A City Defended by Our Children:  Labour Rights Activists Teach by Examples and the Art of Communication between Parent and Child


Faced with totalitarian rule, the youngsters took to the streets in different ways compared to the previous generation. From June to November, the older generation was at first puzzled by their action, but gradually came to understanding. Or at least, became empathetic with the youngsters, no longer criticize their approach and choose to stand by them. How great is unspelled love?[1] There are often few words spoken between father and son. When their sons went on the street to protest, the labour rights activists observe silently and are gratified to learn that, unwittingly, their sons have matured.

[1]  a line of lyrics from Cantonpop tycoon Eason Chan’s song “Bike” (2001)

A Father who missed the growth stage of his child and suddenly found that his child has become independent

“White Head” Chan participated in the dockworkers’ strike which lasted for 40 days. When he worked at the dock, Chan worked more than twelve hours a day, and often fell asleep immediately after coming home. Now that he works as a minibus driver, his daily routine has become relatively regular, and unexpectedly, he finds that his son has grown up. ‘My son has just begun his undergraduate studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and become a member of the Environmental Sustainability  Committee of Shaw College. Not long ago, he has become a vegetarian. I was puzzled. How come my son has changed so much?’ Like many fathers, Chan silently contributes to his family, and may not have noticed the change of his son. It was not until his son applied for financial aids and went to Cambodia to help build schools that Chan discovered the passionate side of his son which leads him to take an interest in the current social situation and to concern the situation in poorer countries. ‘I was so surprised. We rarely talked about current affairs at home, what made him suddenly changed?’ Chan could not find a clear answer but he vaguely recalled the days when he went on strike at the dock. ‘He was not so verbal on this matter. One day, he put a note at my desk which said “Go for it”.’ Although the father and son talked little about the matter with trade unions, the son still knew why his father didn't go to work for a month.

Safety is the only concern for a father

In this struggle, it is probably the case that not many parents really know their children's roles at the scene. Some ‘militant’ protestors have refused to give their family a phone number, some middle school students pretended that they were going to the library to study, but secretly wrote a will to their family before going on the frontlines...

After Chan's son went to college, he became active and participated in person in social movements. He also joined in the Anti-extradition Bill movement. He set up a recycling station on the street, making actual his belief and participating in this movement in his unique way. Moreover, the Chinese University campus where he attended school once became a battlefield. During the movement, there has not been much communication between the father and the son. For Chan, his son sending Whatsapp messages to report his safety on site is good enough.  

A mother’s perspective

In fact, his wife has complaints to Chan’s philosophy of ‘governing by doing nothing’. ‘My wife once asked me that I let our son do whatever he wants, “If something bad happens to him, can you take the responsibility of the consequence?"’ Chan responded, ‘He’s not Joshua Wong! It’s fine!’, and dodged the question for the moment.  

A few months later, the differences between his family finally broke out at a family dinner in Kowloon. There was a protest somewhere, and during the whole dinner, his son and daughter kept checking the information on their mobile phones. After dinner, the children said they wanted to stop by the protest scene. Their mother usually does not say much, but this time she finally erupted and tried to pull her son and daughter onto the minibus. If not, she threatened to go together with the children to the site and bore tear gas together. At that time, Chan chose to remain silent. It's family day, let it be once.’

The same demonstration, different positions

As the father of a 16-year-old son, Master Kwan never tries to persuade his son not to take to the streets, but ‘Run fast! Don’t be bitten by dogs!’ As Kwan has participated in labour rights activism, Kwan knows clearly the hegemony uses its power to oppress the people. Although worried about his son’s safety, he understands that ‘Hong Kong people cannot afford to shrink back at this moment. If we do, we will lose a lifetime!’

Sometimes, the father and son are at the same protest, but in different positions. At this stage, the demonstrations could no longer be fully ‘peaceful, rational and non-violence’. However, Kwan feels that it is more important than ever to insist on attending. ‘We must let the international community see the persistence of the people of Hong Kong. Otherwise, we would lose.’ As a middle-aged man, Kwan attends as much as he can. Of course, being sprayed by tear gas is more or less inevitable. ‘The youngsters nowadays, they are not “freeloaders”(fai cing). They take care of “uncles”, like me, on the scene. I use the tear gas mask my son gave me. I try not to bring others trouble.’

When a protest comes to an end, Kwan usually waits for his son to report his safety. ‘I don’t call him. Don't want to bother him.’ What if he didn’t message? Kwan responds, ‘Just wait, holding the cell phone in the hand just for a Whatsapp message to appear. I once waited for more than two hours ... just, wait a bit longer.’


The Political Enlightenment in Two Generations

If 2019 is the year of political enlightenment for today's youth, what had led Chan and Kwan to recognize the Chinese Communist Party’s true nature was the June 4th Incident. ‘Before June 4th, I was feverishly holding beliefs such as “there is home when there is a country”, China was bullied by Western imperialism for too long, we need (economic) stability and prosperity, and so on. I didn’t care much about politics.’ Kwan also agrees that the June 4th Incident has allowed their generation to see the truth. The 1989 democracy movement which ended with repression has cast a shadow over the democratic movement over the past 30 years. Many people are afraid that the movement in Hong Kong will have a tragic ending. While the younger generation is desperate and fearless, and is not afraid of repression, the June 4th Massacre remains in the hearts of the older generation.

‘Is such a sacrifice worth it? Sometimes, I can't help but wonder.’ Chan has no answer. 

(Author's Note: The details of the sons’ activities have been changed to protect the persons involved.)

The art of communication between parents and children

When their children are on the frontline, many parents, although empathise with them and agree with their reasons for protest, still worry about them being arrested, beaten, and injured. ‘Siu Cho’, who has been dedicated to promoting ‘non-violent communication’ in recent years, affirms the methods of caring for their children carried out by Kwan and Chan. Cho also tries to balance his anxiety and understand the needs of his children. He explains that there is no definite rule of communication, it often follows an established pattern between father and son which is developed through time. He suggests that one can go one step further: the father can consider trying to express his emotions to the son and make an invitation, such as: ‘Every time I see you go out to participate in demonstration, I worry because your safety is important to me. Would you be willing to send me a Whatsapp message when it’s over, to set my mind at ease?’ Perhaps the son will refuse, but it is important to ask the reasons for refusing and find a way of communication with which both parties are comfortable.

Cho received counselling requests from families during the movement. There were cases which involve the difference between ‘yellow ribbon’(pro-democracy) and ‘blue ribbon’(pro-government) among family members, and ‘deep yellow ribbon’ versus ‘light yellow ribbon’ who dispute over different approaches in the movement. He mentions that non-violent communication hopes to achieve the effect that one can express himself/herself candidly, and at the same time, the other party would be willing to listen. ‘Order and blame only cause the other party to resist, which lead us further away from what we want to achieve. This is especially the case in the relationship between parents and  children. In this demonstration, order, oppression and blame are precisely what the government has been doing, which have proved to be counterproductive. Similarly, if the parents want their children to listen, order and blame would not lead you to the goal. When the children respond with resistance, they could not feel the love that is behind all the concerns and worries.’ He suggests that parents can express themselves like this: ‘If you go to the frontline, I will be worried about you. When I see the images on the television, I am worried that you will be arrested or injured. But if something bad happens, I want to stand by you."