Acid Rain

Police barrier in Mongkok

Part of Mongkok’s allure is the feeling you get that it teeters perpetually on the brink of chaos. There’s so much going on — and so much of it hidden away on the upper floors of dilapidated walkups, deep within labyrinthine commercial blocks or halfway down a narrow laneway — that any visitor to the neighbourhood is belittled and disoriented. Like a drug, the loss of control is unsettling yet strangely enticing. Nobody has a grip on what’s really happening in Mongkok; it lives by its own intangible rules.

The reasons for this would be enough to fill an entire book, but a simple version would be that Mongkok’s unique character comes from its peculiar mix of overwhelmingly high population density and commercial activity (which runs the full spectrum of legality). “Mong Kok is urban Hong Kong, magnified and intensified,” wrote a journalist for the New York Times in 1988. At the time, everyone speculated that Mongkok would eventually be tamed as ever-increasing retail and commercial development displaced residents, making it a more conventional neighbourhood. But that hasn’t happened. Even the most blatant attempts at urban renewal and forced gentrification have only added to the district’s unfathomability.

Hong Kong movies like to depict Mongkok as the kind of place where a triad street fight can break out at any minute. For all the drug dens, mob fronts and brothels, though, public violence here is rare — which makes the acid attacks that have occurred since December all the most disturbing. For once, Mongkok has crossed the line from perceived chaos to the actual thing.

Last December 13th, as the pedestrian zone of Sai Yeung Choi Street was thronged with Christmas shoppers, somebody lobbed a plastic bottle full of corrosive drain cleaner from the roof of a nearby building. It landed in the middle of the street, exploding its contents, injuring 46 people. Police staged reenactments and scoured rooftops, trying to find evidence of who had thrown the container. A substantial reward was offered for any information leading to an arrest. The government vowed to install a CCTV system to monitor activity on the street.

But nothing happened. After a few weeks, news of the attack faded away and nothing was heard from police. Aside from the constant presence of a police van on Sai Yeung Choi Street, there was little sign of what had happened. Then, on May 16th, just five hours before the CCTV system came online, 30 people were injured in an almost identical attack at roughly the same place. This time, public outrage was palpable, and the police increased the amount of the reward and stepped up their search. The streets around the attack became quieter than I had ever seen them before.

Two nights ago, a third attack occurred, right around the corner from the previous two. 24 people were burned on their faces, shoulders and limbs by acid, including a four-year-old girl. As journalists like to say, tongues firmly in cheek, once is an accident, twice is a coincidence and three times is a trend. Only the trend here isn’t the attacks, it’s the seeming inability of the police and government to do anything about them. The much-vaunted CCTV cameras didn’t catch anything. The reward hasn’t led to any useful information.

Last month, just after the second attack, the director of a street theatre troupe that often performs on Sai Yeung Choi Street told me that he thought whoever was throwing the acid was like the Joker in Batman. “He just wants to create anarchy,” he said. Standing there, looking up towards a sky barely visible past the jumble of signs and rooftop antennae, suddenly feeling very vulnerable amidst the evening crowds, I couldn’t think of any better motive.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday June 09 2009at 11:06 pm , filed under Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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