Neon-Light Gang District Is ‘Time Bomb’ in Hong Kong Protests

The tinderbox of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests is Mong Kok, where police fear a riot could erupt and demonstrators stand defiant in the face of violence, threats and even bags of feces dropped on them.

The densely-populated area, covering less than a square mile, is beset by organized crime and vice. More than 67,000 residents jostle with thousands of tourists along the shopping district around Nathan Road and its neon-dazzled alleys, making the area a strategic choke-hold.

Clearing the blockades in Mong Kok is a priority for the city’s leader Leung Chun-ying, who has described it as a “less genteel” part of the city. Unlike the student-led main protest site outside the government’s offices in Admiralty, students and officials have both said the protesters in Mong Kok are leaderless, complicating negotiations and efforts to keep order.

The protesters “are very frightened and they are also very angry, especially at the police and that’s why it makes Mong Kok a very dangerous place,” said Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung, who has stayed overnight at the site with fellow legislator Claudia Mo of the Civic Party. They stood at the barriers between police and protesters, calling for calm.

“It’s like a time bomb waiting to explode,” Cheung said. “Any small thing could trigger that bomb to go off.”

Near daily skirmishes have made Mong Kok the most consistent scene of antagonism between pro-democracy demonstrators and their opponents since occupations broke out across the city from Sept. 26, sparking police warnings that the situation is already on the verge of a riot.

Organized Crime

The biggest clash took place Oct. 3, when least 37 people were injured after hundreds of men, some with suspected links to organized crime gangs, tried to forcibly remove make-shift barricades and demonstrators.

On Oct. 22, a drunken man was arrested after he attempted to start a fire with a bottle of flammable fluid, while paint and feces were dropped on protesters from a building, Chief Superintendent Hui Chun-tak said earlier. Officers arrested 11 people in the preceding 24 hours, including for common assault, indecent assault and possession of an offensive weapon.

“There is an escalating trend to serious public disorder and is on the verge of riot,” Hui said. “There are radical protesters and trouble makers mixing in the illegal assembly.”

‘Get a Job’

In Mong Kok, where a frequent jeer from anti-protesters is for the demonstrators to “get a job,” at least 13,100 people were living on less than the median monthly income of HK$12,000 ($1,547) in 2011, according to the most recent government census.

“Mong Kok has always been a complicated place; it’s in its nature and in its history,” Vangi Fong, 29, an artist, said in an interview at the site. “It’s the fact that you have people from all walks of life here, unlike in Admiralty, where they are mostly office workers.”

Aside from the two mass-transit train stations in the area, there are numerous mini-bus routes that pass through 24 hours a day from all parts of Hong Kong, meaning anybody can easily reach Mong Kok at any time. The area is filled with alleyways that reduce the effectiveness of crowd control.

“No doubt, Mong Kok is special because of its accessibility,” Avery Ng, vice chairman of the League of Social Democrats, said in an interview. “It looks like not even the police can totally take hold of this area.”

Leaderless Movement

When a call was made by one of the protest organizers to leave Mong Kok and head to the Admiralty site after the Oct. 3 clashes, hundreds opted to stay and retrenched their position, securing banners hanging from traffic lights and putting up fresh posters on walls.

“The Admiralty occupation is more organized, while the Mong Kok one is more organic,” said Ng.“There isn’t a chief organizer in Mong Kok and people just do whatever they want to do to express themselves.”

Protester numbers typically swell on Friday evenings, with an estimated 9,000 people gathering Oct. 17 to take back streets that the police had cleared in a dawn raid. Officers were forced to retreat from most of the area after failing to disperse the crowd with pepper spray and batons.

The police now have pavilions in the middle of the streets, where duty officers stand under when it rains.

Both the government and the demonstrators recognize the significance of Mong Kok. After Chief Executive Leung said the site should be cleared, demonstrators became even more determined to hold on.

“This is a critical moment,” said Todd Lau, 31, a music teacher. “When we leave this place, we will lose our bargaining power in discussions and that’s why we stay.”

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