(This is the second of Erik Wennermark’s Hong Kong dispatches. Read the first here.)
By Erik Wennermark
My arm is pulled, phones shoved in my face to see their photos. Look at this, please! Just the fact that I am writing stuff down, that there is some record of what they’re experiencing outside the innards of their smart phones seems keenly important to them. The ink on my notebook pages smears in the rain and I switch to a new pen.
The full story is thirty guys in black masks charged from the Causeway Bay MTR station into the crowd of protestors, hitting, spitting, and destroying barricades. I arrived shortly after. Their appearance perversely rallies those less enthused about the occupation who have lingered on the periphery for the past day or so. The assumption was that the masked men were invaders paid off by pro-Beijing forces to inflame the situation and to give the police an excuse to clear the streets. The main conflict is done but the shouting and pushing lingers.
Police half-heartedly try to separate the pro- and anti-Occupy forces. A young policewoman on a megaphone calls for calm; she turns to one of her colleagues and gives him a Cheshire-cat grin. This is happening two blocks from my apartment building; I can’t even get to Hennessey Road, the stretch of Causeway Bay where protestors have been gathered for six days. There is much talk of Mandarin speakers with Beijing accents (Hong Kongers speak Cantonese) and signs written in simplified Chinese characters normally only seen on the Mainland.
Finally on Hennessey, I see some girls no older than fourteen sitting on the ground. I ask them if anyone was hurt. They look sad, but shake their heads no. I ask, “Will you move to Admiralty? It will be safer for you.” Again they shake their heads, saying that they have plenty of water to sustain them.
I ask the same question of a guy in his early twenties with dreads and long cargo shorts. “We will defend here,” he says firmly.
The students pass supplies down the street, a stretch of people almost the length of an American football field. They will stay, but will consolidate their position.
Lightning splits the sky and it begins to rain. Standing back under the awning of a traditional Chinese pharmacy selling roots, remedies, and powders of all descriptions, Rod Stewart croons through the muggy air, “You fill my heart with gladness, take away all my sadness, ease my troubles that’s what you do…”
I go into a packed McDonald’s and eat a Big Mac; with the Golden Arches open twenty-four hours in all protest zones, McDonald’s is doing well from Occupy Central. When I enter the restroom a cop holds the door and smiles.
The situation is far, far worse in Mong Kok, a neighborhood across the harbor in Kowloon. Reporters are attacked and young girls threatened with sexual abuse. The instigator’s quote getting play on Twitter is something like, “If you are a protestor you should expect to be abused.” All told, over a hundred are injured.
Mong Kok is one of the most densely populated areas in the world and far grittier than Hong Kong Island. As anyone who’s seen the wonderful nineties Hong Kong cop/gangster films such as A Better Tomorrow can attest, it is a haven for triad activity. Mong Kok is filled with traditional street markets selling knock-off goods and massage parlors alongside the Western and Japanese megastores, which have popped up in recent years with yet unfulfilled hopes of gentrifying the area. Many of these business are triad-run. It’s also a much more working class crowd than you find on the streets of Causeway Bay or Central.
Other divisions in Hong Kong society appear to be cracking through the surface of Occupy — student and shopkeeper, Kowloon and the Island, new era and status quo, money today or freedom tomorrow. Some opponents of the protests have taken to wearing blue ribbons, as opposed to the protestors’ optimistic yellow. Undoubtedly some of this is authentic anti-Occupy sentiment, but one can’t escape the growing circumstantial evidence of coordination by “outside forces.”
Photos and screenshots of several primary documents are floating around online: a Facebook post offering bounties, 200 Hong Kong Dollars (HKD) for Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, 300HKD for Admiralty, bonuses of HKD 500 for destroying a supply station, HKD 1,000 for “causing chaos;” a check apparently dropped by one the fleeing shit-stirrers for HKD 7,000 (almost one thousand US); a memo instructing “patriots” to “attack traitors and lap dogs of the West.”
I leave Causeway Bay and begin the walk down to Admiralty. For the first time ever in Hong Kong I feel uncomfortable walking the streets and even unwelcome.
I leave Causeway Bay and begin the walk down to Admiralty. For the first time ever in Hong Kong I feel uncomfortable walking the streets and even unwelcome. In a dripping poncho, given to me the other day outside of CY Leung’s office in preparation for pepper spray, I feel I am easily identified as part of the pro-student crowd. The threat of gangs of marauding mobsters has me ill at ease. Cantonese speakers on Twitter are posting about chants of “Fuck the USA!” and “Fuck American People!” A Canadian man I spoke to was accosted and told to, “Go back to your own country.” He’s lived in Hong Kong for five years. Those around him said if he’d spoken Cantonese and heard the rest he would be very, very angry. His lip quivered as he told the story.
Everyone is on edge. Minor disturbances flare up causing hundreds in the vicinity to scream and pass their fear onward like a surging wave.
The police give a press conference later to deny that they have colluded with the anti-Occupy violence in any way. They say they have made multiple arrests in Mong Kok, and that yes, half of those people have triad ties. They deny accusations of selective enforcement (Occupy activists claim they are arrested and assaulted for non-violence while anti-Occupy violence is ignored). The police say they are doing their best.
