Running into a Revolution — Conversations in Hong Kong, 2019

Submitted into Contest #235 in response to: Start your story with one or two characters going for a run.... view prompt


Creative Nonfiction

6:45am The Alarm

I check the time, and try to go back to sleep. My legs are sore from yesterday’s 20 km hike (most of the trains in the city have stopped running), and I need to run again tonight.

7:30am The Middle School Girls

A rumble from the girls' middle school beneath my 27th floor window jars me awake. In the school courtyard, I see 50 young girls in student uniforms standing in a circle. “Dirty police break the law! Dirty police break the law! Revolution of our time!” they chant-scream in unison, with a teacher joining them. After 5 minutes, the school goes quiet as classes for the day begin—St Paul’s is one of the highest ranking middle schools in Hong Kong.

I ready myself to go to work. It’s a 20-minute walk. On most days, I see several shops with smashed windows and trashed interiors. Store chains that have been deemed “anti-revolutionary” that week, because they have an owner from mainland China, or a local they caught on camera voicing support for the government. Last week, a burned out bank branch caught my attention. Its interior was blackened, and its alarm bell was still squealing from the night before. By the afternoon, repairmen always clean up the damage and board up the smashed windows.

A few months earlier, violence in law-abiding Hong Kong would have been unthinkable.

My office is in Wanchai, right around the corner from the Hong Kong police and government headquarters. On some days I’ll walk around the neighborhood at lunch, and see a few hundred protesters standing in front of the police headquarters, shouting at it from outside, unable to get through the barricades that have been put up.

Most of the time, the police simply hide behind their barriers, hoping they don’t need to do anything that day. A look of fear is in their eyes. They have weapons, but are vastly outnumbered, at least 50 to 1.

12:30pm Paranoia Strikes

Eating lunch at my desk, I read the news. Another American senator denounces the Hong Kong government and calls for more sanctions. There’s been escalating rhetoric every week.

When the American government makes statements opposing foreign countries, it’s normally followed by cruise missile strikes. I look at the surrounding skyscrapers, wondering if students and local politics could get this modern city turned into the next Baghdad or Kabul. I recall ex-CIA officer Robert Baer, in his memoir, saying Bill Clinton bombed Belgrade, mostly because CNN was showing it on the news.

Amidst the media’s klaxon call of imminent doom for everyone and everything in Hong Kong, and urging for American citizens to evacuate from the US state department, nothing changes. The Asian headquarters of every American corporation are based in Hong Kong. Thousands of Citibank, Morgan Stanley, and Microsoft workers shuffle back and forth between their corporate apartments and shining office towers. In the corporate world, its business as usual, while at night shops burn and train stations are smashed.

I check a map and am ironically comforted that Hong Kong is embedded in China’s airspace. American cruise missiles and drones can’t reach here without starting a war with China.

2:15pm The High School Students

From my office window above Queens Road East, I hear a distant clattering noise that is steadily approaching. About two thousand students are headed up the road below. They go block by block, throwing the flower pots that line the sidewalk into the street (the flower pots are government owned), and break every traffic light they pass (also government owned) with metal bars. Office workers in the street get out of the way, and a few blocks behind the students, a group of about 20 riot police follow doing nothing to stop them, unless someone is attacked or any fires are started. After the protest departs, car drivers get out of their cars and move the flower pots out of the road to drive to wherever they are going.

3pm Coworkers and Immigrants

My coworkers grumble about how many Chinese are immigrating to Hong Kong. Similarity breeds contempt, Shakespeare said. There are no complaints about the thousands of Westerners, SE Asians, and Pakistanis in the territory, stealing their jobs, using their health care system, or degrading their schools. It’s only the people from China, who speak a different dialect of Chinese, who do that. Slight differences in culture are magnified into horrible differences through the lens of right-wing news and social media.

The news and the media highlights differences and conflicts, but sports bring people together. I organize a multinational running club every Monday night. When people run, they share the same experience, feel the same humanity.

