by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Getty Images
What Happened on Monday Night in Mong Kok?
AFTER THE RIOTS on Monday night, calm would seem to have returned to Mong Kok. Hawkers continued to sell food on the streets on Tuesday, relatively undisturbed by the riots which had taken place the previous night. Over 60 were arrested and over 120 were injured during the riot. This series of events has been termed the “Fishball Revolution” and took place on the first day of the Lunar New Year, though some have expressed dissatisfaction with the labeling of events with such a trivial-sounding name.
In an unexpected and entirely unforeseen series of events, clashes with police broke out after they moved to evict food hawkers. Much like Taiwanese night markets, hawkers traditionally sell food on the streets of Hong Kong on Lunar New Year, filling a gap when many other businesses are closed for the holiday. Visiting hawkers during the Lunar New Year is a new year’s custom for many. However, Kwelin Night Market in Sham Shui Po was shuttered this year by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, making Mong Kok one of the few places where hawkers could sell food on Monday. Namely, many hawkers operate without licenses, but police have in the past turned a blind eye to them.
Images of police opening fire were widely circulated on the Internet. Photo credit: 無綫新聞
When police moved in to crack down on hawkers in Mong Kok on Monday night, however, it provoked backlash from the crowd, which had gathered to enjoy the food, to rally in defense of the hawkers. Police moved to disperse hawkers at 10 PM on Monday night, leading to two hours of tension with the crowd. Tensions escalated from 12 AM to 2 AM, including items being thrown at police, culminating in officers firing two warning shots at around 2 AM.
What provoked outrage was the fact that police firing shots into the air is forbidden by law in Hong Kong, given that in the crowded urban environment the shots could have hit someone—and that one of the two shots fired was fired almost horizontal to the crowd. A widely circulated image on the Internet was that of a police officer aiming his gun directly at the crowd before firing only just above the crowd. Live ammo, not blanks, were fired. It appears that police fired at a point in which they were largely outnumbered and members of the crowd were throwing refuse at them.
Beaten demonstrator. The same man was later spotted being taken away by police. Photo credit: Kenny Wong
During the riot, crowds threw garbage, bricks, and refused police orders and set fires on the streets. In response, police attacked with riot shields, batons, and pepper spray. In the early morning hours, crowds were still gathering. Police claimed that 48 officers were injured.
Four journalists were injured, with a Ming Pao reporter having been beaten by police despite showing his press credentials. Ming Pao has condemned the beating. The Hong Kong Journalist Association have issued condemnations of how journalists were treated during the course of the events by both protesters and police, with some journalists having been injured by protesters.
Of those arrested, the youngest was 17 and the oldest 70. Images of injured protesters being beaten by police have circulated widely on the Internet and provoked much outrage. Two remain in intensive care.
Involvement of Post-Umbrella Movement Activist Groups?
THE RIOT MAY have been spontaneous, though police have also suggested that the riot may have been premeditated by localist groups in Mong Kok. Mong Kok, a working class neighborhood, is a strong center for localist groups demanding greater autonomy for Hong Kong or Hong Kong independence and was the site of an occupation during the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
Demonstrators facing police. Photo credit: Edward Wong
Localist groups are distinguished from other groups demanding greater autonomy for Hong Kong by their strong, sometimes ethnically oriented anti-Chinese sentiment. Crackdowns on food hawkers may be perceived as an attack on rapidly disappearing local culture, hawkers being a prominent symbol of disappearing Hong Kong culture. No group has claimed responsibility for the riots, however. Still others have suggested that events were orchestrated by Beijing to create an incident in order to justify increasingly repressive policing measures in Hong Kong in regards to the unexpected use of police.
24-year-old localist electoral candidate Edward Leung Tin-kei, who is running in a local by-election in several weeks as part of Hong Kong Indigenous, was present during the riot with a megaphone. This later led to his arrest by police, during which it was feared he might have been beaten by police. As such, subsequent to the riots, much attention has gone to localist groups.
