Citizen journalism platform Hong Kong In-Media has organized the E-Citizen Awards to promote original reporting, political cartoons, photography and commentary online. Below is an interview with Chan Chak To, the winner of the Best Journalism award, who wrote a first-person account of the rehearsal for Occupy Central's massive sit-in on July 1, 2014. The interview was originally written in Chinese by Marco Mak, a contributing reporter for inmediahk.net. This edited English version below is translated by Cheung Choi Wan.
He is a post-80s computer engineer who loves computer games, football and dating girls. However, his ideas and his life have changed tremendously in 2014. Enter 511 in any search engine and you find his name—Chan Chak To. He is one of the 511 people arrested on July 2 for taking part in an action of civil disobedience.
On the evening of the arrest, Chan recorded in detail his frontline experience—from the moment he was arrested and taken onto a tourist bus, to what he encountered at the Hong Kong Police College in Wong Chuk Han where he was detained, up until the moment of his release. His article is full of humor, but sincere. The readers are transported to the very scene of the protest and are able to comprehend, from a closer distance and from a more realistic angle, how it all started. Chan’s article has won Best Journalism in Hong Kong In-Media’s E-Citizens Award. The day the article was published, it went viral online. It was a surprise for Chan.
What is even more unexpected is that Chan says that his future path was changed by that night. What made him come out the evening of July 1? According to Chan, it all began in June. He admits frankly that he got a two-week leave in June only to stay home to watch the World Cup. It was a coincidence that during this period of time, Hong Kong's Legislative Council deliberated the government’s preliminary funding request for the development plan of the northeast New Territories. Chan says that he witnessed the parliamentary abuse, especially when Ng Leung Sing, the chairperson of the Finance Committee of the Legislative Council, forced through the funding request. Chan decided that he should do something for Hong Kong.
Chan emphasizes that he was not ready to “storm the metal fence” and confront police when he was outside the Legislative Council on June 13. “I was really ashamed of myself when I saw the students, who were younger than I, fighting. They were not at all afraid of arrest. I found myself ‘useless’. Compared with them, I probably had less to worry about. I should have stepped forward a bit more.” At that very moment he had only one thought: “No matter what, I must do something to protect them.” Tears flowed from his eyes when this thought came to his mind, and he kept asking himself why he was such a coward.
Chan felt guilty and regretted his behavior on June 13. When the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) announced that they would rehearse Occupy Central's massive sit-in, planned for later in the year, after the pro-democracy march on July 1, Chan made up his mind that he would not be a deserter again and set off for the march.
Coincidentally, his ATM card was damaged that day and he asked his girlfriend to loan him $500 as possible bail money. “This time I was prepared for the arrest.”
Chan was a Form 7 student when the July 1 march against legislation of a set of laws on national security took place in 2003. He did not join the march. Instead, he stayed home to play computer games. He was also not interested in nor concerned about social issues or politics. He has never taken up any leadership position in student organizations in the university and turned a deaf ear to student union’s affairs. “I have always felt disengaged and was not enthusiastic about taking part in the social movement.”
Chan says he is a very independent person. He had his own room in the dorm. […] Four years ago Chan left his job as a computer engineer and went to Australia where he met his girlfriend. For a while he worked on a farm picking strawberries all day long. He then worked as a hotel attendant cleaning one bathroom after another. He enjoyed what he did and kept asking himself, “Why is life in Hong Kong so oppressive? The working hours are long and there are only a few holidays.” Chan wished that he could find his true “place” during the working holiday.
Before going to Australia, he was a telecommunication software programmer. The programs sent automatic mobile messages to client, “for example, when you arrive in Macau, you would receive a welcome message, etc. After a while you would feel that it is utterly meaningless.” Before he returned, he had thought of becoming a reporter when he came back to Hong Kong because there was a sense of mission in the profession, which was to report truth, and he loved to write too. He once told himself, “Don’t return to your old job because it had only brought unhappiness.” However, life is often disappointing. When he came home, he found that writing software programme appeared to be his only skills. He could not find a reporting job and had to return to his old profession. However, he started to write what he saw and heard on social media.
Chan has a blog for sharing his thought among friends. “A few years ago I suffered from pneumothorax and was hospitalized. I wrote down my experience and feelings.” His article, “One in 511”, which won the In-Media’s E-Citizen Award recorded the details of the many scenes he witnessed from the evening of July 1 into the next day, such as the feelings of his fellow demonstrators, sketches of the police and his heartfelt appreciation of a middle-aged man who travelled to Hong Kong from Shenzhen just to participate in the protest. “Apart from sharing my own feelings through reporting and recording what happened, I wish to tell people around me by practicing what I believe in and demonstrate that social action and even civil disobedience are not something very remote from our lives.”
“I never imagined that there are so many people in Hong Kong who are concerned with social issues. Take [Occupy Central], for example. Every day there are people dressed in suits who come to Admiralty to see what is happening here.” If we want to motivate people who are politically apathetic, Chan believes that the political messages have to be written in plain language. “People refuse to read writing with too much academic jargon. I want to write soft stories that people find touching. I like Wong Tze Wah [a famous comedian in Hong Kong who comments on political news with humor]. Perhaps I have adopted his approach unconsciously.”
Chan was arrested three months ago. He has returned to the street again and has set up his tent on Connaught Road Central [one of the sit-in sites], all because he wants to be persistent in fighting for what he believes in. His family does not agree with what he is doing because they are worried that if he has a criminal record, his opportunities for promotion and career prospects will be affected. “I have used up all my paid leave for this year. I am taking unpaid leave now.” However, if his company called him, he would immediately return to his position. Chan explains with a smile that his girlfriend has also taken part in the protests and stayed overnight on the street. She supports and understands him completely. “She understands what I am doing and even told me: you can fight and I would work hard to earn us a living!”
What touches him most is that he finally managed to win his family's support with his actions; they visited him at Admiralty. Chan says he rarely talks about social issues with his friends, but he posts his thoughts and what he hears and sees on social media. “Most of my colleagues are post-70s. They always wonder why people do not simply focus on their jobs, instead of stirring up trouble.” Chan wants to use his writings and his actions to tell them that in this society money is not the only thing that matters. He wants to tell them that there are other values that are worth fighting for. People take part in social movements because they want to bring progress to our society.