Inside the Hong Kong Protests: What It’s Really Like to Be on the Ground

We sent a reporter to Hong Kong to find out what's really happening there.

hong kong protests

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a NextShark series covering the Hong Kong protests with our reporter in the field, Ivan Ng. 

By now, the entire world knows what’s going on in Hong Kong. It started with an extradition bill, the people protested for months, the government said they would kill the extradition bill, but too many tragedies and alleged crimes had happened for the people to let go. They continue to protest, but this time for a completed list of five demands.

HONG KONG, CHINA – SEPTEMBER 04: People walk past a big screen replaying Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam as she announced the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill on September 4, 2019. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The extradition bill may be dead for now — though it still hasn’t been officially withdrawn but protesters also want the government to take back using the term “riots” to describe protester clashes, they want an independent inquiry into the actions of the Hong Kong police, for everyone who was arrested in clashes with the police to be pardoned, and, most importantly, universal suffrage.

Most Western news outlets only report the most major events of the protests and many details of the demonstrations or clashes stay superficial. A lot of news coming out of the Hong Kong area has also been suspected of biased reporting. What can you really believe in the news these days? 

But Hong Kong is in the blood of a lot of Asian Americans; what’s happening there is important to them and close to their hearts. On top of that, have you seen some of these pictures and videos coming out of Hong Kong? It looks absolutely insane. Whether it’s because millions are out marching or because it looks like a war zone, one of the world’s greatest cultural and economic centers appears to be tearing itself apart.

 

So what is going on there? What is it like to be there without having to actually go? We had to find out some way, so we sent a guy.

© Ivan Ng

Meet Ivan Ng. Check out his Instagram. Ivan is a very talented photographer and he’s absolutely fearless. He’s from Hong Kong, though he’s been living in California more recently. Ivan loves Hong Kong. When he talks about it, you can tell it’s his home and it’s very close to his heart. Ivan got homesick, especially with all that’s taking place, so he wanted to go back and capture what’s going on through his lens. That’s his art and passion.

©Ivan Ng

Ivan has done a lot of research and has been communicating with his friends in Hong Kong since before the protests in June. He protects himself with a filtered gas mask, industrial goggles, a helmet, and a reflective vest for police to identify him. I suspect he protects his camera to the same degree if not more. He’s also carrying a press badge that we gave him which will come in handy if the police ever want to talk to him. He is low-key scared of the police when he’s not working because Hong Kong police will reportedly arrest young people at random on absurd charges, but he’s out in the field as best prepared as he knows how.

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Protesters gather at night for a peaceful rally on September 27. Evenings are widely recognized as a peaceful-demonstration-only time. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

Ivan knows where protests are taking place through social media and he treks across the city to check them out. He is among the protesters, talking to them, on the sidelines, sometimes inches from the police — he’s in the thick of it. We talk about everything he sees, hears, smells and feels among the protests. I’m going to tell you about Ivan’s adventures.

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Hong Kong police stand ready to keep the peace during the Anti-Emergency Regulations Ordinance and Mask-Ban March on October 6. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

I’m aware there’s a lot of controversy on stories coming out of Hong Kong, particularly when it comes to an unbiased reporting of factual events. So you have some idea where I’m coming from, I am of the belief that NextShark has always tried to show both sides of this story and will continue to do so. We aren’t siding with any cause. I’m simply going to use Ivan’s photos and the stories he tells me to describe as best and unbiased as I can what it’s like to be there.

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A young protester who failed to escape when police rushed protesters is caught on October 6. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

The details I describe can be regarded as facts from our eyewitness Ivan who, for his own personal safety, remains unbiased. When something is a rumor, a suspicion, or has not been verified, I’ll make that apparent.

The following details come from Ivan photographing protests from September 27 to October 6. During this time, Hong Kong banned the wearing of masks and covering of the face, which began on October 5.

The Protesters

Let’s start with the protesters. Who are these people? Who has time in the middle of the day to get suited up in armor to dangerously stare down the Hong Kong police?

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A group of protesters poses for Ivan on October 1. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

Protesters are pretty much made up of two kinds of people — young people and old people.

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Young protesters walk to join demonstrations on October 1 in the Sha Tin District. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

It’s mostly young people, easily more than two-thirds. They are middle school, high school and college students. You’d probably ask why they aren’t in school. Many major protest events are scheduled on the weekend when everyone is typically free. During the week, students will go on “strike” from their classes to attend protests. They still go to school or campus, gather their assignments and turn in what’s due to maintain their grades. Many students may also post flyers or artwork in support of the protesters at their schools.

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“Aunties” gather to form a human chain from Tsim Sha Tsui to Prince Edward Station on September 30. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

The older people are described as the “uncles and aunties next door.” They may be retired, striking from work or maybe their businesses have closed as a result of the protests. During protests, they will take on the role of protectors, supporting the younger protesters and telling them to run if they know police are on the way. They tend to stay in the background, a safe distance from the danger.

