Students walk next to the iconic lion statue in front of the international HSBC Bank branch that was painted with red paint. Picture: Vincent Yu/AP

Hong Kong - The iconic bronze lions that have "guarded" the HSBC head office in Hong Kong since the 1930s were covered-up by large boxes on Friday, awaiting repairs after being vandalized and set alight during a chaotic first protest of the year.

The 85-year-old pair of lions once stood outside the bank's headquarters in Shanghai in the 1920s, where they were affectionately nicknamed Stephen and Stitt after the bank's managers.

"It's so sad. The lions have withstood the Japanese occupation, but not this. It makes me want to cry," said Caroline Collins, a 46-year-old British woman who has lived in Hong Kong her whole life.

HSBC became the target of anti-government demonstrators after the bank froze an account being used by a group called Spark Alliance, who claim to help cover the legal costs of protesters under arrest.

The lion statue in front of the international HSBC Bank branch is covered with red paint. A huge crowd gathered in Hong Kong for an annual New Year's Day protest march as the months-long pro-democracy movement extends into 2020. Picture: Vincent Yu/AP

Police arrested three men and one woman, aged between 17 and 50, before the Christmas holiday, following an in-depth investigation into the group.

Protestors vandalize a lion statue in front of the HSBC branch in Hong Kong on January 1, 2020. Picture: Lee Jin-man/AP

The investigation led to assets worth 70 million Hong Kong dollars (9 million US dollars) being frozen, and 130,000 dollars in cash seized.

A worker cleans the iconic lion statue in front of the international HSBC Bank branch that was daubed with red paint on New Year's Day. Picture: Vincent Yu/AP

Police also confiscated protective equipment, similar to what has become standard attire at the protests, and weapons such as shooting arrows and laser pens.

Protesters, lawmakers and other pro-democracy activists have expressed support for the group on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

dpa