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Chris McGrath

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We are all Hongkongers

A protest on the streets — and all over the web

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There were supposed to be fireworks last night.

October 1st is China's Fourth of July, the day the populous superpower shuts down its factories and turns patriotic. On the mainland, you can't walk down a street without hearing celebratory booms and seeing sparks. A pyrotechnic spectacle always lights up the waters above Hong Kong, too. Hong Kong is a tiny region that’s overseen by China, even though it has technically been governed by a separate law — "one country, two systems," as they say — since Great Britain handed it back in 1997. But because tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters have flooded Hong Kong's streets in peaceful defiance of Beijing, the celebration is off. The sky was dark.

I lived in Hong Kong from August 2009 until February 2013, working as an editor and writer for Forbes and then the English-language alternative weekly HK Magazine. I was just one of the many, many expatriates calling Hong Kong home for a spell. Transience is built into the very nature of the name: expats float in a moorless ether; they do not belong to the city in which they live, and the city does not belong to them. We befriend natives, but we do not take ownership. We observe, but cannot presume. Every day is exciting, even exotic. But funnily enough, that kind of permanent impermanence is also how most see Hong Kong's bizarre post-handover limbo, too: a borrowed place living on borrowed time. Another commonality: while an expat's myriad allegiances are often muddled by time immersed overseas, Hongkongers, too, constantly struggle with identity issues. Are they Hongkongers, or Chinese? That divide runs deep.

Some expats stay for a few months; some, like me, for a few years; others find themselves at the seven-year mark, which means permanent residency and the right to vote. But that's the rub: Hongkongers can vote in local elections, for leaders to represent their neighborhoods, but they cannot vote for the chief executive. Hong Kong's denizens have long been promised that they will be able to cast a ballot in the chief executive race some day. But in August Beijing essentially said, "Sure, you can vote for chief executive. But you may only choose from a pool of candidates that we have selected."

That did not fly.

A decentralized mass of college students, led in part by Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old with some incredible chutzpah, started a small protest on Friday night. Later in the weekend, members of the separate Occupy Central movement joined in, and the floodgates opened. Mothers with daughters; grandfathers; groups of friends; coworkers. Yellow ribbons sprung up on T-shirts, lapels, and Facebook avatars. More and more streets became impassable. Schools were shut. Employees were encouraged to work from remotely. A city that is typically so placid, so passive, so hard-working, so much like New York or London or Dubai, came to a standstill.

I can't claim to imagine what my friends protesting are going through. I follow their Instagram handles, their Twitter accounts, their photos and videos of donated food, makeshift signs, picking up recycling and composting waste. They post their bilingual musings to the internet, and I follow it with a practically religious fervor. After a terrifying bout of police brutality to break up the protests that involved pepper spray, tear gas, arrests, and other tactics that were unfathomably harsh given the circumstances, things have calmed. Journalists I know well refuse to sleep, trying to capture this pivotal moment in Hong Kong history. Everyone — everyone — wants Beijing to know the world is watching, and that any action the police take to quell the protest will be monitored and sternly judged.

I may have only made it halfway to permanent residency, and I may not live there now, but I — and so, so many other former and current expats like me — am inextricably connected to what's happening there. The road on which I commuted to work is completely deserted, blocked by protestors. Their efforts are not confined to the city's central thoroughfares, which they have filled with song and speeches. Thanks to messaging clients like WhatsApp and WeChat, thanks to Facebook comments and messages, thanks to unflagging commitments to document this climax of conflict in outlets as basic as Tumblr and as widely read as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, someone in New York City can almost feel like they're there.

Even though expats sometimes do bone-headed, dangerous things in the communities they inhabit, and many aren't 100 percent on board with a days-long interruption of their work routines, there's never been an event that’s connected us all like this one. The diaspora isn’t limited to Cantonese people in Chinatowns across the continents, but instead broadly inclusive of everyone who’s called Hong Kong home.

It’s created a global network of folks rooting for the same team, even if not everyone approves of the tactics (surrounding political leaders' offices before work starts on Friday) or agrees on what they're striving for (for the chief executive to step down? For Beijing to rescind its statement?). But as much complexity as there is, the events of the past several days have laid bare the emotions at the heart of the conflict. People want their home to stay the same, or even better, improve. Expats past, present, and future can relate.

Before I moved away, I had a bauhinia tattooed on my upper back. It's the flower on the Hong Kong flag. While my time in Hong Kong was finite, its impression, and this ink, is indelible.

Hana Alberts is a Senior Editor at Curbed NY.