Last November, I took a trip to Hong Kong to witness “the revolution of our time.” I became inspired by the sense of defiant righteousness that seemed to sweep the city, and as a history student, I felt an obligation to bear witness to an epochal moment. Throughout that semester, I studied China’s democratic heroes like Dr Sun Yat Sen, and consumed an endless media diet of live-streamed videos and activist group-chats. With the internet, I was able to gain vivid access to a mediated version of the protests, but I felt I needed to see the real thing. Combined with a real sense that it may be now or never, I booked a flight for the evening after my final exam.
I arrived in Hong Kong late at night on the 18th of November 2019 and took the first train from the airport into the city centre. As soon as I stepped out of West Kowloon Station, I realised the answer to the question which had been plaguing me: “How bad can it be over there?”
The nights of the 18th and 19th of November 2019 marked an attempt by the people of Hong Kong to distract their police force from a surrounded urban university campus. The events of November 2019 have become known as the Siege of Polytechnic University. They gained international attention due to dramatic, if anachronistic photos of Students wielding homebrewed bows and arrows.
The situation had turned especially grim. Any student caught escaping the city’s urban campus faced arrest and a ten-year prison sentence for charges of rioting. In sympathy with the trapped students of PolyU, the grassroots movement had planned large-scale marches to create a diversion. Tens of thousands had taken to the streets to challenge the police presence at the university, leading to some of the most open street conflict the city had ever seen. It was that night, hours after my final semester 2 exam, that I arrived in Hong Kong.
Leaving the station, I crossed a pedestrian sky bridge passing over a highway. I was greeted with warm sweet air and the clamour of thousands of people. Something like the crowd’s buzz at a football match hung in the air. My plan was to ditch my pack and change clothes before heading out for the night. To reach my hostel further up the city’s peninsula, I would need only to walk a few blocks and change train lines. Glancing around, I saw a large group of people moving on a sky bridge running parallel to mine, perhaps a stone’s throw away. I felt a rush of excitement. They were walking in the direction I wanted to go.
But as I turned to join the crowd, every warning bell and alarm in my head fired in unison. With almost sub-conscious, instinctive analysis you feel in a situation of danger, I registered that the people had stopped, and were now running back towards me. Trying to read the motion of a crowd can be difficult, but there is something unmistakable about people turning and scrambling for safety. What had been a solid mass of people passing over a street, turned instantly into two camps crouched at either end of a twenty-meter stretch of bridge. Below on the street, two armored trucks had stopped just short of the bridge and disgorged a squad of Hong Kong’s finest – suited and booted for combat. Two officers stood with tear gas launchers, aimed at the exposed section of the walkway just in front of me. The two groups at either end stood poised, waiting to see what would unfold. With no other obvious choice in front of me, I decided the only way through was forward, so I hoisted my pack and ran the exposed distance.
I covered the stretch of bridge without looking back, and for the rest of that night, I remember feeling a single-minded determination just to keep going through the chaotic atmosphere. Arriving at street level, I got my first sense of the Hong Kong Protests. The highway I had just crossed over – devoid of cars – was filling up with a mass of protesters. The crowd formed a front against a flotilla of police and fire trucks. The flash of petrol bombs illuminated the semi-dark. The street’s terrain had been torn apart for the protesters gain: every single brick which formed the tessellating pattern of the sidewalks had been prized, crowbarred or kicked free. Once loose, each chunk was thrown onto the street to slow police vehicles. Streetlights were wrenched from the ground. The sidewalks and streets were an impassable mess of bricks, sand and twisted metal.
Although it was around 11:30 pm, the scene was still heaving with people. That night I saw an even ratio of regular civilians and “Hong Kongers” in all-black getups. These were the front-line agitators, who bore bats and full gas mask helmets, running in packs down the neon-lit streets. Chants intermingled with omnipresent sirens. I continued to make my way up the street, now against the flow of human traffic. It was surreal to be witnessing the kinds of images and conflict I had only seen in sanitized, digital form.
When I got to the subway station I had been looking for, it was as if it had never existed. With metal shutters pulled down over every shopfront in the vicinity, the area that should have shown me Jordan MTR Station was a scene of wreckage. The glass canopy that normally covered a descending staircase was shattered. The subway system was controversially closed early in the evenings and on weekends, bringing waves of accusations of collusion on the part of the operating company. I realised that instead of a quiet air-conditioned ride up the peninsula, I would be picking my way through debris on foot to my hostel.
To gather my thoughts, I sat on the downed beam of an overhead traffic light. Two young guys in all black also sat along the crashed pole and when I asked, one kindly gave me a cotton surgical mask. The faint acrid tinge I could detect on the back my throat had been growing steadily, and I found myself blinking back tears from a residue of tear gas canisters, which would blow with the breeze. I began to make my way north along Nathan Road, the city’s main thoroughfare, keeping a careful eye on my footing. I dug through my bag and shifted my passport to the front pocket of my jeans.
I came to an intersection just as a detachment of riot police arrived on foot. The twenty-odd officers interposed themselves between the crowd, blocking passage ahead with round riot shields and helmets. Most of the crowd stopped and began milling at the intersection, but I decided to take a right and look for a route north parallel to Nathan Road. I followed a trickle of people, crowded underneath air-con units and restaurant back doors, to a dim alleyway next to the street. Suddenly, I became aware of sweat breaking out along my brow, accompanied by the taste of acid in my mouth and nose. The people around me began coughing violently, and spitting into the gutter – I felt compelled to do the same, as an invisible cloud of Dioxin Tear Gas funneled its way into the alleyway.
We began to run, compelled to escape the alley into the clear air of the open streets. Tear gas stings your nervous system through the eyes and throat and skin, the burning effect of which is physically impossible to escape. My cotton mask was entirely useless. Weeping, but free from the alleyway, I looked to my left. Another squadron of police was blocking the northern end of the street I had just avoided, detaining whoever had been caught in the middle. This was no doubt the target of the tear gas rounds which spread collaterally to the alleys and side streets. Had I arrived at that block just minutes earlier, I would have been caught directly in the middle of the pincer maneuver. From those blocks, which I would later learn was the epicenter of the night’s conflict, the way forward was safe. I was forced to take further detours due to police presence but thankfully stayed clear of tear gas. What should have been a twenty-five-minute walk took well over an hour.
The big question in my mind going into Hong Kong had been how obvious would it be? To what extent was it a media fabrication, and life was still going on like normal. It’s pretty obvious to me that there was no exaggeration. In my life, I’ve never seen anything like Kowloon that night. From the disruption of the trains, to the inescapable conversational topic, to the tactile upheaval of the literal ground underfoot, the protests were the demanding and overriding concern of the city. The unrest for the week peaked after that night, as protesters were urged to show restraint in the leadup to a local council election. After a landslide democratic victory, the marches immediately resumed, as passionate and determined as ever. The Hong Kong protests are still going; however, the mass gatherings have largely been suspended due to fears of public assembly at the height of the coronavirus outbreak.