Protests in Hong Kong have been dominating video clips and newsfeeds since June 9, when the Hong Kong government proposed a bill that would allow China to extradite fugitives to the mainland. Since then, initially peaceful weekly protests have grown in size, encompassing demands for political self-determination and personal autonomy, and have become increasingly agitated. On October 1, China’s National Day holiday, a protester was shot during one confrontation. (See how Hong Kong’s complex history explains its current crisis with China.)
“Visitor safety is of the utmost importance for us,” said Hong Kong Tourism Board PR representative Brea Burkholz. “But it’s a safe and welcoming city, and there has been no violence or crime committed against tourists.”
A website provides regular updates, and the tourist board has a chat room for visitors to connect directly with representatives, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily (Hong Kong Standard Time). “We’re doing due diligence with airline, hotel, and tour partners to confirm they are able to provide assistance in the event of travel disruptions,” said Burkholz.
Still, in August, Hong Kong tourist arrivals fell 40 percent, according to Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po, the largest drop since the SARS outbreak in 2003. What’s it really like to visit there now?
I had the opportunity to find out during a 14-hour layover at Chek Lap Kok Airport two weeks ago. Before heading out to the city, I checked the latest update for Hong Kong on the U.S. State Department website (“exercise increased caution”), then beelined to a tourism booth in the arrivals area.
Any areas I should avoid today? I asked.
“The protests are always on the weekends,” she told me. “But let me check the schedule to make sure. We have informed sources who tell us what will be happening each day.”
She scrolled through texts on her phone. “Hmm, the University of Technology,” she said. “Don’t go there. And if you want to go to the Peak Tram, go now, because there is a protest scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Chater Garden.”
“But”—she provided a caveat—“there are always last-minute changes.”
On the surface, everything seemed as it was on my last visit to Hong Kong six months ago. A commute across the harbor aboard the Star Ferry was still an intoxicating ride. The venerable street cars navigating Hong Kong Island continued to provide a thrill. But today, as protests neared their fourth month and continued to upend the city, it was easier to get a seat on the otherwise packed trams. They even seemed to move a little faster, less encumbered by the usual pokey traffic in Central, the city’s main business district. (See the complex history of Hong Kong, visualized.)
My first stop: Man Mo Temple. The Taoist place of worship is dedicated to the god of literature and the god of war—a good place for me to start—and was undergoing restoration work. But the usual crowd of tourists was missing.
I strolled along Hollywood Road east to Lan Fong Yuen, a café that is said to have invented “silk stocking milk tea”—black tea passed through long, pantyhose-like nets. Nearly every seat in the cramped café was taken, and I was shown to a table with a Korean mother and adult daughter who were busy capturing their breakfast on cameras.
At the next table, a group of upbeat twenty-somethings visiting from the Philippines eagerly dug into their breakfast. Any hesitations about traveling to Hong Kong, I asked them?
“No,” said one young man. “Danger is everywhere.”
At the Zoological and Botanical Gardens, I was eerily alone with the meerkats and the lemurs—alone, except for a half-dozen or more groundskeepers focused on keeping the fountains and aviaries immaculate, despite a dearth of visitors.
The wait for a ride on the Peak Tram, the 131-year-old funicular that scales Victoria Peak, can sometimes exceed two hours. I found no line at all; the funicular departed barely half-full. The spectacular harbor view at the summit confirmed why visitors are usually willing to brave a lengthy queue. (See photos of Hong Kong’s surprising green spaces.)
In Kowloon, the mainland side of Hong Kong, a Viking cruise ship was parked at Harbour City Ocean Terminal. A dozen passengers fresh from the airport were queueing for embarkation aboard Viking Orion for a voyage headed to Beijing. The mostly American passengers seemed nonplussed by protests that had taken place just blocks from the port.
“We first came here 32 years ago,” said one passenger. “This is such a fabulous city, and everything I was reading in the last few weeks told me we would be safe on our stopover here.”
“The protests are on weekends,” his wife added. “So we weren’t too worried coming through during the week.” (Learn the top 10 things to do in Hong Kong.)
After a day of wandering, I hadn’t met any Hongkongers who shared sharp opinions of the protests, one way or the other. There was mostly a feeling of frustration and resignation. A mother strolling her baby along the waterfront told me her heart is with the protesters and she hopes they can prevail without bloodshed.
“But I don’t know how long this can continue,” she said. “Both sides are standing quite firm, and I don’t see much compromise.”
Soon it was time to make my way back towards the airport and my evening flight. I entered an MTR subway station beneath one of Hong Kong’s most storied hotels, The Peninsula. Here, the writing is on the walls: Post-It notes canvass one corridor with anonymous words of support for the protesters; other yellow squares are used to recreate iconic photographic images.
Even during the week, Hong Kong’s protest lives on, quietly. But so does life for Hongkongers.
David Swanson is a San Diego-based freelance writer-photographer. Follow him on Twitter.