Treading on a tiger’s tail

There is an odd overlap between my own childhood in San Francisco and recent events in Hong Kong.

Throughout my childhood, I was relentlessly teased and bullied. This is one of the traumas I endure to this day. But nonetheless, I think mostly in junior high school, sometimes kids would ask to borrow some lunch money.

I was far from rich but I almost always agreed and carefully kept track of how much they owed me. I never charged interest. Some never paid me back and, of course, I cut them off. I think this had mostly petered out by the time I got into high school.

There were a couple of Chinese-American kids whose approach was not to ask, but to demand, and to demand with violence. I was especially afraid of these kids; we attended the same junior high and high schools, they seemed to seek me out, and I will never forget roaming the halls of my high school desperately seeking a place where I could hide—there never was one. These kids were particularly vicious in singling me out for physical assault, once even with some sort of a club. They wanted more money than I could spare and so I had to refuse. Even as they assaulted me.

This went on for years, at least from the ninth grade, still in junior high school under the public school system in place at that time, through the eleventh, when I passed a high school proficiency examination and “dropped out” at the end of the school year (I went straight to community college).

We’re talking about, even then, truly trivial amounts of money here—the change from the lunch money my mother had given me for my own lunches—but years later, I wondered if I had inadvertently cut in on some youthful gang loan sharking.

Fast forward to the present. There have been massive protests in Hong Kong and fears that the mainland Chinese government would intervene.[1]

Having earlier agreed to “suspend” the legislation that had sparked these protests,[2] Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam agreed to fully withdraw an extradition bill that, if passed, would have enabled extradition to the mainland. It’s probably too little, too late, due to a thug-like police response that infuriated the protesters, apparently even more than the possibility of extradition. Notably, Lam has not agreed to investigate the police.[3] Imagine this:

A consensus has emerged even among moderates and pro-Beijing lawmakers that an independent inquiry is needed to address a hardening rupture between a majority of the public and the police.

Lam, however, has so far resisted, fearing a negative response from the police force.[4]

Lam is afraid of her own police.

And it might not just be her police. I haven’t been paying real close attention to all of this, but I recalled another incident where, uncharacteristically, the Hong Kong police did not intervene:

At least 45 people were injured in unprecedented late-night violence at a Hong Kong railway station on Sunday [July 21], as a rampaging mob of men in white T-shirts attacked black-clad protesters and passengers indiscriminately.

No police officer was in sight as dozens of men, who witnesses suggested were triad gangsters, stormed into Yuen Long MTR station at around midnight by forcing open closed entrances.[5]

The chronology in the report appears inconsistent to me but this seems to have gone on for hours.[6]

All I can really say here is that I dimly recall hearing of the tongs and the triads back when I was a kid in San Francisco. In the context I heard of them then, I did not understand them to be affiliated with mainland China and would have assumed they were not affiliated with any government. I did understand them to be one of a number of criminal organizations that seemed to enjoy a certain impunity (hence a dissonance, which is likely why I remember this at all) and that seemed to be trying to extend a reach into San Francisco.

The subway assaults described[7] are certainly consistent with my youthful impression and, it has to be said, my experience. It also rather strongly suggests some sort of collusion with authority of some sort, certainly the Hong Kong police, possibly Hong Kong or mainland Chinese officials.

I had assumed that, in San Francisco, the tongs, the triads, and other organizations would mostly operate in Chinatown. There are many migrants there and it was understood that they might be afraid to go to the police because the police could never fully protect them from an insidious presence within their own community in which even if some go to prison, others might retaliate.

I was a kid in school in the Richmond District. I attended Presidio Junior High (now Presidio Middle) School and George Washington High School (the latter of some notoriety due to murals that some want covered up or destroyed[8]). It’s kind of a ways from Chinatown. So, as a kid, I never worried about Chinese criminal organizations much.

It’s been a lot of years since then. And at this point, I think a lot of what I didn’t know then, I will never know. But I remember my tormentors’ sense of impunity. I remember their demands for money. I remember their violence. And I remember the feeling I had absolutely no recourse to authority, in part because I knew that school authorities could never fully protect me and that even if they did intervene on my behalf, I might only provoke my assailants to retaliate further.

No matter what I did, I was treading on a tiger’s tail and I had no way not to.

Lam reportedly offered to resign (and has since denied doing so). Apparently, she noted “she was ‘very, very limited’ in how her government could respond to the mass protests that began in June over a proposal to allow extradition to mainland China.”[9]

The remarks suggested Beijing has been directing the Hong Kong government’s response to months of mass protests that have plunged the semi-autonomous territory into its worst political crisis since it was returned to Chinese control in 1997.[10]

And indeed, Beijing has implied that it might do more than that.[11]

Which is to say, being afraid of her own police, possibly being afraid of the triads, and certainly being under pressure from the mainland government, Lam has no recourse to authority.

