One year later: Does New York still recognize the yellow umbrella?

BY and

Marcus Lee, 35, holds up an yellow umbrella at the New Yorkers for Hong Kong demonstration on Sept. 27 in Union Square. The demonstration marks the first anniversary of the Umbrella Movement, which advocates for universal suffrage.

Marcus Lee, 35, holds up a yellow umbrella at the New Yorkers for Hong Kong demonstration on Sept. 27 in Union Square, marking the first anniversary of the Umbrella Movement, which advocates for universal suffrage. Photo: Jingnan Peng.

On a cloudy Sunday, 20 people – most of them Chinese, in their 20s and 30s – stand at the southern edge of Union Square, holding large, canary yellow umbrellas and occasionally chanting lyrics from the Mandarin song, “Cheng Qi Yu San,” or “Open Umbrellas.” Many of them wear black hoodies with the words “Hong Kong Democracy Now” printed in yellow script.

The ground is covered with slogans and sketches written in chalk: “I want real universal suffrage” (written in Chinese), the hashtag #NY4HK, yellow umbrellas and even the entire First Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights.

Flanked by chess players, breakdancers and Quran enthusiasts, they take pictures of each other, posing with their umbrellas, and share their mission with the few passersby who are curious enough to listen.

Their small demonstration marks the first anniversary of the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution, a series of protests in September 2014 against Beijing’s continued delay in implementing the universal suffrage promised to Hong Kong. Protesters held up yellow umbrellas, a sign of nonviolent dissent, against Beijing’s rule that nominees for Hong Kong’s chief executives must be approved by a pro-Beijing committee. The group hosting the demonstration, New Yorkers for Hong Kong, is a pro-democracy advocacy group comprised of about 30 core members and around 600 social media followers.

During one of the New Yorkers for Hong Kong rallies last September, a thousand people took to 42nd Street to support the Umbrella Movement. The rally garnered international media coverage, and demonstrators ranged from people who drove three hours from Pennsylvania to Hong Kong immigrants and native New Yorkers.

Anna Cheung, 50, the founder of New Yorkers for Hong Kong and the main organizer of last year’s rallies, has been a member of several activist organizations for the past three decades. A biology professor at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., Cheung says many Chinese people from her generation have stopped doing activist work for Hong Kong, though she continues.

“I spent a lot of time in politics,” says Cheung, who first got involved with social activism in 1989 as a protester in Hong Kong immediately following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, China. “There are always moments of despair. Sometimes I think, should I do this or should I just be a professor? But if you really believe in democracy and really want to see it, you just go for it. And you may not see the results.”

Cheung says that New Yorkers for Hong Kong has brought together a community of young people in the city who want to effect change. She is one of only a few middle-aged people in her organization.

“During the Umbrella Movement, I attracted a lot of youngsters,” she says. “They all came forward to my Facebook and asked, ‘What can I do to help?’ At my age, people are more focused on their personal lives, their kids. But this era’s (Hong Kong) students care a lot.”

Members of the New Yorkers for Hong Kong pro-democracy organization sport custom-made hoodies that show off the group's mission. Photo Credit: Jingnan Peng

Members of the New Yorkers for Hong Kong pro-democracy organization sport custom-made hoodies that show off the group’s mission. Photo: Jingnan Peng.

Though she is the group’s unofficial leader, Cheung often lets the members do what they want. She deliberately keeps New Yorkers for Hong Kong loose, since she wants it to function like the leaderless Umbrella Movement.

“The way the Umbrella Movement is, it’s for students, for politicians. A man of 80 years can join, and a woman in her 30s can join. People just come over and do it. There’s no organizer telling them what to do,” she says. “I don’t need the formality, and I want that so they feel free to come join and do things. They don’t need to feel obligated.”

Jeffrey Ngo, 22, one of the demonstrators from Hong Kong and a senior at New York University studying history and journalism, helped to coordinate rallies for New Yorkers for Hong Kong this year as well as last, despite time conflicts with school work.

“In Hong Kong, intellectuals and professors generally support the movement,” Ngo says. “But in the United States, professors have rarely heard of the protest. It’s hard to convince (my professors) what I’m doing has a direct contribution to the movement.”

Ngo doesn’t believe that his peers care much, either. The ones who do mainly read about the movement in the news.

“If you just pick anyone from NYU and ask if they know about the protest, chances are they probably don’t,” Ngo says. “At the end of the day this is not a domestic issue with a direct concern with the American public, so at best people would know a protest had happened in Hong Kong last year, but not with many details.”

Samantha Ng, 21, a member of New Yorkers for Hong Kong and a dual citizen of Hong Kong and the United States, says the Umbrella Movement helped strengthen her ties to Hong Kong, her ancestral home, after she had lived in the United States for 10 years. But Ng says she was unaware that Hong Kong vetoed Beijing’s plan in June, a short-term victory.

Marcus Lee, a member of New Yorkers for Hong Kong, says he doesn’t believe there is a strong Chinese community in New York City; at the same time, the Umbrella Movement has helped to bring local Chinese people come together.

“We’re trying to spread the message that we’re fighting for basic human rights and freedom for people in Hong Kong and everywhere,” says Lee, 35, who moved to New York 20 years ago from Hong Kong. “We can’t do much. At the very least, we have to keep the fire going and spread our message.”

Neither Cheung nor Ngo knows any New Yorkers against the Umbrella Movement. But Cheung says many of the older immigrants from mainland China show patriotism for their native country in part because of the decades-long boom in the Chinese economy after the Cultural Revolution.

“Whenever they call in to AM 1480, the only Cantonese radio station in New York, they will start to attack the pro-democracy people. They’ll ask, ‘Why do you stir up the crowd? China is so good, and communism is nothing to be afraid of,” says Cheung.

According to Ed Winckler, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, most people from the People’s Republic of China believe regions like Hong Kong and Taiwan belong to China, and aren’t sympathetic to people who object to the Chinese authorities.

“The students are being a bit unrealistic if they think they’re going to turn the PRC government around with just protests,” says Winckler, who specializes in Chinese politics and policy making. “The PRC is determined to prevent getting on a slippery slope which ends up getting democracy in any part of China, including Hong Kong.”

At the end of the demonstration, New Yorkers for Hong Kong came together for a group picture with Ngo in front, holding a store-bought cake, and Cheung smiling next to him. It was Ngo’s 22nd birthday.

“Eventually, I want to go back to Hong Kong because, after all, that’s home,” Ngo says. “The fact that I and many other Hong Kongers overseas are fighting for democracy is proof that they believe Hong Kong is their home.”