Humans of Hong Kong

Humans of Hong Kong

Translated version of feature stories and interviews by Stand News. 立場新聞專題、人訪的英文版本。

2019/10/22 - 17:18

Three youngsters who start fires: how did moderate protesters become 'fire magicians' ?

Humans of Hong Kong 為《立場新聞》新欄目,刊出由特約作者翻譯、英文版本的立場專題、人物專訪,方便國際讀者閱讀。

"Humans of Hong Kong" is a brand new column highlighting the English version of feature stories and interviews by Stand News.

In a bedroom of a middle-class family, university student Chi holds a water-filled bottle, repeatedly practising a throwing posture. To avoid alerting her family or damaging things in her room, she doesn’t actually let go of the bottle; she only wants her body to remember the movement and angle well, “because I’m afraid I might hit a teammate or a journalist.”

The arm has to be straight, the swing needs not be too large; you have to hold the bottle underhanded in order to throw far. She looked up clips from the scenes of clashes, watched them repeatedly, observing the different effects of varying throwing postures, hoping that when riot police madly charge and the crowds take to their heels, when journalists skip around to shoot photos – in that split second, she may deploy her “magic” precisely at somewhere between the police and protesters. It would then explode, catch fire, but leave the innocent untouched.


As the police's use of water cannons, live rounds and other lethal weapons becomes the norm, more protesters are using fire to stall the police’s advance, even to fight back occasionally. They call fire bombs “fire magic.” 

As summer gives way to autumn, the crowd on the street has shrunk from two million in June to a hundred thousand and sometimes, just thousands. University student Heng was at the frontline, all he could see behind him were others of his age or even younger, who must be in secondary school. Their wrists were thinner than the metal bars they held in their hands; they were determined even when they knew not what to do.  With his “fire magic,” Heng sees no room for retreat. He only wants to ask: Will the adults continue to stay in their comfort zones? 

“Fire can be used as an offensive, it may help save the future of a few hundred of our fellows, and it could be our last line of defense. That bottle in our hand is not just a weapon, it is Hongkongers’ courage, hope and will to fight,” a “magician” who was arrested and cannot be interviewed, texted me. 

The maximum sentence for arson is life imprisonment, much heavier than the ten years for rioting charges. At the start of August, “fire magicians” were few, but as the level of police violence escalated, a rough estimate suggests a few dozens of protesters now use “fire magic”; meanwhile, they face the most aggressive hunt and search by the police. Stand News managed to get in touch with three of them through our contacts to understand their journey of becoming “fire magicians.”

*   *   *

A chemical lesson not taught in class  

On July 21, apart from the white-shirts’ terror attack in Yuen Long, there were two other symbolic events that might have been overlooked at the time. For the first time, protesters used fire to block the road, by setting a heap of miscellaneous objects ablaze. In a crowd heading straight to the Chinese liaison office after the march organized by the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the people bellowed in one voice, “Reclaim Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.” Before, this slogan was only shouted by some young people, but that day, in a procession filled with “Peaceful, Rational, and Non-violent” (和理非, PRN) protesters, it finally became mainstream.

Heng and his friends on the frontline were uplifted. “We realized people’s thinking had progressed, they were willing to utter the word ‘revolution'. If you already have the preconditions for starting a revolution, then in action you have to ratchet up the level of force too.”  He recalled that after the “Reclaim Yuen Long” march on July 27, the morale among the frontliners remained defiantly high, despite being overshadowed by fears of knife-wielding local village gangsters. More teams began discussing the use of “fire magic”. On August 5, the day when seven districts went on strike, two petrol bombs were lodged outside the Wanchai police headquarters.

The recipe for petrol bombs is simple. “Fill a glass bottle with petrol and cooking oil, then insert a strip of cloth, light it, chuck it out and it’ll catch fire.” A good number of frontliners have a basic knowledge of it. It is also circulated among protesters’ chat groups.

