Full episode
Transcript

686: Umbrellas Up

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

It's nearly 2:00 in the afternoon when we reach Katherine's family's apartment, and she's just gotten up. She's still eating a very late breakfast.

Katherine

I'll finish my noodles, then I'll start packing.

Ira Glass

I'm with my co-worker, Emanuele Berry, and we're in a quiet working class neighborhood in the part of Hong Kong that's called New Territories. It's a Sunday, so Katherine is getting ready to do what she does every weekend-- what she did yesterday, in fact. That's why she slept late. She's going to a protest-- with a little backpack.

Katherine

So this is the bag that I usually bring.

Ira Glass

So this is a maroon bag.

Katherine

It's a very small one. We have to keep everything light. So I always have a bottle of water and then many tissues. I have to bring a lot of tissues because we need to wipe our eyes when there is tear gas. And because I know how to do first aid, I always bring my first aid kit.

Ira Glass

The first aid kit is a little zip-up bag with roller bandages and gauze and gloves and stuff to sterilize a wound. Katherine started at the volunteer ambulance corps in seventh grade and has used all this stuff at demonstrations. She packs her wallet and her AirPods.

Katherine

Because I have to listen to songs.

Ira Glass

Two batteries for her phone because she's on it constantly during protests, checking the continuously updated online maps that show where the police are and show escape routes. She packs a black T-shirt. The uniform of the Hong Kong protesters is black shirt, black pants, surgical masks to disguise their identities-- though she's wearing a striped maroon shirt for the bus ride to the protest.

Katherine

Yeah, I wear a normal T-shirt when I go out so that no one can identify I am going to a protest. And sometimes I bring makeup so that I can transform myself after the protest.

Emanuele Berry

I don't understand. How do you transform yourself? Like, what's the--

Katherine

I bring foundation-- very small, but can do everything.

Ira Glass

How different are you going to look with that foundation?

Katherine

No, it looks like you're not going to protest. Because girls who are going to protest, they barely do makeup. But if girl is doing makeup, they're probably meeting someone. And so I bring this one, and then of course, I bring my brow pencil because it really can make you look like another person.

Emanuele Berry

Eyebrows are very important, I agree.

Katherine

Yeah. [LAUGHS] And I bring lipstick. Sorry, it's a very small room.

Ira Glass

So we're in your room. Your room has pink walls, and there is a bunk bed with the bed on the top and a desk underneath it.

Katherine

Yeah, it's very typical Hong Kong girl's room.

Ira Glass

For a Hong Kong protester to live at home with her mom and dad, that is not unusual in any way. If you know anything about the demonstrations that have overtaken Hong Kong since June, you know it's mostly young people in the city where rents are high. Katherine's 22 and just graduated college. She's working her first entry level job at a public relations firm.

I came to Hong Kong because there were things about the protests that I really did not understand, and we'll get to that. One of the things that fascinated me once I arrived was learning what a routine the protests have become and what that was like for the people in them. This was mid-September, the 13th week of protests for Katherine.

Katherine

I'm not really worried because it's just like another day. I think I will meet up with two friends of mine. But I'm not sure if I am going to because they are couples, so I don't want to be-- [LAUGHS] they are couples, so I don't want to be-- they always kiss next to me. So, mm, yeah.

[PHONE RINGING]

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Ira Glass

Speak of the devil, it's her friend, the one who kisses her boyfriend at demonstrations. And she's calling with bad news. She was going to bring gas masks to the rally today. They'd order them from Amazon, Katherine thinks. But now she's learned that bringing gas masks would be a bad idea because at the subway station--

Katherine

Police are searching everybody, including men, little ones, and young people like us. They're searching their bags, and if they have any equipment with them, like the gas mask, eye mask, whatever, they just arrest them. Yeah. So my friend just asked me if it is a must for me to get the gas mask, so I told her that no, it is not a must. I don't want to risk my friend getting searched. So she told the other friend not to come out with equipment.

Ira Glass

Not ideal, but she's gone without gas masks before. Katherine grabs her knapsack, says bye to her mom, who tells her to come home early, a request that will be totally ignored. And we head outside. But then she turns and runs back.

Ira Glass

What did you forget?

Katherine

Umbrella. It is very important to have umbrella.

Ira Glass

Even if it's not going to rain?

Katherine

Yeah. It is not for the rain. It is for tear gas and bullets.

Ira Glass

Rubber bullets, that is.

Ira Glass

It works on bullets?

Katherine

Yes. Frankly, yes. No, no, I don't understand why, but always, those bullets, they slip off along the umbrella edge. So they just-- they don't get through the umbrella.

Ira Glass

Also, protesters hide behind a wall of umbrellas when they're painting graffiti or dismantling a closed circuit TV camera on the street, doing anything else they don't want the police to see. As she and I and Emanuele head to the bus stop, we notice other young people carrying full-sized umbrellas on this totally sunny day.

Emanuele Berry

Walking over here to the bus, are you looking around to see if-- other people you think are going to protest?

Katherine

Yeah, you always want to know how many people are around you, right? Yeah.

Ira Glass

OK, and so there's, like, some young people on our left, two people standing next to you.

Katherine

I think the girl probably is not because she brings a very small bag. But the tall guy, the tall guy in white shirt.

Ira Glass

Mm-hmm.

Katherine

Yeah, and then the couple behind you, probably.

Ira Glass

It's like, are you on my side? Are you one of us? Once you're at the protest, everybody's in a mass so you don't really know who's on your team. Here in the neighborhood, it's kind of exciting to wonder who your allies might be.

The protests in Hong Kong have been international news for months, kicked off by people's fears that mainland China is threatening some very basic things about their city and their lives. But for all the coverage here at our show, we felt like we weren't seeing many stories where we got to know anybody very well-- who they were, what exactly they expected was going to come out of the protests, given China's intransigence.

Three of us arrived in Hong Kong in mid-September, me and Emanuele and a co-worker, Diane Wu. I have to say, one of the things that was fascinating, given the ugly state of democracy here in the United States lately, was to be among so many young people who believe so intensely in democratic ideals and yearn so deeply for the basics, like normal elections and free speech and free assembly. Though, just in the last few weeks since we got to Hong Kong, we've watched the situation change dramatically. It's gotten much more violent, harsh new measures by the government.

This hour, we have the story of the change that we witnessed and what we think it might mean. If you haven't been following the story at all-- maybe you've been sitting this one out-- we're going to catch you up on what you need to know. We have all sorts of people from all sides of this that we want you to meet. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. This week, overseas with a lot of people who have some very American values. Stay with us.

Act One: The Cursed Generation

Ira Glass

Act One, The Cursed Generation. OK, so what politicized thousands and thousands of people this much, that they've dropped their normal lives and they're coming out every single weekend to protest? It's now been 18 straight weeks.

Take Katherine, for instance. She's somebody who worked at Abercrombie & Fitch during college. She told me on the bus to the protest that's why her English is so good. She's somebody who wanted to be a singer. Actually got a chance to go pro when she was 16, but her mom quashed that, saying it was too much of a long shot and she should get an education and get a normal job. Katherine was actually very surprised when I informed her that an American parent might've said the same exact thing.

