Two Sides of the Tibetan Coin: The Calm and The Storm
Olympic Torch Relay in San Francisco, 9 April 2008
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9 April 2008 - Olympic Torch Relay  After sleeping at one of the Tibetan's house in Concorde, we arrived at the Embarcadero, the site of the proposed torch least, that's what we were led to believe.  Thousands and thousands walked the streets nearby in anticipation of the torch.  Unlike yesterday's sense of togetherness, this day was frought with tension and conflict.  And confusion as to where the torch was.

All photos and text by Ken Lee, Chief Engineer of The Tibet Connection Radio Show.

9 April 2008. 

Hundreds of Tibetans march down the Embarcadero, with thousands more cheering them on.  The streets were filled with barricades and hundreds of policemen...and oddly, some Chinese military personnel on motorcycles, one of whom flipped off a Tibetan supporter.  Clearly this day wasn't going to be filled with the gooey togetherness of yesterday.

Marchers on the Embarcadero, with the enormous Oakland Bay Bridge looming near.  "CHINA LIES, PEOPLE DIE" and "CHINA OUT OF TIBET" chants filled the air.

I joined some Tibetan marchers early on in the morning.  "Where are you from?" one young protester asked instantly. 

"I'm a Tibet supporter, and I'm Chinese, if that's what you mean," I replied. 

"How do we know that you're not a spy?" 

I peeled open my jacket, revealing a Free Tibet shirt.  They looked relatively convinced of my sincerity.  "I'd be a bad spy if I told you I was Chinese right away, wouldn't I?"  They smiled. We marched up the Embarcadero. 

Minutes later, several Tibetans off to the side that I knew waved at me and started speaking to me, and that seemed to relieve the marchers even more.  I stayed with them for a while and watched others march past.  And it wasn't just pro-Tibetan supporters.

On this day, the Tibetan supporters were not the only ones protesting.  Thousands of pro-China supporters were out in force, cheering for China, and sometimes jeering and taunting the Tibetans.  Here, three pro-China supporters argue with a Tibetan over whether Tibetan is a sovereign nation or part of China.

Not all the discussions were vitriolic.  Two of the red flag-waving Chinese people we spoke to here in this photo were initially arguing with a Tibetan guy. However, they were not fond of the Chinese government and had protested at Tiananmen Square.

Although they would not concede that Tibet was separate from China, we came to an understanding about the poor treatment and killing of Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese. They believed that this was happening, but hadn't heard much news about it.

They then asked, "Why doesn't the Dalai Lama try to talk with the Chinese government?" I said, "He has been asking for this for over fifty years!!" "He has?" "Yes. The question should be: why won't the Chinese government meet with him?" They said that they had never heard this before, and then said, "Maybe they are too different. I think they will never come to an understanding and that they will never meet. Maybe the Chinese government is waiting for him to die so they can talk with someone else." We mentioned that the Chinese government may encounter a lot more violence after the Dalai Lama passes away because he has always advocated non-violence.

Two Tibetan women march as a pro-China supporter jumps up and down, waving the flag of China and shouting 'LIAR!!  LIAR!!!"

Throughout the day, there were many Chinese people getting in our faces, taunting us and grinning and banging gongs inches from our face or covering up our cameras with their giant red flags, although the gong/covering up thing never happened to me personally.  Many Tibetans felt that the pro-China supporters were trying to provoke them into conflict, but although angry, the Tibetans tried not to engage them violently.

A noisy class between Tibetans and Chinese on the Embarcadero in a tension-filled day. 

Many Chinese people were grinning and waving red flags and chanting "LIAR! LIAR!!" or "CHINA IS BEST SUPER POWER" or "CHINA IS GREAT!!!", while others simply pointed at Tibetans and shouted "LOSER!!".  Others flashed signs imploring people to keep the politics out of the Olympics.  How can you keep politics out of it when the very decision to give the Olympics to one of the most abusive dictatorships in the world (#4 according to Parade Magazine) on the basis of a strong government is in itself a political statement?