Having summarized the online information, it appears that kerosene is easier to get than petrol. But petrol is more inflammatory. Adding in flour and sugar increases the temperature and duration of the flame. Adding white phosphorous will make it burn more vigorously and spread at least half a metre far, only to die down when everything is burnt through. White phosphorus, however, is more dangerous and accident-prone. The sale of white phosphorus is restricted in Hong Kong and is very hard to obtain. Few “magicians” use white phosphorus. Most stick to the more accessible kerosene – so technically speaking most protesters are not using “petrol bombs”. The rest of the ingredients can be found in a supermarket. “We have reached a point where you don’t even need a specific group of ‘fire magicians.’ Some kids just have two such bottles with them, and they’ll just throw them. I guess they just followed what they saw online, and made them at home, ” Heng said.

Chi, another “fire magician,” recounted that store owners had occasionally requested to have her ID marked down, when she bought white phosphorus and petrol. So the risk begins when stocking the material.  Some teammates had the experience of being followed by unidentified people after making a purchase; another time, they spotted police from afar when they were about to take some materials outside, and hardly had time to hide their bags. Chi herself had never been searched yet. “My teammates rarely let me carry things other than some glass bottles, pieces of cloth, sugar, flour and the like. Maybe it’s because I’m the only girl in the team, and they really don’t want something to happen to girls. After all… girls face greater danger in a police station these days.”

J is an amateur “fire magician”. He first used petrol bombs in October. As he is inexperienced, he will concoct the “magic potion” before arriving at the scene. “If you wait until you’re at the scene to slowly pour it down a funnel, it doesn’t seem to work well.” However, from Chi’s observation, many people made them on the scene. “Lately, I have noticed many ‘PRN’ protesters standing at the back would have one or two ingredients in their backpacks. They might  be too scared or didn’t have time to make it, but if they knew that there were ‘magicians’ nearby, they would immediately give us their materials. Last time I had such a surplus that I had to take it home.”

The craft of the ‘magician’

All of the three interviewed “fire magicians” are university students; before this summer, they hadn’t thrown a brick, let alone a petrol bomb. Chi had one practice before getting to the real thing. “I more or less know how my arm should move. In such a tense situation, I don’t want to increase my chances of getting arrested by practising outdoors.”

His observations told him that the usual slip-up in the use of fire is burning oneself. “Putting your arm back and then use the shoulder to do the swing – that’s only good for hurling bricks.  With ‘fire magic’ you are holding a bottle in flame. If you allow it to get out of sight, then you’re likely to burn yourself. My shirt caught a small fire one time. In fact, ‘fire magic’ is a lot lighter than bricks, the key is to throw it right on target.”

Chi tried to practise at home. “I watched the clips over and over, and the problem is that they don't straighten their arms enough, so the bottle doesn’t travel very far. And holding the bottle underhanded allows exerting greater force, so it goes farther.”  Since she can’t actually throw a bottle at home, so, on the days when no protests are going on, she and her teammates will go to an open field to do a drill. “After a few trials, you’ll know how far you can throw, how to use your strength well, that way there’s a lesser chance of failure. After all, fire isn’t something you can control that easily. I really don’t want to hurt myself, the journalists, or firefighters and first aiders. I have done a lot of homework on this.”

J and his teammates once took the “magic potion” to test out in abandoned hillsides. On their way, they walked past several police officers. “I was so scared. If a few youngsters are found carrying kerosene and petrol with them, the police must know what you’re up to; we were prepared to make off if anything happens.”

Luck was on their side, and they were not searched. But he has no idea when he will run out of luck. “It takes a great risk to carry hardhats, goggles and ‘pig snouts’ (3M respirator masks). If you only have one set, they can’t do much other than detaining you for 48 hours, and they can’t charge you with any offence. But things get tricky if you carry more than a set. I am also a ‘sentinel’, so I will have a loudspeaker and a whistle. These things can lead to charges of inciting a riot. The police has claimed that hammers, scissors and spanners are weapons, so the charge can be severe.” 

‘At last in this revolution, I exist for a purpose’

It should have been a difficult decision for them, since using petrol bombs carries terrific risks and legal liability. However, as events unfold after June, these three youngsters have landed where they are as if it was the natural thing to do.

Heng and Chi participated in the Umbrella Movement five years ago when they were in secondary school. They witnessed the failure of the “PRN” protest model, and didn’t feel like coming out to join the march on June 9. The first time they came out was on June 12. “When I saw that even the peaceful rally outside Citic Tower was cleared out with tear gas, many people with no gear suffered and it almost caused a stampede,” Chi said. “I knew this was not the same as 2014. I decided to join every time from then on.”

