Hong Kong: From Hello Kitty to Hell’s Kitchen

Originally I had been invited by the Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) to hold a presentation on the situation in Kurdistan. It seemed a good opportunity for staying a few days longer. On one hand because of jet lag, on the other hand to do the typical touristy things: Macao, Victoria Peak, riding the double-decker tram. Of course I had followed the protests in Hong Kong. I wanted to talk to people at the university to get a rough overview of the situation. For a moment I had considered to bring my „Press“-vest, gas mask and night vision goggles. But I was told that currently it’s not clear what kind of protective gear would even make it through Hong Kong customs. Also my experience was that the situation looks much worse from afar than it actually is when you are there. Boy, was I wrong.

Presentation on Kurdistan

My presentation on Kurdistan went well without problems. The Turkish consulate general felt compelled to send the vice consul and have him read out a full-page statement in the Q&A session. It was quite pathetic. I talked with some students about the protests, the objectives, the situation.

The protests in theory

In principle it’s simple: Until around 20 years ago Hong Kong was British and had western style freedom of press and speech, as well as uncensored internet. Since it is part of China, many of these things are endangered. China now wants to increase their control and put more pressure on the people of Hong Kong. Understandably, many of the people there don’t want that. China’s framing is „those are terrorists who want independence“. Interestingly, I never heard that demand in these days. Many simply want to preserve the status quo.

On weekdays protests were fewer and less frequent, often only in areas where many young people live. Protesting like here in Germany seems more and more impossible. Assemblies get banned, demands opposing the China government stances quickly get labeled as insurgency. Time and again demonstrations get dispersed violently.

In the end it’s hard for outsiders to assess who started, who escalated, and what happened. And the same old question: Why do you have to destroy things for example a cafe? Like always, things were hard to understand, even when being in the middle of it. Essentially: If  legal and peaceful protest is impossible, the peaceful people stay at home. The violence-prone don’t. Those then can’t protest as usual, but vent their frustration and attack Chinese companies, or Chinese owned franchises of international brands. That is the reason why Starbucks stores get trashed.

In Hong Kong I lived in a Hotel in Tsuen Wan. I chose it because the rooms are spacious and affordable and the hotel is near the MTR (subway).  When I returned from my tourist trip to Macao I wanted to grab some food in the area. In the streets of Tsuen Wan, apart from medium sized shopping malls, there is a vast number of small restaurants and other shops.

The protests in practice

At the MTR station Tsuen Wan I came upon several hundred people holding a vigil. The day before a protester had died while fleeing from police when he fell from a car park. His name was Alex Chow, he only lived long enough to reach 22 years of age. Thousands of people were standing together calmly, being silent together, singing together. No sign of violence, hate or anything like that. As a European you stand out in the masses. People asked me if I knew what was going on and patiently explained everything again. They love their free Hong Kong with right to protest, with uncensored Internet, with a distinct way of life. They despise the central government in Beijing. „Who wants to live in a dictatorship? Those are murderers that need to hide their deeds with violence and censorship. Be careful, the police around here also comes from the mainland“ they warned me. Where police come from you can tell quite accurately. If they speak mandarin to each other they likely are from mainland china. In Hong Kong people speak Cantonese or English. Since 1997 Hong Kong belongs to China, but is a special administrative region. China now wants to withdraw their privileges faster and faster.

But there were not only young people, even though 18-25-year-olds made up the majority. There were Retirees, workers in their business outfits, families cautiously standing on the side. Everything was well coordinated, even though no one took an obvious leading role. At a wall one could lay down flowers. In front of it there was a line, in which everyone queued. Where the line met a pedestrian crossing there was a 2 meter wide gap so as not to interfere with anyone. Next to the wall the text „Stand with HK, R.I.P. Chow“ was spelled out with candles. Even though several people at once placed candles and they didn’t communicate, the writing formed within seconds. Everyone seemed to know what the text should read and how large the result should be.

I could move freely between the people. Even in the densest crowd people naturally stepped aside and took care that I can pass somehow. Amidst them stood a European man in an aloha shirt who similarly stand out in the crowd. It was HongKongHermit, whom I know from Twitter. He extensively reports from the protests, classifies things, shares interesting links to stories. He always wears an aloha shirt. He stands out anyway and thus doesn’t see any reason to hide anymore. We chatted for a quarter of an hour at the side of the crowd and he explained to me the current very confusing situation. „Don’t you have any vest and helmet with you?“ he asked me. First I was irritated, since the Hong Kong administration had told me that I was not allowed to import any ballistic protection (like bulletproof vests or helmets). But it was about something else: Journalists here typically wear high-visibility vests marked „Press“ and a suitable helmet, for example a cycling helmet. Thereby they want to clearly differentiate themselves from protesters and police and it should serve as their protection. This used to work, but not any more, as I soon should experience.

