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A Witness in Hong Kong

November 19, 2014

Today, it seems it has been months since the protests began, although it has only been 56 days. Hong Kong has changed for the better.

I have always imagined the Tiananmen Square student protests of 1989 and what it would have felt like to have been a student there. I was eight years old during that time, living in Canada with my parents, who, for the first time, allowed me to stay up and watch television at night. CNN was documenting the protests as they unfolded, as the students went on a hunger strike in the Square and then as the tanks rolled in on the night of June 3-4. The feeling of incomprehension is one that I remembered having as a child … and of dread.

This is my seventh year of teaching university students in Hong Kong. I teach in the Faculty of Arts, and I would characterize my students as being largely idealistic, yet with a strong streak of pragmatism. I often get asked the question—what are your students like? Over the years, I have formulated a thoughtful response that has grown in complexity over time. The response changed as I became a more experienced teacher, as I learned more about Hong Kong, and as I learned to call this city my home. Now that I have a daughter who is a Hong Kong citizen, who will grow up to go to school and integrate into the local culture and abide by the government system, my priorities have changed. Now, at this moment, more than ever, I see that Hong Kong has changed for the better after these 56 days.

I watched my students over this past week in varying stages of transformations, and I am proud. I see them in my classes, which are 90 percent filled, as they responsibly attend lectures and then leave afterwards to go back to the protests. At student-teacher committee meetings that they have organized, they consult with us anxiously about video-recording the classes for their fellow classmates. I see that the top ten percent of my students are the most active in organizing activities: they politely email me to ask permission to boycott my classes; they repurpose the lyrics and music of Bob Dylan, “Les Misérables” the musical, and John Lennon to emphasize their message; and they build social media platforms such as the Stand by You: Add Oil Machine to channel messages of support from around the world, including, recently, the one from the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami: “A world without walls can be created in the quiet but sustained effort to keep on singing, to keep on telling stories, stories about a better and freer world to come, without losing heart.” I feel that a new generation of Hong Kong people has finally claimed Hong Kong for their own.

Melissa Karmen Lee

Melissa Karmen Lee is a lecturer on faculty at the English Department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Lee has published on diaspora, transnational literature, and visual art in publications including “Diasporic Literature: The Politics of Identity and Language” in Journal of Asian Pacific Communications (John Benjamins Publishing, 2011) and “Captivity and Hospitality in the New Americas” in Hospitality and Society (Intellect Journals, 2013). She has been an invited and keynote speaker at numerous panels and conferences including “Women in the Arts” at the Asia Society Museum, Hong Kong (2013), and the “Arts Writers Convening” at the Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital, Philadelphia (2011).

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