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Hongkongers support protests from afar as flash mobs across US and Canada add oil

Mark Magnier

In recent weeks, Hong Kong expatriates living in New York have become increasingly concerned over the protests in their hometown. Late last week, Michelle Ng, a 34-year-old freelance designer who has lived in New York for the past 12 years, decided to do something about it.

On Thursday evening, she gathered 20 people born in " or with strong ties to " the city at a Starbucks cafe near the Empire State Building to brainstorm.

The group debated ideas on how to show their support over lattes and cappuccinos. Someone thought about walking through New York Subway tunnels with yellow umbrellas, but this was rejected as being too disruptive. Others proposed art exhibits or film screenings, but they decided that would take too long to organise.

Finally, they settled on a flash mob. Within hours, they were working their networks, spreading word through Facebook, Instagram and phone messaging. Sunday afternoon's event in Washington Square Park, in the heart of Greenwich Village, attracted more than 100 people who voiced strong support for Hong Kong protesters, one of several such events held across North America over the weekend.

A Lennon Wall at the New York event, echoing those that have appeared all over Hong Kong. Photo: Joy Chang alt=A Lennon Wall at the New York event, echoing those that have appeared all over Hong Kong. Photo: Joy Chang

"We wanted to do something today so that when everyone wakes up in Hong Kong, they know they're not alone," Ng said. "I wish I was in Hong Kong now to show our support, but we all do what we can."

A few feet away, organisers had spread out two dozen yellow umbrellas on the ground beside impromptu "Lennon Walls" made from FedEx boxes decorated with Post-it notes from passers-by who had stopped to ask questions. "Don't give up" and "New Yorkers support Hong Kong!" some read. "Hong Kong is not China" and "The revolution of our time", others said.

Organisers and participants at the New York event said they had not encountered any physical hostility from pro-Beijing Chinese before Sunday or earlier get-togethers, although several said they had been attacked online, often virulently, by Chinese trolls.

Ng, who lives in a heavily Chinese-American community, said she had travelled by subway to Sunday's flash mob with a painting she had made depicting a Hong Kong protester with goggles, a yellow hard hat and a sign that read "Free Hong Kong".

On the train, several New Yorkers saw her painting and voiced their support, some even shouting "Ga yao" " the Cantonese expression of encouragement meaning "add oil".

"But the Chinese people didn't say anything," Ng said. ."It's kind of painful when you see your fellow countrymen aren't supporting it."

With Hong Kong's weekend protests having become routine, some participants at Sunday's event worried that China's central government was losing patience.

"I'm scared," Yuki Wong, a 17-year-old student who left Hong Kong five years ago, said. "Maybe the PLA [China's People's Liberation Army] is coming in. China may feel it's losing control.

"We should not trust China. They said they would give us 50 years of freedom, but they're breaking their word. It's becoming 'one country, one system'," she added, referencing the "one country, two systems" principle under which Beijing promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after it was returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

Another of the New York event's Lennon Walls provides an outlet for people's thoughts on the ongoing turmoil. Photo: Joy Chang alt=Another of the New York event's Lennon Walls provides an outlet for people's thoughts on the ongoing turmoil. Photo: Joy Chang

New York's flash mob dovetailed with similar events held across Canada at the weekend, in the cities of Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Winnipeg, Halifax and Montreal.

"It was beyond our expectations " we expected 20 to 40 and had over 100 people," Grace Li, who helped organise the Montreal event, said. "The concern from the public and the media has been much greater than expected."

This came as details spread about the latest developments from Hong Kong, with word that police had fired tear gas in the Causeway Bay shopping district and protesters had occupied streets, blocked the cross-harbour tunnel and vandalised the Golden Bauhinia statue in Wan Chai, and with a general strike to take place on Monday. Li said she and the others had watched events unfold "with mixed feelings and broken hearts".

The five demands made by protesters include the full withdrawal of the controversial extradition bill " which would allow the transfer of fugitives to jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has no extradition deal, including mainland China " and an inquiry into the police's handling of the protests. The proposed bill has been suspended but not formally withdrawn.

"What do we want? Democracy!" people chanted at Sunday's New York flash mob. "When do we want it? Now!"

One analyst said the growing number of overseas events to show support for demonstrators suggested a global awareness of the stakes as China's power expands.

"Protests in places like New York and Washington speak to the deep chord that has been struck by the protesters back in Hong Kong," Thomas Kellogg, executive director of Georgetown University's Centre for Asian Law, said.

"Beijing should take note. When it comes to the battle of ideas, they are fighting a losing battle. And the reputational costs that they are paying continue to mount."

Not everyone who wandered past the New York event supported the Hong Kong protests. Mary Ng, a "50-something" medical secretary originally from Guangzhou, near Hong Kong in southern China, said she did not think Beijing was getting enough credit.

"The Chinese government has tried to make Hong Kong better through the economy," she said, citing the Greater Bay Area project to link Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong province.

"Hong Kong has tried to fight with Beijing. They're being a bit spoilt; I think they should just accept the way it is. If Hongkongers cooperated with mainland people, their life would be better."

But the New York event also included a few participants from mainland China who strongly supported the goals of the Hong Kong protesters.

Wan, a 29-year-old from Guangzhou wearing a black T-shirt " black clothes being the unofficial uniform of the protests " said he was there to show his support despite often being attacked online, accused of selling out and of being a traitor to the motherland when he posts anything even mildly supportive of the protesters.

"I feel like this is the right thing to do," said another 20-something man from southern China dressed in black, his face covered by a surgical mask " also in common with many Hong Kong protesters.

"They need to meet the protesters' five demands, and at this point there's a lot of police brutality. Police brutality is not good in any place, whether it's Hong Kong, the mainland or the United States."

Organisers estimated they had engaged with nearly 200 members of the public in a sea of dog walkers, hipsters and kids squealing in a nearby fountain. "It was very successful," Nicole Izsak, one of the organisers, said.

A passer-by adds a message to the display of umbrellas " symbols of protest in Hong Kong. Photo: Tyler Magnier alt=A passer-by adds a message to the display of umbrellas " symbols of protest in Hong Kong. Photo: Tyler Magnier

But there was acknowledgement that educating Americans and persuading them to focus on Hong Kong was not easy given their domestic concerns, including mass shootings in Texas and Ohio over the weekend, US President Donald Trump's litany of inflammatory tweets and next year's presidential election.

"There's a lot going on here," said Roxie Chang, 26, who grew up in Hong Kong and has lived in New York for eight years. "But we're trying."

Joel McGill, a 31-year-old audiovisual technician, stopped to look at the many Post-it notes. "It seems like it's really escalating over there and not even safe to be on the street," he said, adding that he had never been to Hong Kong but wanted to visit.

As the flash mob dissipated, organisers reflected on the day. "It's important to have these events to show our support, but I really wish I were in Hong Kong right now helping there," Chang said with a sigh. "There's a limit to what you can do over here."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.