“Arrest me, if you’re going to arrest me! Arrest me!”
When I walked by Alexandra Wong the first time, I had no idea who she was. I saw a lady waving a Union Flag at the crossroads of Causeway Bay and shouting angrily at passers-by. Victoria and I crossed past and saw she was surrounded by several people who seemed to be speaking to her. Victoria took me aside to get out of earshot before translating what was being said: "If you’re going to arrest me, then arrest me” over and over. At the time we recognised the bravery of the woman and how she would, in fact, probably be arrested for what she was doing.
When we came back, she was still there, still waving her giant Union Flag, and still hemmed in by those three men. As we waited to cross the road Victoria could see I wanted to talk to her before I missed the opportunity and pushed me to do it. And I’m very grateful that she did.
I walked up to where she was stood, still waving and shouting, and I expected some resistance from the people stood in front. Were they there in support or to block? None of them even acknowledged me and so I was able to walk through without issue.
When she saw me approach her whole demeanour changed. Her face softened into a warm smile, and she tempered her passions for the time being. She seemed to me to be a very lovely, bright, friendly, small old lady with a flag that looked quite tiring to wave for as long as she had been.
Considering I had no idea who she was at this point, she was also immeasurably humble.
“Hello, how are you? Happy new year.”
“Hello! Hello!” was her reply. “Happy new year!”
“So... what are you doing here?” I asked. Had I known who she was I would not have started with such a silly question. As it was, it was just what I wanted to know.
“The protests started from here four years ago,” she explained. “We would start here and then carry on down the road. There used to be thousands of us, but now it is just me.”
I next ask her why she is protesting. “Because Democracy is right, and we must stand up for democracy. Democracy must win in the end because the people will suffer if not. I have to speak up for it before it is too late. The whole world will suffer without it. And so I am here.”
She went on: “the younger people are all leaving Hong Kong, people like you – your age- are leaving here. Soon there will be no one left except mainlanders. All the young people will be from the mainland. But this is something for them to do, not me. I am too old to leave now. So, I will stay here instead.” Despite the sadness of what she was saying I saw no hint of lamentation. No negative emotion at all.
She mentioned she had been arrested...five times in the last four years, once in Shenzhen. I said that’s quite impressive. She said they did not treat her very well while she was there. She used to live in Shenzhen and come into Hong Kong, she added.
I lowered my voice slightly as I asked her if the people standing in front of us were her supporters or blocking her.
“They are police officers. They follow me everywhere. I have already been inside the police station today, and the courtroom earlier too.”
I tried to say how funny it was that anyone could be scared of such a nice lady enough to monitor her all the time, but it comes out clumsily:
“It’s funny how scared they are of you, as if they think a nice lady is going to overthrow the whole system by herself.” Her eyes still shone but her smile quivered at the corners briefly, and I hastily tried to reword it.
It was only at this point that I introduced myself and asked for her name too. I wasn’t sure how long she would want to speak to me for, or I would want to speak to her for, so it hadn’t been as high on my list of questions as otherwise. So, I did ask her for her name, and she replied with a smile; Alexandra Wong.
“Oh that’s funny, my name is Alexander,” I say. “A lovely name.”
“Some people also call me Grandma Wong,” she added.
I recognised that name. I had seen it in the news. She had been waving a Union Flag outside the law courts during the trials of Hong Kong protestors. She was a famous figure here and I had shown complete ignorance of all she was doing. My entire approach changed.
Immediately I gasped. “Oh! I know you, I’m so sorry!” I switched from curiosity to admiration and kneejerk flattery, trying to communicate my support for her like a giddy sycophant who only practiced three lines. Ms. Wong was entertained to see such a reaction to her but was sweet enough to not let the moment linger.
As this was happening, a white couple walked by. The man was in a short sleeve shirt and white shorts, sporting salt and pepper stubble, and he came past deliberately through the people to greet Ms. Wong loudly.
“Hi, how you doing Grandma Wong?” The tone was of familiarity, but I have no idea if they knew each other at the time. Perhaps she is just that famous that people know her on sight, and I am the one fool who didn’t. They exchanged pleasantries and his partner rolIed her eyes at him, gently encouraging him to come back so they could cross in time.
Victoria in the meantime was having her own conversation with the plain-clothes police officers monitoring Ms. Wong. Unlike me, who was able to walk through without any trouble, she was asked where she was from. She answered she was American, which she is (American-born Chinese Hong Konger).
They asked if I was her friend, and if I was British.
“Yeah,” she responded.
“Go ask if you want la, some of her ideologies are pretty interesting.” A second officer, a woman this time, also asked where she was from, and when Victoria asked why they were all there she revealed they were police. She froze for a moment, now she was engaged in conversation with people she would rather not be. Nevertheless, she continued.
“We weren’t sure we could talk with them due to the national security law.” The female officer seemed provoked by this into explaining the national security law, the object of so much protest just a few years ago. And a few feet away I was finishing up my conversation with the last objector.
Before I left, I awkwardly asked if she would prefer a hug or a handshake, still not sure how to approach someone of her standing. We settle for a handshake.
“I wish I could do more to support you, but I don’t really feel like I can be much help. I’m sorry,” I said to her. Indeed, who would be less appropriate to argue for the liberty of Hong Kongers than a British man? But I still felt the desire to help.
I wish I had been more prepared; I wish I had recognised who she was at the time. When Victoria and I made it back to the flat I wondered if it would be overzealous of me to go back with a proper list of questions. I was frustrated, ultimately, in my performance as an interviewer.
But Ms. Wong was serene throughout. All of her anger and frustration was reserved for the authorities. Her kindly demeanour never dropped while we talked. She had a gravitas that is utterly unique from what else I have seen so far in Hong Kong, or maybe anywhere. This brave old lady willing to shout down the government stood at a gathering spot all by herself, the final survivor of a wrecked revolution. Those who were there to see her turned their backs, watching for the wrong reaction. And strangers like me only came to say hello, not to stand by her, though she never seemed bitter about it.
“One of the last true Hong Kongers,” Victoria commented as we walked away.
How long was she there for after we left? I’ve no idea. Will I see her again? Potentially. Will I be better prepared to interview her then? Absolutely. For now, Ms. Wong has given me a lot to reflect on. But what an incredible woman.
You go, grandma.