None of the Hongkongers who headed to Mong Kok on the first day of the Lunar New Year would have anticipated the events that unfolded.
Last Monday night should have been
But when their illicit trade on the bustling Portland Street, a notorious red light district, triggered shocking scenes of violence between police and radical “localist” supporters, the community was caught by surprise.
The unlicensed vendors had been taking part in a time-honoured tradition of being on the streets during new year, but tempers had flared when some of the crowd took umbrage at Food and Environmental Hygiene Department officers patrolling the area.
It turned into a bloody overnight confrontation, now known as the Mong Kok riot, in which citizens clashed with police for more than 10 hours.
About 130 people, including 90 police officers, were injured and at least 65 people were arrested on rioting and other charges.
For Mong Kok it was a return to the international spotlight following the Occupy Central movement in late 2014 and the latest chapter in the history of this complex and vibrant part of Hong Kong.
The district’s increasingly political nature drew global attention at that time when the densely populated locality served as a new front for protesters to gather forces in their fight for universal suffrage – as an alternative to their Admiralty base where they were tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed by police.
The civil disobedience movement called on thousands of protesters to block roads and paralyse traffic to demand what they called “real democracy”, not one decreed by Beijing.
The protesters of Mong Kok demonstrated their ingenuity using whatever objects were available – from bus stop posts to rubbish bins and construction waste – to build barricades, including in the form of marquees and religious shrines, blocking the busy streets of the district usually packed with tourists and shoppers.
The “Mong Kok spirit” exhibited – representing grittiness, toughness and a streetwise sense of defiance – made the protest site highly resilient, thus making its clearance difficult and prolonging the movement to 75 days.
Even Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying acknowledged Mong Kok was a unique part of Hong Kong, admitting that it was not easy to keep the unrest in the area under control with regard to clearance.
“As we all know, Mong Kok is not exactly the most genteel part of Hong Kong,” he said, during a TV interview in October 2014.
“Hong Kong generally speaking has a very low and falling crime rate but by comparison I have to say, by comparison, Mong Kok is different, and the forces, political or otherwise, operating in Mong Kok are very different, too ... So Mong Kok is a very different situation.”
Named the world’s busiest district by Guinness World Records with its extremely high population density of 130,000 people per sq km, how Mong Kok became the location for such politically charged scenes is certainly intriguing.
A place of extremes, it is popular with tourists, messy, yet lively with links to triads and is where the city’s underdogs, the sex trade and colourful entertainment flourishes. It is always viewed as the antithesis of the “high-brow” Hong Kong Island, which is a place for the intellectuals and the middle and higher class.
But it has its unique charm which is irresistible and its own distinct identity with a recognised “Mong Kok culture”, with youths who hang out in the area identified as “MK guys” and “MK girls”. From the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant to small quirky eateries; from upstairs bookstores to pirated CDs; from karaoke to brothels; from cheap fashion to trendy products; from goldfish to birds, Mong Kok has something to satisfy every taste and all budgets.
It is hard to imagine that this kaleidoscopic area, interconnected with a maze of narrow streets, was no more than a small farming village near the sea as a Hakka settlement more than 150 years ago.
Villagers, gathering around Bute Street, Tong Choi Street and Fa Yuen Street, made a living by growing vegetables and flowers as well as raising livestock.
From 1909, the colonial government started to develop the coastal region by reclamation and construction of roads, a railway station and a ferry pier, linking Mong Kok to the neighbouring villages of Yau Ma Tei on one side and Sham Shui Po on the other.
In 1930 when the area gradually became an industrial district with textile and tobacco factories, the colonial government formally changed its name to “旺角”, meaning “prosperous corner”, from its original “芒角”, named for its plentiful supply of ferns in the past. Its English transliteration “Mong Kok” remains unchanged.
Its street names also tell a nostalgic story revealing the past activities on the street such as Reclamation Street; Sai Yee Street and Yim Po Fong Street referring to the clothes washing and dyeing activities. Tong Choi Street refers to a vegetable known as morning glory or water spinach; Sai Yeung Choi Street referring to watercress and Fa Yuen (Garden) Street, home to a street market.
Mong Kok lived up to its name as commercial development started to boom and construction of “tong lau” shop and houses on Shanghai Street turned the area into a major shopping and trading area.
Today, this is the busiest and most crowded part of Hong Kong, a shopping and entertainment district, transport hub, business centre and residential zone packed into a relatively small patch of land.
Shoppers now bargain hunt zealously at Tung Choi Street, nicknamed Ladies’ Street – a key hawking zone for cheap women’s clothing, accessories, cosmetics and other trendy products – a fascinating shopping area which began life due to a policy change about hawking introduced in the mid-70s.
During this period, Hong Kong’s economy was taking a nosedive, forcing many unemployed people to hawk their wares at Tung Choi Street. Hoping to help out-of-work people earn a living during the recession, the colonial government turned the district into a Hawker Permitted Area for 400 unlicensed hawkers, laying the foundation for Mong Kok’s booming hawking business.
This was also the time when the independent spirit of hawkers, mostly men and women in their early 20s, began to take root there. Several of them interviewed by the Post in 1977 said they would rather work as hawkers than in offices or factories because they enjoyed being their “own bosses”.
The area is considered to be a model bazaar because hawkers have to move their wares out of the street after trading every evening to allow the street to be thoroughly cleaned.
That was how Ladies’ Street became a success story and has also made Mong Kok remarkable for its eye-opening shopping experience with an array of markets, small shops and food stalls.
However, the booming hawking business also attracted triads – particularly the Wo Shing Wo and 14K. Many of the stall spaces were in fact “bought” from triads when the street was made a permitted area in 1975 while many hawkers simply became triads for reasons of self-protection.
The triads had another, more lucrative, business to take care of, namely the vice business in Portland Street, the city’s most famous red light district serving mostly local Chinese clientele and being a popular feature in triad movies.
Underneath an array of neon signs, prostitutes mostly from mainland China and Asian countries like Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines serve in massage parlours, nightclubs, karaoke lounges, bars and brothels.
The vice business, controlled by the city’s four big gangs – Wo Shing Wo, 14K, Sun Yee On and Shui Fong – thrived in the 1980s and 1990s. It was estimated that turnover in the district's 400 vice dens was as high as HK$2.4 billion a year in the 90s.
However, because of infighting among triads, police stepped up their crackdown on the sex trade, especially before the launch of the Langham Place office-rental-hotel complex in July 2004.
To make way for this upscale development, many brothels were moved to other streets and by 2006 it was estimated that the number of vice dens was down to 150.
Mong Kok also has a reputation for alternative street culture and a political side due to the introduction of the Mong Kok Pedestrian Zone on weekends and public holidays on Sai Yeung Choi Street in August 2000.
The pedestrianised area draws crowds and is highly popular with salespeople promoting mobile phones, political campaigners, street performers and even beggars expressing themselves.
“Music performers, actors on talent shows or even members of political parties are free to use the streets,” Yau Tsim Mong district councillor Chris Ip Ngo-tung once said, describing it as “a form of freedom of expression”.
Music, speakers, sirens and horns compete for attention, while political activists such as “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung like to give speeches and hold public forums with Falun Gong practitioners adding to the tumult with large posters.
Maybe the free exchange of political views and ideas facilitated by the zone explains why Mong Kok has been getting political in recent years and MK guys and girls more expressive and daring about their fight for democracy and the protection of individual rights.