HONG KONG • Grandpa Wong holds a walking stick above his head as he pleads with riot police to stop firing tear gas, shielding protesters on the front lines of Hong Kong's fight for democracy.
Despite his age, Grandpa Wong, 85, is a regular sight at Hong Kong's street battles, hobbling towards police lines, placing himself in between riot officers and hardcore protesters, hoping to de-escalate what have now become near-daily clashes.
"I'd rather they kill the elderly than hit the youngsters," he told Agence France-Presse news agency during a recent series of skirmishes in the shopping district of Causeway Bay, a gas mask dangling from his chin. "We're old now, but the children are the future of Hong Kong."
The three months of huge, sometimes violent pro-democracy protests in the semi-autonomous Chinese city are overwhelmingly youth-led. Research by academics has shown that half of those on the streets are aged between 20 and 30, while 77 per cent have degrees.
But the movement maintains widespread support across the public with lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers and civil servants all holding recent solidarity rallies, even as the violence escalates.
Groups of elderly people - dubbed "silver hairs" - have also marched in protests. But Grandpa Wong and his friend, Grandpa Chan, a comparatively spry 73-year-old, are among the most proactive members of this older generation.
The two are part of a group called Protect the Children, made up of mostly senior citizens and volunteers. Almost every weekend, they come out to try to mediate between police and demonstrators, as well as buy protesters time when the cops start to charge.
As another volley of tear gas bounded down a boulevard in Causeway Bay - a street lined with luxury malls and fashion retailers - Grandpa Chan gripped Grandpa Wong's hand tightly, stopping his old comrade from rushing back into the crossfire. "If we die, we die together," yelled Grandpa Chan, who eschews helmets and, instead, always wears an eye-catching red hat daubed with slogans.
While the Protect the Children group turns up mainly to defend the youth, Grandpa Wong said he tries to warn protesters not to provoke police. "It's wrong to throw stones; that's why the police beat them up."
He added: "I hope that police won't hit them and the children won't throw stuff back. Everyone should stay peaceful to protect the core values of Hong Kong."
Each weekend has brought increasingly violent protests, with a minority of black-clad demonstrators using petrol bombs, slingshots and bricks. Police have deployed water cannon and resorted to tear gas and rubber bullets with renewed ferocity.
More than 1,100 people have been arrested, ranging from children as young as 12 to a man in his mid-seventies. Many are facing charges of rioting which carry 10 years in jail.
Fears have risen over the fate of veteran protester Alexandra Wong - known as Grandma Wong - who attended dozens of protests waving a large British flag. She lives in Shenzhen, a city across the border on the Chinese mainland but has not been seen at the protests since the middle of last month when she appeared in videos looking injured after clashes with police inside a subway station.
Grandpa Wong said he understands why youngsters feel they have no choice but to protest. He has watched, over the decades, as mainland China has grown more wealthy and powerful while remaining avowedly authoritarian.
Mr Roy Chan, organiser of the Protect the Children group, said he respects what the elderly citizens do but is disappointed that they need to come out. "They should have a good life at home during the last years of their lives. But they are in a war and protecting the youth."