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Hong Kong's 2 'Uncles' On The Front Lines


Protests continue this weekend in Hong Kong. The demonstrators who launched the anti-government movement in June are now pulling in a broad cross section of Hong Kong along with them. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on how two silver-haired stalwarts wound up on the front lines.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Hong Kong's mass marches have begun peacefully. Invariably, though, the coda is chaos.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Shouting in Cantonese).

MCCARTHY: Riot police fire tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets. Protesters hurl bricks at government buildings and abuse at police. Into this dangerous tableau step two defiant senior citizens.

CHAN KI-KAU: (Speaking Cantonese).

MCCARTHY: We take risks with our lives, says 73-year-old Chan Ki-kau.

TONY WONG: (Speaking Cantonese).

MCCARTHY: It's our duty as elders, says 82-year-old Tony Wong. Uncle Chan and Uncle Wong, as they are known, have become emblems of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement. Uncle Wong holds a walking stick aloft as he enters the protest fray - part activist, part guardian angel of protesters a quarter of his age.


MCCARTHY: We meet in a spring-filled park, a counterpoint to the turmoil.

WONG: (Speaking Cantonese).

MCCARTHY: Hong Kong is the front line, Wong tells me, fighting against communist China. Eventually, they'll destroy everything, he says, and we'll be speaking Mandarin when we speak Cantonese. But if these young people succeed, we'll be able to preserve our culture, he says.

Uncle Chan slips off his backpack, settles on a cement bench and declares that he belongs to no religion and no political party. But this lifelong Hongkonger holds strong convictions about his city.

CHAN: (Through interpreter) As a Hong Kong person, I stand for justice. I protect the rule of law. In the 20 years since the handover, China's influence has been slowly creeping in. Our freedoms have been slowly eroded. We have become a chess pawn of the People's Republic of China.

MCCARTHY: Both Uncles Chan and Wong belong to Protect the Children, a community group whose members put their bodies between the police and young anti-government protesters. Wong wears swimming goggles to protect against tear gas as he wades into tense standoffs, trying to reason with police, pleading with them not to follow the protesters.


WONG: (Speaking Cantonese).

(Speaking Cantonese).

MCCARTHY: We just want to create a buffer zone between police and protesters. We tell the police it's late. Let's end this. I always ask for forgiveness. But Uncle Chan, he says, is a bit different. For his part, Chan shouts at police...


CHAN: (Shouting in Cantonese).

MCCARTHY: ...To buy time, as he puts it, so protesters can slip away. The yellow jackets of Protect the Children confer on the uncles a kind of neutrality. But Uncle Chan concedes the contradiction.

CHAN: (Speaking Cantonese).

MCCARTHY: I cannot stand idly by and see the public beaten up and arrested, he says, his voice choking with emotion. Last week, octogenarian Uncle Wong walked the distance of 10 metro stations, feeding hungry young protesters and arranging taxis to get them home. Their passion has become his passion.

WONG: (Speaking Cantonese).

MCCARTHY: I feel like I've entered a different space, he says. Wong's own children left five years ago for Canada and Australia. Back then, thousands occupied a Hong Kong city center for 79 days, demanding direct elections. The bid failed. And Beijing tightened its grip.

WONG: (Through interpreter) My children saw the increasing influence of communist China and how democratically elected lawmakers were disqualified from taking office here.

MCCARTHY: In solidarity with the protesters' demand that China stopped chipping away at Hong Kong's autonomy, Uncle Chan went on a hunger strike but says it accomplished little and opted for the front lines. This diminutive former farmer says he's been pushed to the ground by police and pepper-sprayed in his eyes.

CHAN: (Speaking Cantonese).

MCCARTHY: The police used all kinds of excuses to delay medical treatment. It's unforgivable, he says. Confrontations are growing more violent, protesters more militant and police ever more aggressive. Uncle Wong acknowledges that it's now difficult to step between them. But he rejects the label of rioter attached to protesters and says their vandalism is not indiscriminate.

WONG: (Speaking Cantonese).

MCCARTHY: Why did they destroy the metro stations? Because they shut down the trains, and protesters couldn't leave, he says. They only vandalize communist Chinese companies, like the Bank of China, Wong says. Uncle Chan says he believes Chinese leader Xi Jingping is restrained and wary about using the People's Liberation Army to crush the protest movement. Chan wants the young to study this moment and to learn.

CHAN: (Speaking Cantonese).

MCCARTHY: I tell them to study hard and to serve society when they grow older. But for now, they need to leave the classroom and bear witness, he says. These are things, Chan says, they cannot learn in textbooks.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.