Taking to the streets for Occupy Central keeps one Hong Kong protestor off them

Taking to the streets for Occupy Central keeps one Hong Kong protestor off them

One protester took to the streets of Mong Kok against police violence, he never expected the lesson he would learn

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A protester bleeds from his face as he tries to stop a group of taxi drivers from trying to remove the barricades which are blocking off main roads, near a line of riot police at an occupied area, in the Mong Kok.
A protester bleeds from his face as he tries to stop a group of taxi drivers from trying to remove the barricades which are blocking off main roads, near a line of riot police at an occupied area, in the Mong Kok.
Photo: Associated Press

Max is a wiry 16-year old with a shag haircut and a pack-a-day smoking habit.

He looks no different than any of the thousands of other students that have spent the past month sleeping in tents in Hong Kong’s busy neighbourhood of Mong Kok, demanding universal suffrage and an end to Beijing’s role in selecting the city’s chief executive.

He speaks passionately about the city's politics, and, like many of the protesters, he believes the movement is a defining moment for his generation.

But for Max - who requested his real name be withheld - the movement has changed much more than just his political views. He has a secret.

At the age of 12, he started running with the triads.

Two older boys recruited him at a bar, where he’d gone to play darts and escape from the cramped home he shared with his brother and his dad, who sometimes hit him.

From gang to gang

For four years, he bounced around from gang to gang, doing odd jobs for money. He stood lookout for illegal poker games, worked as a courier and ran drugs.

But the job he liked the most was fighting. Three or four times a month, he said, his local gang boss would get together a group of 20 or 30 kids to beat up rivals or shake people down for money.

He got paid HK$500 a pop merely for showing up, he said, but sometimes he did it for free, just for the thrill.

The violence took its toll. A rival gang member broke Max’s knee, and he spent three months recovering in a squat shared with other triad errand boys rather than face his parents' anger.

Max's story "is very common," according to Sharon Kwok, an expert on organised crime at the City University of Hong Kong.

Among the gang members she has interviewed, "almost 100 per cent joined the societies before the age of 15," she said.

Protection from other gangs

Kids from poor families, in particular, see an advantage to belonging to the groups, which can provide them protection from the city's youth gangs. Mong Kok and its surrounding neighbourhoods are riddled with triad members, some of whom have lashed out at protesters.

However, the groups themselves don't seem to have a political agenda, Kwok said. Rather, it's more likely that they're simply protecting their turf or, as some protesters believe, being paid for the violence.

In the months leading up to the occupation, no one around Max ever discussed the growing pro-democracy movement, he said, and he himself had no interest in politics.

But in early October, a friend sent him a video of police tear-gassing protesters who had occupied the streets around government buildings in Admiralty.

Angered by the violence, tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets. New occupation sites popped up across the city, including in Mong Kok, near Max's home.

Personal experience

Max had personal experience with police violence.

Six months ago, he claims, police snatched him out of an Internet cafe and beat him until he couldn’t stand. He lifts his shirt to show the faint traces of a blood blister on his abdomen. It’s still tender to the touch.

"I was angry at the police," he said, "and that’s why I came out."

But after a week at the site, his perspective began to change. He listened to public lectures by protesters. "They talked about why we're here. Because we want democracy. Because we want a better Hong Kong.”

The talks made sense to him.

Starting to think

Before, he only lived for the thrill of the moment. But since joining the protests, he said, he started to "think of Hong Kong's future and how it will change. And I also started to think about myself."

His time in Mong Kok has changed him, he said. He's learned "how to communicate with others, how to face violent people" without resorting to violence himself.

He's used those lessons, he says, to improve his situation at home. He spends most nights there now, and his relationship with his parents is getting better.

He's back in school and is committed to making up for the time he lost to the local gangs. He has a talent for languages. Inspired by the students he's befriended at the protest site, he now wants to attend university.

Being the change

He's not the only one that's changed. Now, he said, "people do things differently. They see things differently. Not just about Hong Kong, but about themselves."

For him and the rest of the students, "facing a problem is really kind of growing up. I’ve experienced it here."

Hong Kong, too, is growing up, he said. "We want the government to face the problems of Hong Kong," he said. But for that to happen, he believes, "we need to face our own problems too."

 

 

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