On Thursday night, a stream of protesters marched to the office of Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive, where they were met by a wall of police officers standing behind barricades.
Before they got there, Eunice Chiu and Nicko Cho offered the protesters plastic wrap to shield their skin from a possible tear gas attack.
“Protect your arms! Protect your arms!” the two protest volunteers said in Cantonese. Cho wasn’t sure how long they would continue to offer help, given that a melee could break out. “We don’t know,” Cho said in English. “We are waiting for the police to fight.”
For five days, Hong Kong has been buffeted by the largest street protests in its history. But compared with mass demonstrations in the United States and other parts of the world, Hong Kong’s version is a model of civility, cleanliness and efficiency.
Every day, volunteers work to scrub streets, pick up garbage and separate recyclables. They offer free water and yellow ribbons to people joining or observing the protests and, of course, umbrellas and other protective gear are readily offered.
Thursday’s night convergence on the chief executive’s office could have turned into a melee, and at one point it almost did. But amid the nebulous leadership structure of these protests, volunteers quelled arguments and kept protesters from surging onto a nearby highway. At one point, 17-year-old student leader Joshua Wong stood on a ladder and urged protesters not to skirmish with police.
“In Hong Kong, people are generally more disciplined,” said Jackie Au, 23, who manned a water and gas mask distribution site near the chief executive’s office. “People here are trying to get their point across, but in a way that is more respectful.”
Hong Kong has a long history of protests, so its citizens have been fine-tuning the mechanics for many years. But the nature of the ongoing protests also speaks to a general civility in Hong Kong. In the city’s well-run subways, Hong Kongers queue up to get on cars, and they let passengers get off first. That would never happen in Beijing.
Hong Kong is also increasingly passionate about its civil liberties. Many people here fear those freedoms will be eroded if Beijing is allowed to vet candidates to run in a 2017 election to pick Hong Kong’s next chief executive. That’s what’s behind the ongoing protests.
“The people need more democracy in Hong Kong!” declared Nita Chow, a 17-year-old high school student who was volunteering at a water station at the Admiralty protest site. “The government didn’t listen to the people, so we need to take this space for ourselves. We can’t just stay at home and watch the news.”
Volunteers work to keep the protest sites clean partly because of civic pride, said Chow. But the bigger reason is more pragmatic. “We keep this place clean to encourage people (protesters) to stay here,” she said.
Keeping protesters hydrated, fed and comfortable requires an elaborate supply chain, with water and other necessities trucked in several times daily. The protests have been criticized for lacking a leadership structure. Despite that, the students and other volunteers use social media to make sure supplies get delivered and work shifts are managed.
“Facebook is the best invention ever!” said Au, who lived most of her life in London but recently returned to her native Hong Kong.
Along with responding to the needs of protesters, volunteers also try to remind them of the seriousness of the demonstrations.
“Don’t trust Chinese spies,” read one flier handed out Thursday to protesters in Causeway Bay, another protest site. It also urged restless occupiers not to take “selfies” or engage in karaoke. “Remember we’re a protest, not in carnival!” said the flier.
Outlets for expression proliferate at all protest sites, reflecting the character of their neighborhoods. In gritty Mong Kok, on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, protesters blocked intersections with buses to create vehicle-less spaces for the street demonstrations. Within a few days, the buses were plastered with notes and placards posted by people wanting to comment on the protest and its goals.
On Monday, a 16-year-old named Cola Ho started collecting protest notes from her high school classmates. She brought them to the main protest site in Admiralty and put them up on a board near the heavily guarded legislative chambers. Soon others posted their notes and artwork.
As of noon Thursday, there were 34 panels with 4,000 scraps of commentary and artwork, according to Ho and her friend Philip Yeung, 17, who helped with the installation.
“I have read all of these messages,” said Ho. “They are all very different. These are the voices of the people, and each one is unique.”
Ho herself posted a message, but it got washed away in a rainstorm. She said her message read, “This is a fight for freedom! This is a fight for democracy!”
Volunteers have since made sure that other messages would not be washed away. In typical Hong Kong fashion, they protected the wall of free expression with several layers of plastic wrap.