They didn’t want to give their real names, but they wanted everyone to know the real story of what’s happening in Hong Kong.
As Kalpov and Sun Lared, pseudonyms they use for interviews, stood across the street from Staples Center on Tuesday evening, they walked up to fans going to the Lakers-Clippers game and asked them whether they wanted a free T-shirt.
The yellow-and-black shirts they were giving out read, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” It was the same message Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted Oct. 4 and later deleted that set off a geopolitical firestorm.
Sun started a GoFundMe account for the shirts and posted it on the Lakers’ Reddit page Oct. 7. His hope was to raise a few thousand dollars and print a few thousand shirts. Within two days, he had raised almost $43,000 and turned off the account.
“I posted it, went to bed, woke up, and I had over $20,000,” Sun said. “It exploded. I had to shut it down because I don’t know what do with that much money. I only want to do this once.”
Sun was able to print 13,000 shirts and mobilize more than 100 volunteers to pass out the shirts in a protest of what is happening in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy demonstrators are clashing with police. The volunteers chanted “Free Hong Kong!” and “Stand with Hong Kong!” as they passed out the shirts.
“I was thinking maybe 50 people would show up,” Kalpov said. “This is amazing. The support has been incredible.”
Most of the volunteers, including Kalpov and Sun, had never met before Tuesday. They packed the shirts into a yellow moving van they parked across the street from Staples Center. Each volunteer was given an oversized shopping bag stuffed with shirts. When they ran out, they would return for a refill. By the end of the night, most of the shirts had been distributed.
They also handed out a card that stated why they were protesting and why fans should wear the shirt: “(Morey) tweeted the image that is on this T-shirt. In response, China blacklisted the Rockets and potentially the entire NBA to silence free speech. Say no to foreign censorship of our free speech. Tell the NBA to stand up to Chinese bullying and stand with Hong Kong in their fight for democracy.”
China’s state-run television did not broadcast either NBA season opener Tuesday, while Tencent, the NBA’s media partner in China, did not stream the Toronto-New Orleans game but did show the Lakers-Clippers game.
While Kalpov, who is in his 50s, has lived in Los Angeles for 30 years, Sun, who is in his 30s, lives in the Bay Area. He flew in Monday night for Tuesday’s game and was already on his way to the airport for his flight back home before Tuesday’s game started.
“I have to go work tomorrow morning,” Sun said. “I have a day job at a tech company in the Bay Area. I’m just doing this tonight as a private citizen.”
The protesters not only had an issue with China but also took exception with LeBron James saying Morey wasn’t educated on the situation in Hong Kong. One protester held up a sign with Chinese currency covering James’ mouth, while another held a sign that read, “The king of Chinese money.”
“I don’t think LeBron can name any one of the five demands of the people in Hong Kong, who have been speaking their minds for the past four months,” Kalpov said. “I don’t think he knows, and I don’t think he has any understanding of the struggles of the people in Hong Kong. I think he is the one who is uneducated on this matter, actually.”
While the hope was for the arena to be filled with the T-shirts, there was only a smattering spotted in the stands once the game started. Then again, few fans even wore the free shirt the Clippers put on the seats at Staples Center, with many in attendance rooting for the Lakers. During the game, some of the Hong Kong shirts were used by fans as rally towels. After the game, street hot dog vendors and panhandlers were seen wearing them.
Sun wore a Lakers hat while passing out the T-shirts but smiled when asked whether he was really a Lakers fan.
“I’m wearing a Lakers hat because I want people to like me when I give them the shirt,” Sun said. “But I’m from the Bay Area and I’m actually a Warriors fan, but I think I’m going to be a Rockets fan this season because of what happened. I know they lost a lot of money in China because of what Daryl Morey did, but they gained some new fans too.”