Yesterday I went to Tuen Mun hoping to take my wide-angle lens knowledge about the discontent over daima 「大媽」and learn more about how it affects a local community which I have far less experience of. The issue of daima — “aunties” — singing in public spaces and how it affects local residents in Hong Kong is well known because of the publicity surrounding tense confrontations that occurred in Mong Kok in 2015. So by travelling some further distance to the northwestern New Territories, I hoped to get another community’s perspective.
I quickly absorbed a familiar theme: the issue has been on the minds of local residents for a long time, but the police and local Leisure and Cultural Services Department officials were thought to be uninterested in finding a solution. For readers who are more accustomed to thinking about unsolvable constitutional questions in Hong Kong, such as the lack of universal suffrage, it might be helpful to consider that an issue as seemingly simple as whether one community can harmoniously share a public park cannot be solved for as long as 10 years or more.
Yet yesterday’s events also became a flashpoint for wider community conflicts in Hong Kong, regardless of whether that was something the protest organiser had any intention of calling attention to. I saw organiser Michael Mo at the start of the march, comfortably drawing on his extensive experience of activism and community outreach to rally the crowd. When I ran into him again at Tuen Mun Park as the officially authorised event was ending, he simply asked me: “what’s going on?”
It was a fair question. By 4:15pm, protesters had besieged the public toilets, but at this point it was still unclear whether any daima were actually inside. A video would later circulate on social media showing dozens of police officers escorting a woman out of the park, but at this point in the afternoon, it seemed possible that protesters were chasing phantoms.
It was not until 6pm that it became obvious that this was not the case. An alleged incident, which I did not witness, where an elderly man attacked the protesters in the park led to the police separating the man from the crowd and leading him to a taxi on Tuen Mun Heung Sze Wui Road, a short distance away from the MTR station.
It was then that the day’s events in Tuen Mun ceased to be about “singing aunties” in the local community, but about the familiar perception of selective policing in Hong Kong as a whole. Yet it would be wrong to suggest that the characteristics of the protesting crowd changed. The use of pepper spray to allow the deviant taxi to leave did not prompt a sudden rush to erect makeshift barricades on public roads in Tuen Mun, nor was there was any mass appeal for protective gear to be dispatched to the area from other parts of Hong Kong. These were not people who came with an expectation or intention of escalation, and so a negotiated dispersal that would clear the roads of protesters was perfectly achievable.
Despite these favourable circumstances, the fact that such a dispersal took several hours to eventually occur points to a deeper decay in relations between the police and the community. Chants of 「黑警！」”black police” remained constant, and efforts by the police negotiator to encourage a dispersal were repeatedly unsuccessful despite calls for silence to allow discussions to take place.
The improved attitude of protesters towards members of the press yesterday is also noteworthy. Those of us on the frontlines of recent anti-extradition protests have experienced non-cooperation at best and outright hostility at worst from protesters seeking to hide their identities. During the confrontations yesterday, when journalists were scattered at different locations, protesters called loudly for journalists to converge at a particular spot whenever an escalation seemed possible. Undoubtedly, the fact that yesterday’s events morphed into something beyond the original intention led to an enhanced appreciation of the role of the press as independent witnesses. That same logic could be applied to many developments in the wider anti-extradition movement.
Does yesterday’s display indicate that it is no longer possible to call attention to social issues in Hong Kong without the message being lost in conflicts with the police force? In fact, this phenomenon has been pervasive in recent years, affecting media coverage of issues such as parallel trading on the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border and hawkers facing stiffer law enforcement during the Lunar New Year. While the recent anti-extradition movement does not signal the start of this trend, the long-term impact of the movement on the police force’s relations with the community could have significant implications for community organisers trying to draw attention to such smaller-scale issues in the future.