Why I left my comfortable job in the United States to cover the Hong Kong protests

Photographer Ivan Ng shares why the Hong Kong protests mean so much to him and how his art draws attention to the cause.

I couldn’t stop laughing. On an old and gigantic Sony TV, I remember watching Chinese and British soldiers march around the stadium and I couldn’t tell if they were jumping, dancing, or just had itchy feet. 

I asked my dad what was happening, and he said, “wui gwai arr” (回歸, handover) — “Hong Kong is now part of China.”

As a three-year-old, I thought to myself, “Hong Kong is part of China? Aren’t we in China? China has tanks and war … I like the (British) Queen better.”

It was July 1, 1997, and the British colony of Hong Kong was now a city of China, under a “one country, two systems” promise.

Photo credit: Ivan Ng

Many, including my parents, were doubtful about returning Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China. As a result, we were part of an early wave of emigrants. In January 2001, my family moved into our aunt’s house in San Diego, California. My dad stayed in Hong Kong to earn money for my mom and sister, for our new home and education. 

I would still return once a year — and I even studied there for a bit at City University of Hong Kong — but I ended up graduating in the States. My parents’ gamble paid off, while Hong Kong prospered into a major global economic hub, it only shined under the ever-present shadow of the Chinese Communist Party. The protests of 2014 and 2016 would reach new heights in 2019 in what might be the largest economic and social turmoil Hong Kong has ever faced.

Despite spending most of my life here in the United States, my heart was always with Hong Kong. I see endless beauty in this city in everything from its social culture, the wittiness of the people, and the limitless variety of food. 

Photo credit: Ivan Ng

Practising democracy and being a melting pot of culture, similar to America, was what allowed Hong Kong to become what it is today. I watched the city and its people slowly decay from China’s growing influence. Hong Kong’s fight for true self-representation has been ongoing for years and now it’s finally reached a critical point. 

It’s hard to deny that my parents pat themselves on the back every time they see news of social unrest in Hong Kong. They worked very hard so my sister and I could grow up healthy, get a good education, and not worry about dealing with a suppressing government. 

When I told them that I decided to quit a decent paying job to return to Hong Kong as a freelance photojournalist, you might be able to imagine why they were extremely upset. The complete opposite of the office boy in the U.S. that my parents wished for, perhaps?

Photo credit: Ivan Ng

Originally formed as the anti-extradition bill movement, it has now evolved to what Hongkongers are calling “a revolution of our times” or “Water Revolution.” The city has been united at an unprecedented scale.

Why? Because the time bomb, built up by years of unaddressed societal and political problems due to a government that doesn’t truly represent and act for its people had finally exploded. The city keeps getting oppressed by terrors and suppression perfectly orchestrated by the Chinese government — utilizing a puppet Hong Kong government, police force, and local thugs.  

I’ve been following this since the beginning, watching my peers time and time again face increasing levels of violence and suppression. I realized that this is it, the outcomes of this revolution will affect the long-term future of Hong Kong, my home, and to me, a priceless gem of our time that we need to protect. 

No matter the outcome, this movement has already permanently earned its place in the history books of future generations. It means so much to me that I knew I would regret and detest myself if I chose to just sit out and be an observer. Whether or not Hongkongers achieve a victory or not, the worst possible outcome is to do nothing, to not take action.

Photo credit: Ivan Ng

I had the choice to live in the routine comfort of the States, to work a decent paying job, and to hang out with my friends during the weekend. To return to Hong Kong and document the rest of this movement meant putting a dent in my career.

It meant giving up the air-conditioned office to brave the hot and humid city, running back and forth endlessly with no car — not to mention going back to a place where there’s no sense of safety anymore.

I’m a 25-year-old tall Asian male, the prime demographic for a so-called “rioter”. I will draw the attention of the police and some pro-Beijing supporters unlike my home in America where I can go anywhere and mind my own business. 

With each passing week, the situation gets worse. Any protest-related action, even being out late at night, can be deemed illegal by the police. No one really shares any more if they ever participated, but I know that my friends are all involved in one way or another. If I did nothing, I would not only let my peers down, I’d let down the future generation and my conscience would not forgive me.

Everyone is doing what they can to support the cause, from physically standing up against the government’s suppression to other more support roles. Those with resources donate them, stay-at-home moms cook food for protestors, Chinese medicine experts create herbal formulas to help relieve symptoms of tear gas, bikers and gangsters act as scouts, volunteers drive protestors away from prowling police, and artists pump out endless visual media.

Photo credit: Ivan Ng

I always tell my friends that every photographer has a duty to document when no one else around you can, similar to the duty medical professionals have to provide first aid and treatment to the ill and injured. I have decided that by being a photographer, I will use my art to generate awareness and tell people how it’s really like right now in Hong Kong.

If I can capture stunning photos and create art, I can draw attention and spread awareness of our movement.

These photos will be artefacts of history that will inspire future generations — the story of a small but powerful city coming together to fight against the suppression of a world superpower to change their home for the better.

Photo credit: Ivan Ng

Check out Ivan Ng’s photography on his Instagram at @tao033 or at ivanngimagery.com

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