Many of us, from all different backgrounds, are often taught to silence ourselves or to stay out of uncomfortable, controversial conversations for self-preservation, explained Kathy Khang, author of the book “Raise Your Voice.”
“We are taught to avoid conflict, keep the peace, and keep our personal opinions to ourselves because we’re told that speaking out doesn’t actually affect change,” Khang wrote.
Khang believes this pressure manifests itself differently in Asian American contexts because of our tendency to consider how our actions might be detrimental to or shame our community. Within Asian American families, this can result in ultra-strict parenting, the creation of false stories about family members, or parents disowning their children for acting out.
Despite the ingrained focus of avoiding conflict and blending in, millions of protestors — most of them in their 20s — are fighting for democracy in Hong Kong, choosing courage over fear and committing to a cause. Among the protestors are three women — one Chinese American with family roots in Hong Kong and two Hong Kongers now living in the U.S. They each have a different story and focus to their advocacy work, but each steps out with courage and perseverance. Here are their individual stories and the hows and whys about their fight for Hong Kong.
Alex Leung: From Shame to Pride
At pro-democracy events in northern California, Alex Leung* is one of the few leaders not directly from the Hong Kong diaspora. She was born and raised in Sacramento, Calif., to an American-born Chinese father and a mother who immigrated from Hong Kong at age 6. Until she was in her early 20s, Leung turned her back on her Chinese roots.
At 7 years old, Leung drew a self-portrait, giving herself blond hair and blue eyes. Though embedded in a Chinese church and a large extended family, Leung distanced herself from any cultural customs in pursuit of whiteness and assimilation, even describing a deep-rooted hatred toward her cultural identity. Calling herself a “banana” (Asian on the outside, white on the inside) was a badge of pride rather than shame.
“It wasn’t until my early 20s that I remotely showed any interest in embracing my roots,” Leung said. “Once I finally came to accept my identity, which came slowly, and then once it clicked, there was no turning back. I desperately yearned to grasp onto any small piece of my cultural heritage.”
Making up for lost time, Leung started learning Cantonese, engaged in discussions about the challenges of Asian Americans, ate more Chinese food (which she’d previously avoided), listened to her grandma’s stories of living in Hong Kong, and opened herself to friendships with Chinese exchange students.
In the summer of 2019, just a few months after China proposed its Extradition Bill, Leung traveled to Shanghai, where she had limited access to news. She returned to the U.S. and was horrified to read about protestors being hit with tear gas and rubber bullets and the escalating police brutality.
“As someone who is already passionate about advocating for human rights, this issue doubled its weight on my heart since my family has origins in Hong Kong,” Leung said. “Those are my people.”
Leung joined the Northern California Hong Kong Club and attended solidarity rallies in San Francisco to raise public awareness, but it wasn’t enough for her. Inspired by someone who wore a “Free Hong Kong” T-shirt during a 5K run, Leung — already a runner — co-founded Runners for Hong Kong. The group’s 150 members participate in group runs and races to raise awareness and engage members of the international community to talk about the situation in Hong Kong. The group has attracted both running enthusiasts and beginner athletes seeking a different way to get involved in the movement
“We are very inclusive and often collaborate with other groups,” Leung said. “We try to make it known that you do not have to be a runner or a hardcore protestor to join.”
Like the rest of the pro-democracy camp, Runners for Hong Kong calls for the Chinese government to meet the five demands of protestors, and encourages the international community to show solidarity toward Hong Kong. In a more local context, Leung sees the potential for this movement to spur apolitical Asian Americans to be more mindful of global issues.
Leung grew up in a Chinese church where “it was easier to remain avidly apolitical because we were subconsciously taught that it is better to be silent than stir up ‘trouble.’” She always sensed complacency and an unspoken agreement that political and social issues did not have a place in the church, and even more so in a Chinese church.
“I’m certainly not arguing that every church member needs to dress in all-black clothing and march out to the closest rally, although that would be impressive,” Leung said. “[But] actively choosing to muffle the ‘noise’ is negligent and irresponsible.” Though Leung is frustrated that advocacy for social justice, and especially for Hong Kong, tends to fall on deaf ears in the church, this only motivates her to speak up even more.
Despite having supported other causes, such as Black Lives Matter and issues surrounding immigration and refugees, Leung’s involvement in the pro-democracy movement is even more personal.
“I never felt like it was my place to lead/organize anything [for other movements] because I didn’t have enough personal experience or head knowledge about it,” Leung said. But this time was different because of her ties to both Hong Kong and American cultures. “This is the first cause I’ve felt like I had something more I could contribute.”
Elaine Lee: The Power of Conversation
Elaine Lee*, a Hong Kong native, was in her hometown during the early Extradition Bill protests. What started as a vocal but peaceful pro-democracy movement shifted rapidly to a rise in police brutality and tightening of human rights. In that early phase of the movement, Lee had yet to find her niche, but she knew that being a bystander meant she was allowing injustice to occur.
