The night quiet HK working-class neighbourhood Wong Tai Sin became a smoking battleground

06-Aug-2019 Intellasia | AFP | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Residents of Wong Tai Sin are used to the sight and smell of smoke, but only from the burning of incense at the altars of its famed temple, which, like the district itself, is also named after the Taoist deity whom people pray to for healing.

On Saturday night, the usually quiet working-class neighbourhood was rocked by unprecedented violence, with residents up in arms as their streets became smoking battlegrounds the fumes this time from tear gas rounds fired by riot police against anti-government protesters as well as angry locals objecting to their presence.

In the middle of the night, police in full riot gear used tear gas, pepper spray and batons to disperse angry crowds outside densely packed residential towers.

Police officers ended up retreating in the face of overwhelming public anger as residents joined protesters, many without protective gear to face tear gas, screaming and cursing at them.

“Wong Tai Sin does not welcome you, go away!” they shouted. “Do you know we have children at home? Leave now! We don’t want you here!”

There were uniquely Hong Kong moments during the violent confrontation, such as when someone extinguished a tear-gas canister using an aluminium dish of the type commonly used to steam fish.

And there were ugly scenes as well, including a battle between protesters and residents at the disciplined services quarters, home to police officers’ families.

While Wong Tai Sin residents made it abundantly clear police were unwelcome and accused them of bringing conflict to their backyard, Senior Superintendent Yolanda Yu Hoi-kwan insisted officers were duty bound to go after radical protesters who “changed their clothes and stirred up trouble” in the district, starting with an attack on the local police station.

The mayhem in Wong Tai Sin capped a day of wider protest chaos in the retail hubs of Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui in the heart of Kowloon.

After tens of thousands rallied peacefully against the government’s now-suspended extradition bill, protesters took over roads in Yau Ma Tei and Tsim Sha Tsui, with the more radical activists targeting the Cross-Harbour Tunnel twice, at around 6pm and 11pm, to choke off a key transport link between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.

The night descended into chaos as one radical group laid siege to the Tsim Sha Tsui Police Station, throwing a petrol bomb at the front entrance and vandalising more than 20 vehicles in the car park with metal rods, bricks and flammable items.

Police fired round after round of tear gas into the crowds in both Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok before a new flashpoint emerged in Wong Tai Sin.

The clashes in the temple district began at around 11pm, with reports that police officers had charged into the local MTR station to arrest two people.

Hundreds of residents joined protesters to block police vans from leaving the neighbourhood bus terminal and car park near Shatin Pass Road, believing that the suspects were being whisked away.

One police van came under a fierce attack, with a protester directing a fire extinguisher at an outnumbered handful of officers trying to fight back with shields, batons and pepper spray while the crowd hurled umbrellas, helmets and other objects at them. Abby Chan, a 30-year-old resident, witnessed some of the flare-ups from her flat 20 floors above the chaos.

The protesters started to surround the car park at around 11.30pm, she said, and police tried to set up a line of defence across the road, but were outnumbered by the growing crowd of demonstrators and residents demanding the release of those arrested.

Many were in their nightclothes and completely unprepared for tear gas, but ignored police warnings to disperse.

Police sources said the first round of tear gas was fired to disperse more than 100 people.

Just before 1am, Chan saw a group of people armed with rods rushing out from the disciplined services quarters near the police station, and heard a loud bang.

“I smelled the tear gas and it was slightly hurting my eyes, so I quickly closed the window,” she said.

Projectiles, including water bottles and glass objects, were seen being thrown down at the crowd from the windows of the building housing the families of police officers.

“A gang of violent protesters subsequently surrounded Wong Tai Sin Disciplined Services Quarters, hurling fireworks and numerous miscellaneous objects into the quarters, breaking the glass windows of lower-floor residential units, damaging the gates of the car parks and other government property,” police said later in an official statement. “The safety of the residents was seriously threatened. In the face of the chaotic situation, tear gas was launched to disperse the protesters.”

Both protesters and residents who came out of the quarters fought each other with wooden sticks and umbrellas, but the violent confrontation ended after others from the neighbourhood intervened.

Sources said police fired a second round of tear gas to stop the two sides from hurling objects at each other and to end more clashes at the car park entrance.

Protesters then retreated to Lung Cheung Road, where they set up barricades to block traffic.

The clashes and stand-off in Wong Tai Sin lasted until around 4am, when most of the protesters left after more tear gas was used.

Wong Tai Sin residents complained the next day about the police action.

“They should not have fired tear gas,” witness Chan said. “There were so many residents nearby and some of them were just wearing slippers, with no protective gear. Everyone was just surrounding the police without much violence in the beginning.”

Another resident, 34-year-old Cat Lee, said police had “overreacted a bit”.

“Do you really have to use tear gas when there are so many residents nearby? Are there no other options?” she said.

Ian Yeung, 23, said he could hear the clashes from his 33rd-floor home through closed windows.

“The protesters’ behaviour was radical if you single out what happened last night,” he said. “But I found the police’s way of handling them rather unprofessional and inappropriate. They fired in the wrong direction many times, including at journalists and aged-care homes. This should not be the case for police with proper training.”

Another resident, who has lived in the disciplined services quarters for about a decade, said: “I know there are some problems with the government, and it is OK to voice your demands, but it should be done rationally.”

A police source said officers had seen protesters from the Kowloon rallies changing their clothes, removing their masks and mingling with local residents in Wong Tai Sin to cause further trouble.

“They started the confrontation with officers or local residents. We believe they tried to make an ugly scene to criticise police for the use of force in a dense living area,” he said.

With both police and their critics sticking to their own side of the story, and with no end in sight to Hong Kong’s protest crisis, the escalating confrontations between law enforcers and members of the public look set to continue.


Category: Hong Kong

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