Tau Yat Piu! Throw a Vote!

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It’s election time in Hong Kong. Today, hundreds of thousands of people headed to the polls to determine the makeup of the Legislative Council, a territorial legislature that meets in an old court building marked by a statue of Themis, the Greek goddess of justice. Half of the council’s 60 members represent geographical constituencies and are elected directly by the public, while the rest are elected by members of “functional constituencies” such as law, social welfare and the arts.

A cynical interpretation of Hong Kong’s electoral system would be to dismiss it as an ersatz democracy designed to shore up the power of Hong Kong’s establishment and maintain the territory’s status quo, while giving people the illusion of having a say. But, for all its flaws, I’m willing to subscribe to a most optimistic view, which is that this is a very much a nascent democracy, which I think is pretty remarkable when you consider the context in which it exists. For all the efforts Beijing and its supporters have made to influence the way that Hong Kongers think and vote, 60 percent of the popularly-elected seats in the 2004 Legislative Council election were won by pro-democrats.

Here, perhaps more than in many more established democracies, election time is messy, emotional and pervasive. I love elections because they bring a process that is normally aloof and unseen right down into the streets. In Montreal, there seems to be an election or by-election every year, be it of the federal, provincial or municipal variety. Posters and advertisements are ubiquitous but, as passionate as people there are about politics, you never quite get the feeling that there is anything particularly gritty or grassroots going on.

There’s no shortage of that here, where vast slates of candidates compete intensely for the few seats available. Vans with loudspeakers mounted on the roof drive around town blasting warbly messages in support of one party or another. Candidates and other well-known politicians stand on neighbourhood streetcorners, pageant-style sashes strung across their torsos, where they attempt to glad-hand onto anyone who walks by. Election posters festoon shops, buildings and minibus windows.

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In Montreal, posters are large and designed to be visible to motorists and pedestrians alike. Mounted on lampposts and hydro poles, they contain only limited amounts of text—the candidate’s name, the name of the riding, the party name and a brief, snappy slogan—a simple headshot and no more than two or three colours. Here, campaign posters are like concert posters, full of colour and crowded with information. Single posters often promote an entire slate of candidates, and they are usually bilingual, right down the campaign slogans. Most of the English slogans are slightly odd and awkward: “Know People’s Hardships, Actualize People’s Yearnings,” reads one.

While this election lacks any significant drama or even any big issues, there has been plenty of smaller things to grab one’s attention. Candidates were incensed earlier this month when they were barred from campaigning in a number of privately-managed public spaces; some abode seekers have accused the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (talk about a creepy name) of pressuring them to vote “the right way” in exchange for a smoother immigration process. Establishment candidate and former Secretary of Security Regina Ip, whose attempts to ram through a controversial security law in 2003 led to massive street protests, culminating in her resignation, has had her face ripped on nearly all of her election posters.

In the New Territories, well-known shit-disturber Leung Kwok Hung, better known as Long Hair, is fighting for the seat he won somewhat unexpectedly in 2004. (Long Hair is remembered—fondly by some, less so by others—for arriving on his first day at the Legislative Council dressed in a t-shirt with a tribute to the victims of Tiananmen Square on the front and a portrait of Che Guevara on the back.) Daisann McLane, who writes the throughly engaging blog Learning Cantonese, is friends with Long Hair and has been describing, with plenty of fervour, her work for his campaign. Earlier this week, she was on the ground in Tai Po:

I find a good spot facing the stream of rush hour commuting pedestrians, and start to work. Unsure what to say in the situation, I try, “M’goi, Cheung Mo!” and “M’goi, tau yat piu”. Literally, “Please, (for) Long Hair.” and “Please, throw one vote!”. I haven’t been a political ground soldier for at least 20 years, but I do remember that the best way to get people to accept your leaflet is to make eye contact with them, so I do. I also bow slightly and smile a lot.

The results amaze me. In only a few minutes, my folders are gone and I have to go back to Po Ying to get restocked. “Hey, give me some of the Chinese language folders, too,” I tell her.

The crowds stream by, faster and thicker after the trains arrive from Kowloon, then thinning out in-between arrivals. The train that stops here at Tai Po is part of a line that stretches from Kowloon to the China border crossing into Shenzhen. Everybody and anybody rides this train. I slide flyers into the hands of old grannies dragging baskets filled with empty plastic bottles, of businessmen with expensive watches dressed in beautifully cut suits. The exhaustion of the workday spreads over their faces, and I hesitate to disturb them. But I also seem to be making a lot of folks chuckle–the sight of a Westerner speaking Cantonese and handing out flyers for Long Hair is probably about as entertaining as the Mexican Mariachi bands the ply the New York subways. I take that energy, and try to work it. “Tau yat piu!”

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday September 07 2008at 12:09 pm , filed under Asia Pacific, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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