By Noah Shusterman
The protests in Hong Kong began in June and spread quickly. So did the response from the police. Since then, politics have been everywhere: on the news, in daily conversations, in the constant updating of which train lines are running. Politics have been all over the walls of Hong Kong too – including the relatively quiet areas of the New Territories where I live. “Relatively” is the key term here – the population density here in the Shing Mun River Valley is well beyond anything folks from the US are used to. There are people everywhere, and tons of commercial activity. At night, the paths along the waterfront bristle with energy. Yet it’s not the central business district that Hong Kong Island or parts of Kowloon are. It’s not central for much of everything. And it wasn’t much for politics until this past summer. Word that there were posters in a nearby pedestrian tunnel last June was a sign that something really was changing – really? There? Now there’s a cycle taking place in that pedestrian tunnel, like everywhere else around here: a round of graffiti or postering, then a round of cleanup, then the whole thing starts again.
The politicization of daily life has been strong since June and remains strong now. Things did come to a head in November, when – among other things – my campus became the site of a standoff between students and protesters on one side and the Hong Kong police on the other. The students barricaded the campus for several days. Police fired tear gas into the campus, while students threw Molotov cocktails down onto the police. The quiet, out-of-the-way university where I worked was suddenly the center of attention of the international media. There were photos in the New York Times of buildings I’d known for years. Politics didn’t come here, until it did. And when it did, it took over the walls, and much of the ground as well.
I didn’t do anything special to get these photos. I took them while living a life that was, as much as possible during the upheavals, basically my normal everyday life. I teach in the history department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong – CUHK, or just CU – in the Shatin District of the New Territories. We live just a few kilometers from campus, so it was easy enough to get there during the standoff, when public transportation was shut down and cars could not go through. I took two trips to campus then. My hope was to help somehow – but, like the rest of the CU faculty, I failed on that count. A number of the photos here are from those two trips, though I avoided taking photos that would include the protesters themselves. As for the rest of the photos, most are of places that many other residents of the New Territories also go. I’m a runner, so I probably see more of them than other people do, but I don’t see anything different. I go through the tunnels and underpasses of the city that, before, were of little interest other than for getting from one side of a highway to the other. Since the summer, they’ve been full of spray-painted slogans and glued-on posters. (I’ve never seen people doing the spray painting. I have seen people gluing on the posters – including students still in their uniforms).
A few slogans have dominated since the start, especially “Restore Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times”; and “5 Demands, Not One Less.” The other most common slogan has evolved. At first it was “Hong Kongers, Add Oil!” (This phrase, “Add Oil” – 加油, or ga1 yau4 – is one of the Cantonese sayings that most non-local people here know. “Step on the gas” would be a more accurate translation, but the literal translation, “Add Oil,” is too entrenched to change. It’s in the OED and everything). As the protests have evolved, “Add Oil!” has given way to “resist,” and then “revenge,” in both the call-and-response chants and the spray-painted slogans.
As for the slogan, “Restore Hong Kong” – this idea of “restoration” – might turn off readers at Age of Revolutions. What state is being “restored,” if not the pre-1997 British colonial one? And there is a strong nostalgia among Hong Kongers for colonial Hong Kong, both among local Han Chinese and among the large number of people here – mostly white, largely British – who identify as expats. I wish folks here were more critical about the history of British imperialism as a whole, but the contrast between colonial Hong Kong, on the one hand, and the China of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution on the other, makes Colonial Hong Kong look good by comparison.
If the protesters are naïve about British imperialism and contemporary US politics, they also have an almost instinctual understanding of Beijing’s goals and the means it will use to achieve them. Beyond that – and this will be the focus of the remaining photos – is the deep sense of history in much of the protest art. Since July the protesters have been declaring that reclaiming Hong Kong is 時代革命 – the Revolution of our times. But the protesters pay attention to past moments as well – past revolutions, past struggles for freedom and against oppression, old ideas about law and justice. Much of the art and graffiti tries to put Hong Kong into a distinctly western tradition of revolt – a hodge-podge where Latin phrases and Patrick Henry quotes can mingle with echoes of Mai ‘68. But more than anything, the protesters who spray-paint and poster the walls draw attention to the history that they themselves are creating as they go, telling the story of their own movement as it unfolds, and, by doing that, placing their own actions into the deeper history that they also evoke.
