Hong Kong protests: Roughing it out in Mong Kok

The ring of onlookers is packed five men deep. They crane their necks to get a glimpse of about 20 young people seated quietly under a makeshift canopy.

The youngsters are quiet: Some read books; other peer at their mobile phones.

Finally, one reaches for a nearby loudhailer and asks in a sunny voice: "We feel a little strange with you all standing there staring at us. Why don't you join us and sit down?"

A murmur of uncertainty radiates through the crowd.

The canopy, after all, is standing on what used to be one of the busiest traffic junctions in Hong Kong. It sits in the heart of Mong Kok, a lively warren of shops, eateries, brothels, massage parlours from shabby to kitsch. The district is one of the world's most densely populated areas, and is associated with the triads immortalised by Hong Kong's prolific movie industry.

Last week, it made the world's headlines when thugs attacked pro-democracy protesters to force an end to the week-long sit-in of the district.

The Mong Kok protesters, together with those in the Admiralty and Causeway Bay districts, have demanded that Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying step down. They are also bitterly opposed to rules imposed by the central Chinese government that would require candidates vying for the post of chief executive in 2017 to be vetted prior to the election.

Mong Kok is where the distrust of the city's erstwhile respected policemen is being sown. Protesters who witnessed Friday's violence say police nearby did little to stop the attacks. In fact, they say, police led assailants away only to release them nearby.

It does not matter that police have strongly denied such claims and arrested at least 19 people, out of which eight have triad links. Protesters continue to whisper about the videos on social media that suggest official complicity with the violence.

Post-graduate student Janet Yau, 23, says: "The police cannot use violence to make us go away, because all the citizens will scold them. So they use this."

The distrust can quickly grow to animosity, especially in the pre-dawn hours when there are few passersby to check mob mentality. In a scene repeated over and over again, individuals who began abusing protesters were instantly surrounded by swarms of demonstrators. Policemen who rushed to separate opposing camps were outnumbered and outflanked. Scuffles then broke out between the police and protesters, who demanded some assurance that the provocateurs be arrested.

Boundaries blur in Mong Kok. The constant stream of shoppers meld with the crowd of protesters milling on the blockaded streets, making it hard to separate supporters from curious bystanders.

And on early Sunday morning, some youth who ostensibly supported the protest appeared more aggressive than usual, taunting and shoving the police to brink confrontation. In response, policemen drew their batons as they formed a protective circle that slowly edged out of the booing crowd.

Many Mong Kok retailers say they have simply had enough of the occupation, given that China would unlikely compromise on its political position.

Mr Louis Fan, 27, an assistant in a medical hall where takings have halved since the protesters move in, says: "I feel that they are waiting to create trouble."

Most businesses would have tolerated a three-day occupation if the students want to make a point. Beyond that, it's "too much", he says.

Chief Executive Leung thinks so too. Although conceding little, he has demanded that blockaded roads be opened by Monday so that civil servants can go to work and students to school. And he's willing to use whatever means necessary to clear the streets.

The veiled threat has unnerved some but made self-appointed protest guards like Kevin Lui more resolute.

"None of us wants to go home empty handed," says the 17-year-old student. "I won't admit defeat. Even if the protest leaders ask us to retreat, I feel it's my personal decision."

With that, he takes up position by a makeshift barricade, scanning the distance for any sign of trouble.

tanhy@sph.com.sg