HONG KONG – By road, the little apartments are nearly an hour from central Hong Kong and the protests that have swept through it. Twice that long if you take the subway, which is how most people commute from places like Tuen Mun, a cluster of high-rise apartments built in a once-rural corner of Hong Kong's sprawling New Territories.
But the apartments are also affordable, at least in the way that any real estate can be affordable in one of the world's most expensive cities. The cheapest sell for 2.9 million Hong Kong dollars, or about $375,000. They are slightly larger than the average American kitchen. Young couples are desperate to buy them.
So when student-led pro-democracy protests began roiling Hong Kong two weeks ago, realtors saw a reflection of something else: the frustrations of a generation increasingly unable to afford the lives their parents had.
"They want to vent their anger. Their voice was not heard in the past," said Adam Pang, a real estate salesman in Tuen Mun, one of nearly a dozen New Towns built over the past few decades to try to relieve the immense housing pressure in this former British colony of 7 million people.
In this city built on commerce, the political protests have churned up deeper questions, exposing a series of economic divides and deep unease over whether the territory's unique identity can survive in China's ever-growing shadow.
The protesters' central demand is the right to freely choose Hong Kong's top official in inaugural 2017 elections, as outlined in the mini-constitution that took effect when Hong Kong returned to China's control in 1997. But while Beijing allows far more freedom in Hong Kong than it does on the mainland, it is not leaving the territory's' leadership in the hands of voters, insisting that candidates for the chief executive position first be screened — as they are now — by a committee dominated by the territory's pro-China elite.
It's a standoff that has brought tens of thousands of demonstrators into Hong Kong's streets, occupying some of the city's busiest roads.
If they don't get what they want, "then we'll remain here, and we'll see who has the most patience," said Veronica Chan, a 21-year-old marketing student who has spent weeks at the largest protest site, on the edges of Hong Kong's financial district.
But look a little deeper, talk to people across Hong Kong, and other fault lines quickly emerge.
A few blocks away, in an upscale bar in the financial district, a young investment banker in a pinstriped suit sipped his whiskey and talked about the protests.
"What this is really about is Hong Kong people refusing to acknowledge they are Chinese," said Raymond Tam, who co-owns the bar with friends. "It's quite stupid. Hong Kong and China are like a quarreling couple."
The days are gone when Hong Kong was the region's dominant economy, when British bankers could look dismissively across the border into a China mired in poverty. These days, it's often Chinese money that keeps the bankers in Hong Kong working. Tam said that as much as 80 percent of his company's business — stock market listings, mergers, stock trading — now involve clients in mainland China.
While the protests have scared away potential clients, Tam said he still finds himself sympathizing with demonstrators "just fighting for their right to speak out."
Because in Hong Kong, the hand of Beijing can feel very heavy.
"There's still a huge difference in our culture," he said.
It's a statement heard repeatedly across Hong Kong, a city with the anxious pride of a down-at-the-heels aristocrat remembering the good old days. Hong Kong is, they will tell you here, a place that celebrates freedom and the rule of law, a place where orderliness is sacrosanct, diversity is welcome and protesters pick up their litter.
It is not a place for violence. So the territory was stunned when police responded one night by launching volleys of tear gas at protesters.
There were few serious injuries in the clash. But the footage of tear gas clouds enveloping groups of young people was met with fury in Hong Kong, sending far more demonstrators into the streets.
"This shocked and horrified the Hong Kong people," said Emily Lau, a prominent pro-democracy legislator. "We are not used to authorities using that sort of force."
Lau sees Hong Kong's identity rooted in its history as a haven for people fleeing the chaos of the Chinese civil war and Maoist repression.
"This is a place of migrants," she said, a harbor of refugee pragmatism where even protesters insist they don't want a revolution.
But that culture, nearly everyone agrees, is changing, slowly being reshaped by Chinese money and Beijing's power.
Wealthy tourists from mainland China are regularly dismissed here as loutish boors who cut in line, spit constantly and flaunt their newfound wealth with newfound arrogance.
To the people of Hong Kong, the rich shoppers are "wong chung" — locusts — who buy whatever they can.
"They are like the locusts, destroying everything in the fields," said Chan, the protesting student.
Like many in Hong Kong, she worries how Mandarin, the dominant language of mainland China, has been edging aside Cantonese, the dialect of the territory. She worries how the traditional Chinese writing characters used here are being slowly pushed aside by the simplified characters long favored by Beijing.
Always, though, questions of identity now brush against financial worries. That's little surprise in a place where a young college graduate earns about $25,000 a year, but a middling apartment can easily sell for $1,000 per square foot.
Samuel Kwok, who has two children in college, was protesting on a recent day in the gritty Kowloon neighborhood of Mong Kok.
"Once they graduate, they have few opportunities," Kwok said of his children. "Hong Kong is just too small and it's becoming harder and harder to make a living."
He doesn't worry about the rich Chinese. Instead, he fears poor Chinese strivers who cross into Hong Kong in search of work, further driving up rents.
"The Hong Kong government won't do anything about it because the borders are controlled by Beijing," he said.
On the far side of Hong Kong, in a hole-in-the-wall shop dispensing cigarettes and cold drinks, Chan Wing Kei stopped for a chat with the owner and a Blue Girl beer.
The protesters, said Chan, have no idea how easy they have it. He grew up in Yuen Long when it was still mostly farmland, when his parents struggled to feed their children and there was rarely money for school. Today, Yuen Long is another New Town, a thicket of high-rises home to more than 400,000 people.
His son, Chan said, shouldn't even think of joining the protests.
"I'll beat him if he says he's going," said Chan. "These protesters are damaging the financial industry, the heart of Hong Kong."
Down on the edge of the financial district, though, thousands of people flooded into the protest site Friday night, one day after the government called off talks with student leaders.
The protesters listen to speeches calling for democracy, relax with friends and do homework in study areas built beside concrete safety walls.
Banners in Chinese and English proclaim their goals: "Democracy!" ''Embrace Freedom in Wind and Rain," ''Everyone Could Be Batman."
The largest poster, though, looks down on the scene from the side of a skyscraper.
It's an ad for Piaget, the high-end watchmaker. "Perfection in Life," it proclaims. The poster shows a watch that costs more than $30,000.
Associated Press writers Kelvin Chan and Joanna Chiu contributed to this report.
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