I step out of the car. I am instantly shrink-wrapped in the oppressive heat and humidity of the hot summer day. As I close the door I catch the announcement on the radio – just as I feared, this is the hottest July 1st on record. Brilliant. I turn and make my way to the park, the rendezvous for the march. As the car drives off I reach for my camera. A quick inspection, batteries, lens, LCD – check, all in place in the event of a Jeff Widener moment. Dressed in a white t-shirt, armed with a bottle of water and a camera I set off in search of the rest of the marchers. They are not difficult to find.
Converging on Victoria Park, Hong Kong, is a countless horde of similarly attired people. From a distance, the park looks like it has been taken over by a giant white Octopus, its tentacles reaching out and into nearby bus depots and mass-transit railway stations. As I walk through the crowd, sweat drips down my forehead and off the tip of my nose. Glancing around self-consciously, I notice that I am not alone in my state of glazed-donut-ness. I also notice that marchers come from all walks of life, these aren’t just “radical political elements” as the Central Government so likes to call them, they are just very ordinary people, and there are a lot of them.
The atmosphere is warm. Not just in the sense that everyone has portable electric fans and umbrellas, but in a way that the dense marching crowd parts like the red sea to let a medical crew through to help a heat-exhausted person. Those are not in short supply. As I pass through the park and through to the main road to join the march itself, I am shepherded into an enclosure about the size of a soccer pitch. A useful crowd control device, this also facilitates easier counting of the people, there are dozens of these, all full. As I leave the park, I am given a yellow ribbon to tie onto the fence surrounding government house – the march’s destination.
As I walk through the familiar streets of Hong Kong, I see many not-so-familiar sights. The people of Hong Kong are clearly not apathetic to politics, as had been originally thought. A similar march happened exactly one year ago. This time, however, something is different. People aren’t marching out of discontent from the economic situation, nor are they irritated with the government’s poor handling of the SARS epidemic. The message seems to be clearer this time around. The people want freedom of speech, universal suffrage and democracy, and they’re prepared to brave 350 heat to get it.
Listening to the radio, I hear mixed messages. Some count the crowd at 200,000 others as high as 530,000. None of this takes away from the fact that there are alot of people. Speaking of the radio, I am reminded of the recent resignation of a handful of key pro-democracy talkback presenters after a campaign of fear and intimidation. I look around and pause, a great deal of intimidation would be required to dissipate this crowd. A shining white river of people stretches out as far as the eye can see. Various banners and signs protrude above the textured surface of umbrellas and people’s heads as we slowly make our way through the streets. I find myself marching behind a banner which sums it up for me, it says simply “People Power”.
As I get to the end of the march, the crowd, almost magically, seems to disappear into the base of the many of the tall buildings which line the streets of Hong Kong. I snap out of the euphoric feeling of being part of the greater whole and slowly come to my senses. I am soaked through with my own sweat, I put my hand on my face, it feels like sandpaper. With a start, I realise that what feels like sand is grains of salt from dried sweat. I decide to join some friends I made during the march for a drink at a nearby bar. I step into the air-conditioned space and sneeze violently as the cold air touches my glossy, wet skin. I recover my vision to the almost absurd scene of a bar full of people wearing white shirts. I sit down with my new friends, drink and talk about the weather – I suppose people really are the same everywhere.