That was all very interesting, but originally I had planned to eat something. A few streets further 100-200 masked people with metal rods, spray cans and chains in hand passed by.  They dragged the iron rods behind them over the tarmac, causing scraping noises. Psychological warfare. So these were the protests that I had seen on TV. Not something I had been looking for, but something I was interested in. I didn’t even have my camera with me, my phone’s battery was almost exhausted from the day, and I didn’t have any protective clothing. Well… perfect conditions to go and have a look. In Hong Kong I had expected more of a „Hello Kitty“ lifestyle. Now it looked more like „Hell’s Kitchen„.

Armed with cordless screwdrivers and walkie-talkies they quickly moved from intersection to intersection. The fences between sidewalk and street were dismantled using the cordless screwdrivers. On one hand this allowed quicker escape from the police, on the other hand the fences were used to build barricades. Even „barricades“ consisting of two street signs laid across the road were enough to stop traffic. No one leaves their cars to move them aside. Sometimes out of fear to come across as supporting the Beijing government, sometimes out of sympathy for the protesters.

I walked with the rearmost of the masked protesters to understand what exactly they do where and how. I simply got ignored. So I found myself surrounded by 100-200 people armed with iron rods, whose „work“ I was documenting, not knowing how friendly they were towards me. It felt neither comfortable nor threatening. They moved from intersection to intersection and blocked one after another. From pedestrian overpasses other people called out to them if and from where police was approaching. While I was taking photos of the barricades, out of the corner of my eye I saw something fly down: an iron rod. It barely missed me. The masked person next to me angrily shouted something upwards, the masked person above replied „Sorry! I didn’t see you! Sorry, sorry, sorry!„. Very polite, he probably only wanted to throw the rod onto the barricades, not at me.

As quickly as the group had appeared it was gone again. I only had taken a few photos but now I didn’t see anyone any more. In a dark corner between garbage cans some of them sat down, removing the black clothes they could be recognized by. From their backpacks they took colorful „Snoopy“ and „Frozen“ T-Shirts, plus a Starbucks cup and a selfie stick. Within a minute they looked just like the regular people in this neighborhood. All these people around ignored what was going on. I was standing next to it and observed what’s happening. No one seemed to mind this either. It also happened that protesters changed clothes, dispersed, and simply sat down at occupied tables in cafes. The patrons didn’t react much and simply went with it. The silent support for the protests is estimated at 75% – no one has precise numbers. So far no police was to be seen anywhere. People with buckets full of bricks passed me. When they saw me staring at them one explained: „We don’t throw them at people! We don’t want to injure anyone. We throw them onto the street. Then police can’t run or drive so quickly„. Very interesting approach.

It seemed to me the event was over. My stomach reminded me that originally I had wanted to go for a meal. Then a policeman with a grenade launcher looked around the corner and disappeared again. I ran there to see what’s happening. He stood directly in front of the Tsuen Wan station, from which loud yelling could be heard. Later I saw on photos that the police had set off a tear gas grenade inside the station.  The policeman belonged to a group of maybe 20 policemen who checked the pedestrian overpasses. Equipped with helmets, shields, pepper spray, grenade launchers, pump-action shotguns and hand guns. The policemen didn’t want anyone to follow them. They immediately threatened with batons and pepper spray, one drew his revolver. Quickly a group of journalists and other live streamers was behind them, which I joined. The others seemed to know the drill and seemed unimpressed. Relatively relaxed they stood a meter away from the well armed policemen. Behind the people recording more and more protesters gathered and screamed at the police. The policemen unsuccessfully tried to master the situation and called for backup, whereupon other policemen on the street threatened upwards with grenade launchers and pump-action shotguns. I left the pedestrian overpass and still caught the edge of a tear gas cloud. Someone pulled me further and took care of me. On the street there is more space to evade the whole situation, that seemed safer to me.