Often, the need to tell the history of the movement comes with dates and events. In this photo, a section of a banner which hung by the University MTR (Mass Transit Railway) station, lists the times when protesters feel that the MTR betrayed the people. The dates here are in Chinese characters, which is unusual to see; anything involving numbers is rarely written with Chinese characters, including dates. Even restaurants with only Chinese menus use Arabic numerals for the prices. Looking at two of the specifics here: the first on the left (beneath the train) is 21 July, when the police stayed away from Yuen Long Station while a mob of men in white shirts, many of whom wielded metal bars, beat up the people in the trains while the trains stayed in the station. The third is from 31 August, when the police themselves rushed into the trains and beat people there. Protesters since then have been calling on the MTR corporation to release the footage from the internal cameras there – CCTV – which the corporation has not yet done. These two dates – usually referred to as 7.21 and 8.31 – can be seen all over Hong Kong; so too can 10.1, when a police officer shot a high school student.
It’s hard to emphasize just how central these dates are in the minds and the vocabulary of protesters here. One of the chants this past autumn was, “7-2-1, didn’t see anyone, 8-3-1, beat someone to death,” referring to the police inactions of 21 July and the police violence of 31 August. A photograph from a café went viral a few weeks ago: it showed the words “Wifi password,” then photographs from those two events, along with the police shooting of a high school student on 1 October. If you’ve been following the protests, you’d know how to get free wifi.
This photo is from one of the peaks near where I live. It is not an easy spot to get to. Someone brought paint and a stencil; this is what they had to say. (The characters below it read, “black cops” – corrupt police). I’ll take this moment to note that Hong Kong is a fantastic place for hiking and trail running. I’d like to even say that being able to get up into the mountains was the only thing that has kept me sane through the last several months.
The protest movement also commemorates its martyrs, as many movements do. There are photos and drawings of a Chow Tsz-lok, a 22-year old student from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who fell to his death from a parking garage during fights between the protesters and the police in November; and Chan Yin-lam, a fifteen-year old high school student whose body was found at sea in September. Her mother has asked people to stop speculating on her death, but protesters continue to put her name and drawings of her face on the walls of Hong Kong. Physically – and I realize that talking about Chan Yin-lam’s appearance and ignoring that of Chow Tsz-lok is problematic – she seems perfect for the part, her wide eyes looking like a living version of the Japanese animation that inspires some of the best Lennon Wall artists.
The Lennon Walls are themselves a way for Hong Kongers to put themselves into a western tradition of resistance to oppression; they tie the people’s resistance to Beijing to the Eastern Europeans’ resistance to Moscow during the 1980s, even if the Hong Kong Lennon Walls have since surpassed their Eastern European predecessors.
Like the idea of a restoration of colonial life, Age of Revolutions readers may dislike the idea of a “western tradition.” But the idea of western history, or a western tradition, means something different in the Far East, where “western” can refer to a kind of restaurant or business suit, and where the sign above a doctor’s office might specify whether the medicine they practice is western or Chinese.
There are many Lennon Walls near where I live, but only one was famous throughout Hong Kong, and that was the “Lennon Tunnel” of Tai Po, around five miles away. When the Tai Po Lennon Tunnel was at its peak, it was impossible to put even a quarter of it into one photograph; it stretched out hundreds of meters, around turns, down different branches leading out to different bus stops, malls, and housing estates. People came from Hong Kong Island to see it, which is like getting people who live in Manhattan to come out to Queens. The art mixed pre-printed posters with home drawn art, along with the thousands of post-it notes.
English and Chinese mix on the Lennon Walls, just as recent and less recent history mix. Here, Winston Churchill’s rallying cry for the Battle of Britain mixes with the memory of 31 August.
One final Lennon Tunnel photo. The 2014 Umbrella Revolution plays an odd role in the protests’ collective memory, at least to the extent that I can tell. In 2014, protesters in Hong Kong staged a series of sit-ins in many of the city’s thoroughfares. The iconic umbrella emerged from the protests because of the protesters’ exposures to the elements. Many young people participating now participated then, and while it was going on, it was an inspirational movement. But it was not an effective one and that ineffectiveness seems, to me at least, to be the fundamental lesson that protesters took from 2014.