The situation in Admiralty has intensified. New barricades have been erected and the rain comes and goes; it’s hot and humid as the jungle. Everyone is on edge. Minor disturbances flare up causing hundreds in the vicinity to scream and pass their fear onward like a surging wave. Someone appears to be trying to throw something — it looks like camera equipment or a media satellite — from the overpass onto the crowd below. Young men with megaphones sweep in to clear the people from danger and the crisis is averted.
The police I see behind the barricades at the Executive Building — Chief Executive CY Leung’s office — now have riot helmets swinging from their belts, but perhaps it’s protection from the intermittent rain. A large group of cops congregate fifty yards back from the barricade in the empty square.
My phone beeps continuously for the next five minutes as the rush of Brian’s photos and videos comes through. He wants me to see “the bad guys.”
Something’s happening. People leap up all around; I see a boy struggle to put on his shoes. It’s fucking bedlam and the crowd is shrieking. I see a group of perhaps twenty or thirty men dressed in black hauling ass over the Connaught Road overpass. Later I learn they were off-duty cops trying to get back into Headquarters. I can’t get up there through the masses but I see dozens of protestors with their arms raised in the Hands Up Don’t Shoot pose that’s become an international symbol for peaceful resistance. A Hong Konger and his girlfriend translate some of the goings on for me; he earnestly tells me to be careful.
My phone starts buzzing and I see an unfamiliar number on the caller ID. I answer. “Hello, this is the little guy,” says the voice in halting English. “Send me WhatsApp and I send video.” It’s Brian, the twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy I spoke to earlier in Causeway Bay. My phone beeps continuously for the next five minutes as the rush of Brian’s photos and videos comes through. He wants me to see “the bad guys.”
It’s 2:00 a.m. in Admiralty and despite the day’s violence, which continues across the harbor, protestors are singing “Under a Vast Sky,” a ’90s tune by the Hong Kong Canto-Pop band Beyond. The translated lyrics read, “Forgive me for embracing freedom in my life, But also fear of falling down some day, To give up one’s hope, it isn’t for hard for anyone, It would be fine if there’s only you and me,” and it’s become the movement’s unoffical anthem. At its conclusion huge cheers erupt and round two of singing commences.
The unfathomably popular Japanese ice cream shop, Via Tokyo, on the ground floor of my building still has a line around the block. It’s filled with happy couples and groups of friends, as it is almost every night, before, during and likely after Occupy. Shirtless guys are still pushing carts stacked with boxes, cigarettes dangling from their lips; the dough man in the bun shop is still kneading dough while the radio blares. A lady runs a squeegee over the window of a chain drugstore. A well-built guy in a tank top carries a rugby ball.
After yesterday and today’s violence things are calm at 10:00 p.m. in Causeway Bay; there are good numbers, and people, including the police, seemed relaxed and at ease. A makeshift screen has been erected and the students and other onlookers are watching a live stream of the events down in Admiralty, where the largest crowd in several days is taking part in a nonviolence rally.
In Admiralty the A/V is much improved too. The speeches are being broadcast on a large wall of the Admiralty Centre. A scroll of supportive Facebook messages sprawls thirty-feet high on the wall of the Government Building. The speeches break into English, playing to the worldwide audience, “We are here to get democratic rights that should be enjoyed by Hong Kong people.”
Around midnight, lots of folks leave to catch the last train home and the crowd thins somewhat, but it’s still the largest in days. Will this give the police the chance they need? CY Leung has promised that schools will be reopened on Monday—they have been closed the last few days in Occupy areas, including the public holidays—and it will be business as usual. Green-shirted students roam the crowd with placards with a number and instructions should you get arrested. Many take pictures of the information. “Legal aid,” a man tells me. The rumor online is that police will attack at 3:00 a.m.
Three soused financial bros walk arm in arm, the two on either side supporting their friend in the middle who has a large a wet patch creeping down his khakis. Red-faced dudes with watery eyes and bemused expressions roam. It’s a regular Saturday night over here. I’m sitting on a bench in Wan Chai around the corner from the Wanch, a popular dive bar and music venue that reminds me of home. I’ve stepped away from the protests for a minute to have a coffee and relax. The band at the Wanch is playing classic rock covers in a loose, punkish way. At 1:00 a.m., according to Twitter, tensions are still high in Mong Kok and police have unfurled the red banner. It’s mellowing here in Admiralty and quiet in Causeway Bay.
It’s 3:00 a.m. and the rumors, like so many before, proved unfounded. There is no attack on Admiralty. I make a last round before heading home. After a depressing morning and fearing the worst tonight I am slightly buoyed. I see the glimmer of peaceful resolution—despite the fact that Mong Kok still seethes. The students and government are creeping towards negotiations. I mention my optimism to a man wearing a yellow windbreaker with a yellow bandana tied around his head manning the first aid tent in front of the barricaded Executive Offices. “Yes,” he agrees with me, the night has gone better than all anticipated, “but things change very fast.”