„Black Flag“ someone yelled at me. That means tear gas is being deployed. The police holds up a black flag in advance to announce this. Immediately afterwards the first victims of the police action were dragged past us and attended to at the side of the road. Vendors emerged from the surrounding shops with spray bottles they had filled with a liquid that partly neutralizes the tear gas. Quickly the small shops were closed and secured. On the small streets several hundred to a few thousand people watching or screaming at the police. Time and again people came to me and warned me, described roughly how the police operates, and asked where I had to go to.

I had seen enough for this evening and it became clear, how unclear everything here was to me. Who is acting how and why? Who belongs to whom? Who doesn’t? How does police treat whom? Often I’m either at demonstrations in Berlin or at the front in Kurdistan. Both is  different. But in both cases I can assess the opposite side. And in both cases I have a government and security forces around me that take freedom of press seriously. Here in Hong Kong I’m not so sure any more.

The shops were closed, the restaurants were closed, the restaurant in my hotel was closed, the MTR was closed. The last resort was a 24h McDonald’s with rather limited culinary offers. A few people were sleeping inside there. „They let homeless sleep here, where else should they go with all the gas?“ someone explained to me.

Protesting peacefully

The next day I continued visiting touristy spots like Victorias Peak. It’s not really a mountain peak, but simply the highest point in the area. In the meanwhile some skyscrapers reach similar height. In the evening I wanted to visit the heliport at the harbor. On the way to there protest medics passed me. Where these are, there are protests. So I followed them. Directly at the river, at the Tamar Park, another vigil was held. Thousands of pople gathered here throughout the evening, a hundred thousand according to the organizers. Again, everything was extremely organized, calm and mannerly. There was no police to be seen anywhere. Only the adjacent administration buildings were secured by a few policemen sitting around behind barrier tape. There was singing, speeches were given, and a vast number of journalists were present. Dozens of them, maybe a hundred, and an equal number of medics. The red cross had a dedicated booth with stretchers and many bottles of the neutralizing liquid for treating burning eyes. People are open, polite, happy to talk to you, but extremely camera shy. They tell me that even one wrong photo can ruin their whole future. They are afraid that China will take over power completely soon and take revenge on everyone that even only sat around at a protest. The vigil had been approved until 9:30 pm. „It’s like in Cinderella! You have to be gone by 10 pm, no transportation available later than that„. Public transportation stops service earlier and earlier to make it difficult to attend the protests. Among other things, this cooperation with the police caused the MTR to be detested by the protesters. Around 9 pm I set off early in order to safely reach the hotel. When I arrived, I saw reports of how riot police ended the vigil: policemen with helmets and shields running after civilians.I couldn’t believe it. How could the situation turn so quickly?

Getting Bubble Tea

I tried to gather my thoughts. Who is playing what part and why? Why did the police, of which the Hong Kongers were so proud of for such a long time, turn? Is it because of the „Mainland“ Chinese that were added? Were they always like this and people just didn’t realize? Are western foreigners safe from them? If you completely avoid them it’s probably OK. But apart from that? It seems as if they didn’t need to be answerable to anyone. No one holds them responsible for their actions. If you get caught in between then everything is lost.

Opposite the hotel are several medium sized malls. I realize I still didn’t have Bubble Tea and didn’t visit any malls yet. It’s nothing too exciting, but one should also check out such things in every country in order to understand the differences. What was about to unfold was a stumbling journey from one confusing situation into another. In the first mall people gathered around one shop, so I went there. It was a freshly trashed Starbucks store. I took the mandatory photo. A security guard told me it really was not safe here „Surely police will arrive shortly. Go away!„. I decided to heed this advice, since I had several malls to chose from. I took the pedestrian overpass to the next one. I had barely entered when shouting started and people ran towards a certain direction in panic. I felt it was smartest to run with them. Next I saw fog for a moment, then I couldn’t see any more. Coughing I hit the floor, then someone pulled me away. Something was splashed on my face and I was slowly getting better. I had gotten caught in the infamous Chinese tear gas. But why? Next to me lay a woman with a child, next to them a baby stroller. She was tended to by volunteers as well. People with gas masks pointed towards a door that someone held open. I too a step outside and already saw police with gas masks and the usual weapons running in our direction. I still didn’t really understand where the tear gas had come from, since they were further away. Then I understood that the mall was almost surrounded. A completely chaotic cat-and-mouse game with lots of innocent bystanders around it. The air inside the mall got better. „Only a bit of it came into here. If you had been hit by the grenade you would lie on the floor, puking. It contains cyanide.“ Cyanide? I guessed it had to be a mistranslation. But later I googled: Allegedly hydrogen cyanide (HCN) was found in the gas. That would explain the nasty effect. A small group of people opened umbrellas, huge noise coming from behind them. Another Starbucks store was being trashed under the cover of the umbrellas. Again I took a photo and then saw to it that I got out of there.

