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The Art of Protest: Resistance and Persistence in Hong Kong 

Arts & Culture | September 30, 2019

This summer, as Tufts senior and Hong Kong native Georgette Koo wandered through the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district, she found herself immersed in a tunnel of Post-it notes. Each Post-it was written by a different person and declared a message of support for the anti-extradition movement that has exploded in Hong Kong over the last few months.

Frequently called Lennon Walls, these Post-its have emerged all around Hong Kong in support of the protesters. As mentioned in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) the Lennon Walls were inspired by anti-communist protest art that appeared in Prague before the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The Lennon Walls first appeared in Hong Kong during the city’s Umbrella Movement in 2014. Much like the current protests in Hong Kong, the Umbrella Movement began as a reaction to the Chinese government’s interference with Hong Kong’s autonomy. After China issued a decision on Sept. 26, 2014 to alter Hong Kong’s electoral process and implement a China-facilitated pre-screening of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (Hong Kong’s head of government) candidates, the city broke out into massive student-led strikes. Despite the protests, Hong Kong’s electoral system was changed, and the Chinese government still exercises their power to filter Hong Kong’s pool of candidates.

This summer, the Hong Kong government proposed its plan for a China-Hong Kong extradition bill that would make it possible for Hong Kong citizens to be detained and tried in the Chinese mainland. In response, the people of Hong Kong have mobilized once again to create the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement, also known as the Anti-ELAB movement. Anti-ELAB demonstrations have borrowed many concepts from the Umbrella Movement, which suggests a continuity between the two movements. But the Anti-ELAB protesters have also broadened the original demonstrators’ reach within the city. 

During the Umbrella Movement, the SCMP reported that there were three major Lennon walls which were all located in Hong Kong’s district of Admiralty. The walls came to be seen as a physical expression of solidarity and encouragement. Now, five years later, as Hongkongers continue to fight against the Chinese government’s encroachment on their civil liberties, the Lennon Walls have reemerged in a significant way.

After the anti-extradition bill protests began on June 9  this summer, a Lennon Wall reappeared in front of the Hong Kong Government Central office, just as it did in 2014. However, as the protests continued and the movement expanded far beyond anti-extradition, the Lennon Walls took over the city. The walls are now  recorded in as many as 150 different locations all over the city. There have been many recreations of these murals around the world, in places such as Toronto, Tokyo, and London. Messages of solidarity for the protesters have also been placed on the original Lennon Wall in Prague. 

The murals have made a significant impact on their observers. “I remember walking through the bridges [in Hong Kong], when you go to International Finance Center from the MTR [Hong Kong’s public transit] station,” recalled Koo. “I would get goosebumps every time because I felt like there were all these people standing next to me and saying these things. It created this sense of community and unity because there were so many people behind this very simple artwork.”  

The rapid spread of the Lennon Walls is just one of the many ways that the protesters have used art to energize Hongkongers, spread their message, and keep the movement alive. Photojournalist Aidan Marzo, who has been on the front lines of many of the protests this summer, pointed to the dissemination of protest art throughout Hong Kong and the many different purposes that it serves. 

“Protesters often hide behind artwork to mask their identity if they’re being filmed or photographed,” Marzo stated. “Artwork serves a dual purpose in that it allows protesters to show exactly what they’re fighting for, while also protecting their identity at the same time.” 

Anti-ELAB protesters have also been using artwork to spread information about the dates, locations, and times of protests by AirDropping images to other commuters’ phones on the MTR. Koo, whose father received many of these AirDropped images on his commute to and from work explained, “They’re usually really simple slogans pasted over an image of protesters or some sort of logo representing the democratic party.” Anti-ELAB protesters have been harnessing Hong Kong’s culture of technological interconnectedness to circulate information regarding the movement, keeping Hong Kong citizens involved and aware.

In addition to Anti-ELAB artwork that serves to provide details about the protests, new artwork is constantly appearing. Marzo, who has been trying to catalogue and collect as many pieces of art as he can, stated, “I actually can’t believe how creative and artistic the protesters are here. It seems every time I go outside, I spot new artwork, posters, and symbols.” 

One of the symbols that Marzo highlighted is the protest flag that has become synonymous with the movement. Created by an anonymous student-led protest art collective in Hong Kong, the artists reimagined Hong Kong’s official flag by creating a blood-soaked and shriveled version of Hong Kong’s iconic Bauhinia flower. The flower is placed at the center of a black background, the unofficial color of the protesters. This flag has become one of the seminal symbols that have emerged during the protests and has been widely circulated online as well as on the streets of Hong Kong.

The protests did not slow down after Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, withdrew the China-Hong Kong extradition bill at the beginning of September. Ever since, the Anti-ELAB movement has moved far beyond the issue of extradition. At the time of publication, the movement had just reached its 15th consecutive week of protests. As the movement forges on, protesters are continuing to use resistance art in new and inventive ways to reflect the spirit of the people of Hong Kong. 

Marzo expressed his amazement at the passion and unity of the protestors. “Being on the ground, you really get to see how people care for one another, even though no one knows each others’ identities. Strangers and shopkeepers will hand out water and umbrellas to everyone, including the press! It doesn’t matter who you are, what your job is or where you live; everyone tries to contribute to the cause.”