Katherine

Oh, I thought, like, American dreams can be true, something like that, because I watched Glee.

Ira Glass

So how did this Glee watching, internet savvy college grad in her first office job, how did she end up protesting in the street every weekend with tens or-- I don't know-- maybe it's hundreds of thousands of her peers? Well, for starters, Katherine's 22, which means she's part of a special generation in Hong Kong.

Katherine

I'm born in Hong Kong in 1997, right before the handover.

Dorothy

I'm Dorothy, and I'm born in 1997.

Ashley

My name is Ashley. I'm also born in 1997.

Yuen

You can call me Yuen, and I'm born in 1997.

Dorothy

So 1997 is the year when Hong Kong was handed over back to China from the British.

Ira Glass

OK, let's just pause on these 22-year-olds for a minute for some quick history. As you may or may not know, Hong Kong sits on the edge of mainland China, right? It was a British colony for a really long time, starting in the 19th century. And then finally in 1997, the British got out. They handed it over to China, and the idea was, there's going to be a 50-year transition period. After 50 years, China would fully be in charge. But during that 50 years, Hong Kong would be a democracy.

Chris Patten

Now, Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong.

Ira Glass

That's the last British governor of Hong Kong during the handover ceremony in 1997.

Chris Patten

That is the promise, and that is the unshakable destiny.

Ira Glass

But to be clear, Hong Kong had not been a democracy under Britain. But they were going to transition towards it over a bunch of years. And the hope was, after 50 years, in 2047, the Chinese government would let them stay a democracy-- which, at the time, did not seem like a crazy idea. China was opening up in all kinds of ways, though it wasn't clear how this was going to play out. And at the end of the day, after 50 years, in the year 2047, China was going to be able to do whatever it wanted in Hong Kong. These are the children born the year that clock started ticking.

Ira Glass

And have you heard of the phrase, "cursed generation"?

Yuen

Yes, it was a joke among the 1997 people.

Katherine

It was pretty much a joke, pretty much a funny thing to us, because--

Dorothy

I think when we first joke about it, it's really primary schools, but--

Ashley

The cursed generation is just what we've been joking around for all those years.

Ira Glass

Originally, the joke had to do with a coincidence. They were cursed because of some weird, bad luck during some big childhood milestones they all went through together, like the year of their kindergarten graduation, the SARS virus hit Hong Kong. And the city shut down, graduations were canceled. Six years later, when they should've had their elementary school graduation, same thing happened again, but with swine flu. And Katherine remembers that her friends joked that when they graduated high school, it was going to be Ebola. And that's when they started using the word "cursed."

Katherine

I think that was around the time that J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Yeah, so many of us-- oh, we're the cursed child. Or we say that we are the chosen one, because Harry Potter was the chosen one. All of us love Harry Potter. So we always think that, oh, we are the chosen one. We have to face something special in our life. Or we are the cursed one. We have to face something bad or face something significant.

Ira Glass

Katherine says the "chosen one" side of things didn't really kick in until their senior year of high school. It was 2014. They were 17, the 17th year since the handover. And that year, people in Hong Kong were still expecting that mainland China was going to let them start holding full-on elections, where they could choose their own leaders, as promised back in 1997. And that year, China announced it wasn't going to happen.

This led to a movement called the Umbrella Movement, headed by young people, teenagers, who'd learned their politics in these public school classes that all these 22-year-olds talk about as being instrumental in their thinking, classes that began as part of the handover called Liberal Studies classes that explained, among other things, the promises of 1997 and the rights of Hong Kong citizens.

They took to the streets, most of them for the first time, demanding to vote, carrying umbrellas, thousands of people in a vast procession down the streets in a protest movement that was almost entirely peaceful. And they lost. They didn't get the vote. After three months, the protests ended. Dorothy works for a multinational company in an entry level job out of college. She's a management trainee. She says she went to some protests back then out of solidarity with her peers.

Dorothy

I was just amazed by the other students.

Ira Glass

But she didn't really get all the politics. That changes June, when Hong Kong introduced the bill that would allow mainland China to extradite people from Hong Kong to be tried and punished in China under Chinese law. This was seen as a new and very menacing encroachment on the rights of Hong Kong citizens. Since 1997, they'd been ruled by Hong Kong laws and Hong Kong courts, where everybody is presumed innocent with the rights we know in most democratic countries. Now anybody could get thrown into the prisons and courts of communist China.

Dorothy

I'd say that that was the time when I first feel awakened, when I'm truly understanding what's happening when I first go to the march of the no extradition bill. And I was very, very emotional at that time because there is only around 7 million people in Hong Kong. But 1 million walk on the street with the same demand, with the same wish of having Hong Kong to remain its current state.

Ira Glass

Wanting Hong Kong to stay like it is with its own laws, separate from China. A week later, 2 million people came out.

Dorothy

At the time, I was feeling very, oh my god, this is so touching. Like, why is people so united? And then the next second, the government just declares that, oh, we heard your voice, but we will be continuing on the bill on Tuesday. So that was like a really big contrast.

And in the morning, you see how peaceful things were. But at night, you see the police coming out and start brutally hitting people. It was really unforgettable to me because that was the first time when I witnessed with my real eyes that the police is chasing people. They are chasing students who did not do anything and start to beat them and arrest them.

Ira Glass

Other 22-year-olds also told us how radicalizing it's been to see police tear gassing and beating peaceful protesters. And at this point-- I didn't understand this before we got to Hong Kong-- a lot of the emotion driving the protests is just about the police.

Dorothy

Because the government is supporting them to do such things, and there is no penalty for them, even if they are doing things that are completely unacceptable to everyone.

Ira Glass

Of course, nobody knows where this is going to lead by 2047, when China fully takes over Hong Kong. But for Katherine and lots of other people her age, things are starting to feel pretty ominous. Was Hong Kong going to become just like any other Chinese city run by the communists?

Ira Glass

When you're 50, what do you picture life here will be like?

Katherine

I can picture that I will be super depressed because I super comment on political things. I really cannot imagine the day that I cannot speak freely on internet, that we do not have that freedom of speech anymore. And I cannot imagine that there will come a day me and my friends commenting on the government would become a crime.

Ira Glass

And you think that would happen.

Katherine

Yes, I do, when all the things that is happening in mainland China now, especially, I would say, in-- where is it-- Xinjiang.

Emanuele Berry

Xinjiang.

Katherine

Yeah, what is happening in Xinjiang will happen in Hong Kong.

Ira Glass

She's talking about internment camps, where the Chinese are holding perhaps a million Uighurs and others.

Katherine

They say it's reeducation, but it's basically a concentration camp. They put people who do not agree with the government into the concentration camp and educate them. And they got monitored wherever and whenever they go. Everywhere is police. Police monitors everybody's move. And I do think that if we do not fight for our future, there will come a day Hong Kong will become like Xinjiang.

