HONG KONG — They called it the Lucky Supply Station, a small mountain of donated goods nestled under a bridge near the heart of Hong Kong’s protests.
All week long, a hardy band of pro-democracy demonstrators had manned the little way station at the easternmost edge of the main protest site.
With little sleep and few breaks, they — and others at stations throughout the site — distributed food and water to protesters and protected their supplies from rain, sweltering heat, police and opponents of the protests.
At night, the team took turns sleeping on the supply cartons to prevent authorities from dismantling their station.
The first night, demonstrators were filled with anger after an assault by police with tear gas, pepper spray and batons. Then came the exhilaration of ensuing nights, as thousands of people poured into the streets to join their cause.
By Friday, however, only exhaustion and frustration remained as torrential rain and flagging morale depleted the ranks of those at the station.
“People are getting tired and cranky,” sighed William Chan, as the lanky 17-year-old sprawled out on a crate of bottled water.
Squabbles had flared in recent days among competing factions of protesters over the next steps in their fight for unrestricted voting rights, he noted. Public opinion — which had swung toward the students after the police’s tear-gas attack — was also now rapidly turning against them as their occupation continued to paralyze large sections of the city.
Gangs of masked men had stormed other occupation sites and pummeled protesters, trying to chase them off the street.
Standing next to Chan, another exhausted volunteer, Herman Cheung, 23, began sobbing quietly.
“This is the government’s strategy to turn the public against us,” he said.
“I know our occupation is disrupting some people’s lives. That’s why they’re frustrated, but we are fighting for them, too, so that we can all have real democracy,” Cheung said, wiping his eyes. “Why don’t they see that? Why do they hate us?”
The few remaining protesters at the station hugged Cheung. And as the downpour continued, a gloomy silence settled on them.
“I don’t know how much longer we can last,” Chan said finally. “I keep thinking about what happens when this all ends. What if nothing changes? What did we fight for?”
Their supply station sat on Hennessy Road — several blocks away from the blare of bullhorns and the high-minded debates at the main encampment.
Chan, Cheung and the others considered themselves a front line of sorts, because they were stationed by the last of the protesters’ barricades, next door to police headquarters.
Should police emerge again with tear gas, pepper spray and riot gear, they would be the first ones to spot it. They were also often the first people whom new protesters met as they arrived from the east. And they made sure passersby were armed with water, umbrellas and masks to cover their noses and mouths.
While the protest movement at large was a decentralized effort, the Lucky Supply Station had one clear leader: Karl Kwan, 24, a beefy, bespectacled man who created the post by moving boxed supplies under the bridge the night of the tear-gas attack.
Kwan was using up precious vacation days from his job to stay on the streets, and he led his brigade of volunteers with unabashed pride.
“There are plenty of bigger supply stations than us,” he said. “But none as organized.”
As the week dragged on, however, Kwan worried about his workers, even as he hid from them a growing sense of disillusionment.
Friday, he said, felt like a turning point.
Opponents of the protest — whom many believe were sent by Hong Kong’s triad gangs — had begun assaulting demonstrators at other sites. Planned talks between student protesters and the government were canceled. And mistrust of authorities grew amid suspicion that because of officers’ weak response to attacks on demonstrators, police were colluding with the assailants.
At the Lucky Supply Station, tempers began flaring over minor disagreements. Those bringing in bottles of water criticized others handing them out, saying they were giving the aid too readily to people who took just a few sips and threw the rest away.
“People are using their own money to buy this for us. Why are you wasting it?” one person said.
Down the street at the main protest camp, disagreements were breaking out over larger issues as well — whether to expand the area being occupied, whether to continue demanding the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive or to focus on the original goal of abolishing new rules by China’s government, which would render future elections mere shams.
Fears of another police crackdown were spreading. And some students, who began the week vowing to stay as long as required to win true democracy, were now openly questioning whether their movement would last this weekend.
Sitting on the ground by the government headquarters at the heart of the demonstrations, Vivian Wong, 21, recalled her parents’ sharp criticism earlier in the week when she headed out to join the protest.
“They said, ‘You are naive.’ That we are treating the protest as some party and not thinking about how the occupied streets affect the rest of society,” she said. “They said it’s foolish to think we will change anything.”
More and more, that last statement seemed to be ringing true, she admitted. “But that doesn’t mean it was for nothing.”
Beside her, Hui Kwat Kong, 20, worked on homework from college classes he had ditched for the protest.
“Even if the protest ends today, you cannot say nothing has changed,” he argued.
“Our generation has proven that we will stand up for ourselves and fight for freedom. And they,” he said, pointing to dozens of high school students sitting nearby, “are like a seed we are planting for the future. Until a seed blossoms, who can say what will come from it?”
Back at the Lucky Supply Station on Friday night, as the rain kept pouring, the brigade of volunteers continued shrinking.
Chan — the 17-year-old — vowed to stay even if no one else did. To him, the cartons of food, water and medicine had become a symbol of sorts.
“The people who gave us these supplies, it was their way of showing their support and belief in what we’re doing. We have a responsibility to them,” he said. “How can we just abandon that?”
But as the night wore on, a decision was made by organizers down the road to pull back the easternmost barricade and consolidate the protesters at the main encampment.
And without the barricade for protection, Kwan — the station’s leader — reluctantly ordered a retreat. “We started this wanting to make a difference,” he said. “I hope that we did, but if I’m honest, I don’t know that for sure.”
By Saturday morning, all that was left of the Lucky Supply Station and its band of dedicated youths was a tattered sign that read:
“Precious materials. Please do not put to waste.”