She is treading on at least one tiger’s tail and has no way not to.

It should go without saying that I sympathize with the protestors and their demands. But I think I know how Lam might feel.

  1. [1]Natasha Khan and Eva Dou, “Beijing Asserts Power to Declare Emergency to Quell Hong Kong Unrest,” Wall Street Journal, September 3, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/beijing-asserts-power-to-declare-emergency-to-quell-hong-kong-unrest-11567509276; Violet Law, “Looking to future, school students join Hong Kong protests,” Al Jazeera, September 2, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/future-school-students-join-hong-kong-protests-190902082122134.html; Iain Marlow, Aaron McNicholas, and Natalie Lung, “Hong Kong Officials Urge Calm While Warning of ‘Signs of Terror,’” Bloomberg, September 2, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-02/hong-kong-officials-urge-calm-while-warning-of-signs-of-terror; Megan K. Stack, “Bravery and Nihilism on the Streets of Hong Kong,” New Yorker, August 31, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/bravery-and-nihilism-amid-the-protests-in-hong-kong;
  2. [2]Natasha Khan and Chun Han Wong, “Hong Kong Suspends Extradition Bill That Sparked Protests,” Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/hong-kong-to-suspend-controversial-extradition-bill-11560579580
  3. [3]Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin, “Hong Kong leader fully withdraws extradition bill, a demand of protesters,” Washington Post, September 4, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/hong-kong-leader-expected-to-fully-withdraw-extradition-bill-a-demand-of-protesters/2019/09/04/b3ca1dec-cee0-11e9-87fa-8501a456c003_story.html
  4. [4]Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin, “Hong Kong leader fully withdraws extradition bill, a demand of protesters,” Washington Post, September 4, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/hong-kong-leader-expected-to-fully-withdraw-extradition-bill-a-demand-of-protesters/2019/09/04/b3ca1dec-cee0-11e9-87fa-8501a456c003_story.html
  5. [5]Jeffie Lam, Danny Mok, and Alvin Lum, “At least 45 injured as rod-wielding mob dressed in white rampages through Yuen Long MTR station, beating screaming protesters,” South China Morning Post, July 24, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-and-crime/article/3019524/least-10-injured-baton-wielding-mob-suspected-triad
  6. [6]Jeffie Lam, Danny Mok, and Alvin Lum, “At least 45 injured as rod-wielding mob dressed in white rampages through Yuen Long MTR station, beating screaming protesters,” South China Morning Post, July 24, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-and-crime/article/3019524/least-10-injured-baton-wielding-mob-suspected-triad
  7. [7]Jeffie Lam, Danny Mok, and Alvin Lum, “At least 45 injured as rod-wielding mob dressed in white rampages through Yuen Long MTR station, beating screaming protesters,” South China Morning Post, July 24, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-and-crime/article/3019524/least-10-injured-baton-wielding-mob-suspected-triad
  8. [8]David Benfell, “A non-conformist mural and a non-conformist kid: Why the mural still must be covered up,” Not Housebroken, August 14, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/14/a-non-conformist-mural-and-a-non-conformist-kid-why-the-mural-still-must-be-covered-up/; Karin Klein, “At first, it looked like censorship. But covering up controversial mural makes sense,” Sacramento Bee, July 20, 2019, https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article232846267.html; Carol Pogash, “San Francisco School Board May Save Controversial George Washington Mural,” New York Times, August 10, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/10/arts/san-francisco-murals.html; Carol Pogash, “San Francisco School Board Votes to Hide, but Not Destroy, Disputed Murals,” New York Times, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/arts/san-francisco-murals-george-washington.html
  9. [9]Lily Kuo and Verna Yu, “Hong Kong protests: Carrie Lam denies offering to resign,” Guardian, September 3, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/03/hong-kong-protests-carrie-lam-denies-she-considered-resigning
  10. [10]Lily Kuo and Verna Yu, “Hong Kong protests: Carrie Lam denies offering to resign,” Guardian, September 3, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/03/hong-kong-protests-carrie-lam-denies-she-considered-resigning
  11. [11]Natasha Khan and Eva Dou, “Beijing Asserts Power to Declare Emergency to Quell Hong Kong Unrest,” Wall Street Journal, September 3, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/beijing-asserts-power-to-declare-emergency-to-quell-hong-kong-unrest-11567509276

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