Brenda* has been at the forefront of the Hong Kong protests almost every weekend, playing the blurring roles of both a social worker and a protester. When not trying to act as a mediator with police as a social worker, the 24-year-old attends to other protesters who are injured or tear gassed.
Her boyfriend Jerry*, a 23-year-old electrician, occasionally accompanies her and advises if the frontline is safe enough for Brenda to carry out her duties. He also keeps a lookout for potential dangers, such as incoming riot police. It’s a tag team effort for both of them.
“For example, if tear gas is being shot, Jerry will put out the tear gas and I will look for people who are tear gassed and wash their faces. We will also inform the others at the frontline if police are coming,” said Brenda.
Jerry, in particular, did not care much about his city’s democratic movement. But that has changed.
“The government had no feedback and the police became more violent. After communicating with my girlfriend about it, I suddenly realised the importance of politics,” Jerry said.
“Now he tries to apply for leave [from work] as much as he can so we have more time to attend the protests together,” added Brenda.
Going to the frontlines together is risky, and couples face the high probability of losing each other. Brenda and Jerry have shared identity numbers and other personal details with each other, in case one of them ends up in a police station or hospital.
“We agreed that if we can’t find each other one day, the first thing is not to find each other, it is to go find lawyers,” said Brenda.
Together, they’ve been forced to communicate better, to work as a pair, and to support one another – as their safety has become an ultimate priority like never before.
As escalating violence that stemmed from the now-withdrawn extradition bill have turned into endless weeks of clashes between protesters and police, couples in Hong Kong like Brenda and Jerry are integrating the ongoing political turmoil into their dating lives by participating in the frontlines together.
Another couple, Rose* and Nelson*, find themselves in a similar situation. On August 5, riot police shot rounds of tear gas from a rooftop above Harcourt Road in Admiralty, the city’s central business district. 20-year-old Rose panicked because her 23-year-old boyfriend Nelson was nowhere in sight.
This was the day protesters staged a citywide strike calling for disruption of transportation services and for people to skip work. It later turned violent when clashes broke out in at least seven districts across the city.
The couple had been helping frontline protesters with logistics, such as handing out gear and passing on information. But during this particular clash, Nelson was at the frontlines trying to distribute helmets when police suddenly raised the orange flag – a sign that tear gas and rubber bullets were about to be shot.
To Rose’s horror, she witnessed riot police shooting these projectiles for the first time.
“I freaked out and couldn’t stop crying. I was so worried that my boyfriend couldn't escape from the riot police. I was helpless, desperate and disappointed with them,” Rose recalled. “Luckily, he was doing fine, and didn’t get hurt at all.”
The stress has contributed to conflict between couples, as they are forced to deal with unique situations – such as disagreements over each other’s protest methods. After Rose’s ordeal, she tried to convince Nelson to take her to the frontlines with him if he decides to go.
“It will be so torturous if we lose contact and if I had no idea whether he is safe, so the best way would be to follow him all the way. But he disagreed with me and I know that it’s because he cares about me,” said Rose.
They got into an argument as Nelson refused, due to safety issues.
Nelson, who has also witnessed cases of police brutality towards protesters during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, is uneasy about Rose accompanying him to the frontline as he believes the police “will do crazy shit no matter who you are”.
“Rose had a lot of impulsive thoughts on how to go against the police. I told her there are risks protesting at the frontlines,” said Nelson.
Rose was initially angry at Nelson’s reasoning because she also wanted to have a bigger role to play at the protests and insisted she could defend herself against the police.
“He told me to stay calm and not to be such a fool. Later, I realised he was right as without training, I could be a burden to others if I were at the frontlines.”
Nat* and Edmund*, another student protester couple, said it’s harder to go out on dates these days. They worry about police arrests on the streets, even on days they are not protesting.
“There are cases of ‘ghosts’ (undercover police disguised as protesters), so the only person we can really rely on are our other halves,” said Edmund.
“I’m not afraid that Edmund can’t escape from the police as he runs very fast, but I’m afraid he might turn back to look for me, causing him to be arrested,” added Nat.
But one silver lining of Nat and Edmund’s relationship is how they have gotten closer in recent months, seeing sides of each other they did not expect during the past five years of dating.
Edmund for instance, often screams Cantonese expletives at police, a habit he adopted after seeing the first signs of police brutality on June 12 – when protesters stalled the extradition bill’s second reading.
“I was so scared when I first heard how my boyfriend shouted at the police,” recalled Nat. “I didn’t know he could be so rude. Normally he doesn’t scold others or speak so loudly.”
Nat eventually understood Edmund’s anger, and the two have grown to share each other’s political opinions.
While effective communication is a must-have to ensure good relationships under normal circumstances, Brenda and Jerry understand its importance even more as protests take a toll on their relationship and well-being.
“If the protests are too overwhelming for us, we will take a break and go on actual dates. During these dates, we talk about our feelings,” said Brenda. “We used to book hotels just for sex in the past, but now we book hotels to communicate.”
As of publication time, Brenda and Jerry have taken a break due to reasons they say are unrelated to the protests. They still take part in the protests, albeit separately.
Despite the potential consequences, protester couples choose to take the risk, for their greater love of Hong Kong.
“We can’t see any reason why we should stay at home to watch more people suffer,” Rose said of her and Nelson’s choice to keep protesting. “Only victory can help those people and the way to win is to get more people to join the movement.”
*Names have been changed for their protection, upon the protesters’ request