Man being beaten by police. Photo credit: Keyboard Frontline
Other participating groups include Scholarism, a driving force during the Umbrella Movement as led by Joshua Wong, and Youngspiration. Youngspiration, like Hong Kong Indigenous, is an “Umbrella Soldier” group which fielded young political candidates in Hong Kong local elections, these groups having formed after the Umbrella Movement. 22-year-old Scholarism member Derek Lam Shun-hin would be arrested at Hong Kong International Airport on Wednesday morning, having been scheduled to spend the week vacationing in Taipei with his family.
Scholarism has issued a condemnation of Lam’s arrest, stating that Lam had been present in Mong Kok but was not involved in acts of violence, and Joshua Wong later commenting that the government was hoping to establish the appearance of a connection between Scholarism and the riots. Police later entered Lam’s home without a warrant. Ray Wong Toi-yeung, convenor of Hong Kong Indigenous, later had his flat surrounded by police and was taken into custody.
Edward Leung Tin-kei being shoved into a police car during his arrest. Photo credit: Youngspiration
Scholarism has also issued a general condemnation of police behavior in firing wantonly. Youngspiration has also declared that the past series of events marking a turning point and that 2016 will be a year of resistance. The Hong Kong University Student’s Union also issued a statement condemning police actions, stating that the past series of events recalled the Umbrella Movement, and even quoting Taiwanese president-elect Tsai Ing-Wen in its conclusion.
What Was the Fishball Revolution About?
POLICE HAVE, for their part, refused to back down. Despite an earlier 2007 statement saying that police were forbidden to discharge firearms into the air and though police commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung stated that an inquiry would be made into the circumstances in which police fired, Lo later said police actions were justified.
And in truth, though quiet has returned to Mong Kok, the series of events which had taken place in Mong Kok on Monday night would repeat on Tuesday night at Leung King Estate, Tuen Mun in which hawkers attempted to sell food at the private residence and were beaten by self-proclaimed “private security” dressed in plain clothes while police looked on without doing anything. Some have suspected “private security” in this case to actually be triad members.
Man beaten at Leung King Estate. Photo credit: TMHK
Why would the issue of hawkers provoke such outrage? Hawkers represent something about local culture which would seem to be disappearing, provoking anxieties about the changes in Hong Kong urban fabric because of significant influence from China. The issue is, in some sense, an issue of gentrification, given that hawkers are being driven out in an increasingly unaffordable Hong Kong, which has some of the highest real estate prices in the world.
However, if Umbrella Movement and post-Umbrella Movement groups have gotten involved, it is because the same issues of government authoritarianism are at stake. The public does not trust the dictates of the undemocratic Hong Kong government when it endangers local ways of life.
Internet meme circulated in past months response to seemingly unreasonable charges against demonstrators. Photo credit: Protest Times, translated by Real Hong Kong News
And, as increasingly brutal police behavior since the Umbrella Movement goes to show, when push comes to shove, the Hong Kong government is all too willing to use brutal force to put down resistance from Hong Kong citizens. The past year has also seen numerous cases of demonstrators accused of acts of violence against for seemingly minor charges when police themselves get off scot-free.
If it is true that Monday’s series of events replayed the 2014 Umbrella Movement in some sense, this also indicates how the issues which were raised by the Umbrella Movement remain unresolved in 2016’s Hong Kong. It is such that some have suggested that events could escalate, with some in Taiwan even comparing Monday’s series of events to the 228 Incident of 1947, which also began with attempts to crack down on local vendors by police. Regardless, it is that Monday’s events made it clear in a very visceral way that the issues raised by the Umbrella Movement have not seen any resolution.
Photo credit: AP/Kin Cheung
So it is that the “Fishball Revolution” was hardly about just fishballs, or even food hawkers, but broader issues regarding Hong Kong as a whole and its future. Apart from a revival of activity by groups which have not been as active following the Umbrella Movement in 2014, many groups are now declaring that the “Fishball Revolution” represents that something has changed about Hong Kong, that there is no going back to the past and the subsequent year will be a year of struggle—and this calls for an escalation in tactics, the use of riots not being off the table. We will see if that is so.