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Activist Pong Yat-ming takes on the developers and conglomerates
Reporter: Thee Lui
Pong talks about his action - “A Year without Patronising the Business of the Conglomerates” for TED.

 

A 38-year-old man with a shaved head walks onto the stage with a guitar and a bicycle. He opens his talk by strumming and singing lines from John Lennon’s Imagine,

“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world.”

In December, the freelance teacher, veteran activist and now “local hero”, was invited to give a talk by Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED), the American non-profit group that organises talks by inspirational people around the world under the slogan “ideas worth spreading”.

The invitation was just one manifestation of the recognition Pong Yat-ming has received since he launched his civic action, “A Year without Patronising the Business of the Conglomerates.”

Pong began his campaign in October 2010, seeking to show it is possible to break the domination of Hong Kong’s developer conglomerates. Since then he has boycotted chain-stores and transport companies run by property developers and stopped using products and services owned or operated by big corporations.

Pong’s home is a unit in an industrial building in Fo Tan. A big curtain divides a large open space. On one side of the curtain, Pong has a compact living space that he shares with his two cats. On the other side there is a work and exhibition space Pong shares with a friend. The walls are lined with paintings and foreign handicrafts. His bicycle, which he rides to jobs and to visit the small shops and restaurants in his local community, is parked outside.

Pong’s independent personality was shaped early in his childhood. His parents divorced when Pong was young and the boy was sent to live with his grandparents. The young Pong learnt to make his own decisions and be responsible for his own life from an early age.

There were never any discussions about what kinds of extra-curricular activities he should join and he did not have to ask permission before going out. He remembers when he was in Primary Three, he informed his grandparents he was going camping just the day before he went. When it was time to go to secondary school, he applied for the schools he wanted on his own and without his parents’ input.

Pong sees positives in how he was raised. He says he was allowed to follow his heart, rather than his parents’ expectations. He believes every person’s life story is written through the individual decisions they make. “Otherwise, everyone would just look the same, our faces would be blurred. So I strongly think we should follow our own desires.”

In Pong’s case, the great passion has been for education. He began tutoring younger children when he was still a secondary student himself. In one case, a parent asked him to teach her child how to be a good person rather than any particular academic subject. So Pong took the child on local visits and to join community activities.

Since graduating in cinema and television studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, Pong has had a succession of freelance teaching jobs. He has taught classes in every district in Hong Kong in everything from painting to drama, to English and general education in schools, community centres and churches. He refuses to be tied down to a full-time job.

Back in the 1990s, Pong started helping new immigrants from the mainland. He has also worked with various non-profit organisations, such as Breakthrough, which mainly focuses on youth services, and joined local civic movements.

He has taken part in protests against the demolition of the Star Ferry Pier in Central and the campaign to save Choi Yuen Chuen, the village that was demolished to make way for the Hong Kong Express Rail Link to the mainland.

Like many in Hong Kong, Pong is unhappy with the skyrocketing price of housing and gentrification of old communities.

Before moving to an industrial building, Pong used to live in a tenement house in Kowloon City. In the space of a single year his rent shot up by 30 per cent, from HK$4,300 per month to HK$5,600. Besides the surging rent, Pong says previously public areas in Kowloon City have been privatised. “The air of freedom and old communities are all gone,” he says.

Instead of saving to buy a flat, Pong uses his income on budget travel. A nine-month trip to South America in 2009 made a deep impression on him.

He spent half the time staying in local people’s homes as a couch surfer, an experience that offered him the chance to meet people who are striving for their causes in unconventional ways.

In particular, Pong was impressed by the Mapuche people, indigenous inhabitants of Argentina and Chile, who are fighting for their homelands and against the invasion of land developers. “They are courageous. In Hong Kong, opposing forces are at most sprayed with pepper spray. But in South America, Mapuche protesters could get killed for their fight,” he explains.

The trip to South America further consolidated Pong’s aim to resist the developers. Another push towards the idea came from Alice Poon’s book, Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong, which exposes the handful of wealthy individuals and companies that stifle competition in Hong Kong. For Pong, the book pulled the full picture of the developers’ hegemony into focus.