Ira Glass

Because she's politically active, this does not feel like an abstract threat. When these 22-year-olds picture who China's going to crack down on, it's them. Ashley is also in her first job out of college. She works at a bank.

Ashley

Who knows whatever they would do to us? And under the extradition bill, who knows where we will go, what time we will disappear? That's what we feel of.

Ira Glass

Ashley has heard of the social credit system that China has started to monitor and rate its citizens. She fears that if China decides that you're anti-government, it will make it impossible for you to get the job you want or rise in society. And the devices that China uses to monitor its population, an estimated 200 million surveillance cameras around the country with facial recognition software, they've been going up around Hong Kong, tens of thousands of them.

Ashley

Many, like me, are scared of being monitored and rated so that we will never, ever be free to do anything that we want under the monitoring of the Chinese government.

Ira Glass

This is something else I didn't understand before I came to Hong Kong. The protesters like Ashley and Katherine don't just fear what's going to happen in the future, with extradition laws or losing the internet or losing free speech. In their daily lives right now, they believe they're watching China already transforming Hong Kong, making it less like the Hong Kong they know and more like the mainland. Katherine points to changes in the public school curricula. Like she says, her 7-year-old nephew is speaking Mandarin in school five days a week. That didn't happen when she was a kid. Mandarin's what they speak in mainland China. In Hong Kong, people mostly speak in Cantonese and in English.

Katherine

So all the Chinese classes are conducted in Mandarin. So he speaks Mandarin everyday, basically. He speaks Mandarin better than English.

Emanuele Berry

Can you explain a little bit like why Cantonese is so important?

Katherine

Cantonese is more like an identity to us.

Ira Glass

It's part of what makes Hong Kong Hong Kong. These days, when Katherine pictures what her life is going to be like between now and 2047, she imagines her own kids going to public schools, not studying Cantonese, coming home and parroting the pro-government line that'll be the curriculum by then.

Katherine

So I do love kids. I really want to have kids. I want to have a football team of kids, really. But I just cannot imagine the life they will be having in Hong Kong later on. I cannot promise my kid a happy life if I am not certain about what will Hong Kong become.

Ira Glass

You don't think there are children who are raised to be happy in mainland China?

Katherine

Not the kind of happy that I think. Like, mainland China people, they think that they are happy because they can still live. But we want things more than just surviving in this society. We look for rights and freedoms and human rights. But the mainland China, they ignore all those things. They just think, having a stable life, having kids, having food, a good place to live in is already happy enough. Yeah.

Ira Glass

Another change she says she's seeing right now in Hong Kong, she's upset at all the mainlanders moving there in her neighborhood, and university students that she and her friends encountered at college. So many mainlanders, she says.

Katherine

I just feel really weird because I am born and raised in Hong Kong. I go to a local school, but then I have to be surrounded by all the mainlanders.

Ira Glass

Does it bother you to be surrounded by mainlanders?

Katherine

Yes, actually, quite. But then we have 150 new immigrants from China to Hong Kong every day.

Ira Glass

Oh yeah, I'm just going to pause the tape there for a second. The total, by the way, is over a million mainlanders since 1997, roughly 45,000 a year. But I'm stopping the tape because I don't know how you're feeling about Katherine, but this was a point we came to in a few interviews with these 22-year-olds. When you got them under the subject of mainlanders, get ready for a wave of totally bigoted opinions.

Katherine

So especially I live in New Territories. So all the people surrounding you, you hear Mandarin, and then you start to see those less educated people, they're squatting next to the streets. I did witness a mainland lady having her children pee at the road. And I always hear mainland people yelling, shouting out for nothing in the mall. And always, they jump into the line-- everything. It bothers me a lot.

Ira Glass

Squatting, what do you mean squatting?

Katherine

I don't know. They just squat on the roadside, waiting people.

Ira Glass

They just sit and squat and wait.

Katherine

Yeah, for nothing. They can squat for an hour.

Ira Glass

People in Hong Kong don't do that.

Katherine

Yeah, we don't 'cause who would squat at the road? Why you can't just stand? Or why you can't just sit?

Ira Glass

They're more comfortable.

Katherine

It just doesn't look good. It doesn't look good. It doesn't look civilized.

Ira Glass

So for all the alarm that Katherine and the cursed generation feel about the future, their parents are often not as alarmed about China taking more control of Hong Kong and about what the island's going to be like in 2047. Like Ashley's parents, they hate her going out to protests every weekend.

Ashley

I think for my parents, they-- like, we really had some very serious fights.

Ira Glass

And they think, we'll just let China take over Hong Kong. It'll be fine.

Ashley

I think for my parents, some of the older generation just don't believe, or they are not brave enough to open up their eyes and see what is actually going to happen. They just feel like they did not do anything wrong. As long as you did not do anything wrong, then you'll be fine.

Ira Glass

What's galling about this for Ashley is that she feels like she's being the responsible one, fighting for everybody's future. And they're telling her not to protest. She was like, maybe if her parents had done this themselves years ago, things wouldn't be so bad today.

Ashley

Like, I'm 22 years old. And in the past, when I was younger, they have never stood up like us or fight like us to ask for what they are promised in 1997.

Ira Glass

It's funny. When you talk about it, you're mad at your parents about it.

Ashley

I just feel like-- I mean, I don't understand why they would not want these rights or why they don't think that something bad is going to happen in the next 50 years.

Ira Glass

So Ashley and Katherine and so many others, they've kind of given over their lives to protesting. They work doing the week, protest on the weekends. They say they don't have much time in their lives for much else. But what's interesting is, they don't think it's going to work. Most of our interviewees told us that. They don't think China is going to give in. Again, here's Katherine.

Katherine

I am pretty much pessimistic, actually. I do wish that one day, we all succeed. We want a democratic Hong Kong, but now, I just don't see a way out. Like, it's been three months. We've been trying each and every step. We've broke into the legislative council. We have more than 1,000 people got arrested. But the government is still trying to ignore all of this.

Emanuele Berry

If you feel so pessimistic about the results, why still go? Why are you still going out every weekend?

Katherine

At least the government sees that we are not that-- how do we say-- we are not that obedient. So we have to continuously tell the government that we are not satisfied with what they are giving us. So we have to do it.

Ira Glass

Again, here's Dorothy.

Dorothy

I think even if we have to lose, we need to leave our true thoughts in history. We need to let the people behind us know that we've tried.

Ira Glass

2047 is coming, and this is a very grand thing to say, but so many of these cursed generation kids feel like they have a special destiny. Alex preferred to speak to us through an interpreter. She's a frontline protester, builds barricades, has been arrested.

Alex

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

I think we're actually lucky because we grew up with people who thought the same way. And we realized that when we turn 50, it's the end of our freedoms. I'm 22 now, and I imagine that when I'm 25, that's really half way until the bomb explodes. And so if we don't do anything, by the time we're 50 years old, it would be awful. I don't want our children to have the same battle. And then when we're 50, we'll look back and think that we didn't do enough. Our birthday is like a countdown to the end. And so more so than other people, I feel like my generation, we have a duty to do more.

