The PolyU Rescue Documentary Series: PolyUer Saves PolyU Interview with PolyU Assistant Professor Dr Rodney Chu

PTU News Reporter

‘I have no idea where I got my courage from, having stayed on campus for so many days. On two of those days, I only ate two buns from 9:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.. I just picked up some random dry food from the canteen. I helped contact people every day. I was either searching for students along with some alumni social workers, joining priests and pastors in talking to protesters, or discussing cases with volunteer lawyers….’ Perhaps this curious impulse was just love – love for PolyU and love for students. Dr Rodney Chu is the Vice-Chairman of the Polytechnic University Staff Association and Assistant Professor in Applied Social Sciences. He probably was the only teaching staff member who went to the university every day to see protesters during the PolyU siege. He and his volunteer team assisted more than 300 protesters who stayed.

Walking more than 30,000 steps every day for a consecutive three days, his new sneakers were heavily damaged by chemicals and had to be thrown away. But, like all other volunteers in his team, Dr Chu never wore a mask during his week at PolyU. ‘If you are worried, stay away from the campus. I’m not afraid of tear gases. I haven’t worn a mask since November 19th. Other volunteers ignore tear gases, too.’

Six months of movement were condensed into two weeks of protests, clashes, injuries, rescue, arrests, and escapes here at PolyU.

Returning to A Tense Campus
Since November 11th, he had been returning to the campus every day. It was still relatively calm the first few days, but the situation escalated quickly. When he left the campus on November 16th, he could not have imagined what the campus would become upon his return.

From November 18th evening to November 19th early morning, lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen and a group of principals picked up students from PolyU. PolyU management, at the same time, managed to pick up 49 people. But Dr Chu found out more than half of these people were older (who were found to be trapped volunteers) and the rest were nothing like university students. This finding did not dishearten him, but fueled his desire to find his students instead.

On November 19th morning, he and some PolyU managers entered the campus. Prior to that, the police had warned all of them as no police officer was to accompany them. They were on their own. In the afternoon, he came across people from all sectors, including principals from the The Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools, volunteer lawyers from Civil Rights Observer, lawmakers, social workers, clinical psychologists, as well as Christian and Catholic pastors and priests, who were all there to meet with the protesters.

He started with strolling on the terrace and greeting unfamiliar protesters by saying ‘Hello, I am a PolyU staff member. Can I help you?’ and handing out business cards with his mobile number written in the hope that protesters in need would reach out to him. ‘We have walked through the campus for countless times.’ As a teaching staff member, the Vice-Chairman of the university’s Staff Association, an elected University Council member, and someone familiar with the campus, he quickly became the point of information in the team. The University arranged for onsite medics and a counseling team on November 20th and 21st, but they retreated shortly after clashes between protesters and University management ensued. Dr Chu again became the only PolyU staff member on campus.

To Stay or Not to Stay
‘Every day I feared someone would die. Or some other accidents would happen.’ Restlessness was his only companion on his daily strolls through PolyU.

‘The people I met today might completely change their mind tomorrow. Sometimes it took me up to five days to convince someone to leave. From the 19th to the 25th, we were there every day. As the crowd shrunk, I became more recognisable.’

To convince protesters to leave, he and his team exhausted all their efforts and tactics to establish a trusting relationship with the protesters. One of them in particular left Dr Chu an impression. He stayed in a classroom and refused to leave. It took three days for three social workers to change his mind. When they first found him, it was already 10 p.m.. Upon request, they arranged for lawmakers to meet with him and delivered a warm meal to him from the canteen. On the second day, social workers cooked two meals out of the usable leftovers in the canteen and kept talking to him, but he still refused to leave the classroom. In the third evening, there was little to cook. A volunteer doctor performed a body check for him and said he was very weak. At last, they managed to call an ambulance and sent this protester out of campus at midnight.

‘I was just like a social worker. It’s been a long time since I last engaged in social work. But the volunteer team was a combination of all professions and they all complemented each other. None of these could be achieved by the police, university management, or headmasters because there was a deep mistrust in the establishment from the protesters’ side. A trusting relationship must be established. It all depended on whether they trusted the volunteer team.’

The PolyU siege has come to an end for now, but the aftermath persists. ‘These protesters in their 20s had to look death in the eyes. They risked their lives and arrests to escape. It is a cruel world.’

‘You can restore the campus, but God knows how to mend hearts.’ In our times, some choose to protect objects. Dr Chu and his team chose to rescue people. All they wanted was for all protesters to get home safe. ‘The team could only do their best to help protesters who stayed. We witnessed the whole PolyU siege – something we will never forget.’