An Urban Village Pops Up To Comfort Hong Kong Protesters

October 19, 2014

Hong Kong’s main pro-democracy protest camp turned 3 weeks old on Saturday.

What began as a roadblock has grown into an urban village, with several hundred tents that attract more than a thousand people at night.

The camp is a combination street fair and outdoor art gallery, with political sculptures and posters as well as speeches, movie screenings — even a free library.

The vibe at this pop-up protest colony is like an American college campus in the ’60s — except it’s on an island on the edge of the South China Sea and surrounded by skyscrapers.

The camp sprawls across — and blocks — Hong Kong’s Harcourt Road, a major highway.

Beyond the protesters’ demands for democratic elections, what distinguishes the place is a sense of community, best captured by the free services that have sprouted up to meet demonstrators’ needs.

They include the furniture-making shop. Kacey Wong, a professor of design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says some of his students kicked it off.

“This whole movement was generated from the students’ boycott of the school a few weeks ago,” Wong says. “They are thinking about boycotting school, but not boycotting studying. So how can you resolve this problem?”

By sawing, hammering and drilling scrap wood into desks and chairs the students can use. The result: a study hall with electricity, lights and desks built into the concrete highway divider.

“We are volunteers,” says Terence Tam, 26, who works in information technology but has become one of the furniture makers. “They are studying very hard, so we can try to make them more comfortable.”

Tam says he knew nothing about carpentry, but it only took a day to learn. The wood, he says, was scavenged from the garbage.

“As a Hong Kong guy, I just think this is what I can do for this place and for the teenagers,” he says. “I think that they are … fighting not just for their future, but also our future.”

If scrap-wood carpentry isn’t your thing, a few dozen tents away, there’s art therapy.

Map Tang, a social worker, has set out construction paper, an array of colored pens, feathers, thread and stickers on a tarp. She says three weeks of demonstrating have left many physically and psychologically exhausted.

“That’s why we wanted to have a tent here with all the materials of art making, so we can actually take care of ourselves and also express our feelings,” she says.

One tool is conspicuously missing: scissors.

“Because if you have something that is a weapon … the police can take you away,” Tang says.

If you need a place to crash for the night, check with Pat, a graphic designer who assigns some of the tents, which — like most things here — are donated by supporters and free.

“Better be early because it’s really, really full,” says Pat, who works as a freelance graphic designer.

Pat, who only gave her first name, says the tents are numbered and assigned on a first-come, first-served basis.

Sooner or later, police will clear this camp, which is completely illegal.

“I’ll be really sad,” says Elizabeth — she doesn’t want to give her full name. She just graduated from college and has been spending a lot of time at the protest.

Elizabeth says when the camp is gone, she will miss the camaraderie and shared sense of mission.

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” she says. “This whole building of community is essential if you want to have a sustainable movement, because we know that this movement doesn’t end just here. We have to continue it.”

Continuing the movement without the gravitational force of the protest camp may be one of the movement’s biggest challenges ahead.

Many Hong Kongers support the protesters’ democratic goals, but the camp has caused three weeks of traffic jams on this crowded island, and people are looking forward to seeing it go.

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