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In Hong Kong’s Mong Kok neighborhood, protests have a local feel

It’s dense with people, thick with tension. For a week and a half, the Hong Kong district of Mong Kok has been home to the city’s scrappiest pro-democracy protests, and it remains a flashpoint for further clashes among protesters, police and gangs.

Mong Kok is a mixture of bling and brawn, shiny surfaces and rough edges, a jumble of tenements, small businesses, brothels, night markets, noodle joints and a luxury mall catering to wealthy Chinese tourists. Located on the Kowloon side of the city, it’s a known hangout for Hong Kong’s underworld. But it’s also a working-class neighborhood where people go about their daily routines, paying little attention to what happens in the dark alleyways.

“Forty-five years ago, it was a lot less crowded here and people were more friendly,” said Sausim Chan, who has lived in the neighborhood for 45 of her 80 years. “Now I have trouble walking to the movie theater, there are so many people.”

Mong Kok means “busy corner,” and for several days this week, the intersection at Nathan and Argyle streets was the most crowded of all. Starting on Sept. 29, protesters started barricading streets to this crossing and others nearby.

Ever since, they’ve “occupied” the area, despite being attacked by mobs, drenched by rainstorms and urged to leave by both police and many local shop owners. Crowds stop by each day just to observe the scene and to listen to impassioned debates between protesters and counterprotesters.

More than those on Hong Kong island, the Mong Kok street protests are an eclectic mix of people. They reflect a neighborhood where apartment rents are low and living conditions can be cramped and squalid. The protesters go out of their way to point out they are not affiliated with other protests in the city and were not included in talks with the government that broke down on Thursday.

“It’s important we stay here and make a stand,” said Kelvin Cheung, 23, standing outside a makeshift tent that has been the heart of the Mong Kok protests. If this occupation were abandoned, he said, it would leave Kowloon and outlying suburbs with no protest site where the future of Hong Kong could be debated.

Like many of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, Mong Kok has long been a landing point for immigrants, from China and elsewhere. Chan, for instance, migrated here in 1953 from Zhongshan, in nearby Guangdong province. She landed a job working as a nanny and housekeeper for a doctor who practiced Chinese medicine.

For the last 45 years, she has lived in the same apartment – basically a small kitchen and a room big enough for a bed. Photographs of her late boss’s children fill a wall in her bedroom. She says those children, now adults, come to visit her several times a week, taking care of her needs.

Chan, who stands slightly taller than 4 feet, said she likes Mong Kok and the markets and coffee shops nearby. But it’s changing. Chain stores have moved in selling gold and watches catering to Chinese tourists. Those stores proliferated after the city encouraged the construction of Langham Place, a 15-level luxury shopping mall with a 59-story office tower.

“Before all the jewelry stores, there were shops that sold things for daily life,” said Chan. Now she and other elderly people have to walk farther to buy rice, and in congested conditions. Mong Kok has one of the highest population densities in the world – roughly 340,000 people per square mile (New York’s Manhattan is a mere 67,000 per square mile). Guinness World Records calls Mong Kok the busiest place on earth.

One thing that hasn’t changed are Mong Kok brothels. The red light district occupies a warren of streets south of Langham Place, some with sign boards displaying the prices. The streets here often have been featured in movies needing a seedy backdrop, including the 2004 hit film “ One Night in Mongkok.”

Bowie Lam, 27, says the sex trade in Hong Kong is much larger than what one sees advertised on the streets.

“Prostitution in Hong Kong is divided into several kinds of groups – the Internet trade, brothels, night clubs and sex workers working out of a single room,” said Lam, who runs a Mong Kok nonprofit called Teen’s Key. Started in 2010, her group provides HIV screening, safety tips and other services for the youngest of Hong Kong sex workers.

Lam said most of her clients entered the trade because there were few other job options. Some were forced onto the streets because of an abusive family member.

“There’s a real structural problem in Hong Kong,” said Lam. “A lot of these women have little choice. They can’t work as construction workers like the men who are uneducated. They see this as their way to earn a living.”

With Lam’s help, a McClatchy reporter and photographer visited a prostitute in her place of work, a one-bedroom apartment in the grimy neighborhood of Sham Shui Po, not far from Mong Kok. The prostitute, who asked that she be called “Miss F.,” said she moved from China to Hong Kong 10 years ago, and only could find occasional work washing dishes or some other low-paying job.

Four years ago, she noticed a newspaper advertisement from a prostitute needing a temporary replacement. “I was a little bit scared,” she recalled, but she arranged a meeting with the woman. “She taught me a lot of skills about being a sex worker, and how to be safe.”

Since then, Miss F. has offered massage and other services in a pink-lit bedroom for men interested in “chubby girls” – her description for her buxom full figure. A price sign on the wall, in English and Chinese, shows she charges 500 Hong Kong dollars, or about $64, for 90 minutes of “make love.”

By operating out of an apartment, Miss F. reduces the chance of police raids. Hong Kong law has effectively decriminalized one-room prostitution as a way to discourage pimps and brothels from proliferating.

Miss F. said she’s never been attacked by a client, but she takes elaborate precautions to screen them before conducting business. She has a video camera in her hallway and checks out the men on a flat-screen TV before she unlocks the door. She uses Internet ads and chat forums to drum up business.

Forty years old, Miss F. said she doesn’t want to work in the trade much longer. She has dreams of opening a clothes shop. For now, though, she earns good money, although business has declined over the last week. “Some of my regular customers have said they need to go to the protests,” she said.

From the start, Mong Kok protests have attracted an odd mix of ruffians, both supporters and detractors. Last Friday, seemingly organized mobs of counterdemonstrators assaulted the protesters, punching them and kicking them. Although the police eventually arrived and restored order, protesters accused them of doing little to prevent the violence.

Police arrested 19 people, later saying that some of them were members of Triads, Hong Kong’s notorious organized clans. One theory circulating is that the Triads gladly joined in the assault because the protests have hurt their local business operations, including prostitution.

Sharon Kwok, a specialist in local organized crime at Hong Kong’s City University, said there’s no doubt the Triad members, especially younger ones, are deeply involved in the local sex trade.

“Mong Kok is still the heart of Triad territory,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday. Kwok was quick to add, however, that Triads are now involved in a range of businesses other than prostitution, including some legitimate ones, such as real estate. She also noted that, at this point, only police and prosecutors know the reasons why Triad members joined the assault on protesters.

Restoring peace to Mong Kok is unlikely to come soon. Protesters expect the government or thugs to clear them out at any moment, and their numbers have dwindled as demonstrators have returned to work or grown dispirited. Some have stopped wearing yellow ribbons – the symbol of the pro-democracy protests – for fear of being attacked.

To rally the protesters’ spirits, Kenneth Pak and his friends have come out to Mong Kok nightly to play tunes for the protesters. On Sunday night, the mobile D.J. set up his portable sound system on the sidewalk, near the southern barricades on Nathan Road. As late as 5 a.m. Monday, he could be seen playing reggae and other vibes for a sleepy crowd sprawled out on the asphalt.

“We’ve been out here for five days, and we will keep coming back,” said Pak, wearing a cap and black T-shirt. “People’s emotions are so raw they need something to take the edge off.”