Darkening skies (2012-2017): Hong Kong’s years of simmering tensions in 25 photos
Hong Kong at 25
  • The city was rocked by the 2014 Occupy movement in this period, a precursor to greater unrest to come as brewing political sentiment bubbled to the forefront of society

Over a decade after the handover, simmering tensions in society over the quest for greater democracy began bubbling over. Protests over the national education curriculum, which erupted at the beginning of Leung Chun-ying’s administration in 2012, fanned the flames of distrust towards the government.

The demonstrations were followed by the 2014 Occupy protests. Also called the “umbrella movement”, the 79-day sit-in was sparked by Beijing’s framework for universal suffrage which would offer voters two to three pre-vetted candidates they could elect as chief executive. Months later in 2015, the package was vetoed in the legislature, with activists labelling it a “fake” democratic model.

The Occupy protests ushered in a new era of political activism among the younger generation. Their demands for greater autonomy coincided with the rise of localism, a nativist movement to preserve Hong Kong’s identity amid the perceived encroachment of the central government into the city’s affairs. Localists often whipped up anti-mainland sentiments, complaining about the influx of mainlanders into border towns, for example. Fringe groups espousing self-determination and independence also emerged then, much to the ire of Beijing. These forces were dealt with decisively.

The period is also remembered for a maritime accident that killed 39 residents off the coast of Lamma Island on National Day in 2012 and a mini-storage fire that killed two firefighters and took 108 hours to tame in 2016.

[Education wars] Activists besieging government headquarters at Tamar call on authorities to scrap the deeply unpopular national education curriculum, which they claim is little more than an attempt by Beijing to brainwash future generations, on September 8, 2012. After 10 days of mounting pressure, as crowds swelled with what organisers said were 100,000 protesters, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced schools would no longer be required to teach the subject. While hailing the hard-won victory, activists also remained cautious, fearing that while the lessons remained an option, authorities would push schools to teach the subject in future. Less than a decade later, national education and a heavy reliance on Mandarin classes became central to the government’s teaching requirements for schools. Photo: Felix Wong
[Tragedy at sea] Rescuers search for survivors from the Lamma IV ferry after it sank following a collision with the Sea Smooth on October 1, 2012, leaving 39 people dead and 92 others injured in Hong Kong’s worst maritime disaster in more than 40 years. The Lamma IV, owned by Hongkong Electric, was carrying 124 passengers to view a National Day fireworks celebration over Victoria Harbour when it was struck on the port side by the Sea Smooth, operated by Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry. While the damaged Sea Smooth continued on to Yung Shue Wan, the other vessel sank within minutes, partly due to design flaws. Four people – the two vessels’ captains, and a ship inspector and an assistant director of the Marine Department – were ultimately sentenced to jail terms ranging from 4½ months to eight years on various charges, including manslaughter. Photo: Sam Tsang
[Gangnam gambit] Artists under ATV’s roster of talent join major shareholder Wang Zheng (centre), also known as Wong Ching, in putting on a Gangnam-style dance outside government headquarters on November 11, 2012, to protest over the issuance of new free-to-air licences, which will pose a threat to the survival of Hong Kong’s oldest television station. The stunt was the idea of Wang, a mainland Chinese businessman who took a majority stake in the ailing broadcaster and began an ambitious attempt to turn the station into “Asia’s CNN”. But following a string of misguided revamps to management, content and advertising rates, ATV lurched deeper into a death spiral, culminating in the government’s refusal to renew its free-to-air licence in 2015. The company was reborn as a digital-only content provider. Photo: Felix Wong
[Formula wants] Traders pack away supplies of infant milk formula outside Sheung Shui MTR station near the border on February 4, 2013. While mainland Chinese were desperate for baby food they could trust in the wake of a melamine-poisoning scandal over the border five years earlier, local mothers were at their wits’ end after searching neighbourhood pharmacies for cans and coming up empty. Insults were hurled and fights regularly broke out between residents and traders throughout northern Hong Kong before the government took the rare step of intervening in the market by limiting cross-border travellers to two cans for personal use. Photo: Nora Tam
