HONG KONG: Hong Kong police fired tear gas to break up masked protesters mingling with Halloween revellers in fancy dress near the upmarket club district of Lan Kwai Fong on Thursday (Oct 31) after a standoff lasting hours.
Police also used tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters, many dressed in black and wearing now-banned face masks, in Nathan Road, one of the main arteries of Kowloon on the other side of the harbour.
Protesters have for five months taken to the streets of the Chinese-ruled city in a sometimes violent response to perceived Chinese meddling with its promised freedoms. This was the first time Lan Kwai Fong had been targeted.
Shouts of "Give us back Halloween!" rang out as police used their shields to push the crowds forward on the sloping, narrow streets, scene of a deadly New Year stampede nearly 27 years ago.
Revellers and some demonstrators were penned in by police trying to keep the protesters away.
Many of the protesters wore the Guy Fawkes masks made popular by anti-establishment hackers, others wore the clown make-up of the deranged title figure in the movie "Joker". One was dressed up as Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam in a dog collar and on a leash.
Online forums used to organise the demonstrations encouraged supporters to wear Halloween-themed masks as police warned they would force revellers to remove outfits and facepaint if they engaged in protests.
'LET PEOPLE HAVE FUN'
The gridlock infuriated protesters and drinkers alike.
Yan Lee, an accountant in her 50s, wore a mask that combined the face of justice secretary Theresa Cheng with the Disney villain Maleficent.
"For months she has done nothing for Hong Kong but defend the authorities," she told AFP.
Another protester, who gave her surname as Loo, had painted her face in the style of Batman's nemesis, The Joker.
She said she was inspired by the recent Hollywood film that traces The Joker's origin story as he launches a revolution against Gotham City's elites.
"The idea that everyone owns the spirit to fight touched me a lot," she said.
Police raised many blue warning banners reading "Disperse or we may use force", before firing volleys of tear gas at protesters in Central, below Lan Kwai Fong, which hung in the air above the narrow streets lined with luxury shopping malls, banks and jewellery shops.
The protesters were dispersed in all directions, but some played cat-and-mouse with police late into the night.
Most weekends see hordes of revellers spilling out of the bars and clubs on to the streets in and around Lan Kwai Fong, which got going as an entertainment area in the late 1970s and early 1980s with clubs like "Disco Disco" and "Club '97", named after the year Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule.
A stampede during New Year celebrations on Dec. 31, 1992, when thousands had gathered on streets slippery with beer and champagne, killed at least 20 people and wounded scores.
Tear gas was also fired across the harbour in Mongkok and Prince Edward where hardcore protesters had adopted a less satirical but more familiar tactic - blocking roads and setting fire to makeshift barricades.
Some shone lasers at police shouting "Hong Kong people resist" as others built barricades in the road with rubbish bins, plastic seats and other debris.
Activists were marking two months since police were filmed beating protesters in Prince Edward subway station, one of multiple incidents this summer that have fanned hostility towards the force.
They blocked off intersections on Nathan Road targeted by activists last weekend, smashed lampposts and pried away bricks and other debris from the paths and shop fronts, hidden from view by others holding umbrellas.
"Having given repeated warnings to the protesters in vain, the police officers have deployed tear gas and will use minimum necessary force to disperse protesters," police said in a statement.
"The police warn the protesters to stop their illegal acts."
Police, who have been warning for days of the threat to public order and safety, were deploying 3,000 riot officers and three water cannon outside government offices near the route, according to local media.
Hong Kong, as widely expected, slid into recession for the first time since the global financial crisis in the third quarter, data confirmed on Thursday, weighed down by increasingly violent anti-government protests and the protracted US-China trade war.
Hong Kong's central bank also cut rates on Thursday in step with the US Federal Reserve.
LEGAL CHALLENGE TO FACE MASK BAN
Hong Kong has been upended by nearly five months of protests in which participants routinely use masks to hide their identities and protect themselves from teargas and pepper spray.
Earlier this month city leader Carrie Lam invoked colonial-era legislation for the first time in more than fifty years to outlaw face coverings at rallies.
The move was seen as a watershed legal moment for the city since its 1997 return by Britain to China - but the ban has done little to stop the protests or dissuade people from wearing masks.
Police released a video on Facebook warning protesters not to use Halloween as an excuse to hold rallies, and vowed to arrest people who refused to remove their masks when requested to do so.
Earlier on Thursday, activists went to court to challenge the emergency law.
"This is a duel between the rule of law and totalitarianism," lawmaker Dennis Kwok told reporters outside the High Court at the start of a two-day hearing.
The sweeping 1922 emergency law was passed by then colonial master Britain to deal with striking workers and allows the city's leader to make "any regulations whatsoever" in a time of emergency or public danger.
It was last used in 1967 by the British to help suppress riots that raged for nearly a year and killed some 50 people.
Lam's use of the law was controversial because it bypassed the Legislative Council, the partially-elected chamber that approves Hong Kong's laws.
Critics said the move undermined the city's reputation for being a dependable business and legal hub at a time of growing concern over Beijing's control of the city.
BRITAIN URGES RESTRAINT
Pressed on government plans to relieve the hit to businesses in Hong Kong from the protests, Ms Lam said the circumstances warranted "exceptional" measures.
"If we still act in the same conventional mode as if business is usual and life is normal, then we are not being very responsible," she said.
Her administration has pledged around HK$21 billion (US$2.68 billion) of financial aid for business since August, from rent to fuel subsidies.
The protesters are angry at what they see as Beijing's increasing interference in Hong Kong, which returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula intended to guarantee freedoms not seen on the mainland.
Some protesters in Hong Kong have thrown petrol bombs at police, lit fires and trashed government buildings and businesses, especially those seen as pro-Beijing, during recent demonstrations.
Police have responded with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, water cannon and several live rounds.
Hong Kong's subway operator MTR Corp, which has also been targeted by protesters, said it would shut some stations earlier than usual. Central station, a few minutes walk downhill from Lan Kwai Fong, will shut by 9pm.