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Through the smoke: the Hong Kong protests

It was a night that my family wouldn’t soon forget.

Protests, Smoke, and Hong Kong Through the Eyes of One Family

“I wouldn’t advise it. Think of your family.”

I had asked the man if it was possible to get to Nathan Road. As I heard those words, I knew right away that it was going to be a long night. 

Even now, more than a week after these events transpired, those words still reverberate in my mind. They still make me shudder.

My family had just spent the day at Hong Kong Disneyland and we were eager to get back to our room for some much-needed rest. Problem was, we were still roughly two kilometers away from our hotel. From what we’d been told, there was no way back but on foot. That night, the protests that erupted near Hong Kong Polytechnic University spilled over to Nathan Road where our hotel was located. Both nearby transit stations had been shut down and no taxi would take us.

From where we were, things looked normal, but with the way ambulances and police cars rolled by, you could tell that something was brewing. There was an unmistakable frenzy. The distant rumbling of the protesters’ voices mixed with blaring sirens in a perfect cocktail of discord. From a distance, the smoky air seemed to warn us not to go further. I held my daughter tightly as the city lights undulated in my eyes in a foreboding manner.

Should we stay or should we go?  Indecision was starting to seep in and I could see the worry in my wife’s eyes. I was panicking too, but I felt like I had to put on a calm façade. I had to make the call. “Let’s just see. We can always turn around if things get out of hand,” I said to my wife. We began the long trek back to our hotel.

Thus began a night that my family wouldn’t soon forget.

Up, Down, and Over the Top

Hong Kong has always been special to us. It’s my wife’s favorite place to visit. It was home to my dearest friend. We had planned to visit her a few years back, but it never happened as she passed away suddenly. Because of this, I didn’t even entertain the thought of going to HK for some time—until my wife floated the idea of having our first out-of-country trip as a family there. Excitement started to brew. 

The last time I went, I was but a kid about to enter fourth grade. I was itching to see how much it had changed. Also, being the Kung Fu aficionado, I was excited at the thought of seeing all the Bruce Lee and Ip Man-related stuff I could find. And of course, there was Disneyland for our little girl—and the kid in us as well.

Our plans were put on hold, though, when the protests started. We were constantly warned by friends and family not to push through for our own safety. For weeks, we vacillated between canceling and pushing through until, finally, we decided. We weren’t worried as we had a friend who was based there, and she reassured us that as long as we steered clear of protest areas, limited our itinerary to one place per day, and were indoors by nightfall, we’d be alright. Those were the rules and we were going to stick by them. Whenever family and friends would try to dissuade us from going, we’d reassure them that things weren’t all that bad. “Think of it this way; at least there won’t be lines at Disneyland”, I’d say. True enough there (practically) weren’t!

The night before we went to Disneyland, I broke one of our rules. I went out for a late-night snack. Since most of the establishments were closed, I ended up wandering farther than I had anticipated. Things were quiet and peaceful, so I wasn’t the least bit worried. 

Somehow, I found myself right across a police station. As I passed by, an officer started announcing something over the PA. One by one, people stopped dead in their tracks, and a group of passersby started shouting back at the cops. Now, I have no idea what they were saying as it was in Cantonese, but it seemed to me as if they were answering back, even egging the authorities on. Lo and behold! A spotlight went on from the station and I was caught in it since I was right between the police station and the group. I don’t know how many beats per minute my heart raced at that moment, but I remember my feet being pinned to the pavement. It felt as if I had bricks tied to my legs as I tried to walk on. Still. Nothing happened to me and I actually laughed at my little misadventure when I got back to our room. Chalk it up to experience, I guess.

Don’t break the rules, especially your own. 

Smoke, Bricks, and Broken Glass

The day finally came and we were on our way to Disneyland. A surprise greeted us as we left the hotel–Nathan Road was teeming with throngs of black-clad protesters. Aside from my little misadventure, things seemed so calm the night before. Yet that morning, bricks had already been taken from the pavement and strewn across the roads. I hesitated, wondering if we should push through with our trip and just stay indoors. 