I’m going to throw caution to the wind tonight, and ask people what they feel about the current political situation. I’m a blank slate, an observer of things political. I've never voted in an election, ever. Maybe because I’m on the autism spectrum, I always view myself as an outsider.

6:45pm The Protesters

On the train to the running track, I scan the #HongKong hashtag on Twitter. Protesters are occupying Hennessy Road in Causeway Bay. That’s where I’m headed. The police are launching tear gas at steady intervals. The confrontation is starting earlier than usual today.

As I exit the train station, down the street, I see a platoon of men in green paramilitary uniforms standing in formation. Their faces look stern yet worried. Barking over a megaphone, one of them demands that the crowd disperse. The police also raise a huge blue banner with a written command ordering the crowd to disperse. Insults echo back from thousands of protesters in the canyon-like street of urban Hong Kong.  

A sound similar to fireworks jolts the crowd. Projectiles arch through the air, and smoke billows up from the ground. The protesters step back, and after the tear gas disperses, press in again, even angrier, to heckle and throw umbrellas and water bottles at the police. The police are the most visible sign of the Chinese control of the city.

I embed myself in a crowd of office workers pouring out of the station, their blank faces not showing any discernible concern about the violence occurring a half a block away, and head towards the nearby sports ground.

(Later that night, CNN’s war correspondent Anna Coren would report from that train station, in a tight closeup, with a few protesters behind her, breathlessly as if being shelled in Afghanistan.)

7:15pm The American

Arriving at the running track, I set my mind back to checking in with members of the group, runners from around the world, on what they think of recent events. 

On the quiet grassy field, in the center of a horse racing track five minutes’ walk from where the police are battling protesters, we are loosening up with easy warm-up stretches. 

American Brad is next to me. I ask, “I live next to a middle school, and they were chanting weird revolutionary slogans this morning, things like blood for blood. Do you think we have anything to worry about? Are we in some type of war zone?” 

Brad is a rational and intelligent guy, a new dad, and not prone to extreme opinions.

“They’re chanting because they want democracy,” he says.

Political representation is definitely part of the issue, but the protesters themselves never talk about it. Just about how much they hate China, and they hate the Hong Kong police.

Brad looks like he would get upset if I debate things, So I nod in knowing agreement about the need for democracy, and do not probe the issuers further. 

7:30pm The Europeans

“Go go go! Use your glutes!” fitness trainer Valeria is barking commands with a Russian accent. Our group strains to do squat jumps and hold plank positions for increasing intervals of time. A blotch of sweat darkens the pavement beneath me. Valeria, strongly built and alert, grew up in Siberia’s East. Besides exercise training, she has won many of the trail races she participated in in Hong Kong.

“I am a trying my best. I am a squeezing my-a ass”, Mario, an Italian chef on his Monday night off says, and continues to make jokes about body parts for the rest of the exercises as he normally does (imagine Gino, in the TV show Gordon, Gino and Fred’s Road Trip).

Soon, we, a group of corporate executives, high school teachers, and international product designers, find ourselves crawling on hands and knees across the soccer field to Valeria’s bootcamp orders. 

Next to us, middle-aged Hong Kongers are doing aerobics to the rhythm of Gangnam Style playing on a blue tooth speaker. The protests are very much a youth movement.

“So...what do you think about the protests in Hong Kong?” I ask Valeria after the training is done.

“I’m Russian. We don’t think about such things, that’s more for you English speakers.” Looking at her frozen smile, I sense she means economic survival is the priority for her, and I shouldn’t bother her with such trivial issues. 

Why are we commuting across the city and running amidst the political chaos, anyway? A sense of normalcy and comfort?  

As a group, runners thrive on ritual. We are people who will run on the same schedule, often the same course, possibly wearing the same shoes and socks almost every day of the week. And we usually persist in the face of bad weather, pain, injury, and demands from loved ones to do something else.

Running is a way to take control. Political protests aren’t going to stop a run.

I chat with Michel, who is from France. We talk about the upcoming calendar of trail races. Being French, he knows better than to enter into a conversation about politics with someone from across the channel (or across the pond). French and British will disagree on just about everything simply on principle.

