HONG KONG — The reports started circulating around the gate area and were echoed on social media: Hong Kong International Airport, a major hub in Asia through which thousands of passengers pass each day, might close soon due to ongoing protests inside the terminal.
Soon after, the confusion set in. Airport workers started leaving. Shops pulled down their shutters. The departure screens showed cancellation after cancellation.
Repeated public address announcements said everyone should leave. But how? International airports are not set up for people to leave the gate area once they have passed through security.
Rumours began to spread. Tear gas would be fired in the arrivals hall to clear protesters out. Tear gas had already been fired.
I was waiting to catch my flight home to Malaysia, but no one from my carrier, Malaysian Airlines, was anywhere to be seen.
The sudden closing of one of the world’s busiest airports on Monday afternoon, forced the cancellation of more than 200 flights and left thousands of travellers in limbo. While some flights were able to depart early Tuesday, a fresh wave of protests at the terminal caused another 100 flights to be cancelled and prompted more travel chaos and confusion.
In my area alone on Monday, several hundred people sat or milled about, tapping on their phones, trying to figure out what to do next.
I had arrived in Hong Kong two weeks earlier to cover the ongoing pro-democracy protests as a photographer for The Associated Press. After another weekend of dodging tear gas and dashing around the city as “flash mobs” occupied streets, it was time to go home. Or so I thought.
Protesters had rallied at the airport the three previous days without disrupting operations, and their online message boards indicated they would be back for a fourth on Monday. I checked my luggage at an in-town facility and headed to the airport early to get some photos of the demonstration.
The main terminal was filled with protesters sitting cross-legged on the ground when I arrived at 1:30 p.m. They shouted slogans and wore eye patches — “an eye for an eye” many said, referring to a well-publicized incident in which a female protester was hit in the eye by a projectile, reportedly fired by police. Authorities said they are investigating what happened.
I spent more than an hour taking pictures, then went through immigration and sent my photos to AP editors about 3:15 p.m. All seemed normal, relatively speaking, up to that point.
It was around 4 p.m. that the reports of an airport closing started to circulate. Time to take photos again, this time of people waiting in the gate and duty free areas. They stared at departure sign boards that read cancelled, cancelled, cancelled, all in red, including my 6:35 p.m. flight to Kuala Lumpur.
I lined up at an information counter to find out about my flight. After waiting about 15 minutes, I was told by the woman that she was not responsible for Malaysian Airlines and that I should check back later.
An hour later, another 15-minute wait in line, and still no information.
Some airlines with staff in the gate area began gathering passengers who wanted to leave and escorted them out in groups. There was still no sign of any Malaysian Airlines staff.
By the third time I lined up, there were four to five people working the information booth, including an airport employee tasked with handling Malaysian Airlines. She had no information, though, and recommended that we stay in the gate area, because it could be unsafe in the arrivals hall and we might not get transportation back to town. She also said that we wouldn’t be able to get our checked luggage, because ground staff weren’t working.
I said that I had friends in the arrivals area, and she finally agreed to take me. A few other passengers from my flight decided to stick it out at the gates, despite warnings that no food or drinks were available.
I passed through immigration and when I emerged at arrivals, it was deja vu. A scene similar to the one when I had arrived at the airport five hours earlier: protesters cheering and shouting slogans, though their numbers had dwindled.
It was time to get out my camera and go back to work.
Thian is an Associated Press photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Vincent Thian, The Associated Press