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.
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.
The extradition bill may be dead for now — though it still hasn’t been officially withdrawn — but protesters also want the government to take back using the term “riots” to describe protester clashes, they want an independent inquiry into the actions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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Protesters are pretty much made up of two kinds of people — young people and old people.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Additionally, Ivan says that whatever chemical is in the water cannon also causes burning and dyes everything it touches blue to mark protesters.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And that’s a little bit about what being at the protests is like. Until the next one.
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