HONG KONG — Uncle Lee may be old with poor hearing, but he is a vigilant guardian of a block of residences on Nathan Road. He sat on a stool in a shoebox of a room, by a small staircase between a jewelry store and a bank. Behind a rattling fan, he smoked a Marlboro Red, looking at out at thousands of pro-democracy protesters on the streets of Mong Kok.
“During the night, residents call me and complain about the noise,” he said, as speeches and cheers from the street below echoed through the hallway. “But what can I do?”
This is the center of Mong Kok, often described as the busiest district on Earth, a world of luxury stores and banks. Above the crowded neon-lit streets, residents live in cramped apartments. Uncle Lee guards them, but there’s little he can do about the disruption caused by the mostly peaceful civil uprising that has taken control of the streets around his domain.
Lee remembers the violence and curfews of the 1967 riots that saw leftists clash with the authorities. “These people are just partying for now,“ he said.
After the Hong Kong police used tear gas and pepper spray to crack down on students last Sunday, citizens flooded the Central, Admiralty and Wan Chai business areas. Since then, the number of protesters have risen to 200,000 at dusk and dwindled to 2,000 at dawn, but the occupied areas like Mong Kok have remained blocked off by demonstrators.
Sheung Wan, across the harbor, is one of the oldest districts in town. Since 1904, the iconic tram of Hong Kong, affectionately called the ding-ding by locals for its unique bell, has shuttled passengers along the shoreline. This week, the tram ran only as far as the Western Market station, leaving most of Sheung Wan unserved. Trams jammed the local station, up to seven at a time, letting passengers off directly on the road.
“We don’t get many complaints,” said a patrol officer at the station. The drivers had less work and no overtime. Passenger numbers were down, but the trams were actually faster than usual, he said, because many bus routes were out of service. “It does not affect me much personally, but the protest has gone too far,” he said. “It affects normal life now.”
By Friday, 270 bus routes — about 50 percent — had been disrupted by the protests, according to the Transport Department. But the decrease in traffic, especially in protest areas, contributed to clear skies. According to the Clean Air Network, the pollution levels in the occupied parts of Hong Kong were down by half compared with other districts.
Driving through Kennedy Road just up the hill from the pro-democracy protest the night before, taxi driver Poon Chi Tat said he was losing income. “I suggested passengers get off early and take the subway instead when the roads were blocked,” he said.
He did not expect the democracy protests to change anything. As he passed Ferraris and Lamborghinis parking off the street near the Wan Chai Convention Center, he said the movement would end in failure. “You see all these fancy cars here? The rich people don’t really care, still live their luxury life and don’t give a damn.”
Apart from traffic, businesses suffer from the lockdown. On Landale Street in Wan Chai, a small restaurant sold Hong Kong dishes near a protest blockade. Inside, customers wearing yellow ribbons wolfed down noodles. “We had big orders of rice balls as takeout,” the waitress said. People bought them to distribute at the protest.
Meanwhile, the higher-priced Urawa Japanese restaurant next door was losing half of its customers. “Many guests canceled their bookings. They are afraid of chaos and not finding transport,” explained Verdi, an assistant manager in his 30s.
The restaurant was cutting shifts and telling part-time employees to stay home. Only part of the menu was available, as supply lines had been cut. “I support the movement, but it affects daily life now,” said Verdi. “This is not good.”
La Suisse Watch store in Kowloon caters to mainland tourists. Sitting over an array of Tudor watches selling for up to $5,000, a senior salesman said trade had not been affected by the protests. But on the outskirts of the occupied area in Mong Kok, a salesman of Tse Sui Luen, a chain for luxury jewelry, said business was down by 20 percent. Overall, despite thousands of people camping at their doorsteps, the luxury outlets have kept their stores open, and mainland Chinese tourists were still buying. Only stores directly in the occupied areas were hit hard.
The Central district initially targeted by the protest movement houses the financial institutions that make Hong Kong an international financial hub, but many of those institutions seemed indifferent to the impact of the demonstrations.
A British senior risk manager who works in the district said that the economic losses of the finance sector are insignificant, noting that many people had taken Friday off in order to extend the weekend, with Chinese National Day on Oct. 1. “If both sides talk now and traffic starts up again, I don’t see any long-term damage,” he said.
“They are camping right below my office,” said Simon Law, who works as a support analyst for a Chinese investment bank in the heart of Hong Kong’s Central district. “But everything is completely normal.” He said his co-workers were quite supportive of the protests. A senior sales worker had just left the office to join the protests in Kowloon, after scuffles with pro-Beijing supporters broke out late Friday.
Admiralty, the government district, was quiet on Friday — the streets eerily empty. The normally bustling Cotton Tree Drive, which is always included in any traffic updates on radio, was calm. The Bank of China skyscraper in Hong Kong’s Central district towered over a ghost town.
On the sidewalk, senior secondary school students Charis and Annette were walking toward St. Paul’s Co-Educational College in the Mid-levels, just above Central. Despite the humidity, they were wearing uniforms, which included a blue qipao — a traditional Chinese dress — white socks and black leather shoes. The rules dictate that whoever enters campus has to wear uniforms, even if school is closed.
Out of a class of 18, about half had joined the protests. The pair had come all the way from Sham Tseng in the New Territories, an hour away, to pick up chemistry books from their lockers. “My parents say it is too dangerous to go out. It is no fun. I want to go to school. I want to see my friends again,” Charis said.
Both had been home for a week. Since Monday, all schools have been shut in the Wan Chai, Central and Western districts on Hong Kong island.
Instead, a group of volunteers has spontaneously set up a network to help students catch up on homework at the Methodist Center, answering questions in person and online. Volunteers are teachers and students who study education. Even some educational psychologists have joined.
“We have a great atmosphere here,” said Dan, a former secondary school teacher. He said the group has three guidelines: Keep money out of it, stay apolitical and follow professional teaching standards.
One tutorial school for high school students, iCon Education, had to suspend all classes. “We have to pay staff salary and rent while we don’t have any business and income,” said CEO David Chiu, who has been a mathematics teacher for 14 years. They are currently posting video lectures online. He encouraged his students to make their own judgment by looking at the protests from different angles. “Students should think critically and have the freedom to choose whether they take the risk to join the protests or not.”
‘People don’t like it’
Filipino workers, a vital group in Hong Kong society, were almost completely absent from the protests. At least 150,000 live and work in Hong Kong, mostly as domestic helpers. On Sundays they enjoy their free day in groups, often gathering in the areas now occupied by protesters.
But not this week. “My Filipino friends are scared they will be sent home. Nobody joined the protest areas,” said Marisa, who stood in front of the Peak Tram office, where she does customer service for Big Bus Tours, which runs sightseeing tours around town. She has lived in Hong Kong for 40 years. “This is the biggest disruption in business I have seen yet,” she said. “I don’t care about the protests. They have been going on for so long already, and people don’t like it.”
Citizens have been extraordinarily understanding and supportive of the people taking to the streets. But support appears to be waning as the demonstrations continue. Uncle Lee at least will be annoyed if the protesters press on. “If they continue, they will ruin the economy of Hong Kong,” he said.