Democracy and Identity of Fishballs

Food carts carrying yellow fishballs are icons of Hong Kong’s streets and to some they represent the working class, the values of entrepreneurship, capitalism and liberal democracy.They were the catalyst for a riot started on the first day of Chinese New Year that began with a poorly timed government crackdown on illegal hawkers harmlessly trying to make an extra buck in the only remaining district with famous markets, that has so far resisted the bulldozers from replacing the old way of life with office blocks and chic apartments.

fishball  street cart.jpg

Social media-savvy crowds responding to rallying calls online for the hawkers’ cause as public justice soon outnumbered frontline police officer. Hundreds of rioters started fires in the streets and fought pitched battles with police using bamboo spears, glass bottles and bricks ripped up from pavements.A video footage showed a handful of traffic policemen under vicious attack by a large mob. One of the officers, with a colleague lying senseless at his feet, pulled out his weapon and fired two shots in the air amidst burning trash bins and bleeding heads in mob violence not witnessed even during the worst of  the Umbrella Movement in 2014. A former top policeman said the riot was similar to the deadly Hong Kong unrest of 1966. Hong Kong must come together and say ‘no’ to violence.rioters and policeThis was called the  “Fishball Revolution”, behind the names of Fishball or Umbrella, the so called revolution is no Arab spring but anger and alienation that pits the pro-Beijing government against a population, especially the young, who want western-style freedoms.Those arrested were aged below 30 and dozens of them are students, what drove so many of the youth to such ferocious hatred of police and authority? The media pointed out their romanticising distortion of reality and  even headlined “a message to Hong Kong’s youth: don’t drag the rest of us down with your violent hatred”. It has been flagged to the leaders many times, and with increasing intensity over the last couple of years, but their siege mentality is not helping.There’s no deny on the dangers of marginalising angry young people and it must be tackled.

The root causes lie in Hong Kong’s acute lack of affordable housing and atrocious wealth gap.Record level of inequality is made up of three classes: the haves, have nots and the have yachts.But the established no longer derives their wealth from Hong Kong, their assets globally diversified and well-protected. The rioters can destroy the city and still the established are not really hurt.

Hong-Kong-Fishball-riots-ap  Fishball cartoon
A Hong Kong graphic artist posted the cartoon on facebook and mocked in Cantonese, “eating a skewer of fishballs could be illegal even on the first day of Chinese New Year”.

In mainland China, there were three prominent types of reactions to the riot from users on the Chinese equivalent of facebook:
1) Blame democracy: 500 likes for the comment “all terrorists, consequence of excessive democracy”.
2)”Hong Kong will be nothing without China”in comments, one got over 600 likes and mocking “the behavior of a more civilized society those pro-independent Hong Kongers talking about”

3) US conspiracy: “The damned capitalist America is constantly causing our country’s trouble. Our great economy is threatening it, after Iraq and Syria, they want to take China down.”

An American expatriate commented ,”If the citizens of New York had been forced to put up with the level of government incompetence, corruption and contempt for public opinion that Hong Kong people have had to swallow for the past 18 years without recourse to democratic elections, they’d probably do a lot worse than merely throw bricks.” A journalist rebuffed with “….heavy militarization of police in every other democratically advanced country… plenty of corruption, incompetence and social injustice everywhere.”

Beijing and state media accused a “local radical separatist organisation” staging the violent riot, hurting the city’s core values of civility and law, warning that its tourist industry, economy and image would suffer…social stability has been damaged….foundations for Hong Kong’s survival have been shaken, too.”

Analysts and academics said Beijing might have deepened public discontentment through its interference in the city’s internal affairs such as the  alleged abduction of Hong Kong booksellers who published a new book on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s past romances.Any interference by Beijing might provide fodder for “localist” groups, which seek to protect Hong Kong’s identity and advocate its independence from the mainland.Beijing should instead focus on policies to boost Hong Kong’s economy and the people’s livelihood. Hong Kong’s government is primarily responsible for improving the situation, the majority of the society has condemned the violence.If we were Xi Jinping dealing with all the problems of China now, what would we do with Hong Kong or Taiwan’s demand for democracy and independence?

I was born in a small fishing village an hour away from Hong Kong by ferry. A tiny island with no cars and tan tribes living on boats with fishballs as their signature food. My family moved from Hong Kong to Taiwan due to the 1966 riots also related to Mainland China. Fishballs and street hawkers are not really unique to Hong Kong, they are common in Taiwan, Singapore and Asia. My parents used to tease me that as a child I always said I would rent caged bed lodgings for them to live in when I earn my own living.

Both Hong Kong and Taiwan are marginalized by China because of our inferior economic status. If our competitiveness were as robust as Singapore, who would ignore us? But what about Singapore’s democracy? India probably scores high on democracy, but what about poverty or inequality? Is violence the path to democracy? Would the energy be better deployed in figuring out how to enhance livelihoods and competitiveness?

Indians in South Africa are called Cape Malay, but they are still ethnic Indians. In Singapore, Indians and Chinese all speak Singlish but when they go home they still live their ethnic roots.In my twenties, I went backpacking in Europe with a British passport issued in Chicago and a permanent address in Taiwan (I just quit a Ph.D. program in US and they did not have the Hong Kong British Crown Colony version available at the Consulate).When I arrived at UK from Calais, the immigration officer was puzzled with my identity since I had an American accent. Even now, the HK immigration at the airport would think I come from Taiwan because my Cantonese jargon is archaic but in Taiwan people still think I am from Hong Kong because of my Cantonese accent. What is my identity?

“Whether alike or different, we still belong to a certain group, and then we are really no different from each other.” Chuang Tzu.




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