At the start, as a “PRN” protester, she made up the numbers and helped to pass along supplies, fleeing when she saw tear gas. Later, she plucked up the courage and put out burning tear gas canisters  – the transformation happened within one or two months. But Chi still thinks she was not doing enough. “Every time I went home to watch the news, I saw many fellows on the frontline who were either injured or arrested. I felt very useless, and I couldn’t do anything to help.” When someone in Telegram groups suggested using “fire magic” to step up the defence, she felt that it suited her somewhat. “After all, I’m a girl, I’m not very tall, and I can’t really fight. I’ll only be a burden at the front, so why don’t I pick a post that allows me to move around more flexibly?” It wasn’t as if she didn’t struggle to make this decision, but it didn’t take her long. “Perhaps, long ago, I already thought that the ‘PRN’ model can’t achieve anything. Yet I just hadn’t put thought to action, but my mind was ready. The only thing I considered at the time was, was I capable of doing this?”

Chi and her teammates first carried “fire magic” to the frontline in late August, which makes them a relatively early batch of “fire magicians”. Fearful of slipping up at her first try, she didn’t throw it at the most urgent moment. She launched the bottle at the front of the police’s cordon, when the two sides were facing off and a barrage of tear gas canisters were fired at the frontliners. At once, the glass broke, and the fire was started with success. “I thought I’d be really afraid. I thought I would be too scared to throw it. But when the moment came, then, I just felt like, I finally…I suppose we can call this a revolution now? I finally saw that in this revolution, I existed for a purpose.”

Stepping into mid-September, having used it for four to five times, Chi felt more confident in grasping the best timing and angle for hurling the bombs. She usually positions herself between the second and the fourth row on the flanks. The use of fire serves as an obstacle to buy time for the frontline protesters to retreat. “On October 1, a magician in Tuen Mun used fire really beautifully. At the time the riot police were charging forward to make arrests, someone threw a bomb from a distance, the fire spread very fast. The whole column of riot police and the tactical unit were stopped, and all our fellows there could withdraw and escape. That’s the ideal thing we hope to achieve every time when we use fire.”

“Honestly, many frontliners aren’t that strong and sturdy, but every time they would protect those PRN at the back so they could leave first. Holding the broken wooden boards, kickboards and umbrellas as shields, they braved bullets and tear gas. They’re not invincible in front of these weapons. They could really get hurt by the bullets. So, for someone like me who can't be on the frontline, at least we can use fire to build a line of defense.”

Despite not being at the forefront, the risk for the magicians is high. “They see you holding a bottle, that makes us pretty conspicuous targets, and they will point their guns -to shoot- at us. At first we were too hesitant, then someone in our ranks took a hit. Now, once we spot-ted- a favourable location, we’ll immediately launch it, we don’t have much time to calculate or hesitate. If you want to win, if you want to protect those who need protecting, you have to go ahead and throw. You must not be scared, you must not retreat.”

What fire can and cannot do

To Heng, the day of reckoning arrived even earlier than Chi. In 2014, he witnessed the ruthlessness of the triads and gangsters in Mongkok. He saw unarmed civilians beaten up by police officers with batons on Lung Wo Road. During the Mongkok “Fishball” unrest in 2016, members of Hong Kong Indigenous and others told him that he was too young to be fighting alongside them, and asked him to leave early. In 2019 he finally came of age. On June 12, he got a dose of tear gas, but felt that he could handle it; what he didn’t know was all the types of guns, rubber bullets, bean-bag rounds, sponge bullets fired at eye-level that were yet to come. “After that day, I knew very clearly: they must have had a prior plan to crack down on us by using real guns. Then I accepted this reality, and naturally, went up to the frontline.”

Every weekend in July and August, marches took place in different districts, and Heng noticed a pattern of protests. “We were setting up roadblocks time after time, trying to ward off the police to stand our ground, then the riot police would charge at us, and then we would lose 40, 50 fellows at the front. It’s impossible to carry on this way.” He thinks they must step up the level of violence in order to have a chance to win, because the police have switched tactics since early August. Police went from a defensive stand-off between the two sides to sudden charges and aggressive arrests, which gave protesters no time to make roadblocks using zip ties.

