Hong Kong protest site becomes traffic-free oasis

Hong Kong protest site becomes traffic-free oasis

HONG KONG - Pedestrianised streets, al fresco art, urban picnic zones and recycling points have become part of the landscape in central Hong Kong as a result of mass protests -- and some residents would like to keep it that way, regardless of their politics.

The student-led democracy movement that has taken over parts of the city for nearly two weeks has left traffic gridlocked, commuters irate and businesses complaining of lost trade due to road closures and diversions.

But while daily life has been disrupted, some are now taking advantage of the kilometre-long sweep of highway running through the centre of Hong Kong which is now traffic-free.

Usually clogged with cars, trucks and taxis, the multiple-lane road running through the central district of Admiralty is the main site for the protest movement and has seen rallies of tens of thousands of demonstrators.

As protest leaders and government officials make slow progress on talks and some students return to school or university, the numbers of demonstrators in Admiralty have dwindled to a few hundred in the past few days -- making room for joggers, cyclists and lunching office workers enjoying a break from traffic noise and fumes.

"It's actually like a huge massive exhibition space. I think the whole thing is disruptive, but as an idea it would be nice to have more space for pedestrians," said one 30-year-old who works in the fashion industry and gave her name as Lucy.

"The city has got a little bit unbearable because it's too packed. This is actually quite nice and peaceful," she said, taking an early morning walk along the road where birdsong is now louder than the urban hum.

Cyclist George Adams, 56, questioned why Hong Kong could not routinely provide more space for bikes as he cycled down the car-free highway.

"(We've got) eight lanes of highway, no provision for pedestrians... no provision for bicycles. That's a symptom of something isn't it? The way in which Hong Kong is totally controlled by money, the moguls, the tycoons."

Creative space

Others have been stopping to admire spontaneous artworks around the site including the "Lennon Wall" -- an open-air public staircase plastered with hundreds of multi-coloured notes written by supporters of the protests.

Nearby is "Umbrella Man", an imposing figure holding an umbrella, sculpted from small blocks of wood by a local artist called Milk. The campaign has become known as the "Umbrella Movement" after protesters used umbrellas to shield themselves from pepper spray fired by police.

"It's very artistic," said 24-year-old office worker Zoe Chao, browsing the area during her morning coffee break.

"Normally we just see cars and buses... but the picture's really different now with artwork by ordinary people. It doesn't seem real. I enjoy seeing this, although it's disturbing people's lives."

Edwin Lau of Friends of the Earth Hong Kong pointed to an improvement in the city's dismal air quality stemming from the traffic reductions.

"Better pedestrian and cycle lanes should be set at the design stage (of new developments)... as a basic requirement for a more healthy style of city," he added.

"The three main pillars of sustainable development are economic, social and environmental -- they're all equally important and beneficial, but people always only look at the economic benefits."

Selfish, or enlightened?

Protesters have installed recycling points to sort through rubbish, mainly plastic water bottles, and have also set up food and drink stations serving everything from fruit to homemade soup and herbal tea.

While some young protesters while away the hours watching movies on their mobile phones, many sit and chat, read textbooks, or gather to swap notes in study groups.

At lunchtimes suited office workers sit on the lane dividers eating sandwiches or browse the sea of posters plastering the highway.

For some people, practical inconveniences outweigh any sense of positive change.

"It's incredibly selfish of the students to hold demonstrations in a public area," said retiree Peter Bentley, who has lived in Hong Kong for 30 years.

"I think the whole thing's wrong."

But in a city where a sense of community is seen to have fragmented over recent decades, the younger generation feel they are striking out for a better way of living.

"Hong Kong is too busy -- right now we have had 10 days to stop and think about Hong Kong's future," said protester Cheng Chung-tai, a university lecturer in sociology.

"I think it's a really great moment for Hong Kong people to search for our own way of life."

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