Ira Glass

Again, here's Katherine.

Katherine

If we were born earlier, probably I would become my dad and mom. And if I were born later, I would probably become those little kids speaking Mandarin better than Cantonese. So I am happy that I am born in 1997. We are in the middle. We have the chance to know what is freedom, and we are experiencing that our freedom is being taken away. And that's why we are the group who step up first to fight for it.

Act Two: The Fight

Katherine

I think we are getting off here. I think we are getting off.

Ira Glass

After an hour bus ride, we get to the protest. This is Act Two, The Fight. Once we're off of the bus, Katherine ducks into a public restroom and comes out in black shirt, black pants, black mask over her face, hair pulled back in a ponytail. And we head on to a street where we're surrounded by hundreds of people dressed exactly like her. A big shopping district, the stores closed, and no cars. All the side streets have been blocked off with barricades by the protesters-- scaffolding and fencing, trashcans, and orange construction cones piled in the street. They do an efficient job. We meet up with Katherine's friends by a big Victoria's Secret.

Katherine

My friend KK.

Ira Glass

KK.

Kk

KK. Nice to meet you.

Ira Glass

Nice to meet you. Ira.

Hugo

Nice to meet you, man. My name is Hugo. Hugo.

Ira Glass

Hugo.

Hugo

Yes.

Ira Glass

Very nice to meet you.

Katherine

The couple who always kiss in front of me.

Kk

What? I'm not.

Hugo

No, we didn't. We didn't.

Ira Glass

For the record, I'm with them all afternoon. No kissing at all. The city is giving permission for fewer protests these days, and this is an unsanctioned demonstration we're at, which means that everybody here is breaking the law. Anyone is subject to arrest, which affects crowd size. The maximum penalty is five years-- 10 years, if you're convicted of rioting-- which is why all the protesters are so scared of getting arrested all the time.

But despite that, the beginning of the protest has the feeling of a block party. People strolling, chatting-- you see a few parents and kids. Some non-protesters cut through the crowd, running errands. But an hour into all this, I look around and realize-- no families, no kids. It's not feeling like a block party at all. People are standing on top of fences, trying to see what's ahead of us. They're starting to put on gas masks.

Ira Glass

Describe what you're seeing.

Katherine

The protesters in the Thomas Street are moving backwards, so we assume that there are riot police on the other end of the road. There is tear gas fired over there.

Ira Glass

It's like two or three blocks away. We walk towards the police and the tear gas, past teams of protesters who are knocking bricks out of the sidewalk with long steel tools.

Ira Glass

And the idea is what?

Katherine

To put on the road so, later on, the riot police cannot run that fast.

Ira Glass

Also, people throw bricks at the police. We march straight to the front lines, where hundreds of protesters are massed on a side street. The police are just half a block away, but we can't really see them through the crowd. And then a whole wave of teargas canisters arcs towards us, hits us. And lots of people, us included, run back a ways, half a block away. Katherine calmly administers saline solution into strangers' eyes. The controls on my recorder got knocked around running through the smoke, so I do not have a decent recording of that.

This is the role that she's assigned herself in the protest-- first aid, helping anybody who requires it. She even brought energy candy specifically to give out to people whose energy is flagging. After being driven back, Katherine and Hugo and KK and I wait for the smoke to clear.

Ira Glass

So this happens at every protest?

Hugo

Yes.

Katherine

Basically.

Hugo

Basically.

Ira Glass

So what do we do now?

Katherine

We tidy up ourselves and go again.

Ira Glass

And when you get to the police, what are you going to do?

Katherine

We're going to stand in front of them. If we have a chance, we're going to fight them back. Our goal is to make them to retreat their front line.

Ira Glass

After a couple minutes, we head back toward the front line.

Ira Glass

OK, we're walking forward to its corner, where it's this blue-- [COUGHS]

And then we wait around. A water cannon goes off, blasting water that is dyed blue, laced with stuff that stings your skin. More tear gas, and we pull back a little. Then we move forward, wait again.

Ira Glass

This is both suspenseful and boring.

Katherine

[LAUGHS] Sometimes there's not always a purpose. Sometimes we sitting at the back is just add a support. We just add our support to those at the front.

Ira Glass

Support like, if something happens, you'll do first aid?

Katherine

Something like this, but also they know that there are many people behind them. It is important to give them some mental support as well. Yeah.

Ira Glass

So many protesters are like Katherine. They feel like it's their job to support the people at the front, who are the hardcore ones, who push back against police and throw Molotov cocktails, and chase police with sticks and metal rods, and tear stuff down to build barriers to slow the police, wearing full gear, helmets, goggles, gas masks, and gloves.

Finally, the front liners yell that they want room to retreat. And so we need to retreat. And so we fall way back, a couple blocks.

Ira Glass

So now we're just standing here.

Katherine

Yeah, because we always support. Our assistance is like a support to those in the front line.

Ira Glass

But I don't understand. So the police want us out of there. They push, they fire tear gas. They spray blue water on everybody. We move back. And then we stand here, and what's our goal?

Katherine

This has been a very frequently asked question. Nowadays, we're just trying to stand on our own ground, not to be dispersed that easily.

Ira Glass

That's it. Just, the goal is to just stay out as long as you can.

Katherine

Yeah.

Ira Glass

And then eventually, the police will push you off the street? So in other words, it's exactly like the entire protest movement leading to 2047. Just try to slow them down as much as you can.

Katherine

Yes.

Ira Glass

In the end, China will win. But for as long as you can, you'll just stand here in the street.

Katherine

It is pretty sad to say so, but I guess that's pretty much accurate. Yeah.

Ira Glass

What are they yelling?

Katherine

They ask people to start moving.

Ira Glass

And there we headed to a massive retreat, as the police advance towards us. And for the first time, there seems to be actual real fear. We're running down the streets and side roads. We get separated from Katherine's friends and from Emanuele, dodging the police, and finally, taking refuge in a church. There are safe houses like this around Hong Kong that protesters duck into. It takes over an hour, and finally, the coast is clear.

And Katherine calls her friend to pick her up. They're volunteer drivers for the protesters, part of the infrastructure they've created. Katherine changes out of her black T-shirt into civilian clothes. No makeup-- she's too tired, she says, and no need, if she's getting picked up.

Katherine

Bye.

Ira Glass

And she heads home.

Katherine

Say goodbye to Emanuele for me as well. Thank you.

Act Three: Uncivil Disobedience

Ira Glass

As her car pulled away, across the street on Queens Road, there was an endless row of police vehicles headed in the other direction, just dozens of them, blue and red lights flashing. And as the night went on, things became violent. A woman approached us on the sidewalk, upset about police beating somebody, and showed us video that she'd shot of it.

And the protesters were violent as well. The newspapers had accounts of six of them beating up a middle-aged man, kicking and shouting at him. They set fire to a subway station. They do that a lot because lots of protesters think Hong Kong subway-- the MTR-- colludes with the police. That's why Katherine prefers the bus, even though it's less convenient.