7:45pm The Hong Kongers

Slightly disappointed I still haven’t found anyone to talk to about recent events, I’m happy to see Edwin and Angela, young Hong Kongers, arrive. They will have something to say.

“How’s it going, Edwin?” I ask.

“Fuck Carrie Lam!” says Edwin. “Do you know what’s happening in Hong Kong? The Hong Kong government is shit!”  

Impassioned, he goes through a list of recent events, grievances, and news about police brutality. Some of it delves into wild conspiracy theory, but I chip in and agree with what he’s saying. Hong Kongers previously tended to stick to light topics and avoid any sort of divisive opinion, so this is all new. Edwin and Angela mentioned they joined Sunday’s protest in Yuen Long and left before things got violent. Most of Hong Kong supports the protests, but doesn’t want to get involved with the police.

We begin a 2-mile warm-up jog. John, who is about a decade older than Edwin, sidles over. “These protests are ridiculous. Don’t they know tanks could be rolling in like Tiananmen Square?” he says, somewhat conspiratorially. I chip in a few thoughts and also agree with what he’s saying.

It appears a generational butter knife cuts local political opinion into two lumps at the age of 40. “Let’s keep our heads down and collect our pensions” versus “Let’s burn the city down, and start over.”

As an event organizer, I always try to be very agreeable. I decide it's best to avoid getting into a conversation with both Edwin and John at the same time tonight.  

8pm The Journalist 

I spot journalist Phil walking in late. Square jawed with wavy blond hair, you could easily picture him as the mainstream journalist that he is. 

“I was down at the protest taking photos,” he says, looking unusually calm and pleased with himself.

“Weren’t you afraid?” I ask. 

“Why would I be? They don’t bother anyone but the police, especially us foreigners.”

“That’s true.”

“Journalists, we dream of times like this. Imagine! Tanks could be rolling through the streets tomorrow.” 

He and another journalist in the group gaze into the distance toward the nearby protest. I see a look in their eyes that I have seen in the eyes of surfers when they study the horizon for waves. A wave of Pulitzer prizes could be rolling in if the Chinese army invades.

8:15pm The Policeman

With public order in the city falling apart steadily, there was one person I wanted to talk to more than any other. Big Peter was very lucky. During a time when the public hated the police, he had retired from the police two years ago.

“I’m so lucky I don’t need to deal with it Scott,” Big Peter said in a thick Scottish accent, after I queried him on his views. 

“I’ve read that the police are not showing up for work,“ I say. “What will happen if the government just stops functioning?”

“You’re wrong about that. The police are operating like they are in a war zone now in teams of 8. It’s all about teamwork and protecting each others' back. Morale has never been higher.” 

Thinking of people showing up for 12-hour shifts, protecting each other’s back, I agree they wouldn’t have much time to think about politics or elections. Governments run on inertia.

The Roman Empire’s government operated for 1,000 years without a break, following rules and procedures, even though most of the people didn’t like them for much of the time.

8:30pm Band on the Run

It’s my turn to lead the exercise. I cajole everyone to the running track, where we begin the sprint training session. “600 meters ten times! Come on, guys!” I push the runners to keep moving in the 30C/85F temperatures with 90% humidity.

The more we run, the less we talk. 

Max from Germany looks at his running watch. He insists our 60-second breaks are stretching into 90 seconds. Dora who is single, is using all 90 seconds to corner available, but out of breath men into conversation. Rod, who is married, finishes every sprint smiling at the side of the youngest female unmarried runner. 

After we run 10 repetitions, we walk back to the changing rooms. The city is under curfew. All trains and buses will stop at 10pm, so we need to finish early.  

The group says its goodbyes. Valeria, previously not interested in politics, steps over.

“I overheard you asking questions,” she says.” So, did you find out anything?”

I compile a synopsis.

“No one agrees on anything,” I say, “but they all want to keep running on Monday nights.”

