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Six hours stuck at the Hong Kong airport

After thousands of passengers got caught behind a protest, one man become an everyday hero

Six hours stuck at the Hong Kong airport

People wait at the international airport in Hong Kong on Sept 1. (ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sept. 1, I landed at Hong Kong International Airport after a 15-hour flight, looking forward to a hot shower and a dim sum dinner. Instead, I got stuck there for six hours. 

For several months, pro-democracy protesters have been rallying against the government. What started out as peaceful protests quickly escalated into violent confrontations with the police. These protesters have targeted the Hong Kong International Airport and several mass transit stations, at one point causing hundreds of canceled flights. 

The Sunday I chose to fly to Hong Kong, they targeted the airport again. Hundreds of protesters gathered at the airport bus terminal that afternoon, chanting “Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!” Soon after, officials suspended certain train and bus services connected to the airport, and police piled into the area.

By the time my flight arrived at the airport at 6 p.m., officials had stopped all traffic between the city and the airport. Riot police had marched in, and protesters had pushed everything they could find—from stolen railings to trolleys—to block police from the airport. Thousands of people were stranded. Some passengers desperate to catch their flight even dragged their luggage across the 10-mile bridge to the airport.

I asked a security official at the airport how I could get out of there, and the guy shrugged. “You can wait like the rest of them,” he said, pointing at the long lines of people queued to nowhere. 

“Can I take taxi or Uber?” I said, and he shook his head: “No way out right now. You just wait.”

I tried to get something to eat at a 7-Eleven at the terminal, but the store was so crowded with people that elbows jabbed me in the ribs and suitcases ran over my feet several times. Finally, I heard a buzz sweeping through the crowd that the bus terminal had opened up, so I hurried over—along with hundreds of other people. Within seconds, dozens more people and their giant suitcases had thronged behind me. I was stuck like a grain of rice in a rice bag.

So there I was, smashed against sticky bodies and luggage in a sweltering humidity, hoping against hope that I would make it to my hotel soon. So many people were squashed together that nobody knew where the line started or ended, or even which line belonged to which bus service. From time to time, the heavens unleashed downpours of rain. Some people plucked out their umbrellas, almost poking eyeballs out, while the other poor unprepared folks stood soaking up the rain, unable to move more than an inch due to the crowds.

I was lucky enough to be standing under a roof, but I still felt miserable. I couldn’t move, my bladder was swelling, I had nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and no place to sit. Everyone stood steaming in the communal fumes of body odor, frustration, and exhaustion. 

Some dealt with the situation with humor. One elderly woman joked, “I should pretend to faint. The quickest way out of here is in an ambulance.” 

Others reacted with anger. One man began screaming in Cantonese, waving his hands in the air as though he was slapping an invisible person. 

Most were resigned. A couple leaned on each other and shut their eyes for a nap while standing up, some stared into space, and others watched dramas on their cell phones. 

Sophia Lee

Inside the Hong Kong International Airport on Sept. 1. (Sophia Lee)

Then one young man decided to lead. He was a stout American man with a crew cut and a blue J.P. Morgan T-shirt. Seeing the mass of human bodies bunched together like grapes, he stepped up on a metal rail and yelled in a booming voice, “Everyone! We need to divide into the proper lines! Bus A10, you line up here! Bus A22, you stay in a line here! And Bus A12, you’re not supposed to be here! You can move along to the other side of the road!” 

Dazed eyes fluttered alive, and people began shifting. Like Moses parting the sea, the young man helped divide and organize people into their proper lines. He ripped pages out of a notebook, wrote bus numbers on them in big letters, and instructed individuals to hold them up so people knew where to go. A middle-aged man in a suit, seeing the efficiency of this new system, began yelling instructions in Cantonese as well. In about half an hour, we transformed from a mashed-up ball of sweaty, immobile bodies into a series of neat lines trailing toward different bus services, where buses gathered up load after load of travelers.

The Cantonese-speaking man then raised his palms above his head and clapped loudly, pointing at the American man. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I got the gist: In the midst of all this chaos, here’s our everyday hero! Everyone else at the bus terminal also began applauding the guy, who nodded his appreciation and blushed. At a time when there was no leader, one nameless stranger stepped up and into the role.


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  • Janet B
    Posted: Mon, 09/16/2019 06:45 pm

    Well, done, Sophia! Your words painted such a picture!

    And well done, stranger in a foreign land, good and faithful servant!!