HONG KONG—Before this summer’s rallies, the last major protest movement here was an exuberant affair. At the main site of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, rows of rainbow-colored tents lined the roads while cultural expression flourished—every available surface, from walls to sidewalks, bridges to traffic barriers, was plastered in banners, posters, flyers, chalk drawings, Post-it notes, and sculptures. The mood felt like a community arts festival: The “main stage” hosted guest speakers, movie screenings, and performances, and thousands flocked with their families to visit on sunny weekends. Musicians played impromptu gigs, dancers performed routines, and there was an array of other events: portrait-sketching, leather work, weaving, origami. The self-regulating society became a mini-utopia, reflecting the hopes of the Umbrella Movement itself, agitating for a “more perfect” democracy for Hong Kong.
This year’s demonstrations, however, reflect a feeling of desperation. Protesters in yellow hard hats, their identities hidden behind face masks, wander through drifting clouds of tear gas on streets strewn with broken bricks, laser beams cutting through the air. Young students dressed entirely in black place white carnations on a roadside shrine, tears flowing down their cheeks. A chorus of angry voices shouts the near-ubiquitous slogan “Reclaim Hong Kong! Revolution of our time!” in the concrete cavern of a freeway underpass. Fires burn at barricades. This is today’s Hong Kong, one where demonstrators say they are fighting for the very life of the city.