Before the 2019 anti-government protests in Hong Kong, optometrist Ben Luk Chi-kin wondered why some customers would ask if he sold all-plastic spectacles.
He learned the grim answer after large numbers of protesters and activists were arrested – Hong Kong jails prohibit glasses with metallic parts, so those in remand or serving time can only wear spectacles with plastic frames and lenses.
Since last December, he has been handing out the glasses free of charge to protesters facing custody who turn up at iPoint Optical, his shop in Sham Shui Po.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
“I realised the movement has affected people of different ages and backgrounds, not only those in their 20 and 30s,” Luk said.
He is now part of a network that has sprung up to support protesters and activists behind bars, as well as their families and friends.
As of the end of January, 10,234 people had been arrested for involvement in riots, unlawful assemblies and other offences related to the 2019 protests, with 2,457 taken to court. Those whose cases have been dealt with so far include 565 who have been convicted, 49 who had their charges withdrawn, and 156 who were acquitted.
Since December, Luk has given away about 40 pairs of glasses costing about HK$400 (US$51) each. Some family members of those in jail told him it was hard to find plastic spectacles that met the prison specifications.
Luk said it took him a month to find suppliers, and then he took the spectacles apart to make sure there were no concealed metal parts.
Among those who turned up for a pair was opposition activist Ventus Lau Wing-hong, who came on February 27, a day before he and 46 other opposition figures had to report to various police stations.
They were charged with subversion under the national security law and remained in remand over their roles in last year’s unofficial primary polls to shortlist candidates for the Legco elections.
Recalling his interactions with customers heading to prison, Luk said: “We do not discuss anything heavy. I tend to chat about something more casual and happy. I do not want to affect their emotions during the time they have to enjoy freedom.”
Others have been supporting those in prison in various ways.
On the messaging application Telegram, there have been calls to write to the 47 as well as protesters behind bars, with information on where to send letters, and reminders to abide by the rules and not send pictures or suggest breaking out of jail.
The group also uploads letters written by inmates to connect them with the outside world.
Friends and family members of some of the 47 activists recently established or began running accounts for them on the subscription service Patreon, and asked members of the public to help by paying for a monthly subscription to read the latest letters and messages from those behind bars.
Some said the platform could also help provide a regular income to support the jailed activists’ families.
Shiu Ka-chun, a former lawmaker representing the social welfare sector, founded the group Wall-fare last April to help and fight for the rights of those in custody, including protesters.
In December, the group moved into a 1,000 sq ft office near the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre, making it more convenient for family and friends of those in custody.
Manned by five staff, including four social workers, Wall-fare provides packaged prison supplies that meet the Correctional Services Department’s rules.
They include snacks, hand lotion, shampoo, toothpaste, stationery and cigarettes. He said those being held in remand were allowed to have snacks, but convicted prisoners were not.
Only approved items are permitted, and the authorities have strict rules about specific brands, models and quantities, although not all the requirements are stated clearly on the department’s website.
For example, labels on a baby oil bottle must be in Chinese, not English, even for the same brand. For M&M chocolate buttons, only 40g packs are allowed even though 37g packs are available. Even Good Morning towels must be of a specific type.
Shiu, 51, who was jailed in 2019 for his involvement in 2014’s Occupy movement which shut down parts of the city for 79 days, said each pack had enough supplies for a month.
Shiu said each pack cost around HK$300 but some stores near the jail sell the same thing for as much as HK$1,300. His group gives them away free.
Recalling the period after February 28, when the 47 opposition activists were charged, he said: “We worked from 8am to 11pm for a few days.”
The centre did not have enough supply packs and had to hastily stock up from supermarkets and pharmacies. The families of most of the activists took its packs, he said.
The group also organised briefings for the family members about prison life and procedures for visits, and helped them start an online chat room to communicate with each other.
Shiu, who spent 163 days in Stanley Prison, said: “Letters helped me a lot in getting through imprisonment.”
So his group encourages “pen pals” to write messages of encouragement to prisoners. It receives at least 70 handwritten letters a day, and distributed more than 6,000 last year.
His staff screen all letters for sensitive content.
With several Democratic Party members among the 47 activists in remand, chairman Lo Kin-hei said party veterans such as Lee Wing-tat and Cheung Man-kwong had been accompanying the families of those behind bars.
“These veterans have witnessed a lot of crises and their presence and company have indeed helped calm down the families,” he said.
Shiu, who was among 15 opposition lawmakers who resigned en masse last November in protest after four of their colleagues were ousted from the Legislative Council, said not all the news from prison is bad.
He said one of the remanded protesters married his girlfriend in prison on February 18, after half a year of negotiating with the authorities.
“During this period, I feel our tears connect us,” he said. “It can be sad tears, but it can also be joyful tears.”
Additional reporting by Jeffie Lam
More from South China Morning Post: