HONG KONG—From the top of Lion Rock, all of Hong Kong reveals itself: the sprawl of the Kowloon Peninsula directly below, the iconic Star Ferry plying the waters of Victoria Harbor, the moneyed heights of Hong Kong island beyond. Like a crouching beast, the craggy ridgeline stands guard over a city on edge.
In the shadow of the revered mountain rise huge monoliths, drab concrete tower blocks far removed from the glittering glass highrises of Hong Kong island’s steroidal skyline. Here, in a neighborhood of public housing estates called Wong Tai Sin, seemingly endless stacks of aging windows heave with drying laundry and hum with air conditioners sweating droplets onto the pavement below.
At night, the towers slowly light up, each window’s glowing rectangle framing a second glowing rectangle flickering with the latest soaps and news. Every evening, at exactly 6:30, many residents take part in a daily ritual: tuning in to the main newscast on broadcaster TVB for the latest on a political crisis raging in this former British colony now ruled by China.
Sparked by anger against a now-formally withdrawn controversial extradition bill, protests spread through many of Hong Kong’s 18 districts, putting the city’s freedom-loving populace on a collision course with the local government, and China‘s Communist Party leaders behind it.
Over the summer and autumn, millions have marched. Police have fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons at protesters, arresting more than 2,600 people on charges including “rioting.” Protesters have hurled Molotov cocktails and bricks at police, sprayed revolutionary graffiti on walls, burned Chinese flags and vandalized businesses linked to the world’s second-largest economy.
The violence has also come to the concrete towers of Wong Tai Sin, home to tens of thousands of working-class families whose struggles are woven into the fabric and lore of Hong Kong’s global rise. And with the unrest has come a test of what Hongkongers call “the Lion Rock spirit”—this city’s sense of community and grit in the face of hardship.
The Lion Rock Spirit
Elaine Chan heard gunshots. She opened the window of her flat in Lung Kwong House, or Dragon Bright House, and smelled something vinegary. Her eyes and skin began to smart. Tear gas. She started coughing. “I felt like being sick,” said the 39-year-old office worker, who has spent most of her life in Wong Tai Sin.
Two days later, on Aug. 5, clashes broke out again in Wong Tai Sin as hundreds of anti-government protesters dressed in black blocked roads as part of a citywide strike. Chan had just finished eating a bowl of rice noodles at a place in the Temple Mall when a group of youngsters ran past, fleeing riot police.
“Follow me,” she yelled, then guided them into her building’s communal area via a back staircase, keying in the passcode to the security door to let them through to safety.
Chan, the mother of a 6-year-old daughter, felt indignant and maternal.
“We had to help them,” she said. “They were terrified.”
She’d seen video clips of police beating skinny teenagers, smashing batons over their bodies and heads. She wondered what the Hong Kong she’s known her whole life had come to.
“Some people say Hongkongers no longer have the Lion Rock spirit,” Chan said. “The ’60s and ’70s immigrants are different. You felt that they were really striving for Hong Kong. Helping one another, with no airs. Hong Kong has lost this. It’s become zero now.”
Lion Rock speaks to the constantly fluctuating Hong Kong identity over decades of transformation, hardship and reinvention. Many locals revere the peak, in the way Japanese cherish Mount Fuji, or Parisians love Notre Dame cathedral. In recent years, the mountain has become a politically charged space, with banners including those in support of full democracy draped from the peak.
Back in the 1970s, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, RTHK, began running a television series called “Below the Lion Rock.” Airing periodically for decades, it chronicled the lives of regular Hongkongers as they worked their way out of poverty, touching on social issues. With diverse characters including a policeman, an odd-jobs man, an office worker and a bookseller abducted by Chinese authorities, the show seemed to illuminate part of Hong Kong’s essence, a kind of can-do spirit that had elevated it from almost nothing into one of the world’s wealthiest cities.
The title song, “Below the Lion Rock,” is an unofficial Hong Kong anthem, and hearing its Cantopop melody and we’re-in-this-together Cantonese lyrics can make normally stoic residents choke up, particularly older ones who suffered deprivation and grinding poverty.
“The impression it gives me is of being very small at the time, watching it on telly,” Chan said, her voice cracking, as she listened on a mobile phone to the opening refrain, “In life, there is joy, but inevitably there is also sorrow.”
Today, she said, some people have criticized the protests because the unrest has disrupted the unfettered capitalism for which the city is famous.
“People only feel that this movement has meant they make less money, stops them from going to work,” she said. “Making money is most important.”
She has no time for that kind of thinking.
“The Lion Rock spirit is that no matter how tough things are, Hong Kong people will use each arm and each leg to help one another; if you can’t go on, I’ll help you. If I can’t make it, then you help me back. Real Hong Kong people still have this spirit. I really hope that I can pass this spirit to my next generation.”
Mainlanders in Hong Kong
The only fully landlocked district in the city of 7.4 million, Wong Tai Sin extends along the flanks and approach of Lion Rock with a population of 420,000. Once a squatter area full of tin shacks and wooden shanties, the district was redeveloped by the then-British administration to provide affordable public housing blocks with elevators, running water and toilets to meet the chronic needs of a population that had been swelling with Chinese immigrants for decades.
The first of the modern public housing blocks in Wong Tai Sin, 15 of which are named after dragons, was built in 1982. Some had a then-innovative H-shaped design with open corridors to allow better ventilation and natural light. The apartments, some as small as 200 square feet, are utilitarian, with basic kitchens and bathrooms. Their doors are often left open to let in air, guarded only by concertina metal grilles.
Since the return from British to Chinese rule in 1997, more than 1 million people have arrived in Hong Kong from mainland China, but public housing hasn’t kept pace, meaning queuing times for flats are now over five years.
But for some new arrivals from the mainland, the housing crunch hasn’t mattered.
“It was like heaven on earth when I arrived,” said Chun Hui, a pork butcher at Wong Tai Sin’s Tai Shing Street wet market, a sprawling building crammed with stalls selling everything from pak choi to silver carp.
The 28-year-old came to Hong Kong 10 years ago from a coastal town in eastern Guangdong province after his mother married a Hong Kong man. “The people, the education, the politeness,” he said. “It was so civilized!”
Chun, who has a Japanese manga tattoo of Son Goku from the martial arts cult series “Dragon Ball” on his right forearm, gets to work every day at half past 5 in the morning, when he chops up several whole pig carcasses into cuts of meat for the day’s trade.
“Hong Kong is a good thing. The Hong Kong spirit, the mutual respect,” he said as a man flame-torched a pig’s head behind him.
“There Will be Trouble”
Many Hongkongers believe their city’s success is underpinned by not only geography, but also myth. A coastal city on the South China Sea, it has one of the best deep-water harbors in Asia, cradled between the hills of the Kowloon Peninsula to the north and the peaks of Hong Kong island to the south.
The ridgeline of Lion Rock runs uninterrupted down to the seas to the east and west of Kowloon. Nestled in these hills are believed to be the spirits of nine dragons, or Kau Lung, after which the Kowloon Peninsula was named.
“The lion guards over Hong Kong,” said Wai Nang-ping, 69, who has been a soothsayer in the Wong Tai Sin Temple for more than three decades.
The temple is one of the most famous in the city, drawing visitors with its promises of luck, wealth and health. The Taoist place of worship has done a roaring trade with a flood of mainland Chinese tourists. The visitors shake fortune sticks that are then read by soothsayers such as Wai, who channels prophecies from the gods from a two-story collective of her fellow seers.
“Lion Rock is very auspicious and has a strong spirit,” Wai said. “Hong Kong is a lucky place. But sometimes the environment changes, and this year, the feng shui has three jade stars coming to the south, so you have squabbles.”
“Each year, the environment shifts and the fortune sticks change. Especially for the youth and boys, there will be more trouble.”
A Police Offer’s Son Joins Protests
On Sept. 13, Wong Tai Sin residents celebrated the traditional mid-autumn festival at a piazza near the temple surrounded by swirls of incense smoke. The crowds linked arms, singing, holding lanterns.
“Liberate Hong Kong!” came the shouts of hundreds, followed by its paired refrain, “Revolution of our times!” These twin bursts of defiance carried above the roaring traffic on a highway near Wong Tai Sin Lower Estate and its cluster of 15 tawny-sided buildings.
Suddenly the crowd hushed and everyone looked up to a floodlit spot above where a young man in a yellow helmet and goggles held a trombone. He played a few wistful bass notes through his face mask, and the crowd began singing “Glory to Hong Kong,” a song written by an anonymous composer over the summer that has galvanized protesters.
That same evening, Yan, the 17-year-old son of a policeman, climbed Lion Rock with four of his school friends and thousands of other Hongkongers. The Wong Tai Sin teenager set off at 7 p.m. and didn’t get home until 1 in the morning.
It was so packed at the summit, Yan said, that he couldn’t make it to the very top. Many people shone mobile phone flashlights and headlamps, giving the mountain a halo effect. Across the harbor, on Victoria Peak on Hong Kong island, people also shone laser beams, creating a crisscrossing light show with the beams on Lion Rock. The Peak is a wealthy residential neighborhood, while Lion Rock is seen as an egalitarian symbol of the poor and striving in the city.
Hong Kong’s wealth gap is one of the biggest in the developed world. Hong Kong real estate is among the most expensive anywhere, making it difficult for youngsters to get on the home ownership ladder without being left with crippling lifelong mortgages—and feeding a sense of disillusionment in society.
So far, however, the protesters haven’t directed their ire at the city’s billionaire tycoons. Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, started off as a penniless migrant from China and still commands respect in this capitalist haven, where even pensioners play the forex markets and the stock exchange.
Yan said the rich and poor came together that evening amid protests that have crossed economic divides. A recent poll of 613 protesters by the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey backs him up, showing that demonstrators are fairly evenly split between those living in private apartments, who tend to have higher incomes, and those in public or subsidized housing, who tend to be working or lower-middle class.
“There were a lot of people that night. You can see Hong Kong people, above and below, are of one heart. They go up together and come down together; no one is left behind,” he said.
“It was tough, but I enjoyed it. I was moved, seeing lots of people on the same road going up the hill.”
Yan spoke on the condition that he be identified by his Chinese nickname to protect his father, who declined to talk for this story.
“I’m afraid of being arrested, as my dad works for the force,” he said. “If I’m arrested, it will create pressure for him, especially from his colleagues.”
His dad knows he joins the protests, with a rucksack bulging with kit: body armor, change of clothes and, to shield him from the tear gas, three gas masks, including a 3M 6800 full-face respirator with double filters that he bought on Amazon.
“We just don’t talk about politics,” he said with a shrug. “We don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings.”
Yan said of his dad: “He understands that the government ignores people’s voices, and that it’s a good thing for the people to protest. But he doesn’t support violence.”
“If we win, I hope young people can take over Hong Kong,” he said. “One day, the future belongs to us,” Yan said.
A Homemaker is Changed by the Unrest
Ah Bi, a homemaker who grew up in Wong Tai Sin, was in the piazza on the evening of the mid-autumn festival. In the disarming euphoria of that night, she said, the protests had brought division, but also unity.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “There’s a connection between people.”
The protests had already changed Ah Bi’s life. On Aug.3, she was in the Temple Mall on Ching Tak Street with her 12-year-old daughter when a group of riot police blocked the road and shouted at passersby. As she tried to get closer, she was pushed back and forced against the wall of the Wong Tai Sin Catholic Primary School.
“My daughter sprinted up the steps into the shopping center,” and the two were separated, she said.
A group of police special forces, known as “raptors” or “fast dragons” in Cantonese, charged at the crowds and grabbed a young man by his shirt and pressed him to the ground. The crowd began growing—and getting more agitated. “Black police!” and “Triads!” they yelled, likening the police to members of Hong Kong’s notorious organized criminal gangs, given their beatings of protesters.
When Ah Bi was finally reunited with her daughter and they had made it home, her hands were trembling as she put her daughter to bed. “The police didn’t used to be like this. What happened, mommy?” her daughter said, her head on the pillow.
Ah Bi went out into the streets again after her daughter was in bed, outraged by the actions of the police. She joined crowds outside the station, demanding they release those arrested.
“I prayed very late that night. I couldn’t sleep. We adults are not worried so much about our peace and safety but the future for our children. I want to do something for Hong Kong, to protect our home.”
Days later, Ah Bi did something unprecedented. On Aug. 8, she joined a “citizens press conference” and spoke on behalf of the protest movement in a live broadcast beamed across the city and abroad. She has remained politically active since.
“My mom used to say I didn’t care about politics,” she said. “But that day, my personality changed.”
Lady Liberty Atop Lion Rock
The worst violence in months of protests flared on Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the China’s Communist Party. Across the city, 269 people were arrested, and a policeman shot an 18-year-old in the chest, an escalation that shocked the city.
In Wong Tai Sin, thousands blocked Lung Cheung Road, one of Kowloon’s key highway links, and battled riot police on the tarmac in front of the Wong Tai Sin Temple.
Yan, the cop’s son, stood a little farther back, extinguishing tear-gas canisters with bottles of water. Elaine Chan watched the smoky projectiles arc in the air toward the youngsters from a footbridge to the Temple Mall. Ah Bi, the homemaker, watched the clashes from her flat overlooking the temple, and went down several times to join the crowds occupying Lung Cheung Road. Chun, the butcher, had been at work at his pork stall since before dawn.
Nearly two weeks later, as the change in weather brought the first of the autumn birds down from the north, a group of protesters hatched a plan. Meeting at midnight at a temple on the lower slopes of Lion Rock, the masked men stood like ninjas in the shadows. Before long, a truck arrived with the cargo they would hoist to the summit.
The men made their way up steep and winding mountain paths, their headlamps flickering upon the dismembered parts of a giant statue known as “Lady Liberty.” The statue, which had been displayed on university campuses and at various protests, was heavy, so the men had dismantled her to make the climb easier. In small teams, they carried her legs, her torso and her upraised arm through the scrubby slopes, then over the craggy ridgeline until they came to the very head of the lion. There, the glowing rectangles of the windows of Wong Tai Sin spread below them.
One of the men, a Wong Tai Sin resident, talked about wanting to create a new Lion Rock spirit. “We feel that it’s not enough to just try hard in life. You also have to care about society,” he said. “This new Lion Spirit is to fight against injustice, and for all of society to strive for freedom.”
As they struggled to tether Lady Liberty with metal struts and wires, the four-meter-high symbol of the protest movement began to sway. They drilled into the granite with power tools in the howling winds of a sudden thunderstorm, and eventually managed to secure it. Then, at dawn, the weather cleared and the statue could be seen from afar, a beacon atop Lion Rock.
By James Pomfret and Jessie Pang