Then they started discussing the use of fire. Heng didn’t hesitate for long before he joined the ranks of the “magicians”. “Fire is very useful. A lot of roadblocks are set by using fire, because it’s a lot quicker than tying zip ties. What you do is you place a heap of things there, splash some oil on it, then the fire is lit in an instant. People can retreat much faster, and there’s more time to run.”

“Moreover, they (police) are definitely scared.” Heng usually stays until the last minute; the closest he’d got to a riot police was 10 meters. “They charge very aggressively, but mostly they target those who look thin, weak, and are left behind. If they see fire in your hands, they will only dare tackle you in groups of twos or threes. Actually, they really think about their own safety. If a bomb explodes near them, they’ll step aside, and slow down. This won’t really do them much harm, but at least it can…  at least it makes us feel better, that way we stand a chance.”

From Heng’s observation, the crowds have quite a high tolerance for the “fire magic.” “Onlookers clapped their hands, and when a police was hit they even cheered.” On October 1, protesters put together “fire magic” there and then at the protest site. A group of middle-aged residents nearby even bought bottled beers from a convenience store and passed us the empty bottles after drinking. “I think, when people say the tide of public opinion may turn, they’re referring to those who sit in front of their telly at home. If you’ve been at the scene, and have a real sense of the movement, you’ll know that it’s not a so-called battle between protesters and police. It’s just how long the protesters can hold their ground before they’re slaughtered.”

After the anti-mask law was passed, the use of fire extended to torching “vocally pro-China” shops. Heng has qualms about this. “I think it got a little out of hand. I know people are getting irrational, emotions are running high. A few months ago things were okay. When some organizations showed support for the police, then many ‘PRN’ protesters would paste post-it notes and flyers on their windows and spray-paint some words. But one time in Wanchai, someone chucked a fire bomb into  Starbucks which was on the first floor of a building. It really could hurt someone unintentionally. This I cannot agree with. I’m not going to disown anybody, but I won’t do such things myself. If there’s a petrol bomb, better for it to get thrown into the Government Headquarters. Lighting up stores will cost us more in losing public support than what we can gain.”

‘If we had mustered our courage, we could have already won’

When the use of petrol bombs becomes a regular tactic of resistance, there is this feeling amongst the protest camp: we are finally on a par with the protesters in other countries. Having watched “Winter on Fire,” one may even envisage Hongkongers, like their Ukrainan counterparts who are adept at “fire magic,” are on our way to triumph. Heng, however, thinks it is an illusion. ‘Protesters are no match to the police.’ The riot police’s green uniform is fireproof. Even if they’re hit, the fire will go out if they just pat on it. “The problem is, even if hundreds of thousands of civilians may gather in Harcourt Road, and some 500 police officers are standing opposite, they can still rain batons and shots on us and then once more we’d lose 80 to 100 of our fellows. We are no threat to them. This is because only 70, 80 people are serious in confronting the police at close range.

J joined the rank of “magicians” chiefly because there weren’t enough people in the frontline. He has just completed his university-admission exams in summer. Between June and July, he was a “PRN” protester who mainly went to marches organized by the CHRF; he even had qualms and questions about the acts of occupying roads after June 9 and storming the Legislative Council on July 1. “It gradually occurs to me that, this regime is showing no sign of surrendering to the people’s will. A lot of frontline protesters have been arrested, and there were fewer and fewer who are truly valiant. So I thought, if I am able to contribute, I should do my part.” Since August 31, he has stood nearer to the front. In mid-September, he hurled his first brick. 

On Sept. 15, when Brother Ngok hit the police in North Point to set a few arrested protesters free, it was a very important demonstration for him. “He woke us up. ‘Beat the Dogs (a nickname for the police) and Save Our Fellows’ is more than a slogan. One needs to act on it. Had everyone been a bit braver, we might have won already.” Since his brick-throwing became more on target in late-September, he threw his first petrol bomb on October 1. Despite being a debut, it landed a good few metres before the police. “It was a big step for me,” he said a bit apologetically. “For new blood like me coming to the front and fight, I actually didn’t know exactly what I should do.”  