Being genuine and consistent have always been part of Lee’s core values, and she wanted her thoughts about the pro-democracy movement to align with her actions. But how? She wasn’t fast enough to be on the frontline, nor did she have first aid training, but she felt compelled to share the risks and burdens with other protestors.
What Lee called “survivor’s guilt” followed her to San Francisco, where she lives and works. She attended a local protest, more out of solidarity with friends and family in Hong Kong, rather than the belief that it would make a difference. But when the Chinese government withdrew the Extradition Bill, Lee’s perspective changed. Maybe these protests do make a difference.
Encouraged by the results, Lee started an organization called Conversations with the Courageous (CwC). The Bay Area-based group seeks to raise awareness, understanding and empathy about the situation in Hong Kong through personal, one-on-one conversations. There, Lee found her niche — something she says many Hong Kongers are doing within the movement.
“It was empowering to finally find my role in the movement here,” Lee said. “I am not afraid to speak with strangers, to share my feelings and experiences and be vulnerable. I can speak and write English fluently, all of those skills are critical in international outreach.”
CwC’s tagline, “Global Frontline for Democracy in Hong Kong,” describes the belief that the frontline of the pro-democracy movement extends beyond Hong Kong. The new “frontline” is wherever Hong Kongers meet the world. That is to say, Hong Kongers — and those who support them — who live, study or work abroad are in the position to speak up and raise awareness on a global level.
“There is so much power in one-on-one conversations,” Lee says. Through open conversations, anyone — whether they’re a mom, a liberal college student or a conservative — can learn more about the Hong Kong protests through real individual perspectives. This is uniquely different than looking only at what’s on the media. No questions are off the table. “They can look up statistics and figures themselves, but it’s the personal story that will motivate them to do more digging on their own,” said Lee.
The group believes that the “courageous” refers to anyone who calls out injustice and takes action to safeguard freedom, democracy and human rights. This definition equally applauds the courage of people who quietly distribute flyers on the street corner and those who are face-to-face with police.
“We want to make sure people don’t get the message that advocacy/freedom fighting has one face, or that it is limited to protestors braving police brutality on the frontlines,” Lee said, describing how advocacy can take the form of creating art, making financial donations, lobbying, or boycotting businesses that support the Chinese Communist Party. In a leaderless movement, “everybody is free to find a way to take a stance in a way they feel comfortable and good at, and finding their niche in the movement.”
Winnie Lau: Defending Student Rights
Native Hong Konger Winnie Lau also was in her home country when protests against the Extradition Bill began. Come September, she returned to the U.S., where she is an international student at the University of California Davis (UCD). The school year began, but Lau’s mind was obsessed with international news. She constantly consumed news articles and analyses about the situation in Hong Kong. Lau was appalled by the behavior of the Hong Kong police — an elite disciplined service team now resembling triad members, she says, trying to kill people and shamelessly telling lies.
Lau grew depressed; she felt guilty and helpless, unable to help people impacted by police brutality. In her quest for action, she found people in Davis with the same goal. Together, they put up posters on the UCD campus to raise awareness about the situation in Hong Kong. The next day, the materials they had posted had already been torn down. But through that experience, Lau met other like-minded local and international students and learned about Davis4HK, an organization that raises awareness of Hong Kong’s situation in Davis and surrounding areas. (The group has since become an official UC Davis student organization called Hong Kong Political Affairs and Social Services.) Students table on campus and organize rallies and events to give updates on the situation in Hong Kong, recognizing the power of the international community.
Up to that point, Lau had never considered herself an activist. At times, she would write letters and participate in movements in support of various human rights and social justice issues. But her involvement with other issues stopped there. “As a UC Davis student, I began advocating for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement simply because it is my responsibility to try my best to fight for righteousness and justice in Hong Kong,” Lau said.
When Lau first joined Davis4HK, the group focused on gathering signatures in support of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bill that was passed by Congress and signed by President Trump in late 2019. In response to property damage, intimidation and threats on social media, Davis4HK also authored a resolution condemning censorship and intimidation against pro-Hong Kong activities on campus. With bipartisan support, the Senate of Students’ Associations at UCD unanimously passed the resolution in November 2019. The group is now working on passing that statement across all University of California campuses.
“Although we have been reported to the Chinese Consulate by some Chinese students, Davis4HK will not back down from these threats,” Lau said. “[However,] since the very beginning of the advocacy effort, the international community has been supportive.” Many people are willing to take part in Davis4HK’s rallies, sign letters, and even organize campaigns and events in support of Hong Kong.
Lau’s fight is for Hong Kong, for her people, but she knows that battles like these are being fought around the globe.
“Police brutality [and the] erosion of freedom and human rights are happening in many places in the world,” Lau said. “Hong Kong is just the tip of the iceberg. … We believe every effort means a lot and [there is value in] every small step. Even if we are miles away from Hong Kong, our souls are with Hong Kong. We want to show support to all Hong Kongers and convey a message that ‘You are not alone. We, overseas Hong Kongers and foreigners, are trying our best to do our bit. Be water and keep fighting!’”