The police water cannon rolled ahead of rows of hundreds of baton-wielding police, extinguishing flaming barricades that in some cases continued to reignite as police vans drove through.
Molotov cocktails were thrown by frontline protesters, including an incident during which the crude petrol bombs were thrown into Wanchai MTR station where police special forces or raptors were waiting inside. Police also fired tear gas out from MTR stations, which were shut down.
After police had cleared Hennessy Road – the major east-west artery through the city that tens of thousands of protesters had earlier marched along carrying small paper origami cranes and international flags – residents came down from apartments at the Canal Road overpass to heckle police.
Police fired pepper spray at journalists as riot police retreated into a dozen vans in the face of the hostile residents. Police drove away before 9pm, but they soon returned back in even greater numbers, firing tear gas to scatter hundreds of residents and protesters.
A nearby taxi was vandalised after protesters reportedly accused its driver of trying to run a person over. Starbucks outlets along the road were defaced with graffiti as part of a protest against the Hong Kong franchise owner, Maxim’s, whose tycoon family has lobbied the United Nations against the democracy protesters.
The entrances to two MTR stations at Wanchai and Causeway Bay were burnt by protester fires.
A 39-year-old Indonesian journalist, Veby Mega, was among 25 people hospitalised after she was hit in the eye by a police bean-bag or rubber bullet round at Wanchai. She was reported to be in a serious condition. Radio Television Hong Kong, the public broadcaster, issued a statement condemning police for hitting one of its reporters with a baton.
A prominent social worker and union chief, Hui Lai-ming, pushed to the ground and arrested while seeking the details of protesters arrested at Admiralty.
In a statement issued after midnight, police confirmed a live bullet had been fired by a plainclothes officer.
“At about 5.30pm, while executing duties near Wan Chai MTR Station, some police officers were surrounded and attacked by a large group of violent protesters. With their lives under serious threat, an officer fired one warning shot into the sky to protect their own safety,” the statement said.
An opposition party politician, Eddy Chu, was pepper sprayed in the face at close range by police even before the rally had started at the Causeway Bay shopping area.
In a show of force, police had massed outside department stores in Causeway Bay on Sunday afternoon. In a bid to scare protesters off the streets, they fired large volumes of tear gas at 2.30pm – the designated march starting time – at protesters, shoppers and the housekeepers who traditionally take Sunday as their day out.
The new tactic failed to deter tens of thousands of people from marching. The march had failed to gain prior authorisation from police, who have been increasingly rejecting requests for democracy rallies as the October 1 anniversary nears.
Despite the heated scenes on the frontline, the majority of protesters restrained themselves to chanting and calling for freedom for Hong Kong. They included many middle-aged and elderly residents.
Mrs Chen, 58, a civil servant, said the police had appeared to try to scare the older protesters into leaving early, but she and her husband had been determined to stay on the street.
“All Hong Kong people enjoy global values, but China wants to restrict us. We have to stand up – there is no other way out,” she said on Hennessy Road, clapping as young protesters in black walked past towards Admiralty.
In Beijing, meanwhile, the 70th anniversary celebrations began with Chinese President Xi Jinping awarding a medal to Tung Chee-hwa, the first Hong Kong chief executive appointed by Beijing after the handover from the UK.
The Hong Kong protesters are demanding the government uphold the promise of universal suffrage in the election of the chief executive, which is written into Hong Kong’s Basic Law. The government on Saturday said calm was needed before democratic reforms, if approved by Beijing, could start.
Beijing in 2014 insisted it should pre-vet any candidates for chief executive.
Shortly before midnight on Sunday, the government released a statement condemning the acts of “radical protesters”.
Kirsty Needham is China Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.