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An Urban Village Pops Up To Comfort Hong Kong Protesters

Hong Kong's main pro-democracy protest camp turned three-weeks-old over the weekend. What began as a road block has grown into urban village with several hundred tents that attracts more than a thousand people at night.

The camp is a combo street fair, outdoor art gallery with political sculptures, propaganda posters as well as speeches, movie screenings and even a free library.

The vibe here is like an American college campus in the 1960s, except it's on an island on the edge of the South China Sea and surrounded by skyscrapers.

The pop-up protest community sprawls across and blocks Hong Kong's Harcourt Road, a major highway. Beyond the protesters' demands for democratic elections in 2017 for the city's chief executive, what distinguishes the place is a sense of community, which is best captured by the free services that have sprouted up to meet demonstrators' needs.

The loudest is the open-air, furniture-making shop. Kacey Wong, a professor of design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says some of his students kicked it off.

"This whole movement was generated from the students' boycott of the school a few weeks ago," says Wong. "They are thinking about boycotting school, but not boycotting studying. So how do you resolve this problem?"

By sawing, hammering and drilling scrap wood into desks and chairs the students can use. The result: a study hall with electricity, lights and desks built into the concrete highway divider.

Terence Tam, 26, works in information technology and is one of the furniture builders.

"We are volunteers. They are studying very hard," he says of the student protesters. "We try to make them more comfortable."

Tam, who wears a black shirt and jeans, doesn't know anything about carpentry, but says it only takes about a day to learn.

"As a Hong Kong guy, I just think this is what I can do for this place and for the teenagers. I think they are not fighting (just) for their future, but also for our future."

If scrap-wood carpentry isn't your thing, a few dozen tents away, there's art therapy.

"There's a lot of things going on, a lot of emotions and feelings," says Map Tang, a social worker who set up an art space. Tang says three weeks of demonstrating have left many physically and psychologically exhausted.

"That's why we have a tent here with all the materials of art making, so we can actually take care of ourselves and express our feelings," she says.

On a tarp, Tang has set out construction paper, an array of colored pens, feathers, thread and stickers. One tool is conspicuously missing: scissors.

"Because if you have something that is a weapon, the police can take you away," says Tang, who explains that people at the art space just cut paper by using their hands.

If you need a place to crash for the night, check with Pat, who assigns some of the tents, which — like most things here — are donated by supporters and free.

"Better be early because it's really, really full," says Pat, who works as a freelance graphic designer. Pat, who only gave her first name, says the tents are numbered and assigned first-come, first-served.

The only problem is when winds whip through the urban canyon where the camp lies and sometimes lifts empty tents five stories in the air.

Sooner or later, police will move to clear this camp, which is completely illegal.

"I'll be really sad," says Elizabeth, who also doesn't want to give her full name. Elizabeth just graduated from college and has been spending a lot of time here. She says she's going to miss the camaraderie and shared sense of mission.

"This whole building of community is essential if you want to have a sustainable movement, because we know this movement doesn't end just here, we have to continue it," she says.

After the tents are gone, that's probably the biggest challenge. Many Hong Kongers support the protesters' democratic goals, but the camp has caused three weeks of traffic jams on this crowded island and most people in this city are looking forward to seeing it go.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.