Every protester we interviewed supports the violence. They support it because they feel like they have no other options, that it's the only way they can get the government to respond to them. A few told us, back in June, they marched peacefully against the extradition bill and got nothing. Then they got violent and the bill was withdrawn. It worked.

And violence has become a way to defend themselves. Setting fires and building barricades slows police, who were coming after them. So they support the violence, or they at least understand it. Emanuele talked to them about that. We're at Act Three of our show, On Civil Disobedience. Here's Emanuele.

Emanuele Berry

When I started asking protesters about violence, a couple of them said, we're not violent like Americans. Our tolerance for it is much lower. So getting to this point to being OK with violence isn't something we did lightly. And a lot of them explained to me that they didn't always think radical tactics were OK.

What changed their opinion was the way police responded to peaceful protest. That being shot at with water cannons, tear gassed, seeing someone knocked unconscious, beaten with batons, handcuffed and kicked, groups of thugs beating and attacking people with hammers, clubs, and knives, watching all this and being subjected to it-- that's what got a lot of people on board with violence. Now some protesters throw Molotov cocktails, vandalize buildings, and chase police with sticks and rods. Ira and I talked with one protester, Yuen.

Ira Glass

Do you think it would be acceptable for the protesters to kill police?

Yuen

I hope they do so.

Ira Glass

You do?

Yuen

I do.

Ira Glass

If police died, what do you think would happen next?

Yuen

We would die, too. Protesters will die, too.

Ira Glass

And if things get that violent between the protesters and the police and protesters are being killed, do you think Hong Kong will get democracy?

Yuen

I can't tell at the moment.

Emanuele Berry

So many people we talked with expected someone to die-- a protester or a police officer. Most thought it would help the movement put pressure on the government. This hasn't happened yet, but destruction and violence are giving way to bizarre scenes throughout the city. My co-worker Diane and I went to this protest at a mall, one of many in Hong Kong.

Sometimes the entire city can feel like one giant shiny shopping mall connected by subway. The stores are all open. The mall is full of people. But not many people are shopping. The entire premise of this protest is to go to the mall and not shop.

The mall is five stories. Each tier has railings that look out over a central atrium. There are families, kids, older folks. Some people are in black. Others are just in their regular day clothes. They chant. They sing the protester anthem, "Glory to Hong Kong," over and over.

[PROTESTERS SINGING]

At one point, someone starts handing out paper, and suddenly hundreds of people are folding paper cranes. Then, an act of gentle vandalism. There's this machine that prints our reservation receipts for the restaurant called Jade Garden. The protesters hijack it, forcing it to spit out hundreds of receipts. They take the receipts together and string them from one end of the atrium to the other and back again a few times.

They target Jade Garden because one of the company's founders has a daughter who supports Beijing. That's how far things have gone in Hong Kong. Businesses are labeled either yellow or blue-- yellow for the ones that support the protesters, blue for the police and government. There's even a Google Map that tells you if a business is one or the other.

Soon, things in the mall start to shift. Diane and I watch a group of about a dozen protesters enter a pro-China bakery, owned by the same company that owns Jade Garden. They start taunting the staff.

Diane Wu

There's umbrellas up.

Emanuele Berry

They're blocking so you can't really see inside of it.

Diane Wu

Is the person who works in there still in there?

Emanuele Berry

Yeah, she-- well, she was a minute ago.

Diane Wu

OK, something fell.

Emanuele Berry

They knocked over a display.

Before things can escalate any further, the workers force the protesters out, close the store gates, and barricade themselves in. A restless energy takes over. It's like the protesters are looking for something to confront, something to disturb. But the thing they're fighting against is the existential threat of China. And that's not really in the mall.

They march to more pro-China businesses in the mall. The alarm starts going off, and a PA announcement says, "The mall is very crowded. Please be careful." Then word comes police are on their way, and some mood that feels like a mix of fear and adrenaline fills the space. Protesters begin to build barriers out of whatever is not nailed to the ground, blocking doorways, creating obstacles. They want to stop the police from entering from the subway entrance of the mall. They start throwing trash cans down the escalators. A group rips a six-foot TV screen out of a wall to use as part of a blockade.

The PA announcement remains the same. "Please be careful. The mall is very crowded." They open an emergency fire hose. Someone brings giant jugs of oil, which they add to the water. The tile floor of the mall lobby is now a little lake that police will have to cross. A woman slips and falls. And while all this destruction is happening, the shoppers, the older folks, even a few families, they don't leave. They're on the upper levels of the mall looking over the railing, like they're watching a sporting event or something. I'm super uncomfortable. The protester next to us, Chan, is so chill.

Emanuele Berry

Have you been to a protest like this before?

Chan

Yeah.

Emanuele Berry

Does this feel normal?

Chan

Yeah.

Emanuele Berry

Is that weird that it's normal, though?

Chan

Yes, but it's been 100 days, so.

Emanuele Berry

The police eventually come, but they meet the protesters outside the mall. They throw tear gas. Protesters throw a Molotov cocktail. Smoke and gas waft through Snoopy World, a mini theme park on one of the mall's upper levels. Giant statues of Linus and Peppermint Patty, along with dozens of shoppers and protesters, who lined the outdoor balconies, all watch the confrontation between police and protesters unfold below.

There's this thing that protesters say to each other-- never sever ties. Sometimes they even say, never sever ties even if there's a nuclear explosion. Basically, if another protester does something you disagree with-- say, set something on fire, beat someone up-- you don't criticize them or cut them off.

My co-worker Diane saw an extreme example of this at a protest about a week later. It was a very peaceful protest in a park at night. So serene, Diane said she felt she could only whisper. Then a guy starts waving a big Chinese flag around. Protesters start shouting at him. He rips a poster out of one girl's hands. That's when the mob rushes him.

Diane Wu

Oh, shoot. There's someone who's on the ground, and their head's getting smashed and they're kicking them.

Emanuele Berry

Dozens of people walk by, and if anyone has a problem with this, they don't show it. He's left face down on the ground, bleeding from his head. Eventually, someone gets a first aid person to help.

Ira Glass

Emanuele Berry is one of the producers of our show. She used to live next door to Hong Kong in Macau for about a year. Coming up, you're a protester. You think the police are utterly immoral and undefendable. So, what do you do about the cop who happens to be your dad? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Four: Good Cop, Dad CopĀ 

Ira Glass

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Umbrellas Up, stories from Hong Kong and what it's like for people to live through over 100 days of protests there. I traveled to Hong Kong with my co-workers, Diane Wu and Emanuele Berry. We have arrived at Act Four of our show. Act Four, Good Cop, Dad Cop.

So as an American visiting Hong Kong for the first time, one of the things that kind of killed me was hearing that before the last few years of protests, people were really into the police. Like, they were trusted. They were respected. And it was only the last few years, especially the last few months of protests, that changed all that. At a rally, I actually saw people chanting at a row of cops that they hoped that they and their families would die. And feelings about who to side with-- the police or the protesters.

