Read: Where the pandemic is cover for authoritarianism
In the months since its April founding, the Milk Tea Alliance has moved into the offline world. It has spawned the Milk Tea Girls, cutesy Powder Puff–esque animated characters. A newly launched Hong Kong–based Milk Tea Alliance clothing line carries T-shirts with slogans in Thai, English, and Chinese. The owner of the line, Marcus, who asked to be identified by only one name for fear of repercussions from the authorities, told me he hoped the brand would let “people know they are not fighting alone.” (One of the company’s offerings is a blunt, and profane, slogan about loving Hong Kong.) In August, marchers in Bangkok held signs for the Milk Tea Alliance. And the following month, as tens of thousands of protesters camped in the Thai capital near a royal compound, at least one demonstrator flew a black bauhinia flag, a dark riff on Hong Kong’s flag that was adopted by protesters in the city. Phuthanawat Chaphuwong, an 18-year-old student at Bangkok University, has attended numerous protests wearing a yellow hard hat and a magenta-and-gray respirator, the unofficial uniform of Hong Kong demonstrators. “They fight for freedom, as we do,” he told me. His list of grievances was remarkably similar to those I often hear from Hong Kongers: a government that doesn’t listen, a bleak economic outlook, and authorities who seemingly act with impunity.
For now, the Milk Tea Alliance is mostly restricted to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand, but activists I spoke with hope to expand that further across Asia. Joshua Wong, the prominent Hong Kong activist who frequently tweets in support of the alliance, told me he believed that the group could create a “pan-Asia” grassroots movement that would draw more attention to social causes in the region.
Joshua Wong’s tweets helped Napassorn Saengduean, a 20-year-old student at Chulalongkorn University, in Bangkok, gain interest in Hong Kong’s protests. On October 1, China’s National Day, Saengduean covered herself in Post-it Notes, an ode to the pro-democracy Lennon Walls that once dotted Hong Kong, and joined about two dozen others protesting against China near the country’s embassy in Bangkok. “I have to admit I cannot stand seeing them in pain anymore,” she said of Hong Kong’s protesters. “I remember the first time that I cried for them and realized that I had to do something.” One participant sang “Glory to Hong Kong,” a protest anthem that the city’s government has attempted to snuff out. Just over a week later, as Taiwan marked its national day on October 10, Vice President Lai Ching-te marked the occasion on Twitter with the Milk Tea Alliance hashtag, the tweet racked up nearly 47,000 likes.
On a recent afternoon at a café in a leafy back alley in Hong Kong, Gregory Wong watched on his phone as Joshua Wong stood outside a police station and discussed his latest arrest. The situation in Hong Kong was getting more ridiculous “by the day,” the actor told me. His passport had been seized because of the charges against him, and the national-security law—as well as COVID-19 restrictions selectively deployed by the government and aggressive police tactics—made street protests difficult.
Still, Wong continued, the solidarity shown by supporters in other countries had helped keep spirits up. “Be it Belarus, or Thailand, or other places where injustice is happening,” he said, “we are constantly fighting for the same beliefs.”
Paritta Wangkiat contributed additional reporting.