Hong Kong protesters go into creative overdrive
Tear gas canisters billow at her feet. Her right hand holds an umbrella, the other a large black flag bearing the slogan “Free Hong Kong, revolution now” while a gas mask and goggles protect her from the surrounding smoke.
“Lady Liberty Hong Kong”, the four-metre-high statue created by an anonymous group formed on the internet, serves not only as a symbol of Hong Kong’s nearly four months of anti-government protests, but also the upswell of creativity in a city best known for finance and skyscrapers.
She started out as an idea on the Reddit-like forum LIHKG to build a statue that could draw attention to the movement. Hundreds volunteered their time and a crowdfunding campaign was launched. People ranging from welders to 3D printing experts to fashion designers (who sewed her fully functional backpack) built “Lady Liberty” within the space of a week from a design chosen by the group.
“Lady Liberty” is modelled on a young first aider who sustained an eye injury from a suspected police projectile at a protest in August. The helmet, 3M goggles and respirator she wears echo the uniform of frontline protesters, and have become common motifs in much of the protest art produced since July when demonstrations became increasingly violent.
“What you can see in the statue are mundane daily objects for a lot of people. You probably won’t understand why it’s the symbol of a major movement for democracy,” says Flash, spokesman for “Lady Liberty” standing next to the piece at its temporary home at the University of Hong Kong. A team of hikers have since moved her to stand atop Lion Rock, a hill that has come to represent the city’s fortitude.
Anti-government protests have gripped Hong Kong for more than four months. Demonstrations were sparked by a now-withdrawn extradition bill that brought millions of people on to the streets. They have expanded into calls for greater democracy in the former British colony and an inquiry into the police’s use of force. And the masks have taken on greater significance since early October when face coverings at protests were banned.
From Action Man-sized models of protesters, complete with leg hair and their own plastic barricades, to the flurry of posters produced to advertise each march made by a group of self-called “Otaku”, or geeks, Hong Kong’s graphic designers and musicians have gone into creative overdrive to express their discontent. Such a large-scale explosion of public art was last seen five years ago when the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement turned major roads into buzzing community art projects.
But 2019’s art has turned towards more combative themes, such as celebrating the bravery of frontline protesters in their gas masks with distinctive pink filters, says Sampson Wong, an academic and artist. It is also more collaborative in a way that was unimaginable in 2014, reflecting the decentralised nature of the movement — it has no overt leader, meaning anyone online can suggest a project for consideration.
Wong collected more than 1,000 works from the 2014 protest camps to create Umbrella Movement Visual Archive. While those works were mostly focused on peace and love, in line with Hong Kong’s adherence to peaceful protests, the pieces produced in 2019 depict demonstrators in gallant battle poses or batting away tear gas canisters with tennis rackets.
Elements of the 2014 protests such as the “Lennon Wall” of sticky notes bearing pro-democracy slogans, based on a wall of the same name in the Czech Republic, have resurfaced in 2019, but their nature has changed. Protesters started similar walls across the territory to spread their message, but these have become targets for pro-government groups who tear down the posters, Wong explains.
Hongkongers cannot vote for the city’s leader, but they use their freedom of speech to express their frustrations in a creative way, Wong says. Any public blunder made by an official quickly goes viral, and graphic designers create posters that are shared online and pasted up around the city in a matter of hours.
Beyond the use of images to advertise marches, the upswell in art and music has also played an important role in sustaining the months-long campaign.
“People are consciously turning works of art into the act of moving the movement forward,” Wong says. “Every two to three weeks it faces a bottleneck, so every two to three weeks new and creative actions are needed to regain attention.”
“Glory to Hong Kong”, a song written by a musician who goes by the name Thomas dgx yhl, exemplifies this, Wong says. Since its release on LIHKG, it has been sung flashmob-style, accompanied by brass bands in luxury shopping malls in a “de facto form of collective action”.
Thomas wrote the song as the pop hits previously adopted by protesters, such as “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies” by Hong Kong rock band Beyond and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Misérables, which were popular during the Umbrella Movement, felt “soft and not solid”.
“The main difference is that those karaoke songs can’t boost your morale, they can’t build your identity, they can’t unite the people,” he explains.
Many of the artists and musicians creating work for the anti-extradition-bill movement remain anonymous as they believe the protesters’ demands are more important than personal glory, and fear retaliation from the government or attacks from pro-Beijing thugs.
S, a conductor with a non-profit orchestra, brought together 150 musicians and a video crew of nine to produce an orchestral version of “Glory to Hong Kong” that has since racked up 2.6m views on YouTube. Those taking part were eager to contribute their skills to the wider movement, S says.
The atmospheric video shows musicians in the full gear of frontline protesters as tear gas-like smoke wafts over them in a bid to show that, even in a studio, the musicians feel their freedom of expression is being curtailed.
“The message that we want to send out is: what else can artists, musicians, rational, peaceful people do?” he says. “What are the appropriate channels still available to society that can address our grievances?”
For some, the protests have meant less time to create. Cantopop star Denise Ho was a vocal supporter of the 2014 Umbrella Movement and has become a de facto international spokeswoman for the latest Hong Kong protesters. Ho testified before the United Nations in Geneva on the situation, and in front of US Congress alongside pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong. While she now has little time to dedicate to music, she believes the role of art in the movement should not be overlooked.
“You really cannot censor the mind, you cannot censor creativity. In these times of the internet, some sort of piece of art or piece of music or movie that comes out into the world, they cannot delete it completely,” she says.
Unfortunately for “Lady Liberty”, she appears to have become victim to opponents of the movement a day after reaching her new hilltop home. Photographs showed the statue lying on the edge of a cliff and splashed with red paint.