[Taking a pulse] In a city where property prices are the equivalent to taking the economy’s blood pressure, an estate agent lowers the prices on offerings as a round of cooling measures takes pressure off the market on February 22, 2013. The initiatives, including the doubling of stamp duties for homes valued at more than HK$2 million, lowered the number of agreements for sale and purchase of residential units in that year by 37.7 per cent compared with the previous year. But even the smallest of homes continued to remain out of reach of many residents. The advertised price for one high-floor flat measuring just 391 sq ft of saleable area in Nan Fung Sun Chuen, a private estate in Quarry Bay, was HK$4.85 million. Photo: Sam Tsang
[Not taking it lying down] Dock workers hunker down at the start of what would turn into the city’s longest industrial action, demanding higher wages and better conditions at the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals on March 30, 2013. While the public vocally supported the strike, port operator Hongkong International Terminals claimed about 100 cargo vessels were forced to avoid the city due to the stoppage, causing lasting damage to its reputation. Organised by the now-defunct Confederation of Trade Unions, the strike was a rarity in a city where labour rights have long trailed those enshrined in law in many Western developed cities. The 40-day strike left the workers with only about half of the roughly 20 per cent pay rise they had demanded. Photo: Edward Wong
[Going quackers] Inviting residents to remember a time in their lives when play was everything, an oversized rubber duck stays still amid marine traffic in Victoria Harbour on May 2, 2013. The floating sculpture by Dutch conceptual artist Florentijn Hofman had three concrete anchors, each weighing three tonnes, to stop it from drifting away in the harbour’s rough waters. Hofman told the Post he hoped the work set against the backdrop of one of the world’s busiest harbours and financial hubs would remind viewers that their lives were not always about earning money and to remain open to inspiration. Photo: K. Y. Cheng
[Portrait of abuse] Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih lies battered and bruised in a hospital in Central Java on January 20, 2014, after leaving Hong Kong with injuries inflicted by her employer in a case of physical abuse that shocked the world. Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono telephoned Erwiana that day to extend his support as she recovered from the torture inflicted by her employer Law Wan-tung, including punches that fractured one of her teeth. The following year, Law was jailed for six years and ordered to pay her victim more than HK$800,000. The crime threw a spotlight on the risks that some domestic helpers faced while working in one of Hong Kong’s least protected industries. Photo: Sam Tsang
[Fears for tears] Outraged by the police’s use of tear gas on protesters, tens of thousands of residents gather in Admiralty and elsewhere in the city on September 29, 2014, the second night of the Occupy Central movement demanding political reforms. After coming under heavy criticism for the tactics used on demonstrators, police confirmed that tear gas was used “87 times” at nine different locations the day before but said it had no information on how many rounds or canisters were used. The use of tear gas would become commonplace five years later when police clashed with anti-government protesters during the social unrest of 2019, sparking widespread criticism among the public. Photo: K. Y. Cheng
[Hazy future] Police launch tear gas at umbrella-wielding protesters in Admiralty on the first day of the Occupy movement on September 28, 2014. Nine opposition leaders and activists were ultimately convicted over public nuisance charges, including the movement’s three founders, legal scholar Benny Tai Yiu-ting, retired sociologist Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, who were each handed jail sentences of 16 months. Photo: K. Y. Cheng
[Scion’s fall] Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong, a scion of one of Hong Kong’s pre-eminent families of tycoons, spends his first Christmas in the maximum-security Stanley Prison on December 30, 2014. The former Sun Hung Kai Properties co-chairman was handed a five-year sentence after being convicted of bribing chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan in exchange for favours in 2005, in one of Hong Kong’s most scandalous crimes involving a top official. After a five-year ban on acting as a company director expired, Kwok rejoined the property empire founded by his father, while Hui’s name became synonymous with official corruption. Photo: Dickson Lee
