A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask holds a yellow umbrella at the Mong Kok camp. Due to a court order, the protest camp — Hong Kong's grittiest — is slated for imminent destruction.
Credit: Tom Grundy

HONG KONG — “If they clear here, I think protesters should find an occupy site other than Mong Kok,” says Wong Yeung-Tat, the enigmatic, often controversial, leader of the political group Civic Passion. But exhausted as many are, few at the camp have any appetite to leave quietly.

For just over 50 days, activists spread across three protest sites have been unified in demanding full universal suffrage from Beijing. Things have remained largely peaceful at the two camps on Hong Kong Island, but demonstrators in Mong Kok have endured violent clashes with masked triads and counter-protesters angry about the disruption.

In recent weeks, feces, flammable liquids and even insects have been hurled at them, forcing protesters to erect nets above certain areas of the four-lane road they inhabit. A month ago, thousands descended upon the area after police attempted to shrink the site. Hours of messy street battles ensued until police retreated. A tense stalemate has prevailed ever since with no political compromise in sight.

Each night in Mong Kok, speakers on multiple podiums rally protesters, competing with each other for hearts and minds. Occupiers, curious onlookers and foreign tourists wander between hundreds of colorful tents, several supply centers, first aid posts and improvised religious shrines. Weathered posters and countless placards are strewn across each side of Nathan Road, a famous shopping thoroughfare and an essential transport artery for the Kowloon Peninsula.

Most businesses remain open along the “golden mile” as makeshift barricades, assembled from wooden pallets, bamboo scaffolds and the remnants of broken umbrellas, mark the borders of the camp. At least seven cardboard cut-outs of Chinese President Xi Jinping guard the protester cordons. More than a humorous aside, the mere presence of the life-size Xis is said to “deter” pro-China antagonists, or so it is hoped.

Now, after complaints of lost income, a minibus drivers' association has won a court injunction permitting bailiffs to “clear obstructions” in Mong Kok with police backing. It makes for a jittery atmosphere at what is commonly regarded as the resilient front line of the umbrella movement demonstrations.

The camp’s more aggressive politics stand in contrast to the ordered, often jovial mood of the meticulously clean and regimented Admiralty site. It is also where Hong Kong’s post-colonial identity crisis has come to a head.

#HongKong’s gritty underbelly

“We are Hong Kongers, not Chinese,” Wong Yeung-Tat insists. He is in good company. A Chinese University poll found last week that just 8.9 percent of respondents identified as “Chinese,” a record low.

Since the occupations began, Wong has attracted hordes of formerly apathetic young people to his populist platform deeply critical of Beijing. Wong’s influence stems partly from the success of his social media-savvy publication Passion Times.

Though some of its content is sensationalist and even inflammatory toward the movement’s original conveners, his team members are continually embedded at the protest sites publishing online multimedia updates in real time. Wong’s expletive-ridden speeches and lively talk shows draw large crowds in Mong Kok, where he holds considerable sway.

“We try to protect Hong Kong culture from mainland Chinese influence. For example, our language, our education [system], our media, our values, our standards. We try to protect ‘one country, two systems,’” Wong says, referring to the principle that underpinned Britain’s handover of its colony to communist China in 1997. “We think it is more and more ‘one country’… the ‘two systems’ is disappearing.”

On the very spot where Wong laments the city’s “mainland-ization,” four branches of the same jewelry store are within view. Rents have soared in areas popular with mainland shoppers and some businesses have been criticized for converting signs, price lists and menus from traditional to simplified Chinese characters, used on the mainland. According to the Tourism Commission, Hong Kong welcomed almost 41 million tourists from China last year. In Mong Kok’s occupied zone alone, no less than 40 watch and jewelry stores cater to the newly affluent influx of visitors.

The rapid gentrification of Nathan Road towards wealthy consumers has been noted by Evan Fowler, a local writer who is soon to launch a campaign to document Hong Kong identity issues. He says that the Mong Kok camp is a “more local” protest where people are expressing concern about visitors “coming to Hong Kong and changing the very make up of their home.”

“What you’re seeing in Mong Kok, and with groups like Civic Passion, is a guttural reaction to how [people’s] lives are actually changing,” Fowler says. “There are a number of shops which are not serving the community at all.”

Such fears receive less of an airing at the occupy camp near government headquarters in Admiralty. Fowler says the main camp over on Hong Kong Island “is probably a bit too hippy-ish for the Mong Kok crowd” who, he imagines, are generally “less idealistic.”

Some protesters, such as Lavina Au, a 17-year-old secondary school student, agree. “I don’t like that the people in Admiralty treat this movement as entertainment,” she says. Compared to the drama and tension of Mong Kok, Au says that Admiralty is a relative fairground. Nevertheless, the movement’s two most prominent student leaders are keen to play down any disparities between the protests camps, preferring to present a more united front.

