Hong Kong: The Art of Protest

Hong Kong’s protests have inspired an explosion of new work from our city’s talented graphic artists. Since the first marches started happening in June 2019, poster protest art has been one of the main channels of communication and creativity.

Posters serve an immediate need for the protest movement. They announce and give the details of an increasingly busy schedule of gatherings, demonstrations, and strikes. But they are much more than just utilitarian. Like the best creative advertising, they tap into Hong Kong’s cultural conversation; distilling ideas, feelings, and the mood of the street into moving and iconic visual images. What’s amazing is that these powerful images are created quite literally on overnight deadline as artists respond instantly to changing situations and events.

Badiucao, a Chinese graphic artist based in Australia, has emerged as one of the stars of the Hong Kong protest artists, but most of the image makers are as anonymous as the masked protesters themselves. The graphic styles are incredibly varied, and draw from everything from hyper-realism and Socialist propaganda to cartoons (many of the posters draw heavily on local culture, puns and jokes) and collage.

Social revolutions throughout history have always produced a rich legacy of graphic political art. What sets this generation of Hong Kong poster artists apart from their predecessors in 19th and 20th century Europe and Latin America is that while the poster styles are grounded in ‘old-fashioned’ techniques like drawing, printing, painting and lithography, few of these posters ever actually appears printed on paper. They fly from smartphone to computer as pixel images over social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and Telegram.

It’s hard to keep up with the energetic, non-stop flow of Hong Kong protest art images, but we’ve gathered some of our favorites here. A wander through this gallery will give you what you might miss if you’ve been following the protests only via the headlines: A glimpse into the irrepressible soul, spirit, and humor of Hong Kong.

We share your dream
We leave together!
Heartless

Above (1, 2, 3 ):

1.”We also share a dream with you.”

This powerful image from early June, the beginning of the protests, commemorates the young man who fell from an overhead bridge and died as he was trying to hang a protest banner. Note that the protesters at the bottom are not wearing helmets or gas masks. Protective equipment only begins to appear in later images, as the police began firing tear gas and rubber bullets at the protesters.

 

2. “We Leave Together!!!”

This emotional illustration commemorates the Siege of Legco on July 1st, the day that protesters stormed into the empty legislative council building in Hong Kong’s Government complex. As the police began to encircle the building, a few of the protesters insisted on staying inside, where they certainly would have been arrested and possibly beaten. A group of protesters ran in and physically pulled the stragglers out to safety, shouting “Leave Together”. That cry would be heard over and over again in the coming weeks, as protesters adopted a “Be Water” strategy of retreat and regroup.

 

3. “Heartless”

One of Badiucao’s best images from the early days of the protests. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, has been widely blamed by all sides for creating the situation that led to the protests and then making things worse by refusing to listen or compromise on any of Hong Konger’s demands. One of her infamous remarks is that the protesters were disobedient children who she was obliged to discipline. The day after this remark, Badiucao portrayed Lam in the pose of Michaelangelo’s Pieta, but with the words “Heartless” in English and Chinese superimposed. The cracked glass is reference to the broken windows in the Legco building.

Right behind you
Umbrella Movement lives on
Laser Stargazing

(Above 1, 2, 3)

1. “Look Back: We’re all right behind you”

In June, many Hong Kong’s social workers expressed worry about the stress faced by young protesters after several of them committed suicide. Support groups reached out, and counselor-staffed hotlines spread their contact numbers over social media. This poster appeared online at just this moment, to drive away despair with a sense of community. The protester in the foreground is supported by a multitude of others behind. They may not be visible, they may be in shadow, but they are there to comfort. You are not alone.

 

2. The Eternal Umbrella

The yellow umbrella is the well-known symbol of 2014’s Occupy Movement, the precursor to the current Hong Kong protests. The umbrella is a practical device for Hong Kong protesters; it protects you from the driving hot sun and inevitable sudden downpours as you march. In this poster, the massed, angled umbrellas suggest a different form of protection: from objects and pepper spray fired by the police in the event of a scuffle. (Which in fact did occur at the march in Shatin, New Territories, that’s announced in this poster). A strong and colorful symbol, umbrellas are a popular motif with today’s Hong Kong poster artists, a visual marker of the continuity of the protest movement in Hong Kong.

