When Vancent Zhu heard that supporters of the Hong Kong protest movement would be gathering at a shopping mall in Richmond, near Vancouver, to sing their de facto anthem Glory to Hong Kong, he knew he had to be there.
The electrical technician was going to be in Richmond afterwards for a party, anyway. So he drove the 15km (9 miles) from his home in Burnaby, another Vancouver satellite city, and made a day of it.
Hundreds of protesters dressed in black filled the railings of the multilevel Aberdeen Centre mall, which developer Thomas Fung built as the region's first Asian-style shopping centre in 1989, catering to the pre-handover influx of immigrants from Hong Kong.
As the other protesters' voices rose to the choral strains of Glory to Hong Kong, and then the familiar Cantonese call-and-response chants of their movement, Vancent Zhu cupped his hands to his mouth and began to sing, at the top of his lungs.
"SHAME ON LO-SERS," he bellowed with a high-low lilt. "SHAAAME-ON-LOOOO-SERS".
Zhu's vocal dissent from the top tier of the mall on September 14 was mostly drowned out by the voices below. But it was immortalised on social media.
I wondered: what possesses someone to enter a potentially hostile arena filled with hundreds of people who disagree with them vehemently, and would likely object to being called losers?
Here's the sole vocal pro-CCP mainland nationalists shouting "shame on losers" and handing out the leaftlet (see previous tweet.)#hongkongprotests#5DemandsNot1Less #cansaveHK pic.twitter.com/qrED9pWAtV
" Kevin Huang｜黃儀軒 (@yskevinhuang) September 14, 2019
Opponents of the movement, some dressed in designer clothes, tore down a Lennon Wall outside the Aberdeen Centre on October 1 and threw coins at the people who built it.
That triggered outrage among supporters of the protests; at a follow-up rally on Saturday, attended by hundreds, one Hong Kong protest supporter was hauled away by police in handcuffs when he ran to confront opponents.
There has been talk on social media of bringing weapons to confront the Hong Kong protest supporters. Tensions have been high on both sides for weeks.
Zhu, who has lived in Canada for 16 years, said he wasn't frightened during his lonely challenge to the singers, whose performance was "so ridiculous".
"Some tried to argue with me. I got threatened by a man in black, pointing at me and yelling ... he said 'Shut the eff up' and tried to stop me but I tried to ignore him," Zhu told me.
Vancent Zhu is seen in the Aberdeen Centre mall in Richmond, British Columbia, on September 14, shouting "shame on losers" as people sing the Hong Kong protest anthem Glory to Hong Kong. Photos: Kevin Huang Yi Shuen alt=Vancent Zhu is seen in the Aberdeen Centre mall in Richmond, British Columbia, on September 14, shouting "shame on losers" as people sing the Hong Kong protest anthem Glory to Hong Kong. Photos: Kevin Huang Yi Shuen
"He was very close to me and pointing at me. I just walked away ... I don't want to waste time with these people, but I don't want them to bring this kind of spirit to Canada."
He said he didn't mean to suggest the singers were losers. "The Hong Kong violence makers, we call them the losers. They are destroying the Hong Kong democracy."
Zhu cuts a distinctive figure in video of the event, dressed in white jeans and a denim jacket. Compact and wiry with spiked hair, he paces the top floor of the mall in long strides, handing out fliers in English and Chinese, laying out his case against the Hong Kong protesters and likening their activities to the rise of Nazism in Germany.
I tracked Zhu down thanks to his unusual first name, after a person named him on Twitter. That led to a 13-year-old posting on a Chinese-language Vancouver chat room that included his email address.
He had been raising funds to support the Diaoyu Islands movement, dedicated to asserting Chinese territorial claims on the disputed islands in the East China Sea that are administered by Japan, where they are known as the Senkaku Islands.
If you have not seen yet, 500+ gathered at Aberdeen centre in Richmond today to support #HKprotests fighting against authoritarian encroachment. #FreeHongKong #FreedomHK #antiELABhk #antiEALB #Vancouver #Canada pic.twitter.com/y0HCQGr6F6
" Heiky Kwan (@HeikyKwan) September 15, 2019
It turns out that Zhu's journey to the Aberdeen Centre was not his first protest adventure in potentially hostile waters.
In 2006, Zhu had not just raised money for the Daioyu expeditionaries " he joined them, flying to Hong Kong, boarding the activists' protest boat, the Bao Diao II, and sailing for days to reach the islands. They brought jets skis and scuba gear to facilitate a planned landing on the rocky shore.