9 pm Home Alone

I walk home along the historic road lined with heavy banyan trees which leads to Happy Valley. The street is quiet, the tram cars that follow the street halted months ago by barricades. Chauffeured vans that ferry the rich of the island speed past. Teenagers in black t-shirts chat excitedly while walking home. A stray cat scurries into the bushes. Life goes on. I will put off my worries until tomorrow.

February 02, 2024 10:49

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Daniel Rogers
14:45 Feb 19, 2024

The most interesting read I've experience in our super-short Reedsy format. I felt as if I were there. You brought the magic.


00:52 Feb 20, 2024

thanks daniel, every once and a while I drop a nonfiction blog post into this contest when the prompt fits;) its good they have a 'creative nonfiction' genre, a lot of other fiction contests don't allow them.


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Hope Linter
03:38 Feb 09, 2024

Fascinating read. I liked your detailed factual account. I was in Hong Kong in the 80's, before the handover, so I was trying to imagine the places I was familiar with. Very sad to hear your account of how many of the HK Chinese were traumatized. Isn't it wonderful how running unifies us. Great work. Hope you develop it into a longer story.


16:53 Feb 09, 2024

Thanks! Nice to hear you were here too. I worked on Queens Road East in wanchai close to the hopewell center and they would often have the protests up and down that street and Hennessy road. 4 years ago already, feels like yest to me but prob feels like a lifetime for a student.


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Kevin Marlow
03:52 Feb 08, 2024

Gripping narrative, I only remember the protesters fending off riot gas with umbrellas, maybe that was my Western Media coloring the conversation.


09:32 Feb 08, 2024

Yeah, those were the early days, over 6 months it got more and more violent until there were stabbings and acid attacks and stuff. Luckily no deaths on either side except for some guy who accidentally jumped off a parking garage. Of course lots of conspiracy theories about that and everythign esle.


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Hi, Scott. I enjoy reading your memories of all the things you’ve seen, and I’m looking forward to reading this one! I already like the title. [A rumble from the girl’s middle school] I think this is supposed to be {girls’} [as classes for the day begin–St Paul’s is one of the highest ranking middle schools] Here I see an en dash, where an em dash should be used. [or a local that caught on camera] I think this is supposed to be {they} instead of [that] [Last week, a burned out bank branch stood out. Its interior blackened, and its alar...


09:32 Feb 06, 2024

Put in all those edits. You are awesome! thanks so much for reading this carefully and getting all the little points I was trying to get across. Yeah it was really an epic experience in 2019, but then in the next few years the protests in other places look just as wild and chaotic so maybe a lot of people have seen things like this. A friend of mine was in Santiago Chile and said gas stations were being set on fire and stuff like that. Seems every 50 years the world goes wild, and then calms down again. There were worldwide protests in the...


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Hazel Ide
17:55 Feb 03, 2024

Wow, super interesting story you've shared. I like how you organized it, too. It's crazy how something intense can be happening, but life just resumes around us, you did a really great job of showing that dichotomy.


09:45 Feb 05, 2024

Thanks, yeah that was the weird thing, just how normal most things felt, while around the corner CNN was filming a police car on fire and stuff like that. From trying to learn how to write on medium, i've seen how readers can feel its easier to read things broken up into different steps (or times in this one)


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Mary Bendickson
14:19 Feb 02, 2024

Thanks for sharing your slice of life.


16:25 Feb 02, 2024

Thanks Mary. A bit random but hope to piece this together into a longer story someday.


Mary Bendickson
17:37 Feb 02, 2024

Would be good. Real life experiences always ring true.


Mary Bendickson
18:55 Feb 08, 2024

Thanks for liking my 'Another Brick in the Wall '.


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10:55 Feb 02, 2024

A memoir, based on scattered notes, of the surreal experience of being in Hong Kong during the citywide protests that shutdown much of the city in 2019. Events that took place over different times in late 2019, were compressed into a single day for readability.


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Unknown User
15:32 Feb 14, 2024

<removed by user>


15:42 Feb 14, 2024

Sure, just email me a link at


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