HONG KONG, China – For years to come, October 3, 2014, is likely to be remembered as one of the darkest days in the history of Hong Kong.
Some locals have compared it to riots back in 2005; others to the opportunistic looting in Kowloon around the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre 25 years ago – both of these saw teargas and police being deployed.
But older residents think even further back to 1967, when Hong Kong was crippled by months of riots that killed at least 51 people and injured hundreds.
The date will be remembered, as well, as the day the triads – Hong Kong’s infamous underground societies – moved onto the streets.
The violence on Friday in the district of Mong Kok felt, at times, like a civil war: a cacophony of thuggery, reprisals, recrimination, hatred, heckling, humiliation and fear. The ill-tempered confrontations between the activists and police continued deep into the early hours of Saturday morning, and even though things calmed down somewhat by Saturday evening, fears are mounting of new confrontations on Sunday. Many Hongkongers we spoke to are reeling from the events which have left at least 18 people injured, including six police officers.
Friday’s violence began in mid-afternoon when groups of unknown masked men attempted to break the week-long traffic blockade in set up by anti-government activists at the Nathan-Argyle Road junction in Kowloon. These activists – mostly young students, many female and defenseless – were vastly outnumbered by the so-called “thugs” during the early stages of the attack.
Angered by what they saw on the TV or on their phones, swarms of pro-democracy activists headed straight over to offer reinforcement, ringing the protest site, rebuilding the barricades and rescuing those hapless students – many of whom were already in tears by that point.
One of the first to arrive at the scene was retired a bus driver, Mr. Yuen, who abandoned his gym routine nearby and ran to the rescue as quickly as he could.
“The police did nothing,” he said. “They deliberately showed up late and allowed these thugs to charge at the girls and then us, throwing bottles and everything, when we first arrived.
“How can the police be so slow?” asked the angry 57-year-old who, as a father, was furious to see other people’s children come into harm’s way. “There are CCTVs everywhere. Someone high up in the force must have ordered the delay in their deployment and only then did half a dozen turn up to set up this flimsy cordon!”
During the tense early morning hours on Saturday the ill-tempered confrontations between protestors and the police, and the pro-democracy and anti-protest supporters spread to the side streets before finally dying down in the dark before dawn.
Speculation remains rife about who these masked men were. Plenty of pro-democracy activists point to a widely circulated picture on social media, which allegedly shows rewards offered for committing different levels of crime against demonstrators, as evidence the thugs were paid.
Others also suspect civil groups with funding coming from Mainland China are sowing dissent. Likewise, local pro-China Hongkongers with vested economic interests could have taken part. A newsagent further down on Nathan Road told The Daily Beast that he recognized a number of retired cops in the cavalry charge.
Over dinner, an elderly waitress at a nearby restaurant thought the timing of the attack was suspicious. Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung refuses to quit, and the next day this happens, she said: “The two events are linked. Whoever did this are not human - they must be the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] from China; Hong Kong people don’t do these things to one another!”
But what everyone is talking about is what role the notorious triads played in Friday’s violence.
The question was put to the police at a press conference on Friday night. “None,” said spokesman Kong Man-keung, “and to say we allow them to operate is grossly inaccurate.” He claimed there was no evident to support the rumors. But hours later, shortly after 4:00 a.m. Saturday morning, the police issued a statement saying 19 people had been arrested, and of those at least eight are reportred to have links to the triads.
Pro-democracy activists believe the situation is much worse. They claim the arrests were politically motivated and that the real triads were deliberately allowed to escape before the cops arrived in the afternoon.
Part of the problem is that many Hongkongers believe the triads enjoy close ties with the government and the police. There are endless discussion threads about the subject on Facebook and local blogs, and many residents talked about the links as if they were obvious facts.
Some are more circumspect, like 60-year-old Mr. Lai, a designer whom we met at an anti-protest pro-government rally in Shum Shui Po on Thursday who was now in Mong Kok on Friday. “Everyone knows the answer but I can’t say anything definitive,” he told us. “I can’t even say if it’s black, white or gray when trying to link the government and police to the triads.”
But Lai did allude to an “open secret” that everyone in Hong Kong seems to be aware of, and virtually everyone The Daily Beast spoke to in Mong Kok confirmed: directly or indirectly the triads are almost certainly in the pockets of the government and several pro-China groups suspected of participating in Friday’s violence.
But it would be a mistake to assume that all triads are involved. In the commercial district of Mong Kok, which includes everything from 5-star hotels to brothels, mahjong dens, feng shui stands and Korean BBQ restaurants, the opportunities for the triads to make a buck are endless.
Some run legitimate businesses - like a restaurant or massage parlor; others guard their turf and charge businesses for protection money. Even bus stops for minivans wishing to run their routes there have to pay up. Then there’s drug dealing or smuggling goods to-and-from mainland China.
Not all triads want to work with the government. But those that have been squeezed out of their turf or are struggling financially will gladly accept payments and do as they are told.
Mr. Law, who’s spent 30 years as a cab driver and is a fixture in the district of Mong Kok, tells us over Chinese tea late at night that none of this should surprise anyone.
“Mong Kok is a land of opportunities,” he said. “Triads help take care of certain things so the government doesn’t have to. And as long as these matters don’t interfere with locals residents or businesses, then everybody lives happily side-by-side.”
And what of the links to the police? Ex-officer Ming, who retired in the late-1980s, tells The Daily Beast on the phone that even under British rules, plenty of cops worked in law enforcement during the day but moonlighted as security guards or “cashiers” for dubious establishments like gaming arcades (very popular in Hong Kong), bars and nightclubs to earn extra cash at night.
“When you have so many cops earning a living in these second jobs, the lines become blurred,” said Officer Ming. “Also, everybody gets to know one another. And when a policeman rises to the top, you take care of your old buddies by turning a blind eye to their businesses. No one should be surprised by that”
Mr. Law, the cabbie weary of the endless traffic snarls caused by the protests, is philosophical about the assumed links between the triads and the police.
“If you sit here [on Nathan Road] long enough in a day, you see how timid the police have become since the handover [in 1997],” he said. “Junior officers on the beat are fearful of their superiors. Their bosses don’t want troubles because they’re all near retirement, or are in the running for some people’s committee up in China. So why bring trouble and form-filling upon yourself by alienating these triads who cause no harm to the general public?”
Try saying that to the families of the many traumatized students who had to face up to the thugs on Friday afternoon without any protection from the police.