 

3. Laser Stargazing

As the protests continued into July and then August, Hong Kong’s police force became a recurring topic and target of the poster artists. This work, created instantly overnight, is a response to the arrest of Keith Fong,president of Hong Kong Baptist University’s Student Union. Fong was nabbed in Sham Shui Po, a district well known for its bazaar of discounted electronics and gadgets, as he was purchasing a laser pointer. The police accused him of possessing a deadly weapon; the student responded that he was planning to use it for stargazing. As it happens, the following day was a Chinese calendar holiday that’s a bit like Valentine’s Day, where groups commonly gather to do just that. Outraged by the ridiculous arrest and categorization of laser pointers as deadly weapons, groups of protesters organized a flash “light show” outside the Hong Kong Space Museum the next day. This illustration pulls together the traditional Chinese stargazing holiday with a little touch of Star Wars in the mix for a beautiful and memorable image.

Black Cops, Oppose Extradition
Black Cops, Oppose Extradition
Let the ambulance through!
Let the ambulance through!

Above (1,2)

1.Brush Strokes and Bold Fonts

Calligraphy has always taken pride of place in poster art. In Hong Kong, a bilingual city, artists have two bold writing systems to work with. This composition in grey, black and yellow combines Chinese character protest slogans (“black (corrupt) police”, “oppose extradition”) with an English slogan deftly faded in the background wallpaper. (The “Popo” are the police, in local slang). The boldness of colors and use of obscenity reflect the increasing tension on the streets as July headed into August.

 

2.Photorealism

One of the strongest images from the largest-ever Hong Kong street demonstration on June 16th is the parting of the crowds (which numbered almost 2 million). A video camera shot the river-like movement of Hong Kong protesters as they made way for an ambulance. It was a stunning display of the Hong Kong ethos, and a source of pride for the protesters. Here that moment is immortalized/commemorated in a painting that freeze-frames the dramatic overhead shot from the original viral video.

It's a propitious day for a strike
Stars of HK Govt's Cantonese Opera
McDonald's Logo Mashup

(Above, 1,2,3)

Hong Kong Humor

Hong Kongers are famous for a finely honed, often ribald, sense of humor that is built into our multi-tonal language, Cantonese. (One non-Canto speaking reporter recently remarked on Twitter that he’s learned about twenty different Cantonese slang words since the protests began, and they all mean penis!)

 

This group of posters takes well-known Hong Kong Chinese visual tropes–and one international one–to produce memorable graphics that get the message across while making inside jokes guaranteed to produce a chuckle.

Our favorite is the first, a finely rendered and detailed parody of the “Gauh Lik” or Chinese traditional Lunar calendar. These calendars tell you more than what day it is–they detail what you should do, what you should avoid, give you advice and lucky numbers. This calendar is meant to encourage people to join the general strike on August 5th–and of course it is a very propitious day for umbrellas and helmets (but a bad day to shop or work!). For Hong Kong Chinese readers, the page is a delight of puns and in-jokes: the more you look the more there is to chuckle about. Tucked cleverly into the lists of numbers, warnings and advisories are the “Five Demands” set by protesters.

The second image parodies a common Hong Kong sight–the colorful posters slapped up on poles and in the streets that advertise Cantonese opera performances, mainly to an elderly, conservative audience. The “stars” of this opera, though are Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive, and Steven Lo, the Chief of Police, whose faces have been superimposed on the lead actors. The motif no doubt was inspired by the location of this protest–it’s a march from Victoria Park to North Point, home of the Sunbeam Theater, the most popular venue for Cantonese opera in Hong Kong.

Borrowing (and twisting) a slogan from English language advertising, the final poster is not only a clever expropriation of McDonald’s slogan to promote the general strike on August 5th–it is also a nod to the protesters’ favorite fast food chain. McDonald’s is often the only food place open late where protesters gather; and when volunteers donate food on the spot to hungry demonstrators, it is usually in the form of a McD’s fast food burger. (As a company dedicated to bringing our guests the best of authentic Hong Kong culture and food, this pains us no end! But all revolutions demand sacrifice.)