“Tear gas on one street and civilians walking on another.”
In Hong Kong, the protests have exposed bitter divisions — even among friends and families.
In Yau Ma Tei, one of Hong Kong’s oldest and densest neighborhoods, pro-democracy protesters and Beijing loyalists live side by side, sometimes in the same apartment. In the evenings, slogans chanted at demonstrations become arguments, as young and old shout across a generational divide. The neighborhood, once home to a large community of Chinese refugees, is a microcosm of the larger territory and its ideologically divided people. Since June, millions have marched throughout Hong Kong, demanding universal suffrage and an end to police brutality. Stories from Yau Ma Tei capture a nuanced and tenuous coexistence: The neighborhood’s streets bustle with hipsters, artists, salaried workers, and retirees who mingle in the fruit markets and among the fragrant food stalls, all living in the evolving aftermath of an international story.
These days, I’m out every weekend. In the beginning, my boyfriend wasn’t as radical as me. It felt like he went to the protests just to be with me, but now he goes by himself even if I can’t. We still argue about how much he should chip in for the supplies we bring for fellow protesters, but I think our values are more aligned now. We used to go out and buy things we didn’t need or watch movies. Since the protests started, we haven’t gone out on our usual dates, not even once.
My life used to be so smooth and stable. In the past few months, my mood changes from day to day. I can be laughing one moment and crying the next. I feel so overwhelmed. Even when I’m hanging out with friends, I still feel like I’m not completely relaxed. The pressure is always there.
I use this app where protesters organize, and my screen name is “period’s messed up from too much tear gas.” I’ve always had irregular cycles, but in August, I realized my last period was in May. There’s a rumor that one of the chemicals in tear gas causes menstrual disorders. I was chatting with some friends, and a lot of women said they’re experiencing the same thing. A doctor friend told me that exposure to tear gas can cause stress, which would make the whole body tense. After one particularly violent night, I lost my appetite, and my chest felt weird. I took a pregnancy test, and the result was negative.
No matter how much you tell yourself to relax, you can’t stop your body from reacting physically to the stress.
— Jade, 26, protester
My father worked at this very store in the fruit market for nearly five decades. We wear black a lot because our clothes get dirty easily at work, but now we worry about wearing black on the streets, since it’s the color protesters wear.
These are sensitive times. It’s not like I don’t want to express my opinion, it’s that I don’t want my views to affect the family business. We don’t discuss the current situation with our customers. I don’t want people to label us as “yellow” [pro-democracy] or “blue” [pro-government]. And our business has been affected; there are fewer customers. The fruit market is never this quiet on a Saturday — it would’ve taken you 15 minutes to walk from the end of the market to the other. Look how empty it is right now.
— Ms. Kam, produce stall owner
The Bangladeshi community in Hong Kong is very small — about 2,500. Most of us are in business, and most of us are Muslim. And most of us aren’t interested in local politics. We just want to be peaceful citizens. On paper, we’re local, but we’re not really, so we don’t want to do anything to upset the real locals.
I have seen many countries that are supposedly democratic, and even now, Hong Kong is better than those. Bangladesh is fully democratic,” but I can’t speak freely there. If you talk in the daytime, you might disappear by nighttime.
In Bangladesh, if you need help, you have to know a police officer or a family member of an officer, pay a bribe, and even then you might not get help. In my 30 years here, ’ve never seen an officer demand a bribe. Just last week, my friend went missing, and the police came after one phone call, called hospitals trying to find him, and didn’t even ask for a cup of tea. Luckily, he was just in China.
— Mr. Sac, 60, businessman
I run a YouTube makeup-slash-lifestyle channel with friends, and on Sundays we try to meet up at my friend’s place. If we know there are protests in some place, we might not go there. In Hong Kong, there could be tear gas on one street and civilians walking on another. You don’t actually need to be that far away to stay away from the danger.
I studied at the Canadian International School for 14 years, and then I was at the University of Hong Kong studying molecular biology. There’s a huge difference of opinions among my high school friends and my university friends. People from CDNIS — they’re either neutral, or they don’t want to talk about the protests, or they’re strongly against them. There are a few graduates who are actually pro-movement, and those people usually went to a university in Hong Kong.
A lot of the international-school kids hold a foreign passport, so even if they grew up here and live here, their sense of identity is not as strong. They know their home can be somewhere else. All of my university friends, by comparison, are very pro-movement and outspoken on social media. Their families are all in Hong Kong, and they probably will raise their future families in Hong Kong, too.
I haven’t changed much of my YouTube content — most of my followers are in the U.S. But on Instagram, I have a lot of local followers. For a while, I thought maybe I shouldn’t post about food or going on vacation or having fun when people are having such a hard time. On Instagram, a lot of people I follow or who are following me post about the protests, so I don’t want to seem like one of those international-school kids who doesn’t really care. I do, but I have my own life outside of all of this. And I have a lot of friends on both sides, so I don’t want to offend anyone.
We don’t talk about politics at home at all. At a fall festival, I made a pro-protest lantern and brought it home. My dad didn’t say anything but made a face — my automatic reaction was to hide it. I didn’t want to create conflict.
