Hong Kong -- “And you fretted this was going to be a quiet patch,” I thought to myself as the tear gas grenade exploded right above me. One of a cluster, it detonated with a flash, sending a host of smaller capsules rolling down the street as they disgorged their acrid payload.
A man and a woman without any safety equipment appeared, dousing the capsules with water.
“Hey cops, fuck your mum!” the woman shouted.
“Corrupt cops!” yelled the man, shaking his fist.
The two were shopping in this corner of the city when the police turned up looking for hardcore activists from a rally earlier in the day. A small crowd gathered to heckle the cops, as many Hong Kongers do these days, and they joined in. And when the tear gas came flying in response, they leapt into action -- without a gas mask, or a helmet -- like it was the most natural thing in the world.
Welcome to the new Hong Kong, I thought to myself.
When I took over as AFP’s bureau chief for Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan last December there was a part of me that worried the patch might be too quiet.
I had covered the huge, largely peaceful pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement” protests in 2014 but moved to Bangkok just before they ended to take up a posting in the rarely dull Mekong region.
By the time I got back to Hong Kong three years later, the city’s pro-democracy movement felt moribund.
The Umbrella activists had failed to win any concessions from Beijing, most of its leaders had been prosecuted and attendance at regular rallies had dwindled.
My predecessor had written a lovely piece on her departure, entitled: “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey”. Similar to the western phrase of using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut, the Chinese idiom is shorthand for deploying heavy-handed tactics to make an example out of someone to deter others from following their path.
As 2019 kicked off and I settled into the bureau, I figured the likelihood of a major protest movement breaking out in Hong Kong any time soon was pretty slim. I probably ought to mug up on my financial news skills, I joked to friends. Remind me what an IPO is again?
But I would soon learn a few dead chickens had not scared anyone. Enter the extradition bill.
Introduced by the city’s unelected pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam at the start of the year, it proposed allowing extraditions to the authoritarian mainland.
Lam and Beijing described it as a much-needed loophole plug. Most Hong Kongers saw it as the final straw following years of sliding freedoms.
In just weeks, the bill single-handedly resurrected Hong Kong’s democracy movement, which came back angrier than ever before in what has now morphed into the greatest challenge to Beijing’s rule since the city’s 1997 handover by Britain.
The last four months have been an exhausting roller coaster for the entire city.
Weekend after weekend we have seen huge rallies, especially early on in the movement when as many 1-2 million people hit the streets -- an astonishing figure in a city of 7.8 million inhabitants.
But we have also seen unprecedented levels of violence in a once stable metropolis unused to such scenes.
Protesters were much more willing to fight the police from the start -- as well as attack the city’s parliament in a bid to stop the bill being debated.
Years of peaceful protests had achieved nothing, they argued, only direct action would stop the bill. And they were almost certainly right.
Had Hong Kongers not taken to the streets, not besieged the parliament, not built barricades, not blocked roads and not fought back against the police, there is little doubt the bill would have become law.
But a vicious cycle has ensued.
Hong Kong’s once widely admired police force has resorted to tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and baton charges with unprecedented frequency.
When I speak to senior officers they insist their response has been restrained compared to many forces around the world, and there is clearly some truth to that.
Were this Kashmir, or mainland China, France or the United States, I have no doubt we’d have seen far more injuries and quite possibly many deaths.
But this is a city unused to political street battles and every police escalation has sparked renewed outrage each week from protesters and an uptick in their response, especially when officers failed to respond quickly to a brutal July attack by Beijing supporters against protesters that left some 40 people hospitalised.
Since then hardcore protesters have gone from throwing bricks and breaking into the city’s parliament in a bid to stop the bill being debated, to regularly hurling Molotov cocktails and using slingshots.
Ugly fights now break out across the ideological divide, with street brawls an increasingly common occurrence leaving pools of blood on the ground. There have also been multiple suicides linked to the movement.
For the AFP team covering Hong Kong’s summer of rage it has been testing.
The office is now a place stocked with boxes of gas masks, breathing filters and helmets -- all items that have become increasingly hard to locate.
For years, Hong Kong has been the place AFP Asia colleagues travel to from much riskier countries to take our hostile environment training course, which is taught on a tranquil outlying island.
Now it is a news patch where that training is invaluable, our photo and video teams adept at dodging water cannons and rubber bullets or making sure to avoid synthetic clothing now that petrol bombs have become the norm.
With police shooting a protester in the chest with a live round on Tuesday, I fear we may need to break out the ballistic vests.
As bureau chief, my role is to oversee our editorial output and coordinate our text, photo and video teams on the ground and every weekend I fret for their safety.
I know the longer we spend on the streets, the higher the risk that something might go wrong.
But we also know we have to document history in the making -- it’s why we were all drawn to journalism in the first place. Balancing the safety of our colleagues with that need to witness is perhaps the most challenging part of the job.
Yet there’s nowhere else we’d rather be.
As I sit in our small Hong Kong bureau down the hall from our much larger Asia-Pacific newsroom, filing the final wrap of the evening after another long day of protests and clashes, our Whatsapp groups still pinging with messages and the livestreams flickering on my computer screens, I long to shove the laptop in my backpack and hit the streets, returning to my ever patient wife in the small hours, sweat-drenched and stinking of tear gas.
We snatch the odd day off in the week when we can and then steel ourselves for the weekend ahead, often reinforced by reporters, photographers and video-journalists from our amazing global AFP network. They bring fresh ideas, energy and experience.
We’ve had a couple of injuries but thankfully nothing serious.
Others have been less lucky.