Getting food in Tsuen Wan is a dangerous undertaking. So, what to do? I had seen the protests already. When they happen around me I normally go to have a look and get a better understanding. But I was not in the mood for any more of this.

Noodles with tear gas

In the evening I had the same problem as the day before: I was hungry. Originally I had wanted to avoid the MTR station Tsuen Wan, but also I wanted to meet with another journalist there. So I went only briefly. On the short way there people came running towards me: „Black Flag! Run!“. But I didn’t see any gas around, only at the end of the street, some 50m away. In my German naivety  I thought it couldn’t be that bad. One breath later I knew better. Even those small amounts sent me into a coughing fit and made my eyes water. A child with gas mask walked by and laughed at me. For people like me there was no warning by the police. No hint, nothing. So, as normal visitor to this city you are completely dependent on the protesters. They warn you, pull you out, tend to you. They also redirected cars that tried to turn into this street. So we walked in the other direction. There tear gas poured out of side alleys, so we ran further and further until we found a restaurant that was open. While we ate there, lo and behold! Tear gas flew across the street. The waiters seemed to be used to it, simply closed the doors and said „hey no problem, just keep eating“. They also let us know when it was safe to leave again.

Afterwards we drove to Kowloon to meet a German-Hongkonger that knew more about the situation. On the infamous Nathan Road there was a lot going on when we arrived. A civilian mini van with opened door drove along the street. From inside of it a policeman shot pepper balls into the crowd. Those are paintball guns that shoot OC spray balls instead of paint balls. You could recognize the characteristic „flop“ sound of the shooting.  Only here it was more like „Flopflopflopflopflopflopflopflopflopflopflopflopflopflopflop“. Why he was shooting and at whom? Unclear. It could not have been very targeted. Behind him were police transporters, a water cannon and other vehicles. In a side alley tear gas rose up. From the pavement something was thron at one of the police buses.  Police used the water cannon and even more pepper balls. I tried to take a photo from a safe distance, but the vehicles drew closer and further pepper ball shooters used them as cover. So it was time for orderly retreat.

But what do the people living around here do? Probably they are simply out of luck. tear gas sometimes rises as far as the 2nd floor.


Another day, another try: I asked in the hotel where I could get bubble tea safely. The hotel staff was polite and claimed everything was safe, I should simply go to a mall. Well, it better be one without a Starbucks store. So I went. There was Bubble tea. And police came. Everything as usual. Just this time there was no one to crack down on. There was no protest, there were no crowds. Actually, there was nothing to see at all, except for them. With gas masks, grenade launchers, pump action shotguns. In broad daylight. In a shopping mall. People in civilian clothing walked beside them, with gas masks and cameras. I started taking some photos with my phone. Immediately I was filmed and photographed from point-blank range. So was everyone else who had taken photos. A uniformed but unmasked officer approached me and asked in English who I was and what I was doing here. All the time the „civilian“ with gas mask kept filming me. Other masked policemen summoned the cameraman and pointed at me. Shortly afterwards a policeman informed me that I must stop all recordings and also cease reporting. And he explained that they knew who I am, and that I must leave Hong Kong. I had a ticket for this night, which I could have rescheduled easily though. In light of the developments in Hong Kong I had considered extending the stay. The policeman explained that I would get into huge trouble if I didn’t take that flight and they saw me again the next day.

From a legal point of view of course its not up to the police to decide something like this. It’s questionable if they could even have objected to the photos I took. But: Who here could protect me from arbitrary abuse of power? The police? The Hong Kong government? The Beijing government? This is the huge difference to Germany or Kurdistan: There you have guaranteed safe areas. There you have people that you can appeal. Here you don’t have any of these.

I asked local journalists what they thought about my situation. They explained the unit that had stopped me were „Raptors“, the special tactical squad of the Hong Kong police which is not known for being overly diplomatic. Everyone advised me to leave. Not because they were able to judge the situation any better than me, but because they couldn’t, either. In the past weeks again and again journalists and emergency services had been interfered with or injured. Gas masks and sturdy helmets are standard equipment for these people here. And they need these every day. That alone shows what kind of situation you find yourself in here.

In the morning a young man had been shot in the stomach. The university where I had held my presentation was closed. It simply was time for me to leave.

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