The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a once-quiet Hong Kong neighborhood, lives upended as protests find new ground

Riot police stand guard Monday in the Wong Tai Sin neighborhood in Hong Kong. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)

HONG KONG — One elderly woman wears a mask in her bathroom in case tear gas leaks in. A man added extra honey to his chicken wings recipe to mask the sour taste of the gas.

A neighbor in his 90s put on hold his cherished ritual of spending the afternoon in the park with friends. Instead, he struggled to close his window from his motorized wheelchair as tear gas billowed up from street clashes 16 floors below.

Hong Kong’s restive summer has shattered the routines of residents in the normally quiet neighborhood of Wong Tai Sin — and in dozens of other places across the territory as the pro-autonomy protests expand and evolve. 

Demonstrations are no longer confined to symbolic targets such as government buildings in central enclaves. They have spilled out into virtually all of Hong Kong’s residential districts.

Once-familiar rhythms are being upended, and many have been left traumatized and confused as protests grow more unpredictable and intense

Residents have been forced to adapt in ways big and small.

Last weekend and into Monday, 93-year-old Ng, who only gave his last name, citing privacy concerns, stayed indoors as the working-class district best known for a temple that promises to heal the sick was gripped by street battles. 

He did not expect tear gas to be shot off in daylight Monday, and he struggled to close the windows of his apartment where he lives alone.

“I couldn’t react fast enough,” he said. “It was very sudden.” 

Yiu, who similarly wanted to be identified only by his last name, said he was cooking in his kitchen that same day when tear gas seeped in for a third day in a row, engulfing his chicken wings.

“I had to put lots of honey on [the wings], to make sure the taste went away. But it was still there,” he said.

Even the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been drawn in. It published guidelines on what to do if household pets are exposed to tear gas. 

Amid the upheavals, political views are hardening, pitting communities against one another and against the police. 

No signs of compromise

It all came barging into Wong Tai Sin this month. 

Riot police entered the district Aug. 3 in pursuit of protesters. Residents, in T-shirts and shorts, emerged from apartments to face off with officers, demanding they leave. Police responded with arrests and a haze of tear gas. 

Clashes continued over the next two days, coinciding Monday with a Hong Kong-wide strike. 

Hong Kong’s protests were sparked in early June by a now-shelved bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, but demands have since grown to include an independent investigation into police use of force against demonstrators and more autonomy for the former British colony.

Beijing and Hong Kong leaders have shown no sign of compromise, while police have dialed up their use of force and arrests. 

In a news conference Tuesday, Yang Guang, a spokesman for Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, warned protesters “not to take restraint as a sign of weakness.” 

Chinese officials — meeting with Hong Kong leaders across the border in Shenzhen on Wednesday — rejected all protester demands, according to Michael Tien, a pro-Beijing lawmaker and delegate at the talks.

“The central government has made its decision; there is no more room to move,” he said. “We just have to unite and face this long struggle.” 

Protests flared anew Saturday. A sit-in at Hong Kong’s airport entered its second day. Meanwhile, marchers took to the streets of Wong Tai Sin and other areas in defiance of a ban imposed by police.

Posters in advance of the Wong Tai Sin protest showed a Taoist deity sitting in a lotus pose, wearing a full-face respirator to protect against tear gas, a reference to the famed temple. 

Police fired tear gas in Hong Kong's Wan Chai area on Aug. 11 after protesters set up barricades and blocked roads. (Video: Reuters)

Cops and rebels

Residents and local leaders describe Wong Tai Sin as overwhelmingly safe and quiet, unlike other areas that have experienced occasional riots and gang activity linked to organized crime syndicates known as triads. A focal point of activity is the temple, where the entrance is lined with fortune tellers and shops selling charms, incense and flowers. 

During the day, the neighborhood is full of elderly residents and their helpers taking slow walks around the apartment blocks. 

“In general, it is one of the oldest constituencies in Hong Kong, with an aging community,” said Wu Chi-Wai, a pro-democracy lawmaker whose constituency includes Wong Tai Sin.

In the politically diverse neighborhood, represented by a mix of pro-Beijing and pro-democracy politicians, residential complexes housing police officers and their families bump up against low-income housing towers. 

Yiu, who made the chicken wings at home, was among residents preparing for bed on Aug. 3 when loud noises erupted from outside. He looked on as residents briefly sent officers retreating, and then as police pushed back against residents yelling at “everyone, even the old people.”

He heard a bang, and quickly felt something that “hurt” his nose — his first whiff of tear gas. 

“I couldn’t imagine this would happen in my community,” said the 38-year-old Yiu — who always thought the older generations who dominate the area were largely pro-Beijing. He hasn’t been able to have a full night’s sleep in days. 

Christine, a 24-year-old events manager, rushed out onto the streets on Aug. 3 when she saw live broadcasts of the conflict featuring the Catholic primary school she attended. 

“Everyone around me was just residents in their flip-flops, without helmets, gear or anything,” she said, noting that she, too, had no protective gear when the first rounds of gas were fired. “It caused a lot of panic.”

As she was walking back home after the conflict seemed to die down, she and other protesters were hit by a firecracker, flung from the apartments set aside for police and their families. Glass bottles were also thrown from those balconies toward protesters, an indication of the growing animosity between communities that once lived together. 

Tear gas canisters used: 800 

Police said they used 800 canisters of tear gas that Monday. They had used about 1,000 during the two months earlier. Responding to questions from journalists, senior superintendent Kong Wing-cheung said it wasn’t the police who chose the neighborhoods where conflict broke out, but “the violent protesters.” 

“So we’re forced to use tear gas in residential areas,” he said. 

In a news conference Friday, a panel of medical experts warned that repeated exposure to tear gas could cause a host of complications including pneumonia, bronchitis and gastrointestinal problems, and noted police have at times used expired canisters of gas, which pose additional hazards. 

The experience has transformed the views of one 55-year-old Wong Tai Sin resident, who declined to be named for fear of backlash from authorities.

She had been supportive of the now-shelved extradition bill, and of the government — until she saw the risks to her elderly mother and her young son posed by police use of force. She closed all the windows, but poor sealing meant gas still seeped in, irritating her mother, who has now taken to wearing a mask in the bathroom. 

“Even if the protesters are quite violent, it doesn’t mean you need to fire so much tear gas,” she demanded. 

On Friday night, a different kind of rally was held in Wong Tai Sin.

Protesters gathered to throw paper money at police officers and their residential quarters. The bills represent offerings to restless spirits who, in Chinese tradition, are believed to return to earth during the Hungry Ghost Festival this month.

They hurled curses and vulgarities along with the money. 

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