Local reporters have sustained some bad wounds and found themselves attacked by mobs, mostly Beijing supporters who have a far more hostile view towards the media than pro-democracy protesters.
Hundreds of protesters have been wounded, some with life-changing injuries, including a woman whose cheek bone was shattered by a projectile.
Many police officers have also been hospitalised. One image sent to me by a police contact showed an officer’s badly burned legs after a Molotov landed at his feet.
Sentiment is hardening on all sides.
As an international finance hub with a huge population of foreign immigrants (I loathe the word expat) the demand for news from Hong Kong has been insatiable.
The world is truly watching.
Our journalists constantly try to go beyond the headlines.
We’ve also tried to tell the other side of the story -- the police officers doxxed by protesters, the struggling businesses, the Chinese mainlanders living in Hong Kong, their loyalties divided.
Even away from the barricades the protests are impossible to ignore.
Virtually every neighbourhood across the city has its own “Lennon Wall” -- usually a space next to a subway station covered in sticky protest notes and posters.
I pop in on my local wall every couple of days to see now regular faces and catch up on the latest plans. The very streets of Hong Kong are now a constantly evolving canvas of dissent.
When I walk past a school in the morning, there’s a good chance I might see students forming a human chain or handing out posters.
On a commute into town my phone routinely pings with digital flyers sent via Bluetooth and Airdrop.
Head to a mall and I might spot a flashmob singing “Glory to Hong Kong”, a new anonymously-penned protest anthem that has gone viral the last three weeks.
Amazing moment just now.— Jerome Taylor (@JeromeTaylor) September 29, 2019
Just filed our last @AFP wrap of the evening after today’s intense protest clashes when I heard a violin playing “Glory to Hong Kong” somewhere nearby.
Stepped onto my balcony and caught the very end. pic.twitter.com/W0e0yTyW2V
Or the crowd might be pro-Beijing, waving Chinese flags and singing the Chinese national anthem.
If I open my windows at 10pm each evening, there’s a good chance I will hear regular protest chants echoing off the surrounding skyscrapers in what has become a nightly ritual.
When I’m out I almost always make sure to hang my press card around my neck and I’ve lost count of how many times strangers have come up to me to tell me their views, some breaking down in tears.
On a recent subway ride back home after some clashes, I noticed a young boy looking wide-eyed at the helmet and gas mask hanging from my camera bag. His mother was explaining what they were for.
“I wish I didn’t have to have these conversations with him,” she told me, adding she supported the protests and had been out a few times. “But it’s important he knows what’s happening to Hong Kong.
It’s rarer to find Beijing supporters opening up to me. Suspicion of foreign media runs deep in the so-called ‘Blue Ribbon” camp and, like other reporters, I’ve been shouted and spat at while covering their rallies.
But given the polarised atmosphere and increasingly common street fights, I think many government loyalists are worried about putting their head above the parapet and saying so publicly, let alone to a foreign reporter.
Wherever I go, whether it’s in Hong Kong or overseas, the most commonly asked question is what happens next?
And the truth is, I honestly don’t know.
Worried emails and messages from friends and family pour in regularly to those living in the city.
Recently a foreign friend told me she had received a frantic email from her father urging her to evacuate the city -- fearful the tanks were about to roll in any minute.
Local friends routinely talk about their “Plan B” -- where they might go should the situation deteriorate further. Some are lucky and have dual passports. But many don’t.
It’s clear that in the long run Beijing is fed up with Hong Kong and will be determined to find ways to lance what it sees as an increasingly frustrating democratic boil on its otherwise authoritarian body.
The country’s leadership put on huge celebrations and a military parade on October 1 to mark the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. But in Hong Kong, we witnessed the most sustained clashes so far this summer, ensuring the headlines for Beijing that day were far from laudatory.
The one thing Beijing won’t do is give in. That is not how the Chinese Communist Party operates, especially not under Xi Jinping.
But equally, the largely leaderless Hong Kong protesters are in no mood to leave the streets either.
Unlike 2014’s Umbrella protests, where mainstream opinion quickly tired of the disruption, this year’s protests have an acutely more existential feel and huge crowds of moderates still keep coming out to show support for the radicals.
Umbrella lasted 79 days. This year’s protests are 116 days (FROM OCT 1) and counting. The summer of rage has wound its way into autumn and could easily extend into the winter.
Whatever happens in the short term, the fallout will reverberate for years to come.
One evening recently I went down to my local neighbourhood park as people celebrated the mid-Autumn festival -- the second most important celebration in the Chinese calendar.
Thousands of protesters had hiked up some of the city’s best known hills to hold a spectacular light show protest on their peaks, shining laser lights, torches and lanterns that could be seen for miles around.
The less hardy had gathered in parks and along the harbour to shine lasers back at the hills above, cheering each time the beams met.
As I watched the show I got chatting with a lady in her forties called Joyce.
She told me it was the first time in her life that she had not been sat round a dinner table with her family on mid-Autumn festival. Her brother and his wife were both in the police and no-one saw eye-to-eye any more.
She described herself as a moderate protester who had hit the streets in 2014 and again in 2019.
But in that time, something had changed inside her.
“Our freedoms kept shrinking, and marching wasn’t working,” she said. “Personally I am a peaceful protester, but I have a higher tolerance for violence these days and I support the youth.”
Her biggest fear, she said, was the movement losing steam, and she welled up at the thought.
Her husband Kevin put his arm around her shoulder.
“Even if it dies down, the movement will remain in people’s hearts,” he said softly. “Even if the government and police win, the anger will not go away. Unless our demands are met it will linger for years, filter down from generation to generation.”
Not for the first time this summer, I found myself thinking: “This city will never be the same again.”