Unrest in Hong Kong: A city pays the price for protests

The anti-government protests show few signs of abating and the rift in society is widening. Sunday Times correspondents Claire Huang and Elizabeth Law and photojournalist Chong Jun Liang look at how the unrest, now into its fourth month, has divided families and society, and taken a toll on mental health.

People queue for buses in the Sheung Shui area in Hong Kong on Oct 5, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

A protester suffers from insomnia.

A mother and her child have stopped speaking.

And a metro worker's work life has been turned upside down.

Nearly four months of protests have split Hong Kong society, exacting a heavy toll on all fronts.

What began as people agitating against a now-withdrawn extradition Bill has since morphed into anti-government demonstrations calling for greater democracy.

Frequent clashes between protesters and police, who have come down hard on them, have also led to unbridled anger against what was once known as Asia's finest force.

The government on Friday invoked a colonial-era emergency law to ban the use of masks during mass gatherings, a move that has only further agitated its opponents.

Scenes of unprecedented violence have been broadcast constantly and there are fears that this could normalise violence, said Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups coordinator Hsu Siu-man.

Increasing numbers are also calling counselling hotlines to deal with their emotions, as experts warn against glorifying suicides to further the protest movement.

The economy has taken a beating, with tourists staying away and businesses forced to shut early.

But, for many, the protests have hit closer to home.

Protester Eason Chan has not slept well in months and constantly worries about getting arrested.

As demonstrators target MTR stations after accusing the rail operator of cooperating with the police, senior station control officer Mak Pui Tung says regular commuters have turned strangers.

And for government supporter Jenny Kwan, the protests have gone from the streets into her home after her pro-democracy son moved out following a difference in opinion.

In schools, some students have even reported feeling peer pressure to take a stance on the events despite trying to stay neutral, said Ms Hsu, a social worker and counsellor with two decades' experience.

Ultimately, a prolonged situation like that will only split society and weigh on everyone's emotions, she said, adding that healing the rift in society, while important, could take a very long time.

"But it has to be a holistic approach that's not just about reconciliation between all sides, but also practical solutions to the underlying problem," she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 06, 2019, with the headline Unrest in Hong Kong: A city pays the price for protests. Subscribe