Lolita’s eyewitness view in troubled Hong Kong
The world watched from the first protest, when an estimated million people took to the streets of Hong Kong unhappy with a plan to allow extraditions to mainland China.
The “naïve” hope was that the Government would withdraw the Bill. When that didn’t immediately happen, protest organisers ramped up their efforts, police fired teargas and bullets, bricks were thrown and petrol bombs were set off.
Bermudian Lolita Schmalenberg, who moved to the territory a decade ago because it “represented the best of Asia” says it remains so, despite what’s going on.
“We’ve been stuck in this for six months. People have been injured — a couple died — but it really tells you something about the character of Hong Kong people,” she said. “They’re very gentle and very respectful, just angry with police because it seems there will be no independent inquiry into some mistakes people have made. No one’s paying attention to who has been just and who hasn’t.”
She was with her son Kobi in the crowd of a million-plus that took to the streets on June 9.
Like many, they were concerned by what seemed an attempt to remove the judicial independence promised when control of Hong Kong was ceded back to China from the United Kingdom in 1997.
“It was a very peaceful march on a Sunday afternoon,” said Mrs Schmalenberg, the daughter of Ethlyn Dean and Lowdru Robinson, a former director of the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs. “There were grandparents, babies in strollers, teens, kids. It was a quiet walk through various districts in Hong Kong. All we said was that we don’t like the extradition Bill.
“It was something that all of us felt we had to stand up for. I was here for the handover in 1997 when China made a promise to let Hong Kong govern itself for 50 years.
“I felt it was a sneaky move to try to get a Bill passed, but at the time it felt innocuous. We thought that raising our voices in unison would work. We were so naïve.”
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, withdrew the Bill in September, but has refused to bow to the protesters’ remaining demands: an independent investigation into alleged police brutality and misconduct, the release of more than 6,000 arrested protesters, a retraction of the official characterisation of the protests as “riots”, and her own resignation.
It was hoped that National Day, a public holiday commemorating the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, would bring an end to the clashes. It was instead one of Hong Kong’s “most violent and chaotic days” ever.
As reported by the BBC: “An 18-year-old was shot in the chest with a live bullet as protesters fought officers with poles, petrol bombs and other projectiles.
“The Government then banned protesters wearing face masks, and in early November a pro-Beijing lawmaker was stabbed in the street by a man pretending to be a supporter.
“One week later, a policeman shot one protester at close range when activists were trying to set up a roadblock.
“Later that day another man was set on fire by antigovernment protesters. In November, a standoff between police and students barricaded on the campus of Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University became another defining moment.”
Mrs Schmalenberg, a permanent resident of Hong Kong, heard stories of university students woken by people on loud speakers chanting “Free Hong Kong”, “Say no to the extradition Bill”, “Down with China” and “Hong Kong for Hong Kong people”.
It brought awareness “that the protesters were more organised than we realised”, she said.
“We saw young people being radicalised systematically and, on the ground, all of a sudden people were very organised: they all had the same gas masks, same gear.”
On social media, people were offered pay in return for their participation. “They promised if you joined the protest they would pay you HK$3,000 (about $385)
“Someone started targeting domestic helpers: Filipinos and Indonesian workers have a unique status in Hong Kong. They have the right to work but not the right to vote here.
“I started to see lots of people out there. We had, originally, a couple million people trying to do things peacefully. By August, September, things started to ramp up.”
Born in Canada where her parents studied, Mrs Schmalenberg has lived overseas since the 1990s. “I love Bermuda. It’s a beautiful rock but it’s kind of small,” the globetrotting social worker said. “I’ve not been there for a very long time.”
Having worked in Central America, she “jumped at the opportunity” with her husband, Blair, to move to China.
They had four children while living an hour outside Beijing and then in Huaibei, a remote coalmining town.
Ten years ago the family moved to Hong Kong where Mrs Schmalenberg is a guidance counsellor.
“I love Asia and Hong Kong seemed to be the best of Asia,” she said. “I had been here a few times. I lived on the mainland for 14 years and it was an oasis to go to when you needed a break.”
Although many people in the region speak English, she was determined to learn Mandarin.
“After the first year, I started to hear sounds,” she said. “I did studies with tutors.
“With my fourth child, the nanny could only speak Chinese and so I had to learn how to speak to [her]. That was my motivation.”
Pro-democratic parties swept the board in Hong Kong’s elections at the end of November; Ms Lam has conceded that her actions played a role in the defeat of pro-China district council members.
An estimated 800,000 people took part in a protest last week Sunday, the largest in several months.
“I am not scared,” Mrs Schmalenberg said. “The images you see you would think, ‘How can you not feel unsafe?’ But I flew to Toronto in October.
“The same night I returned there were major demonstrations in Hong Kong — fires were set, there was teargas.
“The next morning there was no evidence of any of the destruction. They had cleaned it all up.
“November was different. It was [then that we] started to take it a little more seriously.
“Up until [then] we really thought the greater majority of people were peaceful.
Mrs Schmalenberg added: “The graffiti, throwing the bricks, taunting police, we thought they were being foolish, but it really didn’t seem so malicious. And then things changed.
“We know a man got hit with a brick, a man was ignited because he said people were attacking the cops. It really turned.”
It’s of small comfort that the violence isn’t widespread when the majority of the region disagrees with the Government, she said.
“I live on Hong Kong Island. I’m not seeing lot of demonstrations here.
“People haven’t responded. They stand for the ideals behind the movement, but don’t want to actively protest.
“When you talk with people in Hong Kong, they say they don’t like the violence but in the next breath they say, ‘But what choice do we have?’
“There’s an absolute distrust in China; a huge divide between Hong Kong people and mainland people.
“A lot of it is fear of what might happen, what China might do.
“It looks like people are moving their money out of HSBC Hong Kong to HSBC Singapore. People are worried that their assets will be frozen.”
Added to that is a divide in Hong Kong between “locals” and people with options.
“For the seven million people who don’t have a second passport, they feel this is a fight we have to pursue,” Mrs Schmalenberg said.
“Hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers are approaching it that way, continually voicing their concerns: ‘This is not OK Beijing. You made a promise you’ve got to stick to that promise’.”
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