[Face-off on campus] Foreshadowing the political storm that would engulf nearly every higher learning institution in the city, students at the University of Hong Kong hand a petition to Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, a member of the school’s council, on July 28, 2015. Students stormed a council meeting that day to protest after it again voted to delay discussion on installing pro-democratic scholar Johannes Chan Man-mun in a key managerial post. The council ultimately rejected a search committee’s recommendation to promote Chan, but a month before the vote pro-establishment lawmaker James Tien Pei-chun claimed Beijing’s liaison office and the government had pushed members to scuttle the appointment. Photo: Dickson Lee
[Cream of the crop] Fans and media throng a birthday event on August 2, 2015, for 10-year-old Brother Cream, the most famous cat in Hong Kong. The British shorthair shot to fame in 2012 after he went missing from a newspaper stall in Tsim Sha Tsui East. Cat lovers scoured the city for nearly a month before he was found and returned. The feline became an internet celebrity after that, but in 2016, had to find a new home with owner Bee Ko Chee-shing after the stall closed down. Brother Cream would go on to become the darling of Ko’s new pet products store in Yau Ma Tei and the subject of four books, with Ko establishing a foundation to support animal charities in his cat’s name. In May 2020, the beloved kitty died from stomach cancer. In a moving Instagram post, Ko said to fans: “Over the past years, some of you have come to the store to visit him ... I wanted to thank you for your kindness and for helping make his life as good as it has been. Cream Bro was full of love and acceptance. He will always be in our hearts.” Photo: Felix Wong
[Cold comfort] Rare frost draws hundreds of residents to Tai Mo Shan, the highest peak in Hong Kong, on January 24, 2016, as the temperature plummets to minus 5 degrees Celsius, a record low. Emergency services were forced to divert resources to rescuing dozens of the “frost-chasers” as well as participants of a marathon after they found themselves unable to descend due to blistering winds and slippery road conditions. “Should we use public funds to rescue those who don’t even care about their own lives?” one resident asked online. Photo: Felix Wong
[Mayhem in Mong Kok] An evening of festivities celebrating the arrival of Lunar New Year turns into mayhem as residents clash with police in Mong Kok on February 9, 2016. The immediate flashpoint for the violence was resistance to hygiene officers attempting to clear unlicensed food hawkers from the area. But it later emerged, members of new localists groups – outfits that had an anti-mainland bent – had been milling about in the area in the evening and took part in the clash. The stand-off, which included police firing warning shots into the air, lasted well into the morning and resulted in the arrests of 61 people. Among them was Edward Leung Tin-kei of Hong Kong Indigenous who went on to win a by-election in New Territories East. He was later sentenced to six years in prison for rioting and assaulting an officer. Photo: Edward Wong
[Slow burn] Exhausted firefighters try to extinguish a blaze that would become the longest at an industrial facility in Hong Kong’s history on June 23, 2016, after already losing a 30-year-old colleague to the disaster. The inferno that engulfed mini-storage units in the Ngau Tau Kok industrial building would cost the life of another fireman before it was brought under control after more than 108 hours. Progress was slow as firefighters had to break into 200 locked storage cubicles to gain access to all floors at the Amoycan Industrial Centre. The loss of life prompted the Fire Services Department to set up a new unit to ensure operational safety and quality. Photo: Edward Wong
[Closing a chapter] Lam Wing-kee stands outside Causeway Bay Books on July 21, 2018, 10 months before he would flee Hong Kong for Taiwan over fears he would be sent to mainland China should the city pass an extradition bill. Lam was one of five men involved in selling sensational books critical of Beijing’s political elite who went missing one by one in 2015. When Lam returned to the city eight months later, he described being kidnapped by mainland agents and put through months of mental torture in an account that shocked the world. Photo: Edmond So
[Poking around] An augmented reality gaming craze hits town in July 2016 as residents armed with smartphones comb their neighbourhood for Pokemons – cute monster characters from a popular Japanese franchise. In hotspots where Pokemon Go characters “appear”, avid hunters gather, forming a peculiar scene of kids and adults seemingly locked in a mobile phone-led trance. Photo: Sam Tsang
[Young resistance] Student leader Nathan Law Kwun-chung (centre) makes history by becoming Hong Kong’s youngest lawmaker at age 23 after capturing a surprising number of votes in the election held on September 4, 2016. Flanked by fellow members of the Demosisto political party that called for Hong Kong’s self-determination, Agnes Chow Ting and Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Law was later ousted over improper oath-taking and would flee the city in the summer of 2020 as the national security law came into effect. Wanted by authorities over his alleged role in a banned June 4 Tiananmen Square vigil, Law remains an irritant to Beijing and a hero to the West. Photo: Dickson Lee