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“Aunties” and “uncles” who are part of the “Guardian of the Children” group watch peaceful protesters walk in the Wan Chai district on October 5. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

It’s not uncommon for them to carry first-aid, medicines, extra umbrellas, water or food to hand out to the kids. The sneakier aunties and uncles hand out extra gas masks and gloves. They also offer tips and tricks for removing road barriers faster, how to escape from certain neighborhoods, and which roads are risky and should be avoided. Many of them share the feeling that they want to help the youth in this cause out of their own regret for not doing this when they were younger. They think that Hong Kong could perhaps be a better place today had they fought harder back then.

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An old “uncle” proudly raises his cane at a peaceful march in the Wan Chai district on October 5. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

What Happens During a Protest

To organize and find out about demonstrations, people use LIHKG, which is like Hong Kong’s version of Reddit, Telegram channels, and graphics posted on the Lennon Walls. These demonstrations always start with the intention to remain calm and peaceful.

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This is what a protest organization flyer looks like. They get posted at schools, on the Lennon Wall or online.
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Thousands came out for the “Anti-Totalitarianism” march towards Harcourt Road on September 29. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

During the day, things are mostly peaceful. Sure, people are angry, but only in the back of their minds. Their body language is relaxed throughout the day. Not everyone shows up wearing homemade riot gear, but some do. Many protests don’t go beyond a peaceful march. Sometimes the police never even show up.

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A couple holds hands as they walk during a peaceful demonstration on September 29. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

Two young protesters hold hands during the mask-ban march on October 6. ©Ivan Ng/NextSharkThe protesters can be a musical bunch. They know chants, slogans and songs that they have been belting out over the last three months. Their hit chants include “Hong Kongers, Add Oil!” which changed to “Hong Kongers, Resist!” when the mask ban was put in place. There is also “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Time,” “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong,” and “Five Demands, Not One Less!”

Someone even remixed Sia’s song “Chandelier” with lyrics that mock the police, and protesters will all sing along to raise spirits and have a few laughs.

 

It’s when the police show up that the air changes. Ivan said he could feel the crowd getting angry. The atmosphere became “sour.”

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An armored police officer stands ready at the mask-ban march at the Causeway Bay Sogo-Harcourt Road protest on October 6. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

Despite the tension, protesters are very supportive of each other, helping anyone who looks like they need it. They offer words of encouragement to photographers like Ivan and members of the press documenting the protests, sometimes offering free equipment or water. Restaurants may even give out free food or discounts.

Police get ready to engage at a mask-ban march on October 6 at Causeway Bay Sogo-Harcourt Road. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

When the police first arrive, they typically stand around surveying the scene, but when they are prepared, they start to hold up flags to warn protesters they are in an “illegal gathering.” They hold up different colored flags, each carrying a different warning and consequence. Blue flags warn that protesters are breaking the law and face possible arrest. A yellow flag carries the same message but it’s more ambiguous, elevating tensions. If the crowd is not yet dispersed, the police hold up an orange flag, which brings the potential use of rubber bullets, pepper balls and beanbag rounds. Then, the black flag goes up, meaning the use of tear gas is imminent. Orange and black flags are often put up simultaneously.

This is what a yellow flag looks like. See that photographer behind the police? That’s Ivan. His friend took and sent him this photo. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

Anyone who isn’t wearing protective gear when the police show up evacuates the area, while those who do have protective gear stay to set up roadblocks until everyone gets to safety. If necessary, these same roadblocks will buy protesters time to escape when special SWAT police called “Raptors” try to rush protesters or charge them with tactical vehicles.

This is what the special “Raptor” police units look like. With their heavier armor, they will run up on protesters on foot. Here, they tried to rush protesters by sneaking through a park, but a scout from a vantage point saw them coming and protesters were able to flee in time in the Sha Tin district on October 1. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark
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“Frontliners” get in formation as tear gas flies during protests near Harcourt Road on September 29. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

By the time the orange and black flags come up, unprotected protesters are gone or hiding and the protesters wearing full gear line up while using umbrellas as shields. This is called the “frontline,” and the brave protesters who volunteer to man the frontline take different roles.

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A “firefighter” picks up a tear gas cannister and throws it back at police on October 6. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

There are “firefighters,” protesters wearing heat-proof gloves equipped with water bottles and water bags. They will charge from the frontline to extinguish tear gas canisters while another protester will run beside them holding an umbrella or another object to shield them from rubber bullets. And yes, it turns out that umbrellas actually can block rubber bullets and beanbag rounds at the distance the protesters are from the police. Many protesters also use road signs or colorful kickboards as shields.

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Frontline protesters push forward as rubber bullets and bean bag rounds are fired at them on October 1. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

A lot of the gear the protesters have is for defensive purposes, but some, known as “mages,” also bring Molotov cocktails. If you aren’t familiar, a Molotov is the easiest DIY firebomb made of a glass bottle, a really flammable liquid and a rag. Liquid goes in the bottle, half the rag gets stuffed in the bottle, and you light the other half on fire right before throwing it. It shatters when it hits the ground, creating an area of fire.

