What a difference a five-minute walk can make.
As I exited the Central MTR station in the afternoon heat yesterday, everything was as it had been the day before. Shops were open, tourists strolled languidly, and a general conviviality common to most Sundays hung palpably in the air.
I headed east on Connaught Road with a quickened pace that might have stood out against the relaxed weekend atmosphere. Glancing down the side streets, the domestic helpers of the city had congregated as they often do to meet, picnic, and unwind in the pleasant interim before next week’s work began. By the time I reached Chater Garden, the music and laughter bordered on raucous, and a large Philippine flag that someone had brought along fluttered over the impromptu gathering.
It didn’t take long beyond that for the merriment to fade.
Just one block further past Cotton Tree Drive, I saw the first police blockade. This was the fringes of the demonstration; police officers here appeared to be preparing, talking in groups and adjusting their crowd control equipment with no apparent unease of the hundreds of protestors that sat cross-legged on Harcourt Road.
Beyond them, however, was a different story.
Thousands. It was undeniable the turnout had hit those numbers as you looked out over the vista, the normally traffic-filled flyover replete with pedestrians. The crowd grew denser and denser as I moved inwards towards the nexus of the event, the Central Government Offices on Tim Mei Avenue. Here, there was a front line of the most ardent protestors, their umbrellas in bloom, their eyes encased by protective goggles and plastic wrap.
I saw a man shouting and writhing on the ground as his friend poured water on his bare chest; angry red patches surfaced on his skin like a warning to others. As I inched closer, treading slower and slower to accommodate the tight weave of protestors, the chants intensified. Fists pumped in the air to punctuate the impassioned slogans of a population unwilling to be left unheard.
I climbed a median and surveyed the mass, which seemed to have grown even in the brief time since I’d arrived. Every so often a jostling of umbrellas clashed with the wall of towering plastic shields, with bursts of deceptively benign-looking liquid making its way into the crowd amidst screams. Those hit run back to receive aid from waiting personnel, who waited attentively with water and other supplies.
Still, I moved further.
Beneath the footbridge, I saw the dozens of cameras and journalists recording this historic event from what was likely an incredible vantage point. One of them lowered some equipment down with a makeshift rope, perhaps to a co-worker reporting from the ground. Everyone cheered this, inexplicably.
The atmosphere was upbeat, if focussed. People moved respectfully aside as I moved through them, or explained what was said when an announcement was made. A few meters away from, on the front line of umbrella’d protestors, I would occasionally hear shouts that would die out soon after. I moved closer to the border of police, and climbed onto a barricade to photograph the heart of the skirmish.
Suddenly, the mood changed. Urgent calls rang out and ricocheted back through the masses. Umbrellas distended all around, creating a multicoloured canopy above me that might have been charming under different circumstances. I frantically opened my backpack, grasping for the swimming goggles I’d brought along that I’d never thought would be used. I pulled them over my head and waited. A middle-aged woman next to me pulled my shirt sleeve and pointed to a pile of supplies a few feet away. “Masks, for your face!” she yelled above the fracas. I jogged over, pulled out a green, mint-scented mask, and put it on.
The chanting intensified, but no one seemed to know what was happening or what was next.
A loud bang broke the uncertainty, as screams rang out from somewhere in the crowd closer than I’d expected. Two more loud successive bangs sounded closer still, and people all around me turned and ran, their hands clamped over their thin tissue masks.
Plumes of white smoke rose up in front of me first, then rolled towards me at ground level as the crowd dissipated. “What is it?” I asked someone, jogging along at a decidedly slower pace than everyone else to capture it all on my phone. “Tear gas!” he answered, and took off at a sprint.
I smelled it first, slightly chemical but not overly offensive. Then it hit. A slow creep into my nasal passage and down my throat, it took no time at all to inflict the severe discomfort I’d assumed would accompany it. I ran faster and faster, acutely aware how close to the poisonous cloud I still was, until I turned a corner of an alley that seemed far enough way to recover.
Gasping and moaning, I sat down alongside several others who coughed, or poured water on themselves. Stupidly I took off my goggles which only allowed the not-yet dispersed gas to irritate my still unaffected eyes. I poured half of my bottle of water over me, and unsure of it even made sense, leaned over to breathe in and out of an opening in the zipper of my backpack, as though the air in there was cleaner.
Slowly, the rash-like burn that had flared up inside my head and throat subsided.
I began to breathe easier. I glanced up at the street and saw protestors marching back the same way we’d just come from. They seemed to chant even louder and with more synchronicity, fuelled by the ready supplies of water, masks, oil, plastic wrap, anything that eased their disadvantaged process of public objection.
It wasn’t over then. It wasn’t even over shortly after that, when reinforcements arrived in the form of riot police, donning menacing black gas masks, batons, and still more tear-gas. It was chaotic, alarming, truly shocking for me. But, never violent or dangerous. The police advanced and fired; the protestors retreated and reconvened. And so it went for the rest of the night. Perhaps for the foreseeable future.
How incredible indeed the different kinds of worlds that can exist within a square city mile.