Hong Kong rings in new year as muted celebrations give way to defiant anti-government protests

SCMP Reporters

Hong Kong rang in the new year with muted celebrations that gave way to defiant anti-government protests late into Tuesday night, while police fired tear gas and deployed at least one water cannon to chase people off the streets.

While no fierce clashes were reported, the shopping district of Mong Kok was the main flashpoint as radical protesters blocked roads, started fires, let off fireworks and disrupted traffic, prompting police to fire several rounds of tear gas.

Well into the early hours of New Year’s Day, protesters and riot police officers were locked in a stand-off on Nathan Road. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd, and a first-aid volunteer was hit.

Renowned writer Tang Siu-wa said she was hit by a tear-gas canister in the corner of her left eye and was left bleeding heavily.

In neighbouring Yau Ma Tei, at least five rounds of tear gas were fired on Waterloo Road shortly after protesters were warned by police that they were taking part in an unlawful assembly.

Protesters use Christmas decorations for a roadblock on Nathan Road near Mong Kok Police Station. Photo: Edmond So

Earlier, more than 1,000 people had formed human chains in various districts, including Causeway Bay, Wan Chai, Tai Po and Tuen Mun, and along Nathan Road from Tsim Sha Tsui to Mong Kok.

Some also marched along the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, calling on citizens to join a New Year’s Day protest march by chanting, “January 1, see you in Victoria Park”.

Promenades on both sides of Victoria Harbour are normally prime, packed spots for viewing the traditional New Year’s Eve fireworks display, but with the event cancelled for the first time in 10 years due to police opposition, the crowds were thinner on Tuesday night. The display was replaced by an enhanced version of the daily laser light-and-music show on both sides of the harbour.

At popular sites such as the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront and at the Times Square mall in Causeway Bay, protesters rather than revellers gathered and mixed the traditional countdown with protest slogans. Later, those on the waterfront marched along Nathan Road as they dispersed, blocking traffic.

In popular entertainment spot Lan Kwai Fong, revellers erupted in cheers as they ushered in the new year but many held up their hands with fingers spread to represent the protesters’ five core demands.

But there were also signs earlier that some trouble lay ahead.

In Tuen Mun, Light Rail services were affected after a petrol bomb was reportedly thrown in the area at around 9.30pm. No one was injured in the incident.

Officers were also investigating a suspected arson attack on vehicles parked near Tsuen Wan Police Station. Initial information suggested that petrol bombs were thrown at the scene.

Half an hour before midnight, police deployed a water cannon along Nathan Road in Mong Kok and fired a pepper-based solution at protesters and passers-by several times, hitting several journalists.

Earlier, officers had raised a blue flag warning protesters gathered outside Mong Kok Police Station that they were taking part in an unlawful assembly.

At around 9pm, masked protesters occupied roads by setting up barricades near Nathan Road and Prince Edward Road West in Mong Kok. Riot police were later deployed to clear the crowd and a mini bulldozer was sent to remove the barricades.

Riot police stopped and searched protesters and shoppers near the atrium of Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui and on the ground floor of Times Square, after dozens of people heeded the calls to stage “shopping protests” in the two popular malls in the evening.

About 30 mostly black-clad demonstrators had earlier started walking around in Times Square, chanting slogans and stopping escalators by pressing the emergency buttons.

They also entered some shops, including Adidas, where they knocked clothes on the floor. Some protesters said the sports apparel store was targeted because the company used mainland actress Liu Yifei in its latest advert. Liu, who stars in the new Mulan movie, had previously expressed support for Hong Kong’s embattled police force.

Popular entertainment spot Lan Kwai Fong was quieter this year. Photo: Sam Tsang

Many who joined the protest in Times Square said there was no reason for revelry this new year.

“There is nothing to celebrate because many have made sacrifices. Many brave young people have been arrested for our future, including some who I believe sacrificed their lives,” said a 40-something mother, surnamed Lo, who joined the protest with her 10-year-old son.

Hong Kong has been rocked by anti-government protests, sparked by a now-withdrawn extradition bill, since June. So far, police have arrested more than 6,500 people for offences related to the protests. Of those arrested, about 2,600 were students.

Another white-collar worker in his 20s, surnamed Leung, said his new year wish was to “liberate Hong Kong” and that the five core demands, which included an independent probe into police’s handing of protests and the implementation of universal suffrage, could be achieved.

Riot police stand guard at Times Square mall in Causeway Bay. Photo: Nora Tam

Over at Prince Edward metro station, police fired pepper spray to disperse protesters who were there to commemorate the four-month anniversary of the August 31 incident, in which police went after radicals into train compartments and were later accused of attacking regular commuters.

At least four people were subdued.

In Lan Kwai Fong, a businessman surnamed Chan, who operates a partywear store, said he was ready to close his shop at any moment if clashes erupted.

“Business has been hit in the past six months. It is okay as long as police don’t start firing tear gas. If they do, everyone leaves and there will be no customers,” he said.

Protesters set up a human chain in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo: Dickson Lee

An insurance agent, surnamed Mei, who moved to the city from the mainland a decade ago, was promoting products to Chinese tourists outside Harbour City. She said she had no income in July and August because of the plunge in mainland tourists amid the protests.

“My new year wish is that Hong Kong will be peaceful again soon,” she said. “I really like Hong Kong. I hope the city will return to its normal status where you work and you gain.”

In Mong Kok, an advertising display outside a McDonald’s branch at the junction of Nathan Road and Kansu Street was vandalised by men clad in black. Some protesters who arrived later chanted: “Don’t eat food from a state-owned company!” The McDonald’s franchise in Hong Kong is operated by state-owned conglomerate Citic and Carlyle Group, a private equity firm.

Ahead of Wednesday’s pro-democracy march, police said they had discovered six plastic jerry cans of petrol along with 51 empty bottles on a hillside in Tsz Wan Shan, which they suspected were to be used to make petrol bombs to cause chaos at public events around new year.

Vehicles were torched in a suspected petrol bomb arson attack near Tsuen Wan Police Station. Photo: Facebook

Chief Inspector Wong Yi-wai, of Kowloon East regional crime unit, said police learned the site was being used to store the dangerous goods from suspects who were arrested on Tuesday morning in connection with violent acts during recent protests.

Wong said the amount seized was enough to produce more than 100 petrol bombs.

“Police have reasons to believe [the petrol bombs] would have been used at public events today or tomorrow and the purpose was to cause panic and chaos,” he said.

The march, organised by the Civil Human Rights Front, would set off from Victoria Park at 2pm to Chater Road in Central.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Tourism Board “sincerely apologised for the disappointment and inconvenience” after its new year lucky draw, which offered more than HK$4 million (US$513,000), crashed minutes after its launch on Tuesday evening.

Reporting by Chan Ho-him, Karen Zhang, Alvin Lum, Elizabeth Cheung, Linda Lew and Jeffie Lam

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