The day is seared in Hong Kong’s collective memory. Hundreds of camera people and photographers on site ensured that even citizens who were nowhere near Admiralty would remember what happened; would remember the events in stunning visuals – the thousands of people flooding into Harcourt Road. Traffic coming to a standstill. That lone bus in a sea of chanting demonstrators. The first round of tear gas. The panic. The second round, the third. The way some protestors raised their hands and refused to leave. The riot police with their batons, shields and gas masks. The umbrellas.
It was a visceral sort of rage. We saw it all over Harcourt Road that day, as shell-shocked protestors berated police.
“Whose side are you on? China’s on ours?”
We quickly learnt that many Hong Kongers who were not in Admiralty on the 28th were just as outraged. Videos of the day’s events were rapidly shared online and telecast on TV. People we spoke to later often found it hard to put in words the emotions they felt as they watched it all unfold.
“This cannot be Hong Kong.” A friend we met on the 29th told us. She had made her way to Admiralty when she saw images of police tear-gassing protestors.
“I could not believe it. I had to come out.”
Authorities would later defend the actions they took on the 28th, saying they believed tear gas was the safest option at the time. But to the general public, images of people coughing and screaming amid plume after plume of noxious fumes were deeply shocking.
If police thought they could drive people home with tear gas, they were wrong. The protestors who were already in Admiralty dug in their heels, running away when they thought a new canister was being released, and then raising their arms and walking back again once they believed the fumes had dissipated. More importantly, thousands of other Hong Kongers – some who had never ever dreamt they would attend a demonstration – poured into Admiralty after they saw what was going on. By evening, Harcourt Road was jam packed with people.
“Retreat!” They shouted at lines of police in riot gear and gas masks. “Retreat!”
New arrivals, new energy
We nearly missed all the action.
At 4 that afternoon, we were dead to the world. Fast asleep in a hotel near Admiralty. In the morning, we’d filmed democracy icon, Martin Lee, and billionaire publisher Jimmy Lai, as they put on disposable raincoats, goggles and masks and sat down with protestors outside Civic Square. Lee was in high spirits, chatting with students and trying to engage various police officers in conversation.
The mood then was light, optimistic even. Although hundreds of protestors had left the night before, many more people were starting to stream back into the area. They brought with them fresh supplies, and injected new energy into the sit-in.
We, on the other hand, were completely exhausted, and badly needed sleep. Figuring that nothing major would happen before nightfall, we decided it was time to get some rest. It was a good thing we forgot to mute our phones, or we would have slept through what would prove to be the most dramatic day in Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy.
At around 4, the buzzing began. Someone was sending out lots of messages. We reached for our phones, read the messages, tumbled out of bed, grabbed our camera gear and ran as fast as we could.
Student groups – upset because police had formed a ring around government headquarters, effectively stopping more protestors from entering – were calling on their supporters to act.
“Tell everyone to come out and counter-surround the police!” Read one message.
The plan was simple but audacious. Student leaders had decided that rather than persuade authorities to let people join them, they would go out of their protest site, and encircle the police who were in turn, encircling them. To pull it off, the students needed enough people to heed their call. Otherwise, by venturing out, they risked losing the area that’d been occupying for the previous two days.
Near Fenwick Pier, we ran into a group of protestors.
“All we have to do is sit here,” activist Raphael Wong told the crowd of about 300.
The area saw very little traffic. But the road the protestors were on led directly to government headquarters. Police had tried blocking it earlier. Now though, they found themselves surrounded by rows of young people, sitting quietly in the blazing sun.
Outside Civic Square, a crowd congregated on the edges of Tim Mei Avenue. Here, hundreds of police had formed a line in front of rows of metal barricades. Beyond them was Harcourt Road – one of Hong Kong’s biggest, busiest highways.
How on earth were the students supposed to “counter surround” the police here?
We had our answer moments later. A stream of people suddenly appeared behind the police line. They’d simply walked out a side road, and onto the highway.
On Tim Mei Avenue, a cheer rang out.
“Sit down! Sit down!” The protestors yelled to the people on Harcourt Road. “Sit down! Sit down!”
But no one sat down. The group kept walking away from Tim Mei.
The chanting grew more urgent: “Sit down, sit down!”
It was then that we realised what was going on – they couldn’t sit down because there were just too many people waiting to get onto Harcourt Road. Stopping would mean clogging up the entrance to the highway. Hundreds upon hundreds of protestors kept appearing from the side road. Traffic slowed. The police looked completely flummoxed. And still more people appeared. It was an astonishing sight.
Groups of protestors jumped over the barricades at Tin Mei to join the crowd on Harcourt Road. Bewildered drivers tried to navigate their way past the growing sea of people. Volunteers stepped forward to direct traffic.
Near the one end of the highway, a line of cars waited as students debated whether to block that part of the road or not.
“But we’ll make the drivers angry.”
“But we’re staging an occupation.”
The barriers soon went up.
“You can’t do this to us”
Over by Fenwick Pier, another drama was underway. Police were putting on gas masks and gloves, and the protestors speculated that something drastic was about to happen. Even so, no one left. Instead they passed around umbrellas, goggles, and face masks. Chanting slogans, the protestors braced for the worst.
“You can’t do this to us,” Wong chided an officer. “We only have face masks! You have gas masks while we have face masks! We don’t have batons, we don’t have pepper spray!”
Everyone wondered what would happen next. The minutes ticked by, and then, as if they’d previously synchronised their movements, the officers removed their gas masks. Someone, somewhere, had changed his mind about something.
A wave of relief swept through the crowd.
“Thank you!” Wong said to the officers. “Thank you, sirs!”
“Thank you sirs!” The crowd repeated.
Over on Harcourt Road, the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different. Terror gripped protestors as police unleashed the first canister of tear gas. 86 more rounds would be released the same day. White fumes drifted across the highway. The smell – sharp and choking – was detectable, even near Fenwick Pier.