“We still have the same aim,” says Joshua Wong, co-founder of the student group Scholarism. His counterpart at the Hong Kong Federation of Students, Alex Chow, is equally firm. “We have been working with people in Mong Kok quite well,” he says. But not everyone feels that ordinary people’s views are being heard at the main site where the local media are focused.

On Oct. 26, a referendum planned by the original Occupy Central organizers was canceled, in part due to a pushback from protesters in Mong Kok. The poll aimed to gather views on the future of the “leaderless” movement but many saw it as an assertion of authority by Occupy Central convener Benny Tai. The University of Hong Kong law professor proposed the civil disobedience campaign two years ago but, in the run-up to the ill-fated referendum, his image began appearing next to Hitler and Mussolini’s on posters around Mong Kok. Deliberations over constitutional reform bore little relevance to dissenters on this side of the harbor.

Albert Chan, co-founder of the radical pro-democracy political party People Power, says that “Mong Kok is very special … especially for the grassroots people.”

Mong Kok's brutal reality

Beyond mythic images of the area as a neon-lit hotbed of crime, grime and grit, it is also the heart of working-class Hong Kong and home to many of the city’s poor and elderly. It is a focal point for “working classes, unskilled labor [and] people living in the public housing estates,” says Chan, a veteran legislator with little patience for the mainstream pan-democratic parties.

Like others on site, Chan does not believe protesters in Mong Kok will be following Benny Tai’s advice to await arrest when “clearance day” arrives. “There will be more physical confrontation and some protesters may move to different areas, different streets. I do believe less people here will be willing to be arrested,” he says.

Some of the “real Hong Kongers” Chan speaks of have little to lose. The city has one of the widest poverty gaps in the developed world, according to the United Nations. Mong Kok is infamous for its coffin-like “cage home” dwellings hidden in old subdivided apartments around the district. With little in the way of social welfare, elderly residents and the working poor pay a small fortune for caged beds in sweltering dormitories or slum-like shacks on rooftops.

Last year, the government said 1.3 million people, in a city of 7 million, lived under the poverty line. Matters of social inequality, as well as identity issues, have come to the forefront at the protests.

Chester Tsang, a 21-year-old part-time student, spent the first 20 days of the protest at the Admiralty site before switching to Mong Kok where he is a volunteer first aider. He says that those on the bottom rungs of society look to Mong Kok where underlying social issues are more often discussed. However, he says the real change will come from the debate in Admiralty and that those in Mong Kok too often see things in "black and white."

"They don't know too much about politics but they still want to change their own lives, so they're depending on the students here," says Tsang, who has spotted homeless people and drug users visiting the site. "It isn't only about fighting for democracy, we have different social needs. My generation, we care about social justice. My mother's generation cared about a roof on their heads. My grandmother's generation, they just wanted warm food on their table."

Tsang is concerned about unrest in Mong Kok and says the camp needs more “sensible people.” But few know what the coming week has in store.

Blaming the Brits

One speaker rallying crowds in Mong Kok is already eyeing a new battle ground. Daniel Ma, a 20-year-old student, expects to mobilize at least 50 people to occupy the grounds of the British consulate on Friday, Nov. 21. He says London has a legal obligation to defend the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which gave rise to Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy under China.

“The promise and the reality is not the same. Therefore we are angry and afraid — we want to change our future,” Ma says. “They have kept silent. China has breached the Joint Declaration but the UK has done nothing on the Hong Kong issue.”

The old British Hong Kong colonial flag has become a common sight around the Mong Kok camp. For most, it is simply a symbol of resistance, a provocative middle-finger intended to enrage Beijing. Ma says a small minority do actually want the British to return. An even smaller minority are calling for complete independence. Both are highly unlikely but, in Mong Kok, an entire spectrum of more radical views are expressed. One academic says that radical ideas are a healthy part of any movement.

“Mong Kok certainly is more assertive, more individualistic,” says Dan Garrett, a PhD candidate studying protest culture at City University of Hong Kong. “Much like in the US with the civil rights movement, you had Martin Luther King which represented the moderate aspect of civil disobedience. Then you had the folks like Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and, quite frankly, the white establishment would not have cooperated … if there was not a more radical, alternative pressure on them.”

As the umbrella movement stretches into its eighth week of protest, it has inevitably become a platform for a range of grievances and has exposed underlying disputes in a decades-long democracy debate. However, some of the more fanatical views on display in Mong Kok may increase the bargaining power of the student leaders at the main site by making them appear more moderate in contrast.

And while the birth pangs of any new movement are messy and unpredictable, Hong Kong’s fight for universal suffrage is destined to continue long after the protest camps are cleared.

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