They've gotten so intense, it's tearing families apart. On the Telegram app, there's a whole channel for protesters who get kicked out by their parents and need a place to live. Alan Yu grew up in Hong Kong. He knows a family that is very far apart on this. The son is a protester. The dad is a retired police officer. And Alan had them sit down and do what nobody in Hong Kong is doing-- talk to each other. There is really no dialogue between police and protesters anywhere in Hong Kong as far as we could tell. Here's Alan.

Alan Yu

I've known this family since I was six. I knew them because of my friend, Jonathan. I rode the school bus with him every day. His father, Peter, was the first policeman I knew in real life. I was excited to talk to him because you never hear what the police think about the protests. Police here are not really allowed to talk to the press.

Peter's retired, but still very connected to the force. So before the family all sat down together, I asked Peter to get together with me and my producer, Emanuele. I hadn't seen him since I was 12. Back then, people called me "Yu-don," which means fish ball. Because the Cantonese for fish sounds like my surname, Yu, and because I was fat.

Peter

I won't recognize you on the street. I won't. I won't.

Alan Yu

Oh yeah? Oh, OK.

Peter

Serious. I'm serious.

Alan Yu

OK. All right. I guess it's a compliment. Thank you.

Peter

He used to be very cute.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah, how?

Peter

He used to be very fat.

Alan Yu

As a kid, I liked Peter. He'd time off work to stop by during recess and buy us chips and other snacks. My friend, Jonathan, would have his birthday parties at the police station, which we loved. Big barbecues, other policemen around. Peter was the cool dad. People in Hong Kong trusted, even revered, the police back then. One of the most popular TV shows was a cop show, [CHINESE] where the police were heroes. Peter's hair is gray now. He's tall, athletic. He plays tennis.

Peter

My nickname in tennis-- I don't know why-- my nickname in tennis is Federer. Yeah.

Emanuele Berry

Federer.

Peter

Federer.

Emanuele Berry

Are you good?

Peter

Federer Roger. I don't know why. Maybe my skill. I don't know. I don't know why. [CHUCKLES]

Alan Yu

He still likes his dad jokes. I cannot imagine Peter ever doing what I've been seeing in these videos-- beating up unarmed protesters, kicking people on the ground. I thought surely he would object to some of those things and that his views would be complicated.

Alan Yu

From what you've seen in recent months, has there been anything that the police have done that you think you would disagree with?

Peter

Nothing is perfect. But as a whole, in general, I think the police are doing a pretty good job. If it is in other police force in other countries, just look at the casualties. Just look at the column of fatal numbers. It won't be zero.

Alan Yu

I ask him about different situations the police have been criticized for. I even show him videos of police brutally arresting people, things I think are clearly wrong. But he always seems to have a justification for the way police behave. He says you are judging the police based on what you see in these clips. That's not fair. You don't know what the officer was facing.

Peter

The social media only show the part of police hitting people. But one minute ago, they've been attacked by lots of people. So one minute later, he react to the mob attacking them. So what you can see is one minute after, but you did not see the full picture.

Alan Yu

He's not conflicted about police, and he isn't very sympathetic to protesters. He thinks the protests are destroying Hong Kong. The extradition bill is OK. He doesn't think China will end free speech in Hong Kong, and protesters' fear of China is way overblown and naive.

Peter

Hong Kong is part of China. Come on. Wake up, people. Wake up. This is the fact. Whether China is good or bad, Hong Kong is part of China. If you don't like it, those people waving the United States flag, waving the Union Jack flag, if England takes you, you can go to England, yeah. You can go to Florida. Go to California. Yeah. Go. Go. If Trump takes you, yeah, go.

Alan Yu

I'd already been worried how this family conversation was going to go. Hearing what Peter believed did not help. Peter told me he understands that Jonathan goes to protests, but doesn't ask him about it because he doesn't want any details. Jonathan said he does not ask his dad what he thinks of the way police beat and tear gas protesters for the same reason.

Jonathan

It's just like if he says something-- if he says something that completely doesn't make sense to me, it sort of brings him down, like, as a person. It's just like, I would feel like he's just, yeah, not who I thought he was, yeah.

Alan Yu

And it scares you to--

Jonathan

Yeah.

Alan Yu

--think that could be true.

So this family does not talk about the protests at all. Tennis, yes. Soccer, yes. Pets, great. But no politics-- till tonight. They've agreed to have the conversation they've been avoiding after dinner. Jonathan's mom, Alva, washes the dishes.

[ALVA HUMMING]

I recognize the song right away. I'm surprised she's humming it in front of Peter. It's the protesters' new anthem, "Glory to Hong Kong." Alva is on Jonathan's side. She works with lawyers, including some in the pro-democracy camp.

I ask if Peter knows what that song is. She says, maybe. That's kind of how it's been going between her and her husband. No real discussion, but the occasional passive aggressive comment while they're watching the news, or some passive aggressive humming during dishes. This is another reason Jonathan avoids bringing up the protests. He doesn't want to start a fight between his parents.

Alan Yu

What would the worst scenario be like?

Jonathan

Someone moving out, I guess. Yeah, because they can't stand it anymore. Yeah, I guess, living apart would be the worst case scenario, I believe. Because that sort of officially means that you're no longer together, sort of, yeah.

Alan Yu

That could be his mom, or his dad, or him.

We all sit at the dinner table. I don't know why they agreed to talk about this. Maybe just because I've known them for so long, and I asked. Or I hope maybe part of them wanted to talk, and I was just a good excuse. Peter's facing me, and Jonathan and Alva are next to me. Jonathan has their dog, Loki, named after the Marvel character, on his lap.

The conversation starts with all of them saying, in different ways, it's fine that we don't talk about this. We all have mutual respect. Instead of talking to each other or looking at each other, they're talking to me or looking at the dog. It feels all very careful, proper, and calm. This continues for half an hour. Then everything changes when Peter uses the word "compromise."

Peter

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Alan Yu

Compromise-- it's basically the government line. That's what Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam says, that the protesters should stop protesting. And after that, the two sides can talk. Alva and Jonathan hear that as meaning the protesters should back down. They both lay into Peter.

Jonathan

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Alva

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Alan Yu

Alva says the police are the ones who need to change. They have to calm the situation. Peter says the police are doing their job. I don't know why, when the police arrest people for fighting or breaking stuff, it's treated as weird. It's illegal, so arrest them. No problem.

Peter

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Alan Yu

Jonathan says, OK, yes, arrest them. But how much force does the police need to use? Sometimes a person just asks the police a question, and they still get arrested or beaten. Or people who are already on the ground, kneeling, subdued, they still get beaten. Peter doesn't respond. Then they argue, openly argue for the first time, about one of the protesters' main demands, something the government refused to budge on-- to start an independent investigation into police behavior.

Peter

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Alan Yu

Peter keeps repeating the same thing over and over, like he's been backed into a corner, that there's no need for an independent investigation. Now is not the right time.

