masks, university and public buildings closed and the streets and transport emptied. Masks and hand sanitiser quickly became a thing of times gone by. The situation in China escalated and at the beginning of February 2020 I was on a flight home to the UK.
From protests to coronavirus, my year abroad in Hong Kong was not how I imagined it. Despite this, I wouldn’t change a thing – apart from to make it longer! It was an educational, unbelievably fun and eye-opening experience which was deeply refreshing following two long years at Durham. After a whirlwind six months, I am sure of one thing: Hong Kong, I’ll be back.
Images: Susie Bradley