by Yan Zhao
Nok quit his nursing job to join Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests full-time as a volunteer medic. A year on, he keeps his equipment on permanent standby, convinced his skills will be needed again in a city still seething with anger.
The 29-year-old, who asked just to use his first name, watched the first huge protest march on June 9 last year on television when he got back from work.
The protests were initially sparked by a plan to allow extraditions to authoritarian China’s party-controlled courts.
There had been smaller gatherings in the months before, but the crowd size on June 9 was enormous, dubbed “the million march” by Hong Kongers.
Three days later, Nok was outside the city’s legislature helping protesters struck by tear gas and rubber bullets as activists battled with police to halt the extradition bill.
The next protest, four days later, was dubbed “the two million march”.
Soon Nok was part of an organised band of medics at the sidelines of the weekly protests that engulfed the city in what spiralled into an outpouring of popular rage and frustration at Beijing’s rule and the city’s police force.
Many injured protesters avoided going to hospital, fearing arrest if they did, so medics also coordinated treatment at underground clinics with doctors and surgeons sympathetic to the democracy movement.
As the weeks went by, Nok found it impossible to do his day job and attend the protests. So in August, he quit.
“I just didn’t think I could manage to do both. When there is a protest out there, I can’t just ignore it,” he told AFP.
For the next few months he lived off savings and he generated some spare cash by making pro-democracy trinkets.
Mass arrests and anti-coronavirus restrictions on public gatherings have largely halted the protests this year.
In recent weeks, renewed clashes have broken out after Beijing announced plans to impose a sweeping national security law over the restless city and last week tens of thousands defied the government to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.
Nok has since restarted work as a carer, a job that gives him more flexible hours — and pays better than nursing.
But he says he is ready to return to the streets at any time, keeping his equipment in a cupboard.
Inside is a yellow hi-vis jacket with the word “Medic” emblazoned on it, a helmet and respirator, a bag stuffed with gauze, bandages, antiseptic creams and the saline used to wash the eyes of those struck by pepper spray and tear gas.
“I’m a professional nurse and I need to give the injured appropriate treatment,” he said as he checked supplies.
Walking through the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, a shopping district that saw frequent clashes last year, Nok found it hard to work out what, if anything, had been achieved by the protests.
“Nothing has changed, but I can’t tell whether this is good or not,” he explained.
But with protests against a planned national security law bubbling up once more, he fears history is repeating itself with an unpopular leadership making a fresh bid tighten its grip on dissent.
Over the months, police have taken an increasingly aggressive line towards both the journalists and medics who wear yellow jackets to differentiate themselves from protesters. It is something that unnerves Nok.
“To be honest, I am quite nervous,” he explained. “If you are not their friends, they see you as an enemy”.
But he says many of his old medic friends are ready to take the risk.
“We feel fear, but we choose to face it instead of evading it,” he said.