Peter

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Alan Yu

The city already has a system in place to investigate complaints about the police.

Peter

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Alan Yu

They talk a little longer, but it doesn't go anywhere. Alva tells me later she had other things she could have brought up, but decided against it. She didn't want her husband to feel trapped. The word she used was [CHINESE] which translates as, dead corner. No place to go. Preserving the family was more important to her than trying to win an argument. Later, Jonathan told me he still loves his dad, but he's given up hope that his father could be a reasonable human being, at least when it comes to the police.

When I started this, I was kind of naive. I thought maybe Jonathan and his mother and father, people who actually want to understand each other, could talk about this in a productive manner. And that if they could, maybe there was hope that the rest of us could. But now, I don't have a lot of hope.

Ira Glass

Alan Yu, he's normally a reporter for WHYY's show, The Pulse.

Act Five: Slow Boat to China

Ira Glass

Act Five, A Slow Boat to China. So what about all the people living in Hong Kong who have no problem with China, who like China? There's a lot of them, and they hold their own demonstrations, which are pretty small-- flag parties where flash mobs show up at malls and wave Chinese flags and sing the Chinese national anthem.

And the big day to celebrate China normally would be October 1, National Day, the anniversary of the Communist Party founding the modern Chinese state. And this year was going to be a big one. It was the 70th anniversary. And the people who support mainland China were kind of resentful, because this day was supposed to be this huge holiday for them, but anticipating massive protests, the city shut down. Fireworks were canceled. Trains weren't running. Almost all the malls were going to be closed. The protesters had ruined the day again.

So in defiance, the pro-China people organized an anthem singing party for the morning of the first. Our co-worker, Diane Wu, went.

Diane Wu

The party took place at 8:30 in the morning on a boat. Not just any boat-- on the Star Ferry, this iconic Hong Kong commuter slash sightseeing boat on the harbor. The ferries are these beautiful old boats from colonial times with names like Silver Star, Northern Star, Twinkling Star. And today, one of them is going to get completely covered with bright red Chinese flags.

A couple dozen people are gathering at the ferry terminal. They're mostly strangers, know each other loosely from previous flash mobs and get togethers.

[SHOUTING IN CHINESE]

"I love China," they shout.

[SHOUTING IN CHINESE]

"Support the police."

[SHOUTING IN CHINESE]

[CHEERING]

It's kind of funny when you think about it, all these people up so early on their day off, getting on a boat to sing the national anthem together. It's also a little dark, because there's a real threat of violence against people who don't support the protest. One of these flag parties two weeks ago at a mall devolved into a brawl when protesters showed up. People on both sides got beat up. And so going out on a ferry to shout pro-China slogans is strategic. Once you're on the boat out at sea, you ought to be safe from a counter protest. As one guy put it--

Daniel

Well, we've been living in terror for the last three months because the people on the other side, the rioters, they're really good at the terrorizing tactics. They make you feel that you should be afraid of speaking up and speaking out against them because they're so organized.

Diane Wu

In the terminal, everyone gathers in a semicircle, holding special holiday issues of the China Daily and singing the Chinese national anthem together.

[SINGING IN CHINESE]

It's a little shaky. The guy leading it told me he just learned the words a couple of weeks ago. Most of the people here, best as I can tell, are not mainlanders who grew up with the anthem. The ones I talked to were all from Hong Kong. Being this into China is new for them, something that only happened when the protests got bad enough that they found themselves rallying around this new flag.

And it's not always comfortable. I'm getting on the boat with Daniel, the guy who was griping about being terrorized, when someone puts a heart-shaped sticker on him.

Diane Wu

You just got a Chinese flag sticker stuck on you.

Daniel

Yes, yeah. I feel a little cringey about this.

Diane Wu

Why?

Daniel

I'm not exactly that red. Compared to a lot of people here, I'm not the most red person.

Diane Wu

Red, in the crayon box of the Hong Kong protests, refers to being pro China, versus blue for the government and yellow for the protesters. Daniel almost didn't come this morning, actually. It's not really his scene. He sees being this patriotic about China as kind of dorky. Moreover--

Daniel

I always tell my friends I would never want to live in China, because there's a lot of things in China that I can't accept if I were to be forced to live in China.

Diane Wu

The two things he can't accept that we end up talking about are the lack of free speech and censored access to the internet.

Daniel

But the truth is, I live in Hong Kong, and I get to retain my almost unchecked freedom for 28 more years. And it's such a sweetheart deal for Hong Kong people.

Diane Wu

I pointed out to him that after 28 years, it's very possible those freedoms would disappear. And he had the same response that I heard from other people who don't like the protests. He was like, well, sure, maybe.

Daniel

Well, I guess, you're talking me to appreciate the young people's perspectives, but in exchange for the freedom that they fight for, they're wreaking havoc, and they're destroying law and order. And--

Diane Wu

So in the balance, it's not worth it to you.

Daniel

If I were to choose between this, if China say, in order to have law and order, I will need to sacrifice the freedom the same way Chinese people have in Hong Kong, I would accept that balance. This is unacceptable, the whole unorganized chaos, revolution, and the havoc they wrought in Hong Kong. It's completely unacceptable. I will give up the freedom the way they do in China to stop this.

Diane Wu

It's a big jump from I could never live in China to I would sacrifice my freedom just to get this to stop. But the intensity of the protests and his frustration with what he's experiencing in the city have driven him to at least try on this extreme idea. Daniel's 40, works in finance. He lived in the US for 12 years. He's a football fan. Roots for the Chicago Bears because he likes the tenacious defense.

He says he wasn't politically involved before all this. Went to one of the big peaceful protests last spring, more to watch than to participate. But that changed one day when he was watching a livestream of the young protesters storming the legislative council. He was surprised how ferocious they seemed, how even the police officers looked a little scared.

Daniel

At that moment, I suddenly realized, oh, we're actually very close to a revolution. It could happen. It just never occurred to me that Hong Kong would go through that. It's both stunned and anxiety about unknown. Anxiety-- things can change abruptly. If there isn't a revolution, it's going to force the hand of the Chinese government to crack down on it violently.

And anything can happen. Like, I could lose all the privilege I have as a Hong Kong citizen-- protection of common law, freedom of speech, but also, freedom of speech protected by common law. Nobody in China enjoy this freedom, but-- if it gets to a certain point, we can lose all of these privileges, which I treasure.

Diane Wu

He woke up the next morning to see that the coverage was wall-to-wall about police brutality. To Daniel, it seemed like everyone was leaving out the fact that the protesters had started it, which seemed deeply unjust to the police.

Daniel

And that's when I started turning blue. When I felt that the police were smeared unfairly, I took my side. I chose to be on the police's side.

Diane Wu

Other people sided against the protest for different reasons. A big one I heard was the disruption they caused. The security guard told me he had to transfer four times to get home at night because of subway shutdowns. A woman trying to get cash out of an ATM that had been destroyed by protesters said, if you're mad at the government, take it out on the government. You're only hurting people like me. A man said to me, sadly, Hong Kong is our home. Why are they destroying it?