We soon reached the MTR Station, though, and our fears were abated. The day passed as one would expect at the Happiest Place on Earth and my daughter seemed to have the time of her life. Nightfall came and I convinced my wife to stay a bit longer (breaking another of our rules) so we could enjoy the closing parade. It wasn’t every day you got to tour Disneyland, after all.

Everywhere you looked, there were still remnants of smoke, bricks, makeshift barricades, empty teargas canisters, and broken glass. But that didn’t worry me anymore because amid what looked like a war zone, there were heroes like the ones who had helped my family that night.

We doubled back and ended up at Prince Edward—two stations from where we were supposed to get off. I checked my phone, scrolled through my Facebook feed, and saw some rather disconcerting images posted by friends back home. There were also a few “Are you guys OK” messages. Jordan Station was right at the center of the clashes between protesters and the authorities, so our hopes of getting back to our hotel suddenly seemed bleak. As my wife tried to hail cabs, it became apparent that the language barrier was rearing its ugly head. 

By the time the parade concluded, we were already itching to sleep the rest of the night away, so we hurriedly hopped on the MTR. Unfortunately for us, the train skipped Jordan Station, where we were supposed to get off. And then it also skipped the next one. I asked the person next to me about it. “No stop,” he said after consulting his friends. 

I overheard a man talking on his phone in fluent English, so I approached him as he hung up and asked about the situation. The only way you could get there was on foot. Even then, you still had to be wary as the clashes were getting pretty intense. He said we could probably try the side streets and back alleys. But then he said it. “I wouldn’t advise it. Think of your family.”

We were low on energy; my wife and I had taken turns carrying our three-year-old daughter practically the entire day. I honestly didn’t know where I was going to draw the strength I knew I needed to keep my family safe should something happen. Smoke permeated the air, the streets were littered with bricks, and I could feel the crunch of broken glass under my Chucks with each step I took.

Foes, Allies, and Heroes on All Sides

We pushed on toward Nathan Road and the crowds started to get bigger. I was under the impression that we were near the thick of the action. I saw a group of men asking a local for directions. It turns out they were Thai and were also headed in the same direction as us. Perhaps they saw the panic in our eyes. Perhaps they were just genuinely concerned when they saw our little girl. Whatever the case, they offered to accompany us and I didn’t doubt their sincerity for a second. The language barrier was still a problem so I only mumbled a few key words and mimed as best I could that their help was greatly appreciated and I was just worried for my wife and my little girl. That worry was appeased as I felt like we had our own bodyguards. 

The plan was to approach our hotel from streets parallel to Nathan Road. I had already lost count of how many times we had changed our course to avoid the clashes when people started scampering away from the authorities straight in our direction. Just as it seemed like full-blown panic was about to grip us, a few cooler heads prevailed and motioned everyone to remain calm.

We came across a local who advised us to wait it out a bit. He kept checking his phone, looking for possible routes that we could take. I couldn’t help but be in awe as these people who didn’t owe us anything were doing their best to help us. I was roused from my pensive mood, though, as things escalated and people started running again. We lost sight of him. We tried a couple of alleys with our Thai companions until we could go no further. They decided to wait it out. 

We, on the other hand, kept going. We had tried approaching from all angles; we had pretty much exhausted all routes back and it just didn’t seem possible. By this time, I was already hatching up plans B through Z and was bracing for the possible scenario of spending the night in the streets or at a police station (if we were lucky). As different scenarios raced through my mind, I saw a couple, baby in tow, leisurely strolling in our direction.

I was so dumbfounded at how carefree they were that I found it hard to speak coherently. “Hello! Safe this way?” I muttered. It turned out the family was Filipino, just like us. Again, they were headed in the same direction as us and we found new companions. I was amazed at how relaxed they seemed—this was commonplace and they were used to it—when more shouting and running broke out and we had to do a quick 180. 