[Legally bound] Hundreds of lawyers join a silent rally at the city’s top court on November 8, 2016, to protest against an interpretation of the Basic Law by the nation’s top legislative body that stated lawmakers who improperly took their oaths would be disqualified from public office. The decision came ahead of a High Court ruling on the right of two Youngspiration legislators to retake the vow, a move that the Bar Association earlier warned would “deal a severe blow to the independence of the judiciary and the power of final adjudication of the Hong Kong court”. Democratic Party founder Martin Lee Chu-ming described the interpretation of the city’s mini constitution as “a tank crashing into the legal system”. Photo: David Wong
[Watch this space] The head of the pro-establishment New People’s Party, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, gets a taste of what life is like for the city’s poor who must call the notorious “coffin cubicles” home as she campaigns during the chief executive race on January 17, 2017. It was estimated at the time that about 200,000 needy residents had no option but to rent the beds, paying up to HK$3,000 a month for the space. Five years later and the government is barely any closer to solving the shortage of homes, with the average wait for public flats spiralling to a 23-year-high of 6.1 years. Photo: David Wong
[Throwing shade] In an ominous sign of the social upheaval that would nearly overwhelm the government, a symbol of the protest movement is unfurled as Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor wins the chief executive race on March 26, 2017. Lam, a career civil servant viewed as Beijing’s sole preferred candidate, beat out John Tsang Chun-wah (left) and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing by clinching 777 votes from the 1,194-member Election Committee. Five years later she would decline to seek re-election after reports of Beijing’s dissatisfaction over her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic that claimed the lives of more than 9,000 residents. Photo: Robert Ng
[The President’s mien] Members of the Junior Police Call, a youth group, are among the first Hongkongers who get a chance to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on June 30, 2017, during his first visit to Hong Kong since becoming the nation’s leader, as Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying looks on. The next day Xi delivered speeches as part of events marking the city’s 20th anniversary of the handover from British to Chinese rule, in which he said “problems” had arisen from the unique governing model adopted with the transfer, but residents should strive to solve them rationally and society should not have internal rifts. He spoke too of the value of the “one country, two systems” model of governing the city, saying: “It embodies a very important ­tenet, namely, seeking broad ­common ground while allowing for major differences.” Photo: Nora Tam
[Packing a punch] Hong Kong boxing superstar Rex Tso Sing-yu sports a massive lump on his forehead in his fight against Japan’s Kohei Kono, but still manages to extend a six-year winning streak in the “Clash of Champions 3” tournament on October 7, 2017. Tso, known affectionately to residents as the “Wonder Kid” for being the city’s first boxer to gain global recognition, retained his WBO international super flyweight title at the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai that year, raining an excellent combination of signature punches on his opponent. He suffered a nasty injury when he bumped heads with Kono in the second round. “Sorry to my wife. I have hurt myself again. This time I really went for it,” Tso would later say in tears, a side of his forehead so swollen that his left eye could barely open. “I followed my trainer’s advice. I have to thank my opponent Kono, He’s really so powerful. My head is really sore.” Tso was rushed to hospital – his first time as a professional – after his victory speech. Photo: Edward Wong
[Love is love] Senior immigration officer Angus Leung Chun-kwong (left) and his husband Scott Adams leave the High Court in Admiralty on December 12, 2017. Leung took the government to court in late 2015 over its failure to grant spousal benefits to his husband and permit the couple to file a joint tax assessment, rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples. In a 2019 judgment, the top court said it accepted the government had a legitimate aim to protect the institution of marriage, but prevailing community views on marriage and the absence of a majority consensus could not justify rejecting a minority’s claim to a fundamental right. The victory for the couple marked a significant step in a city that has yet to fully recognise same-sex marriage. Photo: Winson Wong