A friend of mine is very against the protesters. In the beginning, he was more neutral, but eventually he would say, Wow, the protesters are so violent now, disrupting my daily life. I don’t want to talk to him about it anymore — it’s too triggering. When people share content about police brutality or violence, he leaves comments like, The protesters deserve it. They said they’re willing to risk their lives, so don’t complain.
— Jennifer, 23, event manager and YouTuber
I’ve lived in Hong Kong for 34 years. I came here in 1985 from Chiuchow, in China. I was an elementary teacher. My three children were born here. China is more open now compared to when I lived there. They still don’t have lives as good as ours, but it’s stable, and the standard of living is improving.
On weekends, I like to get dim sum with my family and go shopping afterward, buy a few things. We’ve been out less often these days, and we try to go out in the mornings before the demonstrations start. The protesters have become so violent — they damage property, so the police have to respond. If the police don’t show up, society becomes crippled, right?
I have age and life experience on my side. Society is like a family — the parent has already made concessions, so the protesters should be more understanding. At the end of the day, Hong Kong people are Chinese people.
— Mrs. Ng, 60, housewife
My mother watches only one channel, TVB, the main news broadcaster in Hong Kong. It only offers one side of the story. She doesn’t use social media. She believes that freedom and democracy are bad, and she likes to bring up problems in democratic countries, like Trump and Brexit. Ever since I was a kid, she’s been very supportive of China. After the protests started, we went on vacation, so she wasn’t watching TVB, and my siblings and I slowly persuaded her that peaceful protests are a good thing. But she is against any escalations.
My grandfather swam to Hong Kong from China and officially applied for my mother to live here. That’s how she was able to leave. My mother lived through the Cultural Revolution, and I didn’t understand why she still supports China because she was among the people who suffered under it. But from her perspective, Hong Kong already has a lot more freedoms than China, so we should cherish them. If we provoke China, they may not even grant us what we have.
On Mondays, my mom and I bicker the most — that’s when there’s news about the weekend protests. When she makes comments about what’s on TV, I can’t help but challenge her. Then she says, “OK, we’re not talking about this over dinner. Let’s not watch TV anymore.” Now I try to go out for dinner with my friends on Mondays. I think a bit of distance is healthy for us. I have friends who moved out of their parents’ homes, but I’m nowhere near that stage yet.
— Ms. Ng, 28, Mrs. Ng’s daughter
I grew up in China, in Guangzhou. I came to Hong Kong in 2002. I started making performance art in 1986. I started thinking about leaving China about a year later. My friends and I were self-taught because there was no information back then. A few artists and I got a letter from the Communist Party saying that the government would be keeping an eye on us, which would make our lives difficult. Looking back, it wasn’t a big deal because the country was opening to the world. The ’80s were the best period in China. They passed like a dream — it happened once and never again.
I don’t really miss living in mainland China; I just miss my friends. So many of them are outstanding artists, but struggling. We’ll send each other wine or tea, and we’ll share ideas and our latest artwork. When the time is right, I’ll suggest that they exhibit their art in Hong Kong.
I hope to be a bridge between Hong Kong and mainland China. I think people in both places deeply misunderstand the other. I have some friends from China whose lives are difficult here in Hong Kong. Their Cantonese is not perfect, they speak with an accent, and people discriminate against them. My friend is a famous Chinese director who has been living in Hong Kong for more than six years. He doesn’t speak Cantonese. He has been filming the protests, and there were multiple times he was attacked, not by the police but by protesters. They asked him to identify himself, to erase his videos, and if he didn’t, they would push him or yell at him. I was there when it happened twice.
After I left China for Japan and resumed performance art, many said my work was political. I used to be offended by that. When Tiananmen Square happened, I started to reflect on what “politics” means. You can’t say you don’t like it or you’d rather stay away from it. In a place like Hong Kong, where the political environment is deteriorating, or a place like China, where it’s already really bad, it’s not something you can avoid.
— Sanmu, 57, performance artist and curator of the defunct Green Wave Art gallery
I go out to protest about once a week. It’s exhausting to go out more than twice a week. I keep my gas mask at my friend’s place. My family and I have agreed to avoid talking about the movement, and I go to my room right away when I get home. I rarely have dinner at home now.
I’ve started to see things differently. In the past, I wanted to be in the front lines. It felt meaningless to stay in the back and just march. Marching doesn’t intimidate the government enough to change. Now I’ve shifted my focus toward helping people who were arrested. When someone is arrested, you have to figure out his location and confirm he has seen a lawyer, that his bail is posted. Then you might find some peace of mind. Sometimes I can’t calm down, but I still have to report to my full-time job at 9 a.m. You have to take a break at some point or risk missing work.
Even though I protest, I don’t feel a lot of hope. I’ve felt like I need to leave, to think of a way out by immigrating elsewhere. I’m still here because I haven’t made a detailed plan. In the meantime, I’m staying to fight for change, however little that may be.
— Anthony, 24, protester and salesman
Hong Kong, stay strong. I live in Guangdong, China. My family visits Hong Kong a couple of times every year. Our child is a sheung fei [born in Hong Kong to Chinese parents who aren’t permanent residents of Hong Kong]. I can’t say too much. It’d be very dangerous for us when we go back.
But I can say this: Many in China are blinded. Theydon’t know what’s happening in Hong Kong, and they completely believe the version that the Communist Party gives them. There are so few who really understand.
— Mr. Lam, tourist from mainland China