Chi feels that the number of the frontliners has not dropped, but there are fewer of them with experience. “There are many reasons for this: they could have been arrested, or they could be on the run. The new blood coming up to the frontline lacks experience.” In Chi’s team of eight, three have been arrested. “A friend of mine and I are both injured. So, sometimes I’ll think, is this as valiant as Hongkongers can get? Now that we’ve used ‘fire magic,’ what can we do next? Make a bomb? If it's a bomb, how will we use it? A lot of people said it didn’t look good when fire was used on July 21 in Sheung Wan for the first time – the line between protesters and rioters blurred. It took them a while to return to the fold and stand with us, after trying hard to make our case.”

“But for now, I somehow think I’ve reached my limit. I’ve already used up all I have. I don’t know how else I can contribute. I can’t imagine I’ll proactively attack someone, because the reason I use ‘fire magic’ is to protect the fellows at the frontline, not to exterminate the opposite side or kill anybody. Maybe this mindset constrains me. The situation changes day by day, too much information is circulating at too fast a pace. I’ll think...the society and the government these days force everybody to grow up. So for this question, I don’t have an answer yet, maybe if you ask me again next week, or next month, I’ll have matured, and think differently; or I may already have been arrested.”

Another ‘student movement’?

Heng tends to be pessimistic about the endgame of this movement. “I feel that we may not be able to rise to the challenge this time. Five years later perhaps? When everybody is more receptive to radical measures, or if the situation deteriorates further. Maybe  then there’s a chance. But the problem is, when I can use‘fire magic’like an old hand, they (the police) will probably use real guns like an old hand.” He paused. “But...for me...if you use a real gun then I will put on a bulletproof vest.”

“There’s something I’m really unhappy about...I really saw those kids at the front, they were definitely not even 18. They were holding a metal bar, and the metal bar was thicker than their arms. Clearly they wanted to contribute something, but they didn’t know what they were doing, and then they’re the ones who will get arrested easily.”

“In June, the whole society faced off a totalitarian regime, but later everyone seems to go back to the time of the Umbrella Revolution. In general, Hongkongers supported young people to fight against the totalitarian government, but the older generations are hiding in their own shells again. I really hate that. It’s a straw-man tactic... It’s as if they’re doing enough to support the youngsters, by crying and staying at home. The older generations are like this every time...I don’t have a grudge against them. But they didn’t try to stop this when they had a chance, and now they say because they’re no longer young, then they think this is solely a matter for the youth. All they do is give support. But it takes the entire society’s participation to succeed.”

There are many reasons why “PRN” protesters don’t come out anymore: they have “baggage”; the letter of no objection not being granted; no MTR; no public transport; and there are some who disagree with the tactic of showing more valiance. But both Heng and Chi feel that, in the face of police brutality and real bullets, those at the frontline don’t have options other than escalation of force; and what’s more, the adoption of valiant tactics took place only after two million people took to the streets, which was met with total indifference from the government. “Five years ago, I used to think that, sitting peacefully in the streets can bring about change,” said Heng. “At the time, there was a concerted effort, and you’d think, even this sham of a democratic government won’t be able to ignore the popular will this way, right? But they can. This is a totalitarian government. In the past five years, how many victories have the people won? At most, there was the withdrawal of the extradition bill – but that wasn’t because of the one-million, two-million marches in June; rather, it’s because every subsequent week we’ve  come out to fight them, threatening the public peace, that’s why.”

“I don’t know how I can achieve the goals I have, all we’re doing is to try our luck at a possibility. We can’t turn back, we can only push ahead, until we reach the precipice, and see what happens there. I always believe, whether it’s  on the mainland or in Hong Kong, Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism is only buttressed by economic prosperity. So I don’t think he will risk using real force to crack down on Hongkongers, thereby risking his own sovereignty. If we don’t do it now, he’ll gradually claim victory, then he will slowly purge this generation and purge the whole Hong Kong.”

A premature revolution

However, many Hongkongers aren’t  prepared for a “revolution” or “mutual destruction,” or feel neither is necessary. Heng can empathise with this mentality. “Hongkongers are very good at adapting. During the Umbrella Revolution, hundreds of thousands of people were out on the streets clamoring for democracy, and the roads were blocked. It didn’t take long for Hongkongers to work around this and find other ways to carry on with their daily business. It’s the same this time. I would go out on the weekends to protest, and still go to the office on weekdays. But revolution is about overthrowing the existing social structure, and when you do that, the kind of relatively peaceful way of life we have now can no longer exist. We must all be willing to give it up, only then do we have a chance.” 

