Nearly 3000 protesters waving signs reading "Junk the WTO" and "Life is not for sale" marched in a carnival atmosphere in the shade of skyscrapers in one of the world's main financial centres on Sunday.
About 10,000 activists are expected to converge on Hong Kong as the city holds a pivotal ministerial meeting
from 13-18 December in an effort to get stalled global trade talks back on track.
"We feel very frustrated with multinational enterprises," said Kenzo Sasaki, owner of a 20-cow dairy farm north of Tokyo who led a group of Japanese farmers wearing Samurai clothing.
"Our main message is for food sovereignty. Junk the WTO."
Supporters of the talks say a trade deal could generate billions of dollars in benefits and possibly lift millions out of poverty, but many opponents say it would largely benefit richer nations at the expense of developing countries.
Police in place
Protesters will be following the meeting's every move and will include an estimated 1500 South Korean workers, students and farmers, who are among the most militant anti-globalisation activists in Asia.
Worried about a repeat of the violence that marred trade meetings in Cancun and Seattle, police stepped up patrols on Sunday near the Hong Kong Convention Centre, the venue of the meeting on the city's famous harbour front.
Protesters say the WTO has failed
to lift the poor out of poverty
Work crews have glued down loose pavement stones in the area and welded shut sewer grates to prevent protesters from using them as projectiles.
Pedestrian overpasses have been shrouded in mesh so nothing can be thrown onto the streets below.
Elizabeth Tang, head of the Hong Kong Peoples' Alliance, coordinating the demonstrations, said she expected any violence to be on a very small-scale and easily handled by police.
"People all over the world are feeling that the WTO and the way it has been functioning so far has failed to lift the poor out of poverty," Tang said.
Han Dongfang, a fellow marcher who led workers at the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protest, said China was richer for joining the WTO in 2001, but workers' rights had languished.
"The WTO is a double-edged sword for China," said Han, who broadcasts on a Hong Kong radio show beamed into mainland China.
"The WTO is a double-edged sword for China. Chinese workers have no right to organise unions, so how can you protect yourself or get benefits"
"Chinese workers have no right to organise unions, so how can you protect yourself or get benefits?"
Nearby, a group of workers from Taiwan sang the communist anthem, the Internationale.
Several members of non-governmental organisations from the Philippines were delayed at Hong Kong airport last week, a move protest organisers branded a form of harassment.
Others have reported trouble in getting visas, and some say hotels cancelled reservations because the would-be guests were known radicals.
Police rate the chances of public disorder as high and say the possibility of terrorist attacks is moderate, although they add there have been no specific threats. Hospitals have been put on high alert and many schools in the area will shut during the talks.
Protests at a WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999 descended into chaos, with rioters smashing windows of shops and throwing rocks at police.
In the Mexican resort town of Cancun, where the WTO met in 2003, a South Korean farmer killed himself in protest.
The WTO talks could be decisive. Two of the last three WTO ministerial conferences ended in bitter disarray, and a further setback could be fatal for the chances of negotiating a new treaty by next year to tear down barriers to world trade.