[SINGING IN CHINESE]

[CHEERING]

The crowd on the boat finishes belting out the national anthem a second time, when suddenly, everyone rushes to the railing.

Diane Wu

Everyone's waving at the sea police. They all ran to one side of the boat. It feels like it might tip over.

Everyone crammed together on one side in a position that's a little precarious. That's kind of like Daniel's world right now. He felt pushed to choose a team. Like it or not, these are his new people. He doesn't think like them, exactly. But he feels more aligned with these Chinese nationalists on this boat waving at the police than with the angry protesters ganging up on them, even if those protesters ultimately want the same thing he does-- to preserve their freedoms in Hong Kong.

[SINGING IN CHINESE]

Sitting on the upper deck of the Star Ferry, this was actually the first time Daniel had ever sang the national anthem in public. He told me later, as he sang, he was surprised to find that he felt something.

Act Six: Two Weeks Later

Ira Glass

Diane Wu is the managing editor of our show, and she also has one more story for us. I'm going to set this up. It is Act Six of our show. Act Six, Two Weeks Later.

So October 1st wasn't just a big day for supporters of mainland China. If anything, I think it was even more anticipated by pro-democracy protesters. They knew China did not want to be embarrassed by demonstrations in Hong Kong on that day, such a big anniversary. And in the weeks leading up to it, several of them told us that they were worried. What kind of crackdown was going to come on October 1, or maybe in the days before it? Would the government try to shut them down?

And sure enough, the weekend before October 1, there were tons of police, undercover cops posing as protesters, surge in arrests. And on October 1, something happened that several of our interviewees predicted. For the first time, a protester was shot with a real bullet-- a teenager. In the days after that, things descended. The government banned wearing face masks in public, which caused a huge backlash in the streets. Another teenager, a 14-year-old, was shot by police. Both teenagers survived. A protester slashed an officer's neck with a box cutter. A bomb went off next to a police car.

Katherine, the protester that I went to the demonstration with in mid-September, she went to all those protests in the days before October 1, and then she was out on October 1, that big violent day. And Diane caught up with her the day after that, October 2, to see how she was doing, and to see what she made of it all.

Diane Wu

I met up with Katherine at the MTR station in Tsuen Wan on a Wednesday. She'd taken the MTR only because she was in a big rush to meet me after work.

Diane Wu

You had a long day?

Katherine

Yeah, very long one. It is a really sad thing, after yesterday.

Diane Wu

She's talking about the protester who was shot. It actually happened just a short walk from where we're standing. The last few days of protests had been especially bad. Katherine was in the middle of the crowd when dozens of special tactics police officers exploded out of a hidden door, sprinting after protesters and tackling them to the ground. People hadn't seen this before. It caused a wave of panic. Everyone fled in terror, including Katherine.

Her phone was flooded with images of arrested protesters, pinned on the ground by riot police, face down with their wrists tied behind them. Later, she met her friend KK, the one who went to the protest with Ira and her, and found out that in the rush, she had gotten trapped. She came really close to getting arrested.

Katherine

All of a sudden, everything was so close to me. A very important friend of mine nearly getting arrested, and all the pictures and footages I could see after the day. Everything just was so-- was just too much for me.

Diane Wu

Yeah, it was too close.

Katherine

Yeah.

Diane Wu

Katherine's deeply fearful of getting arrested. Remember, it could mean years in prison. After all of that, on October 1, she was almost too scared to go protest, but braved it anyways. Then, police started to fire tear gas at people up ahead of them.

Katherine

We were on our way walking from Tsuen Wan to Kwai Fong. And I realized that I couldn't keep walking. I started to realize that I just feel different. Like, two weeks ago, when I was with Ira, I could still feel it is safe to run. I'm going to be fine. And I could still run without any hesitation. But yesterday, I just feel like I was so terrified. I started to shake from the inside. And then I didn't know what to do.

Diane Wu

She panicked, started crying. Her boyfriend helped her get home.

Katherine

So I had to leave yesterday. But then, actually on my way home, there was a friend of mine. I think he was just joking and saying, you left your teammate behind. He sent this to me. Yeah, so I was immediately crying. I cried out immediately and really could not control myself because I didn't want this. I don't want to leave my teammates behind. I don't want to leave anyone behind. But I don't want to be a burden. In the old times, I could be so brave. I could be fighting with them. And then all of a sudden yesterday, I couldn't do anything at all.

Diane Wu

The police strategy of clamping down on the protests by outlawing almost all of them, then flooding the streets with riot police and arresting tons of people, this is the toll it's taking. And, of course, this is one way the whole thing could end. Maybe it'll scare people off.

Katherine

Oh, I saw my boyfriend.

Diane Wu

Katherine's boyfriend, Joe, shows up. He's got his shirt tucked in, a new protest tactic from this weekend. The idea is to try and expose undercover police who wouldn't be able to tuck their shirts in over their guns and batons. Joe's here for moral support because, incredibly, Katherine is now on her way to another protest. We're headed to a soccer stadium across the street from where the protester was shot. Katherine figures she'll stay as long as she can tolerate.

We walk onto the field. It's a big solemn group of people in their work and school clothes, all facing the bleachers.

Katherine

There are a lot of people. Not sure where they are looking at, but I think they are just waiting for a moment to mourn.

Diane Wu

It's a kind of vigil for the protester in the hospital. Katherine and Joe put on black surgical masks.

Diane Wu

Everyone has their phones up with their lights on.

[SINGING IN CHINESE]

It's the protest anthem. We go into the streets. Katherine's on edge. Every time she hears a loud noise, she squeezes Joe's hand. She'll stay out until 10:30. Then she'll get dinner, go home, go to bed. In the morning, Katherine will be at work again, at her job where she can't let her bosses know where she was the night before.

Overnight, the road cleaners will come out with backhoes to clear the barricades. They'll paint over the graffiti, fix the smashed street lights, tidy up the piles of bricks in the gutters, erasing their protests as they have so many days before, turning the city back to normal, except, of course, it can't be normal again.

Ira Glass

Diane Wu.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Emanuele Berry and Diane Wu. Our brilliant field producer in Hong Kong was Yannie Chan. Thanks to our interpreters, Flora Chung, Diana Chan, and Dominic Yang. The people who put together our show today includes Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Damien Grave, Michelle Harris, Jessica Lussenhop, Miki Meek, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Ben Phelan, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala. Our executive producer is David Kestenbaum. Special thanks today to Dave Hill for the cover of the theme of the cops show, Armed Reaction. And special thanks to Laurel Chor, Karen Cheng, Noble Wong, Yu, Tse Sai Pei, Alanna Thiede, Jiayang Fan, and Martin Lee.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he'll never forget his first time on a carousel. The way he tells the story, he gets on a horse and starts to go around--

Daniel

At that moment, I suddenly realized, oh, we're actually very close to a revolution. It could happen.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.