Pong then discussed his idea of boycotting the oligarchy with friends. He researched the backgrounds of transportation companies and outlets for daily consumption to investigate the feasibility of his planned boycott.

Finally on October 18, 2010, Pong started the campaign to do his own little bit to break the domination of the financial giants who have control over food, transport and the retail chains.

These days, Pong buys food from small, family-run shops instead of chain stores, and cycles rather than take buses. He will patronise independent local diners rather than branches of chains like Maxim’s.

Pong’s friends and family members support his campaign and rarely complain about any inconvenience. “My friends dine in small local restaurants with me. Wherever we hang out, they know I will ride my bike. They take a bus and we gather at a designated place afterwards,” he says.

Although he has managed to boycott many goods and services, Pong has found it hard to completely boycott the utilities companies. Take electricity; Pong cannot go off the grid entirely but takes a different approach by reducing his use of electricity. He washes his clothes by hand and does not own a refrigerator. Instead, he buys fresh food daily.

Pong’s lifestyle may seem inconvenient to others, but Pong believes it is worth it. “In every aspect [of daily life], you can find some alternatives. You may lose something but at the same time you are also gaining something. It is never 100 per cent solely sacrifice. This is why I can sustain the campaign.”

His action first caught the public’s attention after he posted a link to his blog in a comment on an article by cultural critic and writer Chan Wan about boycotting fast-food chain Cafe de Coral. Pong’s blog chronicled his one-man action against the conglomerates.

He never expected his boycott would resound so loudly in the community or that he would receive so much media attention. Within two months of his post, seven different newspapers sought him out and interviewed him.

He became a regular in newspapers, on the radio and on television programmes. He received more than a thousand messages on his blog. “It is really encouraging for people who are making changes as people give you an immediate response,” he says.

At the beginning of the year, Pong was selected as one of 17 “local heroes” by Mingpao Weekly. He scanned the article and posted it onto his blog. Pong seems unfazed by his newfound fame; it just gives him a platform to spread his message. “I think Hong Kong people tend to listen to people who are well-known. So, I am not embarrassed,” he says.

Pong has been invited by hundred of schools, non-governmental organisations and even listed companies in Central to give talks on conscientious consumption and his views about social developments.

The most frequent question he gets asked at these talks is: “How can I discriminate between small shops and stores owned by property developers?”

But he feels this is the wrong question. “Even if you know how to distinguish between shops owned by property developers and small shops, you would not have the motivation to take action. You rationally know the answer, but so what?”

Pong’s answer is you do what you can. There are always limitations and exceptions, even for a person as committed as he is. For instance, he avoids buses but not the MTR. He explains this is because despite being sold off to developers, the government is still a big shareholder in the MTR Corporation, so the subway still “possesses the characteristics of public transport”.

He also takes the New World First Ferry, which is now owned by New World Development, one of the local developers. “Would you want the ferries to disappear? Ferries are a local characteristic.”

Another example is the Chinachem Cinema Circuit. Although it is operated by developers, Pong goes to midnight shows there because these are rarely offered by other cinemas. “It has its value. It offers alternatives in our life,” he says. “It is not always merely about boycotting land developers. You always have to wrestle and seek balance.”

In the past, Pong would just ignore people who disagreed with him and regard their criticisms as meaningless. But now Pong listens to them. “They inspire me to figure out how to refine my argument. I know how to follow their mindset and respond to them.”

On the last day of his one-year campaign, Pong did not celebrate nor even write a blog to conclude his crusade. “It has already become a part of my life, why do I need to celebrate?” he asks with a satisfied smile.

To him, the campaign has become an indispensable part of his life. It has turned into a life-long commitment. “The influence of personal action is much stronger than simply giving the message verbally, so, I will go on.”

He hopes his protest will continue to persuade other Hong Kong people that they too can play a part in breaking the stranglehold of big business. He believes his one-man stand can make a big difference.