But the voyage triggered an international incident. On October 27, a fleet of about 15 Japanese coastguard vessels surrounded the Bao Diao II, and two rammed the former fishing boat and trained a water cannon on its crew, thwarting any landing.
Contemporary media accounts listed one Canadian citizen among the crew of 22 who received a "heroes' welcome" when they sailed back to Hong Kong. That was Zhu. Ironically, his crewmates included prominent Hong Kong democrats and activists who now support the protest movement that Zhu regards with such contempt.
The protest ship the Bao Diao II (left) is rammed by a Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat near the Diaoyu Islands on October 27, 2006. Photo: Kyodo News alt=The protest ship the Bao Diao II (left) is rammed by a Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat near the Diaoyu Islands on October 27, 2006. Photo: Kyodo News
He described the high-seas drama matter-of-factly. "We got on a boat. We wanted to protest against the Japanese government for holding the island and attacking Chinese fishermen. Lots of Japanese, the coastguard boats ... they kept hitting the boat and they are trying to use the water gun [water cannon] to attack us."
But he said his past protest bore no connection to his current activities. "Totally different," he said.
Couldn't his strong feelings about both issues be linked to concerns about Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity?
He pondered the point. "Hmm, no, they are different issues. That has no relation," he concluded. "You can say both are about China's territory, but this time what I am against is not about territory, it is about the violence involved."
But he also conceded that he believed the Hong Kong protest movement was ultimately separatist in nature. "They don't say they want to split, but they are trying to make it a factor, that Hong Kong will split from mainland China ... no matter how they call themselves, 'democracy' or 'freedom', that's riots and violence."
Some critics of Glory to Hong Kong regard it as tantamount to a national anthem, and therefore an intolerable provocation.
The Bao Diao II protest vessel sets sail from Hong Kong in October 2006, bound for the Diaoyu Islands. Photo: SCMP alt=The Bao Diao II protest vessel sets sail from Hong Kong in October 2006, bound for the Diaoyu Islands. Photo: SCMP
Zhu said he used Google to translate the song from Cantonese, which he does not speak. The English lyrics include the lines: "Our flesh, sacrificed, our blood shall write this song/ Free this land, stand with Hong Kong".
Zhu, who is originally from Hainan, disdained the sentiments. "Hong Kong is [already] a free society with a democratic election system and they are breaking the law and the regulations," he said.
(Hong Kong is usually regarded as a semi-democracy, whose candidates for chief executive must be approved by Beijing, and whose legislature is chosen by a complicated process that critics say is stacked against the democratic camp.)
At Aberdeen Centre, a small handful of other people visibly objected to the flash-mob-style singalong.
One young man in a pink Gucci sweater argued loudly with attendees before he left the event. Another middle-aged man gave the crowd a middle-finger salute. Both were loudly jeered.
Zhu's flier, which he handed out at Aberdeen Centre, compared the Hong Kong unrest to Vancouver's notorious Stanley Cup riot, triggered when the Vancouver Canucks lost the decisive game of the 2011 NHL hockey finals against Boston. More than 100 people were hurt, four people were stabbed and 17 cars were set on fire, including police vehicles.
"Remember the Stanley Cup? When people burned the cars? That didn't mean Canada has no democracy and freedom," said Zhu.
"You should have freedom for this mob? And let them burn the streets? 'Let's burn some cars, that is my freedom'? Freedom means law and justice."
Vancouver Canucks fans watch police cars burn during a riot in the city after their team lost Game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup finals to the Boston Bruins on June 15, 2011. Photo: Reuters alt=Vancouver Canucks fans watch police cars burn during a riot in the city after their team lost Game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup finals to the Boston Bruins on June 15, 2011. Photo: Reuters
Zhu returned repeatedly to the comparison. For instance, he said he wasn't surprised by the number of people singing at Aberdeen Centre because "in the Stanley Cup [riot] there were more people", he said.
I suggested the comparison to the singers was a stretch.
But he said I misunderstood. If anything, he felt the people singing Glory to Hong Kong had been "misled". "They have heard the wrong information and believe the wrong things. They shout at me and tell me 'shut the eff up' and 'do not make trouble today'."
Their opinions were wrong, "but I respect their right to hold these opinions ... they [the singers] are not like the mob in the Stanley Cup," said Zhu.
"They have the right to sing their song. And I have the right to think it is so ridiculous."
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.