Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Square’ one month on: how are protesters living?

With tents to rent, a study zone, WiFi, and a growing art movement, the pro-democracy movement has evolved into a functional utopian collective

A protestor takes time out to practice the ukulele.
A protestor takes time out to practice the ukulele. Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

Almost as soon as I arrived at the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters’ main encampment earlier this month, a young man in a black T-shirt tapped me on the shoulder, smiled, and handed me a bottle of water. “If you’re thirsty,” he said, and walked away.

Thus is daily life in Umbrella Square, a sprawl of hundreds of variegated tents beneath a forest of skyscrapers on Gloucester and Harcourt roads, two of the city’s most important thoroughfares.

Since 28 September, when protesters used umbrellas to shield themselves from police volleys of tear gas and pepper spray, the swath of highway has evolved into a high-functioning utopian collective blocked off by a handful of elaborate barricades. Volunteers hand out donated biscuits, coffee toilet paper, face masks and bottled water from well-stocked supply stands along the thoroughfare. Nearby public toilets are equipped with heaps of soap, toothpaste, and shampoo/conditioner combos. Some tents are privately owned; others are available to rent. Protesters compost their banana peels, let them ferment, and use the resulting vinegar as a cleaning agent.

A protestor drawing on their tent.
A protestor drawing on their tent. Photograph: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

Step into the protest zone via jerry-rigged stairs crossing over the highway divider, and the overwhelming feeling is one of entering an art fair, or a music festival – protesters sit on the pavement cross-legged, strumming guitars and checking their smartphones. During the day, tourists amble through the crowd, snapping photos with SLR cameras; at night, hundreds, sometimes thousands of supporters gather to hear speeches and performances.

Many protesters have homes nearby and full-time jobs; they come and go as they please. Others spend their days at the site, contributing to a vast mosaic of sculptures, posters and banners reiterating the protesters’ demands for a more democratic electoral system.

Most surprising are the rhythms of normal life that survive in the square – the occasional business-suited tent-dweller, or the dozens of students hunched over geometry textbooks at a “study corner” beneath a makeshift tent running along the highway divider. Rows of lamps burn into the night, powered by a donated generator. Volunteer tutors offer help with English and maths. WiFi is available.

“We’re waiting for real elections — and we’re going to fight until we get them,” Christie Wong, a 23-year-old volunteer at the study corner, told me early last week. “We can’t just give up — if we leave now, we might never get another chance.”