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6 September 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:12pm

How Hong Kong’s shopping malls became a new arena in the fight for democracy

By Antony Dapiran

What happens to protest in a city where much of the public space has been privatised? In Hong Kong, known globally as a “shoppers’ paradise”, the world of dissent is rubbing up against the world of commerce, with sometimes surprising results.

As one of the most densely populated cities in the world, where land is at a premium, it is perhaps not surprising that Hong Kong is impoverished when it comes to public space. Much of it has been packaged up by the government and sold to real estate developers.

But what Hong Kong lacks in public space it makes up for in shopping malls. The territory has the highest concentration of malls in the world, partly a result of a unique alliance between the government and real estate tycoons in building the city’s infrastructure. Hong Kong’s subway system is funded by granting the subway operator, MTR Corporation, the property development rights for the land above its stations. MTR partners with the tycoons to build vast residential and commercial developments – usually a shopping mall podium with residential and sometimes office towers above – directly connected to the stations. Much of the city’s population lives on top of, or effectively inside of, a shopping mall.

As a result, the mall plays a unique and all-encompassing role in daily Hong Kong life. Malls are shopping destinations for daily necessities and luxury goods, recreation spaces, and the primary places where people socialise with family and friends. Hong Kong apartments are often too small to entertain guests; malls host children’s parties, graduation lunches and wedding banquets. In Hong Kong’s humid, tropical climate, air-conditioning is a practical necessity. Temperature-controlled atriums, courtyards and squares are built into the malls. Though they masquerade as public space, these urban enclaves are privately owned and fall under the control of mall management.

Malls are also the passageways through which citizens pass from public transport hubs to their homes. Many are required, under the terms of their lease, to keep doors open 24 hours a day for public passage.

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Though long a fixture of daily life in Hong Kong, shopping malls have recently taken on another role, serving as refuges for protesters during the oppressively hot Hong Kong summer days and shaping and channelling the protests currently engulfing the city.

Many protests begin or end at malls, creating the unique Hong Kong experience of finding oneself lost in a mall and unable to find the protest. In a unique evolution of the “right to the city”, an idea first proposed by the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre in 1968, Hong Kong’s protesters have asserted their “right to the mall”.

When protesters in Sha Tin tried to flee police through the adjacent New Town shopping mall in mid-July, riot police pursued them into the mall. A clash ensued, with police firing pepper spray and beating protesters with batons, and protesters throwing umbrellas and bottles at the police. The violence left blood on the mall’s polished floors. Police were pictured slipping around on the pepper-spray slicked floors. Meanwhile, passing Sunday night shoppers and diners did their best to shelter from the chaos.

Protesters subsequently laid blame for the clashes on mall management, alleging that mall staff led the police into the mall. The mall’s management office itself became a target of protests, and the mall issued a statement denying the charges.

Other malls took note of the New Town Mall experience. In Sham Shui Po this month, when riot police pursued protesters who had taken refuge in nearby Tai Po Mega Mall, mall management staff refused the police entry. After protesters threatened a flash mob protest targeting malls operated by Wharf, the property developer posted signs in its malls reading: “We will do our best to ensure customers’ safety in the mall. Police, please do not enter unless crimes happen.” The protests were promptly called off.

When Pacific Place, a mall operated by British conglomerate Swire, denied police entry during particularly violent protests in June, mall management were called out for praise by protesters online. During a subsequent “silver-haired” march, mall management helped with crowd control to facilitate the elderly protesters passing comfortably through the air-conditioned space, earning cheers from the crowd. One elderly protester gave a thumbs-up and said to me, “This is the best mall in Hong Kong!”

In recent weeks, as Beijing’s propaganda war has intensified, businesses have come under pressure to fall into line. Swire made a strong statement in support of the government, and it seems unlikely that Pacific Place will continue to be a safe haven.

Other malls have already been falling into line with Beijing’s demands. When New World Development apologised to protesters for allowing riot police to use the public toilets in one of their malls, the company drew sharp criticism on social media in in Mainland China, and was forced to apologise for their apology, stating: “We are against violence, and support Hong Kong police in carrying out their duties.”

This age-old conflict between profit and principle is thrown into sharper focus when the malls, many of which rely on revenue from Mainland tourists, are pushed to defer to the wishes of their largest market over those of the communities who live their day-to-day lives on top of, and inside, their malls. It is a microcosm of one of the underlying anxieties driving the protests: the creeping “Mainlandisation” of Hong Kong that is leaving residents feeling squeezed to the margins of their own home city. The fight for Hong Kong may yet be won or lost in the marble-tiled atriums of its malls.