October 17, 2014

Reporting the Hong Kong protests

In my last post, I mentioned that the protests seemed to be dying down, as the government had agreed to hold talks with the movement's leaders. Well, shortly after that the government cancelled the talks, and thousands of protesters marched straight back onto the streets.

This week I got the chance to head out into the field and help with some of the protest coverage. Now, when I say "help", my contribution has been absolutely miniscule - it has more been an observational exercise than anything else. At the New York Times, where I'm doing my internship, the reporters are working through the day and night to cover this event, which is constantly evolving and has no end in sight. Not only do the reporters have to be in three places at once (there are three major protest sites), but they are also working to deadlines across different time zones for various editions of the paper. Then of course there's the hungry beast that is the web, which has to be fed constantly. As do personal Twitter accounts. Then, after all of that, they've somehow got to find time to sit down and interview experts to get serious analysis on the whole thing.

It's exhausting just to think about. These guys are bloody troopers, and I'm learning a lot from watching their reporting and seeing how the final stories come together each day.

For me, it's been a surreal experience. As a national news reporter, I do most of my work from the office. Probably the last "event" I was involved in was the royal tour of New Zealand. I went to the airport when Prince William, Catherine and baby Prince George landed in Wellington, and interviewed royalists who provided quotes such as: "I do wish [George] had been wearing a hat in this cold".

Over the past couple of days I have found myself interviewing people about universal suffrage, the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China, and police brutality.

People have been incredibly approachable. Of course, it helps that for the most part the people I've spoken to have been protesters who have a bee in their bonnet and want the world to know about it. But there are also a lot of bystanders - and they are the really interesting ones to talk to, because you can never predict what they're going to say. How do they feel about the protests?

"At first, I supported them," said one retired man in Mong Kok. "But it's lasted so many days. I want to go to Tsim Sha Tsui for shopping and to see my friends. If I take the bus, it's $2. But the bus is cancelled so I have to take a taxi. It takes up my time and money."

I have seen insane bamboo barricades being constructed, attended a rally and rushed to the scene when there were rumours of police using tear gas again (it turned out it was pepper spray, and I was sent home when it looked like it was getting dangerous).

Half the time I have no idea what's actually going on, as most of the speeches and skirmishes are in Cantonese. Sometimes I ask people around me to summarise what's being said, and they're generally happy to oblige. Other times people have actually come up to me, offering to help (I have the "lost lamb" look down pat now) or just curious about what I'm doing here.

On one such occasion, I met a bizarre character. He was a Chinese businessman who lived in Milan and spoke with - I kid you not - a Tony Soprano accent.

"New Zealand, huh," he said with a sneer. "You're a fucking long way from home."

Occupy Central: Back in action
Tent city in Admiralty
Barricades
Spot the creative "middle finger" gloves at the end of the poles
"Central Government and TRIAD offices"
Bored policemen guarding the Central Government offices
Construction of bamboo barricades on Monday night
These were pulled down the very next morning.
At a rally in Admiralty, my view of student leader, 18-year-old Joshua Wong
At the rally condemning police brutality hundreds of people held up these signs, saying "black cops" (I think)
This is me interviewing someone in Mong Kok. I gave him my business card and he later sent me this photo, which must have been taken sneakily by his friend. Only in Hong Kong.

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