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HONG KONG – It's a protest for political reform — so why are people at the scene worshipping deities, playing pingpong and singing "Happy Birthday"?
As Hong Kong's pro-democracy street protests enter a third week, the civil disobedience movement has given rise to some increasingly bizarre scenes, especially in Mong Kok, a boisterous, seedy district where a haphazard protest camp has attracted a motley cast of characters. Here are just a few of them:
DEITIES AT BARRICADES
At one of the barricades blocking off the Mong Kok protest zone, a bemused crowd is gathering around — not to support the demonstrators, but to gawk at a mini shrine set up for the Chinese folk hero and deity Guan Yu.
The makeshift worship station acquired a roof overnight, and is now complete with fruit and incense offerings.
"If you don't worship him, you may go to the other end of the protest zone. Someone has set up an altar to Jesus there," a demonstrator explained to an agitated woman who was clearly unhappy about the protests taking over her neighborhood.
The shrine is a clever response after several nights of brawling and violent clashes between protesters, police and angry mobs. Mong Kok is a haven for Hong Kong's triads, or organized crime gangs, but neither mobsters nor police would want to offend Guan Yu, a figure adopted by both sides as their guardian deity.
"Someone dreamed this up, built it in a short time, and now look — it's evolved into a temple," said Terry Li, a 27-year-old civil servant marveling at the shrine. "I know Hong Kong people are creative, but I never expected it to be applied to protests like this."
THE BIRTHDAY SONG TACTIC
Who knew singing "Happy Birthday" could be a defense tactic?
Faced with angry residents and local shopkeepers who stop by every once in a while to hurl insults at the camp, the students sometimes break into song to drown out their opponents. Their song of choice: a ridiculously cheerful rendering of "Happy Birthday," which works remarkably well at turning away troublemakers.
The story goes that when a protester inadvertently played the tune on his phone during one vicious shouting match, the crowd spontaneously decided to sing along. That was enough to leave those who had started the ruckus speechless.
THE IKEA FURNITURE MAN
Protesters have come out on the streets night after night, sleeping on mats and cardboard or setting up tents to make sure authorities do not retake the streets overnight.
One man has decided to take it further, bringing a wooden bed complete with sheets and a neatly rolled up duvet. Next to it are tiny Buddha figurines and a small matching bookcase, adorned with a Chinese paperback on economics and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, among other titles.
A protester told reporters he had bought the furniture from Ikea to make the protest zone homier.
'LEFTIST' PINGPONG TABLES?
One of the strangest scenes in Mong Kok this week was the appearance one night of pingpong and mahjong tables on the occupied streets. Videos and photos showed people entertaining themselves at the games, while others laid out food for a hearty outdoors hotpot dinner. Most of the evidence vanished the next day — apparently after protesters complained that the frivolity showed the pro-democracy movement in a bad light.
Police were quick to seize on the episode to condemn the protesters, and a pro-Beijing newspaper put the photos on its front page. "Illegal occupiers are occupying the roads as their living space and playground," said Kong Man-keung, a police spokesman. "These acts are seriously damaging interests of the residents nearby, and are absolutely unacceptable to the general public."
Many in Mong Kok say they have no idea who brought in the furniture, but protesters suspect it was a smear campaign by rivals.
Numerous posters at the scene now warn demonstrators to beware of "leftist" — shorthand for Communist — tactics.
"I want true universal suffrage, not a carnival," one sign read.
Follow Sylvia Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/sylviahui