Massive crowds gather in Hong Kong for iPhone 4S launch

November 10, 2011: 3:59 PM ET

Police were called in Wednesday to restore order after fighting broke out

Funneling line-sitters into holding pens. Video: Andrew Leyden

"I can't begin to accurately describe the scene on the walkways outside the Hong Kong Apple Store."

So begins the dispatch by Penguin Six's Andrew Leyden writing 24 hours before the first scheduled launch of Apple's (AAPL) iPhone 4S in China.

According to Leyden, police broke up a disorganized mob of 400 line sitters Wednesday night amid rising tensions and scattered fighting. On Thursday, police and security officials, using "crush barricades," forced the crowd into a series of 45 holding pens of 20 sitters each.

"The scene is pretty surreal," Leyden writes. "These are not 'Apple Fanboys' by any stretch, but low income migrant workers from places like Pakistan, Indonesia, etc.  There are men, women, old grandmothers, even some infant babies who are bundled up tight for the long night ahead.  There are also plenty of wannabe-Triad boys, gathered together with funky haircuts and tattoos, many of them with their faces covered by surgical masks (and it's not because they have a cold). Each iPhone they are able to buy will bring a profit of about $100US, which is the same as a week's wages in some of the lower income jobs in Hong Kong. If the limit is 5 iPhones per person, they'll each clear a month's worth of work so you begin to understand while they are willing to sleep outside all night."

"I'd be shocked ," he concludes, "if the PTU Riot Police is not deployed tomorrow.  Should Apple run out of phones, as it appears likely, I would not want to be anywhere near that walkway when the line sitters are told the bad news.  'Ugly' is too polite a word for that scene."

Below: Leyden's video of Thursday's crowd being funneled into holding pens. Note the large man in the white cap directing traffic. Want to bet he works for Apple?

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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