Poll Dancer by Keith Ng

WTO: What The Ouck?

Self-fulfilling or otherwise, the predictions for the Korean delegation turned out to be true, with an active contingent of them taking on the riot police and getting confettied with mace, while a flotilla of them made a seaborne protest - that's seaborne, sans boat.

The financial hub of Hong Kong was a ghost-town today, with a lot of shops far from the action closed and boarded up. It was quite pleasant, actually, to be able to get a bit of peace and quiet.

Except for the thousands of cops. Thousands. There were cops around every corner, and a few dozen on every bridge or checkpoint.

They had patrols guarding the parking lot, which was surrounded by a protective wall of containers, covered with children's artwork. There were plainclothes cops, innocuously standing around in pairs, checking everyone out and looking unusually patient with whoever they were pretending to be waiting for. Then there were the police interceptors speedboats. And the police divers. And cops on motorcycles patrolling the area. And the vans full of reinforcements. And the helicopter.

They even had their own Mobile Canteen Unit. Now that's prepared.

The protesters were very multicultural. A very visible, well-organised and vocal Korean contingent was divided into teams with matching clothing, bandannas and banners. A group of them carried around a large funeral pyre that foreshadowed things to come.

The Filipino group had their own WTO coffin, too. The Filipino and Indonesian contingents were quite strong - Hong Kong is home to many sojourners from these countries who work as domestic servants in ordinary, middle-class households. It's very strange from a social organisation perspective, having ordinary households include a maid, but from an economic perspective, outsourcing labour-intensive tasks to cheap labour makes perfect sense.

Of the locals, there were lots of unionists, as well as some good old-fashioned socialists who - true to their motto - really do seem the same everywhere. There were also generic anti-Americans and anti-Bush protesters with good-looking placards.

There was the Falun Gong, who have their fingers in many protest pies these days. They've become quite overtly... seditious, too. But then again, I guess I can't rule out the possibility that these signs are all Chinese black-ops.

The protesters played Power to the People on repeat for ages, and chanted exciting slogans such as "down down WTO", "no no WTO" and "[in Cantonese] protest WTO".

A lot of marching, with a lot of people watching and taking photos. In Hong Kong, every man and his dog is a photography enthusiast packing a professional-grade camera. Everyone else just has a digital camera or a cellphone with a camera. It's hard to get a shot without someone in it who's trying to get a shot, too. Some good shots to be had, but the enthusiasts and the international press had to jostle quite a bit. As with everything else in Hong Kong, the solution was to develop vertically.

Before long, a whole bunch of Koreans took off their shoes, put on life-jackets and jumped into the sea. More followed. Then some more. They said they were going to swim to the convention centre and stop the meeting. They didn't manage to do it, but they looked like they were having a reasonably good time, nonetheless. Presumably, nobody told them about the horrendous levels of pollution in that harbour...

There was a period of monotonous chanting and dull speeches. It might have been good that nobody paid much attention to what was being said, since half the people were arguing for reduced agricultural subsidies and "fair trade", while the other half were arguing for an end to global capitalism. Presumably, the farmers wanting to sell their goods at a real market price might have been a bit peeved to have no market to sell to.

Before such minor details could be explored, the large funeral pyre carried by one of the Korean groups got turned into a flaming battering ram. Well, okay, it was smouldering rather than properly flaming, and it was flipped onto, rather than rammed into, police. Still - funeral pyre, burning - you would have thought someone would have made the connection earlier.

A few attempts were made to charge the police line. One of the Korean groups again. A very organised (and obviously dedicated) group formed a mini-phalanx and tried to break through. The police responded with a confetti-rain of mace (it looks like puke).

Other people gave it a go, too. These smug pricks (the usual suspects out for a good time) gave each other high-fives after managing to run the gauntlet without getting maced.

Another casualty was one of Hong Kong's legislators, known as "Long-Hair". Famed for wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt and representing the too-cool-for-skool constituency, he copped some mace-in-da-face, too.

While the protesters and police were charging and macing, on the other side of the fence, the rest of the protesters (around 60-70% of them) went about their chants and stuff as before.

Most of the local press (and only the local press) brought riot helmets with them. I was initially skeptical, but as the action began, I got very, very jealous. I ended up hanging on a fence for over an hour. Highlight: Changing camera lenses with one hand while two metres above angry mob and riot police. Lowlight: The diesel generator next to me being designed to vent its exhaust fumes about two metres from ground level, away from people. And my really, really sore back.

A lot of other journalists, though, were down there in the thick of it. There was this amazing cloud of cameras that hovered over the action. When the action died down, the front-line was filled with so many cameramen that it took some time for everyone to realise that the nobody was there confronting the police anymore. Seriously.

Then, in what's definitely the most surreal twist, people started taking souvenir photos. The riot police that were whipping out the mace like it was a pissing contest suddenly became static backdrops for people to pose in front of for I-came-to-the-WTO-and-all-I-got-was-this-lousy-photo photos. People were chatting, and just hanging out. The tense stand-off suddenly became light-hearted, mostly contrived adventure-tourism.