He disapproves of what the older generations call “baggage”, and disapproves even more of the notion that young people fight because they have “nothing to lose.” 

“I study in one of the three main universities, my career prospect is okay. I can definitely lead a normal life if I want to. All I’m thinking is, five years ago when I first came out, I could occupy roads peacefully. But the kids who join in social movements for the first time now has to fend off police batons and rubber bullets. What about the generation after this? They will face real bullets when they come out. If we think this is scary, then what they’re going to face must be even scarier than what we face now. Our generation really have an obligation to do our utmost.”

Chi is studying for a specialized profession. If she graduates and obtains the necessary license, she should have a good prospect in Hong Kong and beyond. “I could have had a whale of a time and enjoyed university life had all these not happened. Now I spend my days contemplating the tactics for the movement, asking myself what more I can do.” Her teammates are of her age. When they decided to use “fire magic,” none of them discussed the entailing legal liability and its impact on their future. “All we considered was the feasibility of it, whether our methods would work or not. There’s a mutual understanding amongst us, that once you make up your mind, then do it. If you’re scared, you can leave, you don’t have to join.”

“In fact, every time we headed out, we were mentally prepared that we might  get arrested. Getting home safe is a bonus, so whether it’s arson or rioting, we didn’t pay particular attention to the liabilities involved. I don’t feel differently about two, three years, or 10 years. My freedom will still be gone, my future ruined, and I won’t be able to keep on fighting for Hong Kong,” she said. Seeing more teammates getting arrested, she would only say, “I wish I was the one who got arrested, rather than them. That’s because each one of them can do more than I, and their future may be better than mine.”

Talk about paying the price

Chi doesn’t care much for the idea  “the young can wait” or that one should wait for more popular support before anything is done. “Always, there are always a group of pioneers who take the lead so others can follow. What I care about isn’t whether my sacrifice is early or late, I only hope the sacrifices we make today can enlighten those Hongkongers who are still not enlightened. Maybe in the future, history will prove that what we’re doing today is right. Just like Edward Leung in 2016, most people thought he was way ahead of his time, but today everybody is shouting the slogan he used back then. So I hope my sacrifice today means something, and I believe it’ll come to fruition in the future. Many people around me have caught on; like my classmates, who were ‘Hong Kong Piggies’ (politically ignorant/apathetic Hongkongers) before but now follow the news, and would proactively ask if they should register to be voters.”

Talking about legal liabilities, Heng said he is aware of the consequences, but he doesn’t want to think too much  about it. “Actually many of us at the front would rather be gunned down than go to prison. To say this may leave one with a heavy heart...but our feeling is, if someone is killed on the frontline, maybe the people’s attitude will change once more. We’re now used to someone getting shot, blinded, crippled, beaten up behind closed doors, raped, gang-raped and sodomised. It’s like we’ve grown inured to it. Like those floating corpses, people become numb the more they see it. So all that’s left to awaken the crowd  to act may be for someone to die at the scene of a protest.”

Sometimes he will think that perhaps  sacrificing won’t bring about change, and Hongkongers will carry on as before. “I think we can only look at this with a historical lens. It’s that this is a process of a struggle, and at least you didn’t give up on the struggle. You believe a seed is planted here. It’ Edward, Lo Kin-man and others; when they were sentenced to six, seven years, I think they probably thought to themselves, what the fuck? Especially those who weren’t the leaders. But I deeply believe, what transpired in 2019 must have sprung from the seeds they  had planted. So...yea, what will become of us is out of our control.”

“I will only be thinking of one thing. I do what I do now because I really believe in it. But a lot of people will regret having participated after they’re arrested, as if the movement would have been the same with or without them. When you’re arrested, you will definitely think like that. I understand. So I only hope that  if I ever have to go to prison, I don't think that it’s because I’ve done something wrong.”

“But every time I leave home, I’d think, oh fuck, maybe for the next six, seven years I won’t be able to come back, and that’s quite crazy.”


(Original version: 「三個放火的少年 和理非怎樣變「火魔法師」? 武力邊緣上的抗爭 」