By CHRISTINE CHEAH and IAN YEE
LIKE a trusted lieutenant, Prince Wong Ji-Yuet was called up once Scholarism founder Joshua Wong was deported from Malaysia on May 26.
She immediately booked a flight ticket and within two days, she was in Malaysia to speak in Joshua’s place at a few forums across the country – mainly about their experiences spearheading the “Umbrella Revolution” in Hong Kong.
But Prince isn’t a seasoned speaker. At 17, she hasn’t even finished her studies.
In fact, it was Prince’s first time travelling outside of Hong Kong. She posted on Facebook about how nervous she was over taking her first flight.
If she was nervous, it showed during the forum in Petaling Jaya. Her voice trembled when she started speaking to the 250-strong crowd. If not for the bold “Democracy Not Found” t-shirt she was wearing, you’d probably think Prince was just one of the many young people who were in the hall.
And yet, she has been an important part of a movement that has made headlines across the world and brought an entire city to a standstill.
Led by Joshua, the Umbrella Revolution brought together an estimated 500,000 secondary school and university students for a peaceful and surprisingly orderly sit-in protest on the streets of Hong Kong, lasting 79 days starting Sept 2014. Though the leaders of the movement say it is a civil disobedience movement and not a “revolution”, the term stuck after protesters were pictured protecting themselves with umbrellas from police pepper spray.
“The protest happened during my final year in school,” said Prince during the talk. “Like any other student, I wanted to spend time with my friends, but because of the protest, I didn’t have time.
“There was a time when I asked myself – is this persistence worth it?”
Her parents didn’t think it was, as they pleaded with her not to join the protests and constantly sent her text messages asking her to come home.
“The one moment where I cried was when my mother said ‘I don’t want to be a Tiananmen mother’ (mothers who lost children at the Tiananmen Square massacre), but my parents understand what I am doing,” she said.
Life as a teenage protester
For most of the talk, Prince recounted her experiences from those 79 days, where students occupied Central, the city’s financial district, refusing to leave until the people were given full rights to nominate and elect the head of the Hong Kong government. Beijing currently screens all candidates for the role.
Prince would leave her tent at the protest site at 7am to go to school, where she would brush her teeth. After school, she would go straight back to join the protests, and stay up past midnight to study because she was sitting for her Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exams that year.
In an interview with Hong Kong’s Young Post, Prince said she didn’t know what to bring with her during her first night occupying the streets. All she knew was she needed her school uniform. “Without it, I wouldn’t be able to get into school in the morning.”
Initially, her classmates would surround her in school to try to stop her from going to back to the protests. But once they realised nothing could stop her, they brought her food and shower gel instead, so she’d have a decent meal and shower at school before heading back to the protest site.
There were many times, of course, when her friends and family’s concerns were justified.
Though the protesters maintained a brave front, Prince admitted there were a few moments which shook her.
One of those moments included her breaking a promise to her parents, that she would never engage in any illegal activities. It was on her 17th birthday – the day she and around 100 protesters stormed Civic Square, a space outside the government headquarters which had been barricaded for months.
“I told my parents I had to go, and that I was sorry. I wrote them a letter,” recalled Prince. She read the open letter on a makeshift stage in front of the protesters.
“I have so much to tell you, but we can’t talk face-to-face,” it read. “It has been difficult to keep up with my studies and I have struggled many times but if I had to choose again, I would still come here (Civic Square).”
After scaling the three-metre high barricade around Civic Square, the protesters staged a sit-in while surrounded by police. They were cleared in stages, leading to several arrests.
“It was so violent there and we were surrounded by a barricade of people. When you sit there too long and feel helpless, you tend to think a lot about life,” she said.
Prince’s interest in current affairs started with a book written by a journalist which she picked up from the garbage bin when she was six.
“When I tell people the story, they find it hard to believe, but it’s true. My father threw the book away, I picked it back up from the bin and read it; but I never thought I would be part of a movement like this.
“Most protests involved adults, not young people, who are usually not so interested in current affairs,” she said.
That all changed in 2012, when she was exposed to Scholarism. She described it as an epiphany. “Suddenly, I came to realise that students too can stand up for something. As long as you are a citizen, everyone has a right to speak.”
“It was not easy when I first joined Scholarism,” she added. When handing out pamphlets in school, other students would throw them back and yell at her. “At that time, I didn’t know how far I would go with this but the experience changed the way I think a lot and I carried on.”
Despite their bravery, not everyone in Hong Kong agrees with Prince and Joshua’s cause. Many older people are actively opposed to the movement. According to a piece by Time, the spectre of Tiananmen Square remains among the older generation, and they feel the students’ protests will only provoke Beijing into taking away the freedoms which Hong Kong currently has.
And since they don’t think Beijing would concede to the movement, those among the older generation found the protests pointless. To them, they were merely disrupting the economy in a city where earning a living is already notoriously difficult.
The state-run media in China have labelled Joshua and Scholarism as extremists, but in a 30-minute video message played at the same event in Petaling Jaya, Joshua seemed more like your average teenager. Sporting his now trademark black-rimmed glasses and bowl cut hairstyle, he was showing his lighter side, cracking a few jokes in Cantonese.
Joshua has been invited to give talks in colleges around the world, most recently by the University of California, the United States.
The point of these talks, he said, was not for him to become famous, but to educate students on how to speak out for what they believe in.
“When I first started Scholarism, we started small. We taught students, giving them a better understanding of what goes on in the country,” he said.
“I never thought that many students would show us their support; and they didn’t think the authorities would be violent to students who pose no harm.”
But even though the protests are over, Joshua said he and others like Prince will continue to campaign for their cause.
“It’s a long and tiring effort. Sometimes I feel it’s useless, but when you finally see results, it will feel like time is standing still.”