My heart raced as I printed off a downloaded Tibetan flag – the words “Don’t Torch Tibet” stamped across the bottom. Ahead of me lay a maze of humid Hong Kong streets which led their way to the route that the Olympic torch would be travelling along – by now I was coated in an anxious sweat.
It was May 2008 and Beijing was set to stage the prestigious sporting event and I was hoping I could give them a run for their money. With the spotlight firmly locked on China, Tibetans were uprising and this felt like a chance to stand in solidarity. As the Star Ferry arrived into Kowloon harbour an air of menace descended. Despite a cooling, light breeze a sea of red Chinese flags filled the streets and pavements ahead – the buzz of the crowds soon turned to a hum.
Then I saw him – a young German student facing the road like a statue, making eye-contact with no one. Above his head he held a Tibetan flag...
This plucky, autonomous southern Chinese city had quietly been morphing into something new in the few months since I had arrived. There was no room for dissent or discussion any more – simply praise or, at best, silent indifference. I looked down into my hold-all and the flag within and took a deep breath. The crowds were electric with anticipation and motorcycle police urged people to move up Nathan Road – normally thick with polluting vehicles this six-lane roadway was now a walkway which would share its space with the symbolic torch in just a few minutes. Everywhere the eyes came to settle was another drape of red with the familiar cluster of little golden stars. People were in jubilant spirits and I suddenly felt like I was set to disrupt the party of a lifetime. I looked for protesters – at first I thought there would be a street corner, then I scanned for a few dozen … now I looked for one.
Suddenly I found myself at the base of Kowloon Park – normally a quiet little bolt-hole for tai-chi classes and office cigarette breaks – into and out of which now streamed thousands of people.
Then I saw him – a young German student facing the road like a statue, making eye-contact with no one. Above his head he held a Tibetan flag – a few elderly men cast disparaging looks but apart from that his one-man protest seemed to be coming on quite nicely. I pulled out the flag and looked at him – he looked back and appeared to nod. We now stood side by side and the great crowd ahead of us remained unmoved, their attentions focused upon the road.
As quickly as the torch came it went: The sound of applause rippling north into the heartlands of city’s impoverished Sham Sui Po district. There was an odd silence and then, one by one, the crowd seemed to turn. I noticed the giant limbs and branches of a huge banyan tree above us for the first time and all of a sudden I felt an intense heat.
“Go home!” a man started shouting. “What do you want?” shouted another. I couldn’t help but think how out of place I felt as a British white man in Hong Kong demanding that a once-colonised people call for the emancipation of yet another. I began to try and remonstrate but stifled the words – what would I have said anyway? How could words ease the mounting tension?
By now the crowd had thickened and Hong Kong’s notoriously sweltering streets felt like they were blazing. I kept my eyes above the crowd and the Tibetan flag with them. One of the older men started to swing his fist and shout in Cantonese – the crowd were moving closer.
It was at the point, where the emboldened older man stood right next to me and shouted, so close that his spittle landed on my cheek, when I felt like I was in very, very deep water. I didn’t look but knew that the crowd was hundreds deep … as much because they collectively began to block the light from the sky above. To add to my woes a local TV news team were filming the whole event … literally feet from my nose.
I kept my eyes above the crowd and the Tibetan flag with them. One of the older men started to swing his fist and shout in Cantonese – the crowd were moving closer.
Suddenly I felt someone clasp my arm and I looked to my right.
Wearing a soft beret and accompanied by several colleagues, it was a Hong Kong police officer whose relaxed blue uniform generated a strangely mellow atmosphere. “I think you should leave the area for your own safety,” he said with a calming air. “Yes, so do I,” I replied and proceeded to lower my arms and the flag I have been holding aloft.
The sight of the flags dropping – the German student had just done the same – produced a satisfied roar from the crowd and now we were surrounded by a dozen Hong Kong police officers who gently guided us away from the melee. A large number of the crowd gave chase and within seconds the police had urged us into the entrance of a building while half a dozen of the others pulled out extendable truncheons which they raised to warn off the remainder of the crowd.
We stood – shocked – at the foot of the stairwell until the sounds had died down and were then led to a back entrance and released. The alleyway was dank, dripping wet with restaurant refuse. A couple of cats eyed us suspiciously as myself and the German student picked ourselves a path to freedom.
We saw a café and took refuge. At that point the tea I had ordered arrived and I could barely hold the cup through shaking. Myself and the German student introduced ourselves – never to meet again.
A large number of the crowd gave chase and within seconds the police had urged us into the entrance of a building while half a dozen of the others pulled out extendable truncheons which they raised to warn off the remainder of the crowd.
It was a rude introduction to the seductive power of nationalism and the simple power of a flag. We had been drowned in a waterway of red and gold but the two Tibetan flags we had carried burned with their own incredible impact. It was a day I can never forget.
About the author: Sam Wylde is a media and communications officer at Free Tibet, having joined in January of this year. With a background in newspapers and documentaries Sam has lived and worked in several countries worldwide - including Hong Kong - over the past 20 years. He was drawn to the Tibetan cause in the mid-1990s as a student and is now able to combine his media background and experience with his political support for the people of Tibet.