The Birth of ‘Riot’ Culture in Hong Kong


[Portland Street after Fishball Revolution by Wpcpey is licensed under CC — BY3.0]

I grew up in Hong Kong, a sprawling financial hub in the South China Sea, ruled by China, then Britain, then China again. It is one of the safest cities in the world, crime rates are frequently the lowest globally and in 2015 the crime rate dropped to a 35 year low. Orderly political protests are commonplace during the weekends and everyone dutifully suits up on Monday to restart the working week again.

But on the 8th of February 2016 something erupted. Hong Kong woke up to news reports condemning ‘the worst outbreak of rioting since the 1960s’, stupefying photos of protesters injured by the police, the police injured by protesters and scenes with bins on fire. Overnight, there had been an explosion of protests staged against the government’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards unlicensed street hawkers (that’s mobile street vendors, not bird-handlers, I’m afraid to say). In the early hours of the morning, two warning shots were fired into the air by the police, by 4am the streets were on fire — and when the sun rose in Hong Kong, the #FishballRevolution was born.

Wait, what? Fishballs? Don’t worry. I got your back. Sort of (it’s complicated, obviously).

#UmbrellaRevolution [‘Harcourt Road under Umbrella Movement’ by Wing1990hk is licensed under CC — BY3.0]

Hong Kong experienced a crazy, 4 month long protest in 2014, the #UmbrellaMovement. Originally youths protesting against restrictive pro-Beijing reforms, the protest became wrapped up in the issue of Hong Kong’s uncertain future in Beijing’s hands, swelling to 100,000 participants as severe police tactics shocked citizens.

You see, when the Brits ‘handed Hong Kong back’ to China in 1997 after 150ish years of colonial rule, they were essentially handing over a British city with a Chinese veneer. Hong Kong is still neither here (a China coming out of its Communist heyday) nor there (a UK that is firmly European and Western). Instead, it is somewhere in the middle — a bastard child, passed back and forth between parents with totally different personalities. It still has a legal system, education system and language based on the UK’s — but it is now, decidedly, part of China.

The beginning of this whole mess; Hong Kong in 1899

To the surprise of a paranoid West, Hong Kong has mostly been left to run itself. 18 years on, Hong Kong still has and manages its own government, political parties, formal diplomatic relations, passports, police, postal system, schooling system, tax system, currency and, strangely enough, Olympic team — all separate to mainland China, but technically a part of China all the same.

None of it really makes sense. It’s like an action movie — don’t think about it too much, or else all the plot holes will really start to unravel. Throw in neighbouring Macau, another city in China that is similarly confused and systematically separate (but with the Portuguese to blame this time), and it’s enough to tear your hair out.

It’s all China because China says it’s all China, rationalised through China’s 50 year policy titled ‘One China: Two Systems’, although proficient mathematicians reading this will note that it should really be ‘One China: Three Systems’.

(As a side note, do you know what else doesn’t make sense? The acceptance in Hong Kong of milk in their tea, left behind by the Brits. Tea is usually served in place of water at most restaurants in Hong Kong, so to understand how weird it is for milky tea to be popular, think about putting a dash of milk in your water and drinking it. Yeah. Exactly.)

All your base are belong to us [Map from 1890]

But remember, China is Communist/Socialist/It’s Complicated and Hong Kong is…not. Hong Kong is a different beast all together, a stronghold of Westernised Capitalism with free speech, access to Facebook, an uncensored Google experience and all the political protests you could want. Sure, they might both LOVE MONEY but the two systems and cultures are very different, and have always been different.

The issue is that with every passing year, the difference becomes less assured and Big Beijing’s scrutinising eye looms ever closer.

Hong Kongers live in a strange perpetual state of certain uncertainty, and no one has answers for them. The #UmbrellaMovement stemmed from the frustration of not knowing, and a 17 months on, they are none the wiser. Yet, the #UmbrellaMovement was peaceful and the #FishballRevolution was not. What compelled violence in a city characterised by order?

[Fishball Revolution icon by Badiucao 巴丢草, licensed under CC — BY4.0]

Since 2014, the government’s popularity has plunged to historical lows. Add to this the controversies surrounding the beating of protesters by the Hong Kong Police Force, previously referred to as ‘Asia’s Finest’, and you have a tense situation. New activist groups have emerged, some taking a strong anti-government and anti-mainland stance.

One such group is Hong Kong Indigenous, the group that staged the February 2016 protests, calling the crackdown on unlicensed hawkers an attack on local culture, identity and autonomy. Fishballs have been thrown into the mix as they are sold by these unlicensed hawkers, along with other traditional Hong Kong snacks.

Of course, it’s more than just fishballs. Cheap street food might be a South East Asian cliché, but it’s a major part of Hong Kong culture that is dying out in the hands of a government titillated by gentrification. Rents in Hong Kong are notoriously high, affordable restaurants are closing down and street stalls struggle to get their licenses renewed. The gap between what people earn and what they can afford is a rapidly forming gulf, causing an underlying tone of fear amongst the youth. It is this fear — a fear for a Hong Kong they cannot afford, that they cannot recognise and that they cannot identify with, from which the #FishballRevolution bubbled forth.

A 172 year old market facing eradication from redevelopment [‘Graham Street, Central, Hong Kong’ by Ghitangshenho is licensed under CC — BY3.0]

So now what? As with the aftermath of the 2014 #UmbrellaMovement, life in Hong Kong rapidly returned to normalcy, true to Hong Kong’s stability-hungry nature, but there is tension crackling through the air. The Hong Kong government and some local news agencies have condemned the event as a riot, and the protesters a dangerous mob. Others have sided with the protesters, including seven local university student unions, criticising the police for an excessive use of force. In a move that surprised no one, Beijing publicly denounced Hong Kong Indigenous, naming them ‘dangerous radical separatists using elements of terror’, their grip on Hong Kong tightening ever so slightly.

The truth is, the youth in Hong Kong are desperate for answers about their future. Hong Kong’s past successes as a stable financial powerhouse may have been built on Westernised capitalism, but their future will be on unfamiliar Chinese soil. Only China knows what will happen to Hong Kong, and China keeps its mahjong tiles close to its chest.

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