Year-end festive cheer dampened for some as Hong Kong welcomes Christmas with return to protest chaos

Karen Zhang

The ongoing protests in Hong Kong have dampened year-end festivities for most in the city as Christmas Eve was marred by mall clashes and a return to tear gas on the streets with demonstrators and police locking horns into the early hours of Wednesday.

With online calls by protesters to take to the streets once again for Christmas and Boxing Day, some revellers the Post interviewed expressed worries about safety and having to revise plans amid the anti-government movement now into its seventh month.

On Tuesday evening, protesters had gathered at a junction in Tsim Sha Tsui, a popular shopping hub, as well as at malls citywide, chanting slogans.

Police fired tear gas to disperse crowds on Salisbury Road, with the unrest spreading to Mong Kok, and the MTR closing its stations in both areas during its overnight service.

MTR stations close as protest chaos grips city on Christmas Eve

Tong, a 40-year-old staff member with New Town Plaza mall in Sha Tin said her family would not travel far from home for Christmas celebrations this year.

“With the ongoing protests, it’s impossible to go shopping or dine out with an easy mind,” said Tong, who declined to give her first name. The mall has been a flashpoint for clashes between radicals and police. Earlier this month, hard-core protesters smashed glass panels at the atrium and vandalised restaurants deemed to be pro-Beijing.

“So when I’m off, I either avoid going out or will just go to nearby shops or restaurants,” Tong added.

She said she had no specific plans for Christmas, and her plans to celebrate New Year’s Day in Sai Kung or Mong Kok next week with her family were also cancelled.

“The major concern is transportation. You don’t know when and where public transport will be affected.”

New Town Plaza in Sha Tin has been a flashpoint for clashes between protesters and police. Photo: Felix Wong

Protesters plan to hold assemblies during the Christmas period at several malls in Kowloon, Hong Kong Island and New Territories, in a bid to keep the momentum alive. The crisis was sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill in June but has morphed into a wider anti-government movement.

For Tong, it has become a new normal. “I’m getting used to this,” she said. “These young protesters are polite to us in general ... But I hope there will be no violence.”

Over the past months, peaceful rallies have descended into chaos, with mobs throwing petrol bombs and bricks at police, who responded with rounds of tear gas and crowd control weapons. The battle grounds have shifted from the streets to malls, MTR stations and even university campuses.

Anti-government protesters hold a 'Christmas shopping rally' at the Harbour City shopping mall in Tsim Sha Tsui. Winson Wong

Protesters often block roads, and amid the clashes, train services would end early or be suspended.

Fewer Hongkongers out for last-minute shopping on Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve on Tuesday, shopper traffic at New Town Plaza was notably lighter than in previous years and the festive mood was watered down.

Unlike on past occasions, there was no Christmas tree and the mall was devoid of festive decorations, while security at its atrium was stepped up.

Glass balustrades on some floors were still under repair, and others were covered with steel netting.

Around 10 security guards with fluorescent yellow vests were seen patrolling on each floor. One told the Post that they were stationed at the mall only for these few days.

Wing Feng, a mother of two in her 30s, said she felt insecure even going out to shop. “Because I have two kids that I need to think for. So we rarely go out during weekends now,” she said.

“Surely I’m not happy – this year’s atmosphere is the worst I’ve seen in the past 13 years.”

Feng who came from mainland China, resettled in the city after marrying a Hongkonger.

Riot police enter Harbour City Shopping Mall in Tsim Sha Tsui on Christmas Eve. Photo: May Tse

She said her family planned to cross the border for a short trip during the New Year holiday. “There is not much to do in Hong Kong,” she added.

Hong Kong’s traditional New Year’s Eve fireworks display has been cancelled for the first time in its 10-year history after police – citing a security threat posed by the protests – opposed the showpiece event.

In tourist attraction Star Avenue at Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, the crowds were noticeably thinner than in the same period last year.

According to Immigration Department statistics, inbound visitor numbers dropped 28.4 per cent to about 367,30 and outbound figures plunged 40.6 per cent to about 394,400 on December 23 compared with the same day last year.

Festival Walk, an upmarket mall in Kowloon Tong, remains closed until the first quarter of next year after radicals vandalised shops on several floors last month, and set fire to a giant artificial Christmas tree.

Calvin Chan, in his 40s and with experience in marketing, said the already slowing economy added to the city’s gloomy political and social climate, with consumers more cautious about spending.

Citing his experience in job hunting, he said he was turned down by initial interviewers because of shrinking headcount. “I didn’t expect the protests to break out when I quit my job one year ago,” he said. “I think recruiters are more cautious about hiring because they want to save money in such situations.”

The government said the ongoing US-China trade war and continuing political crisis meant the city’s gross domestic product would shrink 1.3 per cent from last year.

Half as many midnight masses for Hong Kong Catholics on Christmas Eve

The sour mood was shared by tourists.

Shenzhen residents Amy Wang and Cissy Chen used to visit Hong Kong for shopping at least once a month. They have not come to the city over the past three months, until Tuesday.

“I’m mostly worried about safety and disruption of transport,” Chen said. “We used to come to Hong Kong to buy stuff for our families because it was very convenient.”

Anti-government protesters gather in New Town Plaza shopping mall in Shatin on Christmas Eve. Photo: Felix Wong

Chen said tourists from her side of the border were scared off by the anti-mainland sentiments and violence from protesters.

“Many fear being beaten up on the street,” she said, adding that her friends cancelled trips to Disneyland resort and Ocean Park recently.

Wang said that they came to Hong Kong for shopping because they heard from local friends that the protests had quietened down.

“We went to Sheung Shui this morning hoping to buy some cosmetics. But many shops were closed,” she said. “I’m not sure if we will come again during Lunar New Year.

“Now I mostly buy things on the mainland.”

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