Standing in central Hong Kong at the nexus of Tiffany’s, Armani and Louis Vuitton late on Sunday afternoon, I heard a sound that has stayed with me. It was a woman — hard to tell her age behind the mask — crouched by a safety railing, roaring with anger and frustration.
Next came a furious series of clangs as she battered the edge of a spanner against an unbudgeable bolt. She called a friend over to help. They agreed the problem was rust. They redoubled their efforts and, finally, the bolt gave way and a treasure was claimed from the streets: a metre-long metal pole and the twin of one I had just seen being used to smash a CCTV camera at an MTR subway station.
The woman placed the pole on the pavement just outside the entrance to JPMorgan’s offices and went to work on the next railing. Few places, as protests in this financial centre seethe into their fourth month, highlight the dissonance that has gripped the city so acutely.
Nearby, other Hong Kong residents were engaged in complementary — or contrasting — activities. Some were barricading entrances to the subway with dustbins, plant pots and water-cooler flagons. Others removed bricks from the pavement to use as projectiles. Still more were adjusting Bose headphones and weaving through crowds on the way home from the gym. Domestic helpers played bingo on cardboard mats. Shoppers sipped coffee and watched the turmoil from the windows above Saint Laurent.
This was the 14th straight weekend of protests in Hong Kong. A 15th is inevitable but a 50th (given where Beijing’s lines are likely to be drawn) implausible. Earlier in the day, tens of thousands — some old enough to need help walking, others young enough to be carried in baby slings — processed past riot police and Government House. Fury spewed in the coarsest Cantonese to echo from some of the most polished skyscrapers in Asia. As evening fell, a few hundred protesters took their rage from the financial centre past the still-functioning bars and clubs of Wan Chai to Causeway Bay, where the now-standard volleys of tear gas would later waft over the entrance mats of the Sogo department store.
For three months, Hong Kongers have told me, the city has been aching from this whiplash. You try to form a view on what is happening and why, how it’s morphing and where it may all end. But that thought process is besieged by discord as violence, dissent and the root causes of both are set against glamour, pop-up bubble tea boutiques and Hong Kong’s illusory show of business as usual.
What makes this all the more wrenching, though, are the unwritten rules of the protests, which could be seen prevailing on Sunday. At one point, protesters were using gaffer tape and bolt cutters to manufacture metal spears (these were not, in the event, used) from bits of the central reservation. They were doing so with a venom that, by their own testimony, may have democracy and “liberation” as a stated goal but is fuelled in large part by economic disparity and the grinding-down of aspiration. The spear factory was operating near a Blancpain watch shop and under the glare of advertisements for Swiss private banks. And yet none of these symbols of wealth had been touched. Berluti was unlooted; Piaget unpillaged.
And that is the great puzzle of these protests and why their importance cannot be overstated. The strength of the dissonance and the mental gymnastics required to parse it sends the observer in odd directions. It provides excuses to conclude that the movement is irrelevant, false, misdirected or doomed. On the other hand, it provides a complacent, illusory, sense that Hong Kong will, eventually, just muddle along because it is simply too Hong Kongy to fail.
But you can’t avoid being left with that woman’s visceral roar of frustration as the rusty bolt refused to yield and at once give her the weapon she felt she needed.
That sound and that sense of urgency cannot be faked. And, despite the temptation to assume that Hong Kong’s formidable powers of accommodation mean new waffle-house openings can coexist indefinitely with rubber bullets, that sound cannot be overlooked.