Mong Kok riot: how Hong Kong’s first night in the Year of the Monkey descended into mayhem
Rioters lay siege to streets of Mong Kok after crackdown on unlicensed hawkers sparks violence
A festive start to the Year of the Monkey descended into a night of mayhem in Mong Kok late on Monday as radical localists found an outlet to vent their grievances by seizing upon the unlikely grassroots issue of hawkers’ livelihoods.
A bloody overnight confrontation with the police that lasted over 10 hours – with fires erupting and repeated clashes – came as a shock to many for whom the word “riot” had not entered their vocabulary even during the height of the Occupy protests of 2014.
Many pronounced the conflagration – prompted by a hawker control patrol in Mong Kok – vastly disproportionate to the issue itself. Hawkers told the Post they were not involved at all in the protests.
The spark that led to violence began on Portland Street on Monday night, just after 10pm after some in the crowd tried to push a cart full of boiling oil towards Food and Environmental Hygiene Department officers who were patrolling the area, according to health minister Dr Ko Wing-man.
The unlicensed vendors had enjoyed a decades-long tradition of being on the streets during the first few days of the Lunar New Year.
READ MORE: Hong Kong tense after Mong Kok mob violence on first day of Lunar New Year leaves Hong Kong tense
By the time calm resumed at around 8.30am, 124 people had been sent to hospital with injuries. On the streets, the grim remains of the night were scattered debris and charred black marks where fires were lit in at least six spots, overturned rubbish bins and jagged pavements with their concrete exposed, after protesters had prised the bricks loose to use against the police.
Rioters trashed a taxi, and also attacked a police van while policemen were still inside.
The group at the forefront of the clashes was identified as Hong Kong Indigenous, a radical localist band formed in January last year. “Localist” is an umbrella term for radical groups with strong anti-mainland sentiment, many pushing either independence for Hong Kong or curbs on Beijing’s influence in the city.
They often actively utilise social media platforms to spread their political philosophy.
Standing on an abandoned taxi which had its back windscreen shattered, Ray Wong Toi-yeung, the group’s convenor, asked protesters to rally more friends. The crowd of protesters numbered somewhere between 400 and 500 people, said government sources.
But Wong dismissed an assertion by police commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung that their acts were premeditated. He said they only started to get protective gear upon seeing police reinforcements. The situation escalated around midnight when the police, still outnumbered then, brought in a portable podium.
Through a loudspeaker, Hong Kong Indigenous told supporters to gear up. “All the [resources] were protective in nature,” Wong insisted on Commercial Radio yesterday.
Among the objects seized by police were handmade plastic shields and sharpened wooden sticks.
Dozens of apparent group members in blue uniforms and face masks charged at the police.
Soon after, pepper spray was used multiple times and in response, the crowd began throwing objects such as glass and plastic bottles.
Wong said their protest was aimed at preserving the local culture of hawkers. That claim, however, contradicted their own stand when the group claimed to be staging an “election march” at around 1am. The group’s Edward Leung Tin-kei, who has been arrested, is contesting the by-election for the Legislative Council’s New Territories East.
Well into the night, at around 2am, police began losing control of the crowd, which poured out of the side street and onto Argyle Street and Nathan Road.
The only police officers at the scene in the beginning – mainly traffic cops without riot gear – were surrounded by the crowd. When one of their colleagues fell to the ground and was continuously assaulted by objects hurled at him, a police officer whipped out his gun and fired two shots into the air at around 2.05am.
While the narrative of the night began focusing on the live shots, the violent actions of the protesters were roundly condemned by lawmakers across the divide.
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said that whatever the grievances, whether it was hawker management issues, or governance problems or the failure of the Occupy movement, the protesters could not justify the use of violence and cause what was in fact a riot.
Hongkongers found the night’s events shocking and irrational, she said, adding: “Society should not find excuses for a small batch of young people.”
But others urged the government to ask itself the tough question of what lay behind the anger.
Localist campaigner Baggio Leung Chung-hang, convenor of post-Occupy group Youngspiration, said: “If Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told the press to ask the organisers the motives behind the protest, the press should ask him because he is the end culprit. Which Hong Kong leader before him would take action against hawkers on the first day of the Lunar New Year?”
Political analyst Ivan Choy feared instigators could exploit more issues to spark more chaos.
“I suspect the hawker issue was just an opportunity to vent other emotions ... you can see the hawker issue is in no way big enough to warrant such a disproportionate reaction – the anger and hatred against the police you see is a build-up. But to instigate such actions, there must be a ripe environment.”
Choy said grievances from the past two years had never been resolved. Ultimately, he said, the issue that had to be tackled was Hongkongers’ distrust of the central government which would provide oxygen for localists to exploit divisions.
Together with other localist groups such as Civic Passion and Hong Kong Localism Power and National Independent Party – involved in a suspected bomb planted in a rubbish bin outside Legco last year – Hong Kong Indigenous has gained popularity in recent years, in parallel with a growing desire to curb Beijing’s rising influence.
Yesterday, hawkers themselves were in no mood to find common cause with them.
Leo Chan, a hawker who was selling ceramic cups on Sai Yeung Choi Street South on Monday night, said there was no clash between police officers and hawkers.
The police had told them to leave because some mobs that clashed with office near Langham Place were heading for the fair.
“It was peaceful before 3am” Chan said, when most hawkers started to pack up. Police officers were on the street the whole time and didn’t make any arrests while he was there.
It was not until 3.30am, when he was preparing to go, that he saw some people coming and throwing things, at which point he and other hawkers quickly left.
Chan said it was his second time selling things in Mong Kok during the New Year holidays, and police didn’t ask him to leave until early morning last year, which he thought was acceptable.
“If I am going to lose money this year, the demonstrators definitely helped,” he said.