A young man warned us not to go further as teargas was being thrown about wantonly. I later found out he was from Indonesia and that he was there to support his friends. When we got to safety, we told him that we were intent on getting back to our hotel. He said that he knew of some alleyways we could take, but that we had to be ready to run if push came to shove. We had to wrap our kids in our coats and makeshift masks because of the teargas. There was no way I would risk that, I thought. I’d rather spend the night on some random street and stretch out what little baby formula and diapers we had left. He then offered an alternative: To bring us to the police for help. 

Once again, I was slack-jawed. Here was a man who was fighting tooth and nail against the authorities, yet he was willing to cooperate with them—his enemy—for the sake of a foreign family’s well-being. That, to me, said that no matter how intense the fighting got, there would always be a semblance of decency and morality. These folks had a cause and they were willing to see it through, yet they still knew when to set aside their agenda to help their fellow man.

Our Filipino companions then suggested we sleep it out at a nearby hospital. This appealed to me the most. Fatigue had long set in and I didn’t want to push my family to the limit—as if we weren’t there already. As my wife and child slept in the hospital’s waiting room, I kept checking outside to ask passersby about the situation. After about an hour, I was able to confirm that the clashes had shifted elsewhere. I rushed back to my family and roused them from their sleep. It was time to dig deep for one final push. As we went on our way, we came across the Filipino dad, the young Indonesian man, and the Thai group. I don’t know how it happened but it just seemed to me like fate wanted to bring us all together one last time. We wished each other luck and exchanged our heartfelt thanks—along with a few selfies, of course.

As we got to Nathan road, we passed by a local who was assisting another tourist. I approached him and apologized profusely for the fact that he had to entertain yet another lost foreigner, but he was nice enough to oblige me. So nice, in fact, that he offered to walk us to our hotel. I don’t remember how many more alleys we went through and how many times we changed direction. What I do remember is how he would always lend a hand to people on the streets. He seemed like a tour guide as he kept telling me stories about Hong Kong, about the protests, and even about the best restaurants in the area. He actually insisted that we grab something to eat. I politely declined. I didn’t want to be rude, of course, but we really needed to turn in. We walked a few more blocks until we finally reached our hotel. Everywhere you looked, there were still remnants of smoke, bricks, makeshift barricades, empty teargas canisters, and broken glass. But that didn’t worry me anymore because amid what looked like a war zone, there were heroes like the ones who had helped my family that night.

All in all, I’d say it must’ve taken us about four hours or so to get from Prince Edward Station to Jordan Station. Only when we finally got back to our room did I notice how numb my arms were and how much my legs and feet hurt. We’d been running on sheer adrenalin. We took a hot bath and soon fell in the loving arms of sleep.

Father, Husband, and Storyteller

The hustle and bustle of Hong Kong’s busy streets woke us up the next day. Everything seemed normal once again. And aside from graffiti and a few stacked bricks here and there, there was practically no sign of the events that transpired the night before. For this father and husband, all that was left of that night were stories.

Looking back, I see now that there were signs we may have missed—or altogether ignored—because of our excitement. My wife and I agree that if our daughter hadn’t been there, we might have stayed on the sidelines the entire night—I know I would have. Now, I don’t consider myself a religious man. And aside from my child’s baptism, I don’t even think I’ve been to church since I got married. But those times that I saw protesters running away from the police, I turned Catholic so fast you wouldn’t believe it—I actually found myself reciting Latin prayers! When it comes to your family, all bets are off.

“In every man there still exist the evils by which he can destroy himself,” says Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. That may be true. But I know that in man’s heart, there is also goodness. There’s the capacity to set aside anger and do good. The people we met that night are a testament to this. 

I’m glad we pushed through with our plans to go to Hong Kong. We got to immerse ourselves in its rich culture. Most of all, I’m glad that we witnessed firsthand such a pivotal moment in their history. The experience we had made us stronger as a family and that’s something I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. We’ll be back. 

We’ll always remember the kind individuals who helped us. We may not remember their names, but their faces will always be etched in our minds—their kindness in our hearts. On behalf of my family, I thank you all. I hope you are all safe and that a peaceful resolution is soon found.