HONG KONG (Reuters) - For decades it was known as Little Shanghai, a gritty, waterfront neighbourhood that was the landing spot for many mainland Chinese emigrating to Hong Kong.
Densely packed with dilapidated, high-rise apartment blocks looming above bustling neon-lit streets, North Point has long been known as one of the “reddest” – or most pro-Beijing – districts in Hong Kong.
During anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong this year, the district was the scene of street brawls between men in white T-shirts - believed to be pro-Beijing supporters – and black-clad protesters.
But in elections for District Councils in November, a neighbourhood that has long hewed to the pro-Beijing line of Hong Kong’s government unexpectedly switched sides. Pro-democracy candidates won four out of five seats in the district, up from one in the last election. In the adjacent Fortress Hill neighbourhood, they added another two.
“They called my fight one of the hardest fights,” says Karrine Fu, 23, an arts graduate who won a seat in North Point as an independent after defeating Hung Lin-cham, a pro-Beijing secondary school teacher who had held the seat for 12 years. “For my district they called it a miracle.”
Fu’s narrow victory in the district council elections – she defeated her opponent by just 59 votes out of 4,869 – was part of a democratic domino effect across Hong Kong, suggesting strong support for the ongoing protests that have roiled the Chinese-ruled city for more than six months. Pro-democratic candidates secured almost 90% of the seats.
The reverberations of the election were keenly felt in North Point, where many inhabitants – like Fu’s grandparents – hail from the southern Chinese province of Fujian, up the coast from Hong Kong.
The signs of that older generation are visible across North Point – the vintage Sunbeam Cantonese opera theatre still thrives in the district, and at the Shanghai Great Chinese Barber Shop, the barbers trimming the ever-thinning hair of elderly customers say little has changed in five decades.
Fu said she was able to connect in Fujianese - her ancestral dialect – with older voters in the district, many of whom have close ties to the mainland and tend to vote for pro-government candidates.
“I think some old Fujianese secretly supported me,” Fu said with a laugh. “When I was walking through the street recently I saw residents going up to my opponent and saying they were sad he lost. But when they walked past me they put their thumbs up.”
In North Point and Fortress Hill, six of seven pro-democracy candidates - five of them in their 20s - won seats on the District Councils.
Four years ago, there was only one.
The newly elected councillors have formed a liberal alliance to capitalize on their gains and give political heft to the calls on the streets for democratic reforms in Hong Kong.
Earlier this month, they met in the North Point office of Cheng Tat-hung, 31, who was elected to a council seat for the Civic Party, to discuss their extraordinary win. Cheng’s cat, “Churchill”, was curled up on a couch, surrounded by shelves crammed with books and papers.
Until now, pro-democracy candidates had never held more than a toehold in the district, but the protest movement has made “many people in North Point awake”, said Cheng, who is studying to become a barrister.
Largely strangers months ago, the new councillors now meet regularly to discuss how they are going to shake up Hong Kong politics.
Once officially installed on Jan. 1, they plan to hold community “democracy forums”, lobby for rent ceilings in government apartments, and question police about alleged brutality in dealing with protesters and their response to dealing with the attacks by pro-Beijing supporters.
“We had a landslide win for pro-democracy candidates,” said James Pui, a psychology graduate who was elected as an independent candidate. “Now we can coordinate to make changes for the whole of Hong Kong.”
The police have defended their actions as being necessary to break up protests that have often become violent.
The significant political shift has also raised questions about whether the democratic gains will be replicated in legislative elections next year. While the District Council seats are all directly elected, roughly half of all Legislative Council members are indirectly elected through largely pro-China industry and professional groups.
“What we want is hope. Everyone knows Hong Kong’s political institutions are very unfair, it is just a semi-democracy,” said Lee Yue-shun, 26, who also won a seat as a candidate from North Point. “We firmly believe this is not the end.”
The elections for the District Councils, which oversee issues like the installation of bus stop shelters or garbage collection, were once viewed as perfunctory and few people bothered to vote. But this year, as protests raged across Hong Kong, the elections drew a record number of voters.
Sparked by a controversial and now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed defendants to be sent from Hong Kong to mainland China, the protest movement has since June spiralled into a battle for wider democratic freedoms, highlighting deep-seated anxiety and anger about China.
“Everyone is a stakeholder in the game, and they will try to do whatever they can,” said Pui. “That’s what triggered the voters to come out.”
Political change, however, has not come easily.
Jocelyn Chau, a 23-year-old who won in a constituency bordering North Point, and was arrested during one protest, said she has been repeatedly harassed and attacked.
Posters of Chau’s face were plastered around a subway station and a market accusing her of using her looks for political gain, alongside insults such as “super rioter” and “shit for brains”.
She said she had received threatening anonymous phone calls and was punched in the face after giving out a passer-by a campaign leaflet. She posted on social media a video of the attack, which Reuters was unable to independently confirm.
Opposition to the new order is also evident when taking to residents of the district.
Reflecting on the polls after a dim sum breakfast, Frank Chan, an 82-year-old North Point retiree who described himself as pro-government, said the result was “jaw-dropping”.
“I don’t know if these young people have been poisoned or what they have been taught,” said Chan, as he stood on a pier watching boats pass in the harbour. Just down the road, fishmongers hawked their wares along the harbourfront. “I don’t understand the new mindset, these young people are so different from us.”
On a Saturday afternoon this month, the new North Point and Fortress Hill councillors set up street-side tables to hand out calendars and chocolate breakfast cereal, and invite the public to pen Christmas cards for protesters who have been injured or detained.
But while some younger North Point residents stopped to sign cards, not everyone was receptive to the efforts of the newly elected councillors. Discussions with some of the more conservative residents, said Fu, were reminiscent of recent battles in her own family.
“At first my father called the protesters cockroaches but after the election he finally understood that what we are fighting for is democracy,” she said, while taking a short break from the booth.
“And he can accept that we came to Hong Kong for democracy. Otherwise we can just go back to mainland China.”
Additional reporting by Sarah Wu and Sharon Tan; Editing by Philip McClellan