A rioter tries to throw bricks at police in Mong Kok district of Hong Kong, Feb. 9, 2016.
FILE - A rioter tries to throw bricks at police in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong, Feb. 9, 2016.

HONG KONG - Five years ago, on the eve of the Lunar New Year, Hong Kong authorities arrested about 50 people when crowds tried to protect street hawkers selling fishballs in the bustling Kowloon neighborhood of Mong Kok.

One of the most densely populated business neighborhoods in the world, Mong Kok is jammed with restaurants, bars, small shops and markets, a street scene scented by the aromas wafting from a buffet of food stalls, many of them illegal but nonetheless beloved.

“The street stalls are very much part of Hong Kong culture, but they’ve been disappearing as part of the process of redevelopment and urban renewal,” Fuchsia Dunlop, a Chinese food expert, told The Guardian soon after about 100 people were injured in the so-called Fishball Revolution, a mass action widely seen as pushback against Beijing.

That anti-Beijing attitude is what saw a campus film event unspooling into a tense sequence of events in Hong Kong this week and last.

It began when the Hong Kong University Students’ Union announced its plans to show Lost in the Fumes, a documentary featuring Edward Leung, an activist now serving a six-year term for his role in the Fishball Revolution. He emerged as a key figure in the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement with Time magazine calling him the "spiritual leader" of the mass protests in 2019.

The university objected, issuing a statement Jan. 28 saying the screening “risks…breaching the law.” The administration suggested canceling or modifying the event.

FILE - An unidentified man is escorted by riot police at Mong Kok in Hong Kong, Feb. 9, 2016.

The student group responded by contending the administration was hampering academic freedom and suppressing free speech. They emphasized the Fishball Revolution is “an integral part of the history of Hong Kong” and that they “shall never be muted or yield to fear.”

Nora Lam's documentary premiered in 2018 and was screened in 2020 at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), a showcase for independent cinema. It presents Leung discussing how he pursued independence for Hong Kong by getting into politics. It also contains footage of Leung chanting the slogan, “Reclaim Hong Kong, revolution of our time,” which pro-democracy protestors adopted in 2019.

The first HKU screening was Wednesday, and the last is scheduled for Monday, the fifth anniversary of the Fishball Revolution. Several Hong Kong media outlets reported that HKU guards were filming outside the venue but didn’t intervene in the screening.

HKU issued a statement Thursday expressing regret over the screenings and intolerance of illegal behavior. It reiterated its opposition to Hong Kong independence and said that in the interests of keeping the campus environment safe, it would review arrangements provided for the Students’ Union.

After Hong Kong was transferred back to China from Britain in 1997, Beijing promised Hong Kong would retain a “high degree of autonomy” until 2047 under a “one country, two systems” agreement.

After years of anti-government protests culminated in 2019 with peaceful mass gatherings and, at some schools, violence, Beijing implemented the National Security Law for Hong Kong that came into effect on June 30, 2020.

It prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and its details can be widely interpreted. Protests have stopped while activists and lawmakers have been arrested, jailed or fled into political exile.

That fishballs became yet another marker in Hong Kongers’ push against the growing influence of China surprised only outsiders. Many locals saw the move to arrest the street vendors as Beijing wanting to tame Hong Kong’s lively street food culture just as it had at home.

Fishballs are “the quintessential Hong Kong street food and – culturally – it represents the Hong Kong working class like no other institutions can,” restaurateur Alan Yau, a Hong Kong native, told The Guardian. “Street food and the fishball represent the values of entrepreneurship, of capitalism, of liberal democracy. Anthropologically, they mean more than a $5 skewer with curry satay sauce.”

FILE - Riot police stand guard as rioters set fires and throw bricks in Mong Kok district of Hong Kong, Feb. 9, 2016.

The Fishball Revolution was "the worst outbreak of rioting since the 1960s," according to The Economist.

Police estimated that, at its peak, there were more than 700 people involved. Leung, along with many others, was charged with rioting and assault on a police officer. He is expected to be released early next year.

After the first screening, Edy Jeh, president of the Students’ Union, said the documentary production group and director had confirmed the documentary doesn’t breach the National Security Law, and emphasized that the screening is a review of what happened in 2016 from an academic perspective.

Jeh said, “We still stand by the claim of academic freedom. We believe the screening is a demonstration of academic freedom.” 

Tracy Cheng, vice president of the Students’ Union, said Hong Kong's political situation has undergone great changes under the National Security Law, in which freedom of speech and academics have more constraints.

She said, "After 2019, their concern for society or their critical thinking has actually improved a lot. I believe that when students have some views and feelings on the society, they will be able to make a greater contribution to society in the future."

Rebecca, a student at the HKU who attended the screening and did not want her full name used, believes that the Mong Kok riot was an important historical event in Hong Kong, and attending the screening, despite the school’s objection, was even more important. Although she worries that under the National Security Law, the school may punish them afterwards, she has no regrets, saying, “By all means, I think I should have come."

Another Hong Konger who asked to remain unnamed said after the screening that the Fishball Revolution has had a profound impact on Hong Kong's civil movements, especially the mass protests of 2019 that were, in essence, a referendum on Hong Kong's loss of autonomy from Beijing.

"Leung was among the first ones in the movement. They made people reflect on the feasibility of fighting by force and how much they could do,” said a Hong Konger who remembered the Fishball Revolution. It was one of the first “when they began to mask their faces, and people began to push some debris out to block the roads, etc."

“When you can’t achieve it within the system, you have only two (choices), one is to give up and the other is to fight on the streets, which paved the way for the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement,” the Hong Konger said.