When headteacher Veronica Yau Kit-ying entered the besieged Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) campus on the night of November 18, she had only one goal in mind: get the students inside home safely.
A day earlier, police had begun to surround the campus, after aggressive clashes between police and protesters there. Dozens of protesters had been arrested, but hundreds more were still inside.
Police warned that those who remained on campus risked being charged with “taking part in a riot”. Still, the majority chose to either stay and hide, or find their own means of escape, such as by sliding down a rope from a footbridge.
As the stand-off intensified, Yau, who is headmistress at Fanling Kau Yan College, and executive committee member of the Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools, began to fear for the trapped students. Protesters who followed police orders to leave the campus were immediately arrested.
“Everyone was terrified; the police had completely surrounded the university. We, the association, were very worried. We feared our youngsters wouldn’t be safe,” Yau tells Young Post.
As rumours began to swell that many inside the campus were prepared to die, Yau and the rest of the association, along with legislator Ip Kin-yuen, decided they needed to do something.
Less than two hours later, they held a press conference at LegCo, where they stated that secondary school principals were desperate to get their students. They then headed to PolyU.
After hours of negotiating with the police, the principals who had students inside the university were allowed to enter the campus on one condition: any students they brought out who were under 18 would need to give their personal details to the police, and police may arrest them later. Those who were older than 18, meanwhile, would be arrested immediately.
“That’s the only option they gave us,” says Yau. “Of course we wanted the conditions to be as lenient as possible, but if we didn’t take the offer, we probably wouldn’t have been allowed inside.”
By 11pm, about 50 principals were ready to enter the university in small batches. Most were not wearing any protective gear. Yau was in her usual office attire: a dress and a pair of high heels. The police warned the teachers they were entering the campus at their own risk.
“I felt as if I were walking on a beach as we got closer to the campus, as a lot of the bricks had been dug up. And when I looked around, everything was in ruins; many facilities were sabotaged. We had to be very cautious as we walked around,” Yau says.
As the first batch of teachers – which included Yau – reached the protesters’ defence line, where they had sealed themselves off with huge water barriers, the protesters started to yell at the principals. Yau recalls the atmosphere being very hostile. It was dark and crowded, and the protesters were clearly agitated.
“Those guarding the defence line – who appeared to be much older than secondary students – were lambasting us with all sorts of foul language,” says Yau. “It’s something that I have never experienced in my life ... but I also understand that they’d been protecting the other protesters for hours; they must’ve been anxious, and unable to trust anyone.”
After the crowd learned of the teachers’ intentions, they warned them to take care. “‘You might also be tricked by the police’, some of them said to me,” Yau recalls.
Although many repeatedly asked their fellow protesters to stay, others agreed to let the youngers leave with their principals.
Yau had already been in contact with the student from her school via WhatsApp, and as soon as she was able to get across the defence line, she asked the student to meet her near the edge of the campus. The student came – but made it clear he wouldn’t abandon his friends.
“I told him I would respect his decision. I just hoped he would consider this relatively safer option of leaving PolyU with us. He didn’t want to get to safety while his friends, who were over 18, got arrested. He couldn’t let go, and I empathise with him,” says Yau.
“I told him, ‘It wasn’t just me who came to look for you tonight, I’m representing all of your teachers as well. We are all very worried about you and hope you can feel our love’.”
The student cried and Yau comforted him, before watching him turn around and go back to his friends.
The next day, Yau continued to help with the negotiations at PolyU, and brought out many students – but not her own.
It wasn’t until around 11.30pm that night, when Yau was about to go to sleep, that she received a message: a student at Fanling Kau Yan College was willing to come out. She immediately rushed to PolyU again.
“I also called the student’s class teacher to pick up his parents and drive them there ... When I saw the student, he was trembling, and his teeth were chattering. We gave him some water and biscuits, and slowly he was able to eat and drink,” says Yau.
She didn’t say much to the student, other than to reassure him that he had made the right decision. By the end of that day, 320 people had left PolyU. Most, like Lau’s student, were under 18.
During those days and nights at PolyU, Yau saw a lot of worried parents anxiously waiting outside the campus for their children. One mother Yau met had stayed there for 72 hours straight.
“As I’ve always told my students, ‘to Hong Kong, you’re one of seven million, but to your family, you’re everything’,” Yau says. “In an already torn society, schools and families can’t just split among themselves as well. We need to stay united.”
In hopes of breaking the deadlock, on Monday, the police announced they would not immediately arrest those who were willing to leave anymore, regardless of age, as long as they required medical treatment.
Yet, that didn’t guarantee they would not be arrested later. Up until Wednesday morning, media reports said that there was at least one person who refused to leave the campus, as the siege entered its 10th day.