Shuttered shops were a common sight in the Hong Kong border town of Sheung Shui on Saturday as thousands of people descended on the area to protest against mainland Chinese visitors and parallel traders.
Dozens of shops and restaurants either closed early or shut for the day fearing trouble.
After a peaceful hour-long march in the afternoon to “reclaim Sheung Shui”, events took an ugly turn as clashes broke out between hundreds of protesters and police shortly before 6pm.
Young, masked protesters clad in black T-shirts then targeted pharmacies by disrupting their operations or building barriers in front of the stores.
At Shek Wu Hui, where there are clusters of pharmacies and shops selling skincare or baby products popular with mainland shoppers and traders sourcing goods for sale across the border, protesters spray-painted graffiti on the facades of closed stores.
The march, which started at around 3.30pm, was an offshoot of protests against the now-suspended extradition bill.
Leung Kam-shing, convenor of North District Parallel Imports Concern Group, which organised the march, estimated a turnout of 30,000. Police put the figure at 4,000 at the rally’s peak.
At least 40 shops near the start of the march route had shut their doors.
Parallel trading activities have been rife in the district for years, sparked by higher taxes on consumer products across the border and shoppers’ confidence in the quality of Hong Kong goods.
In the town’s Lung Sum Avenue, two outlets of Lung Fung Dispensary, one of the biggest retailers of its kind in the district, were among those targeted by radicals. One outlet had its gates sprayed with the words, “Parallel trading dog” and “Oppose extradition to China”, while protesters removed part of the shop sign.
Another nearby pharmacy was caught off guard and had to drop its shutters when protesters picked up its stock and threw the goods inside the shop.
“It is you guys who mess up Sheung Shui!” some protesters chanted. But others urged them to calm down and stop throwing goods.
Many outlets in the Landmark North shopping centre on Lung Sum Avenue closed early after opening as normal. On the facade of the mall, someone had daubed a slogan directed at the government: “You teach us peaceful march is useless.”
Inside the mall, normally packed with mainland shoppers, it was as though it had been put in semi-lockdown.
Shops selling luxury products, such as watches and jewellery, and household appliances, either closed or lowered their gates in the early evening.
One jewellery shop manager, who declined to be named, said they pulled down their gate out of security concerns. “There are noticeably fewer visitors, it inevitably affects our business,” the manager said, referring to the protest.
Some apparel shops on the second and third floors, however, stayed open. Employees privately said there was little disturbance to business.
Sheung Shui residents and some mainland tourists had mixed feelings about the protest.
Local civil servant Terry Fan, 24, said having fewer tourists and pharmacies open felt fresher.
“It’s just very chaotic on a daily basis,” said Fan, who grew up in the neighbourhood. “There are not many kinds of shops to choose from, that’s bad for those who live here.”
We have been warned not to come to the city for our own safety
Zhang, Shenzhen-based civil servant
A Shenzhen-based civil servant, surnamed Zhang, said that although there was no confrontations in the mall, he felt it was unsafe to visit Hong Kong.
“My wife and I come every week,” he said. “Each time we spend about HK$1,000 [US$128] to a few thousand dollars on stuff for ourselves and our family. To outsiders, it is not very pleasant and people may feel less likely to visit Hong Kong.”
Zhang also revealed his department had warned him and colleagues not to visit Hong Kong unless it was strictly necessary.
“We have been warned not to come to the city for our own safety,” Zhang said.
The chaos on Saturday ended before 8pm. When police moved in to clear the streets after issuing a warning at 7.45pm, the protesters had already dispersed.
The march to “reclaim Sheung Shui” took advantage of the momentum against the government’s handling of the unpopular extradition bill, which has triggered mass protests and clashes between demonstrators and police in the past month.
Anti-bill protesters have demanded, among other things, that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor completely withdraw the bill, which would have allowed Hong Kong to send suspects to jurisdictions the city does not have an extradition agreements with, including the mainland.