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Young People In Hong Kong Are Bonding Deeply Through Protest

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Life in Hong Kong these days - some people carry umbrellas on sunny days not to shield themselves from rain but security cameras and the government's face-recognition software. And they've learned not to cry out calls for freedom or democracy, which could land them in jail for sedition. Instead, they greet each other by saying, sit up straight or drink water. the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong have also begun to establish a kind of new informal family structure, young protesters and adults who try to look out for one another in vital ways.

Lavender Au, a writer who is based in Hong Kong, writes about these newly formed families in The New York Review of Books and joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

LAVENDER AU: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You open by telling us about two protesters, a woman in her 20s and a teenage boy who find support with each other. Tell us about them, if you could.

AU: Yes. So this boy, he was 13 when he started protesting. He was 14 when he was arrested. And at the age of 15, he's now in jail. One of his protest parents, kind of the woman that he meets at the beginning of my feature, is in her late 20s, and, you know, her first protest was many years before. And she owned a car. And so when she saw this boy, she offered him a lift as there was an informal curfew as public transport would close early. And she then kept in contact with him just through messages at first. But once he was arrested and he saw that she really cared about him and was wondering where he was, they began to see each other more and developed a relationship which lasts to the present day.

SIMON: Yeah. Help us understand the importance of these relationships because, particularly, young protesters find themselves separated from their families, don't they?

AU: Yes. There are some situations like that. I think the boy in my feature, he's actually very loved by both his birth parents and his protest parents. But I think perhaps because they are family, there are certain things that he doesn't share with his birth parents but he feels more comfortable talking about with the protest parents that he met in 2019.

SIMON: A lot of people have kind of reached out to each other across family lines to check on each other and support each other, haven't they?

AU: You know, there are no large-scale protests like there were in 2019, but a lot is still going on. And there are people who use their days off to wait in line to kind of sit in court to write up court cases that involve protesters. There are people who wait outside courthouses and run after police vans kind of shouting slogans. And I also know that there are people who send parcels to those in prison and write letters to them. And, you know, these are ways that people are still using to kind of show support and to show solidarity.

SIMON: Do protesters feel overwhelmed now, as if there's nothing to be done?

AU: So I asked the kind of protest father in my piece about this, like, whether he felt the protests had failed. But what he said to me was that he'd never seen that many people politically engaged in Hong Kong. You know, those were not the first pro-democracy protests that we've seen. So it can seem like everything is over, but he doesn't think so, and he is still kind of doing what he can. I think these relationships that developed during the protests are very central to his life still.

SIMON: What are the kind of things people are saying to each other in the streets to avoid saying things like up with democracy or (laughter) freedom for Hong Kong?

AU: Well, some of the things I heard, you know, perhaps you wouldn't say it on the street, but online, you know, on your Facebook page or on your Instagram, you'd say, sit up straight or take care of yourself or drink more water. And you can't ban things like that. And I think that's why they've become a way of showing support, showing solidarity and still showing that people still believe in what they did in those years.

SIMON: Lavender Au is a writer based in Hong Kong. Her new article in The New York Review of Books is "The Protest Families Of Pro-Democracy Hong Kong." Thank you so much for being with us.

AU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 28, 2021 at 9:00 PM PDT
In an earlier description for this segment, Lavender Au's name was mistakenly spelled Lavendar.