Hong Kong’s commuters are sharing crowded subway cars with some rarefied company these days: movie stars.
As pro-democracy protests enter their third week, blocking key roads and leaving swathes of the financial center mired in gridlock, action stars, Canto-pop singers and teen heartthrobs are ditching their Lamborghinis and chauffeur-driven Rolls Royces for mass transit.
Soon after students seized the streets Sept. 26 in a campaign for freer elections, Hong Kong’s cell phone-snappers began capturing some of this entertainment capital’s most famous faces among the huddled masses on the Mass Transit Railway, or MTR, the city’s subway.
There -- in goatee, baggy sweatpants and low-slung baseball cap -- is “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” star Chow Yun Fat. There’s television star Jessica Hsuan stepping out of the small screen and through the subway doors. Here’s matinee idol Aaron Kwok -- he sings! he dances! his hair! -- posting a selfie to commemorate his first subway ride in a decade.
“Just realized Connaught Road Central was blocked after I had a haircut in Central. No cabs in sight and my driver was stuck in traffic,” Kwok, star of the 2012 crime thriller “Cold War,” wrote on Instagram. “I’m taking the MTR now! I haven’t been on the subway for 10 years, it’s so much faster than driving my own car.”
Such celebrity sightings are just one of the small ways daily life in Hong Kong has changed amid the most significant political demonstrations since the former British colony was returned to China 17 years ago. Student blockades have relieved roadside pollution, inspired street yoga and turned four-lane highways into downtown jogging paths.
Demonstrators gather outside the Central Government Offices in the Admiralty business district of Hong Kong, on Oct. 11, 2014.
The disruptions have forced a rare mingling of some of Hong Kong’s top earners and regular workers in the developed world’s most unequal economy, which has the highest concentration of multimillionaires even as one in five live in poverty. The power bankers who dwell high above the city in the posh Mid-Levels and even posher Peak district have suddenly found themselves taking daily hikes through protest camps and impromptu political debates.
“The roads are so empty now, it forces me to walk to work every day; I used to cab in,” said Alan Richardson, an investment manager with Samsung Asset Management Ltd. “I don’t eat lunch, so basically I have saved a lot of money.”
Some have found their new, more-pedestrian commutes surprisingly pleasant, especially now that Hong Kong’s summer heat has lost some of its bite.
“In the 16 years here, my walk to work this morning has been my cleanest, healthiest and fastest commute, ever,” said Gilbert Langor, 46, a German options trader who works in Central and lives in the adjacent Wan Chai district.
With intersections shut, tram tracks blocked and some 40 percent of the city’s buses disrupted, those with longer commutes -- celebrities and regular folk alike -- have been forced underground. The MTR Corp. (66) has added trains to handle the spike in passengers.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” star Chow Yun Fat.
Hongkongers have posted snaps of Canto-pop star Alex To, actress Linda Chung, actor Julian Cheung and his actress-singer wife Anita Yuen taking the train.
“This has proven you can lock down the city and we can still live our lives,” said Paul Zimmerman, a district counselor who has campaigned for making Hong Kong more pedestrian friendly. While Zimmerman’s constituents on western Hong Kong Island don’t yet have convenient subway access, he noted that three-quarters of city residents live within a 10-minute walk of an MTR station.
Now straphangers are riding alongside actresses like Hsuan. She posted about her subway trip on the Twitter-like Weibo on Sept. 29, the day after police fired tear gas at protesters and caused crowds to swell in solidarity.
“It’s better to take the subway today,” Hsuan said.