If you’ve been in Central and Hong Kong Station at any time over the holidays, you would probably have seen the massive new Forbidden Palace posters. You might also have noticed a few acts of mini-protest involving the exhibition. Red handprints and tank stickers on moving handrails have made their rounds on news, invoking imagery of the Tiananmen Square massacre, or more broadly the repressive nature of the PRC state. Whether or not that was warranted I will leave to your judgement, but you have to admit that the means of expressing dissent was quite creative.
However, if we’re talking about creative protest, it goes without saying that the Umbrella Movement opened the floodgates for different mediums of protest expression in Hong Kong, from street art to music to film to sculpture. The name “Umbrella Movement” owes itself to the ubiquitous umbrella, thrown into center stage on the night of pepper spray, which then took a life of its own as an icon of resistance. In the months of occupying Admiralty and Mong Kok, physical umbrellas in all their forms have been used as artistic subjects, (street art, banners, post-it walls etc.) or as objects (umbrellas drawn on or decorated with calligraphy, balloon umbrellas, mobiles of origami umbrellas etc.) In the music sphere, there were many derivative works championing freedom and democracy, the most iconic of which being the recreation of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Miserables, “Who Hasn’t Spoken Up Yet?” (試問誰未發聲？). Even after the occupation ended, the Umbrella Movement continued to inspire, spawning documentaries like Yellowing, multiple photobooks, sketches and more.
This blending of art and politics is nothing new. Throughout history, fools, clowns and carnivals have always played a subversive role to established power, while art, culture and creative protest tactics have for centuries served as fuel and foundation for successful social movements across the world. Art and artistic expression serve many functions in political protest, some of them aimed at producing knowledge and solidarity within the group of protesters and others as a means of communicating to those outside what the protest is all about. Music, song, and works of visual representation (theatre, sculpture, paintings etc.) are important in creating and communicating a collective narrative, articulating who we are, where we come from, what we stand for and what we are against.
While Hong Kong society is remarkably divided over its future and its prospects look bleaker by the day, there are still small pockets of opportunity that have made themselves known. The arts have an audience increasingly ready to take in their creations, especially those of a political nature. In the limited cultural environment of Hong Kong, the cultural sphere should take advantage of that, and expand its presence while taking an active stance on Hong Kong’s future.