9 April 2008 on the Embarcadero, anticipating the arrival of the torch.  The torch never arrived.  People milled around the Embarcadero, where it was scheduled to arrive shortly after 1:00 pm.  People frantically called me on my cell phone:  "Have you heard anything about the torch?  I heard it was going to be on a boat!"  Still another heard that it was near the Golden Gate Bridge.  Or going down Van Ness.  No one knew.

Owing to the tense shouting and arguments as well as not having eaten in hours, I felt uneasy and jittery.  I went into the mercifully quiet Crossroads Cafe on Delancey and ate a sandwich for an hour while the frantic phone calls continued.  The torch was due to arrive, sure, but I realized:  I didn't care anymore.

After trying to regain my senses in the quiet cafe, I walked back up to Embarcadero and Market.  A band played songs from Michael Jackson and KC and the Sunshine Band.  Giant stuffed mascots of the Chinese Olympics sauntered past.  The crowd was enormous, filled with thousands of Chinese people waving red flags. 

Not every Chinese person felt the same about China hosting the Olympics, though.

One Chinese man bravely held up a sign:  "Not in our name.  Chinese-Americans say NO to the Beijing Olympics."  He was besieged by red flag-waving Chinese people shouting, calling him names.  He calmly stood his ground.  Some of the Save Darfur guys and I saw him shouting and went to lend him support, standing next to him.  The Chinese people walked off.  "Who are you with?" I asked.  "It's just me.  I wish I were with someone else."  "You are now."  I explained to him that I was Chinese.  He looked pleased.

Many of the pro-China people feel that the Dalai Lama is a liar, a "splittist" who incites violence and lies about the atrocities in Tibet.  They also feel that Tibet is and always has been a part of China, and that the Tibetans are ruining the Olympic events by making the Olympic events political.  Holding the Olympics is a great source of national pride for China, and the worldwide protests of the crackdown in China horrifies them.

After taking a photo of him and his sign, he beamed and thanked me, thinking I was a pro-China supporter.  I pulled out a Tibetan flag.  The smirk on his face disappeared. 

Tibetan supporters gathered a very large banner and stretched it across Steuart Street near Market.  One pro-China supporter ran in front and then stood, waving the flag of China, calling them liars (shown here).  Soon, others from both sides ran forward, with everyone shouting, pointing, and getting tangled in the long banner.  But like the other conflicts, no real violence erupted.  People on both sides would hold each other back or say, "No violence".

Another Chinese brother crying out for a free Tibet.

Where had all these Chinese people come from?  San Francisco is about 20% Chinese, sure, but still, their presence was overwhelming.  As I waited for others at the parking structure, I saw my answer.  In about five minutes, I saw five chartered buses pull up on Howard and fill up with throngs of pro-China supporters.  Indeed, some Chinese people had mentioned that the Chinese Consulate and other places had chartered buses, bringing in people from all over the state and beyond.

We got in our crowded vans and made our way home, exhausted from lack of sleep and the din of thousands of people trying to shout each other down.  In the end, none of saw the torch because of Mayor Newsom's odd hide-and-seek game, where the torch would suddenly appear unnanounced, be whisked into a bus or warehouse, only to appear elsewhere a couple of miles further.  One of the relay runners pulled out a small Tibetan flag from her sleeve.  She was instantly tackled by Chinese torch guards.

We drove back home late at night.  On the way back, we were discussing the West's relationship with Tibet.  One Tibetan woman, a bit frustrated, exclaimed, "Westerners simply want the good part, the spirituality.  But they often don't want to address the bad part...what is happening in Tibet."  The calm and the storm - two sides of the Tibetan coin.


Senior Producer Christal Smith of The Tibet Connection also came with us on the van.  Read her essay about the protests here.

See photos, articles, and videos of the March 2008 pro-Tibet demonstrations in Los Angeles in the Tibet section of our website.

San Francisco Tibet Protests, Olympic Torch
Description: San Francisco, 8 & 9 April 2008 Tibet protests during the Olympic Torch relay

Tibetan Protest at Olympic Torch Relay, San Francisco April 2008
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