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A protester with a street sign shield stands near a fire on September 29. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

These Molotov cocktails are apparently used both defensively and offensively, blocking the advance of the police so that protesters have time to escape. They can also secure distance to rescue someone stuck past the frontline. However, these protesters aren’t exactly trained in the art of homemade weapons like this, and sometimes misfires occur. 

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Protesters start a fire in the street to slow down police advancing on them at the mask-ban march on October 6. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

Ivan says he was almost hit by one on the sidelines because of a bad throw. He gave a friendly wave to them after to let them know he was there. Another member of the press appeared to catch fire from another badly thrown one, though he survived with no injuries. While on the sidelines, Ivan says he has interacted with police, but those interactions were limited to when they yell and push the press away with their riot shields and pepper spray.

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Police clashed with protesters multiple times during the “Anti-Totalitarianism” march in the Harcourt Road area on September 29. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

Protests that have escalated to that black flag status typically get ugly. The police tactic is to slowly advance on the protesters using tear gas and water cannons. Sometimes they try to rush the frontline, hence the use of the Molotovs.

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Hong Kong Police fire tear gas on protesters near Harcourt Road on September 29. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

When the tear gas starts flying, the air becomes very spicy. Some people throw up. When it gets on your clothes, it seeps into the material. If that spicy air touches your face or eyeballs, they will start burning. Any exposed skin, especially sweaty skin, will burn. Obviously, don’t breathe it in.

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Protesters on the frontline scramble to put out tear gas canisters at the Sha Tin protests on October 1. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

Ivan has accidentally touched his face before having the chance to wash his hands and it burned. He describes it as a kind of pain that just makes you want to stop doing whatever it is that you’re doing. The best ways to protect yourself from this are to wear long pants and long sleeves, and many members of the press wear a towel to cover their necks, something Ivan is always forgetting.

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Press members take cover to snap pics of protesters during the clash with police on October 6. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

Additionally, Ivan says that whatever chemical is in the water cannon also causes burning and dyes everything it touches blue to mark protesters.

A water cannon vehicle was brought in during a protest near the Legislative Council Building on September 26. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

The lighter-armored protesters slowly retreat back through the barricades protecting their escape. Those on the frontline stay to hold the police off until everyone can get out. This is when things can get the most violent — protesters holding their ground with police coming at them in full force. This standoff can sometimes last for hours if frontliners want to test how much the police can take before they escalate things.

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Protesters taunt the police at a protest in the Sha Tin district of Hong Kong on the 70th Anniversary of the establishment of the CCP on October 1. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

Eventually, when everyone else has pulled back, the frontline group will unanimously agree to disperse at once, ending the protest. It has become a sort of goal among the protesters to be able to push the police back despite being out-gunned.

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Protesters disperse after getting cornered by police outside of Sha Tin center on October 1. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

The Rumors Among Protesters

Then, of course, there are details that remain unverified. They are funny stories that the protesters tell each other and suspicions of what they think is going on. I’m not saying these are facts, they are just hilarious or can tell you a little bit more about what’s going through the minds of these protesters.

Word on the street is that at one protest, one that Ivan wasn’t at, there was a construction vehicle nearby. This kid, probably a high schooler, Googled how to work one of the machines and hijacked it. He steered the vehicle towards a police station and put it in drive. It slowly crawled all the way to the police station and actually hit it, but it was going so slow that it didn’t do any damage. Many protesters had a good laugh sharing this one. 

At a protest Ivan attended (Causeway Bay Sogo-Harcourt Road on October 6), a protester managed to turn on a tractor to drive in the middle of the road to use as a roadblock. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

Some of the protesters also have suspicions of undercover police among them. They think — and all of this is “allegedly” — that there are police acting as protesters trying to escalate violence at demonstrations. And if the media were to catch wind of the protesters getting more violent, they would be painted as out of control and maybe even as terrorists. The police would then have a reason to bring in bigger guns and make emergency laws that ban social media, the internet, or put up a curfew. It wouldn’t be a good look for protesters, so they believe it’s in their best interests to remain peaceful and organized.

Then, apparently, there are gangs of guys who come out at night. Some protesters are saying they are pro-Beijing or pro-police groups because witnesses claim they hear them speaking Mandarin. These guys, sometimes armed with sticks, are usually dressed in the same color and they go around either tearing protester flyers down, vandalizing storefronts or looting businesses.

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A man destroys the entrance to a subway station on October 4. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

It should be noted that there are protesters who will actually admit to vandalizing businesses, and while this does not excuse their actions or the use of violence, they claim that they only target businesses they believe are owned by triad gangs or the Chinese government.

A branch of the Bank of China (Hong Kong) is seen vandalized by protesters on October 4. ©Ivan Ng/NextShark

And that’s a little bit about what being at the protests is like. Until the next one.

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