It’s not all slogans and posters; there has been a lot of destruction as well. Protesters have torn up many of Hong Kong’s brick sidewalks during the last several months. Some protesters have thrown bricks at police and at counter-protesters, and killed one man in doing so. Most of the bricks are reused to make barricades, or to place on the ground in case of a rush by the riot police, whose heavy gear and protections make it hard to move fast when the ground is uneven. It’s a practical measure – not a matter of messaging or an intentional statement about its place in any sort of revolutionary tradition. But whenever I see these sidewalks – or, as one sees more in recent weeks, sidewalks that used to be brick but are now part brick, part concrete – I think of the events of May 1968 in Paris.
For people who know the history of Paris in May 1968, it’s one of many such parallels – the student protests, the fights for control of a university campus, tearing bricks from the ground to build barricades. Sometimes, though, the protesters make the parallel explicit. “I rebel, therefore we are.” This one is from the athletic field near the bridge where students and police fought.
References to the French Revolution are rarer, as one might expect, but they are around. Before the poster at the top of this post started appearing, there was an earlier remake of La Liberté guidant le peuple with a female protester holding the flag and leading the crowd (but without any wardrobe malfunctions). That was more fitting, both in terms of recreating Delacroix’s painting, and in recognizing the enormous role that women have been playing in the protests. This is the one that has spread, though.
The American revolutionary tradition, broadly speaking, is more present. There are often US flags at protests. There are calls for freedom and democracy that cite the US’s tradition, with little investigation into the role of slavery in the founding generation. Hence a prominent “Give me liberty or give me death – Patrick Henry” not far from the CUHK library (I didn’t manage to snap a photo of this one). Even when they are not explicit references, to me they fit in with the kinds of slogans I’d see next to a Gadsden Flag or among a group of Revolutionary War reenactors. There are also many paintings and drawings of Guy Fawkes masks, which have arrived in popular culture via the movie V for Vendetta. (The circled-V from that movie is also a frequent sight, as seen in the bottom of the second photo in this piece).
For an American like me, it’s also hard not to see the CUHK Goddess of Democracy as a kind of local Statue of Liberty, even though it’s not (and explicitly so). It’s based on a larger such statue that the protesters of Tiananmen Square had built in 1989.
The Goddess of Democracy has stood strong through the months of protests. As far as I’ve seen, the “Five Demands – Not One Less” poster has been there the whole time. Other symbols of the protests – the gas masks, the construction helmet – have come and gone.
This painting of the Goddess of Democracy showed up in an underpass a few miles away, donning her gas mask and helmet.
While the protesters show an instinctual understanding of Beijing’s politics, and a quirky but broad understanding of many events of European history, their understanding of contemporary U.S. politics is often quite weak. Passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was a goal of the protesters here, which they achieved in November. After the government’s withdrawal of the Extradition Law, this was probably the protesters’ biggest victory. Hong Kong’s 7-8 million people versus the 1.5 billion people in Mainland China was always a David vs Goliath contest, so the protesters sought whatever allies they could. Still, there is a naiveté here about which U.S. politicians could – or should – help Hong Kong. Part of this comes from the actions of prominent Republicans. Marco Rubio has been a key supporter of Hong Kong from the start and, to his credit, seems to have a real understanding of what is going on here; but it’s hard to know what to make of other politicians, especially among the GOP. Ted Cruz, for example, came to town to grandstand for a bit. Some seem to really enjoy calling Mainland China “Communist,” even as it’s unclear what that word means these days. Still, seeing a photo of Pence near the CUHK Bookstore was a bit of a shock.
Supporters of Beijing seem no better informed; Trump was hesitant to sign the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, and called President Xi his “friend,” but pro-Beijing protesters still burned him in effigy.
The biggest shock came when I was on campus a few weeks after the standoff. Most of the campus had been cleaned up by then, but the area of the most fighting was still as-is, with piles of food and water bottles stacked, along with umbrellas and medical tape and other supplies. One of the banners there was folded up, so I wanted to know what was on it. Not the face I was expecting to see there. The quote is from an editorial McConnell wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Sooner or later, the rest of the world will have to do what the protesters are doing – confront Beijing.”
There have even been posters and spray-painted slogans appearing in Latin on the CUHK campus, showing off their erudition.
This is not a completely uncritical praise of the western tradition. I dislike seeing them so I avoid photographing them, but Hong Kong is full of comparisons of Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party to the Nazis. Walls that have “Chinazi” written on them are a frequent sight. There are also a lot of spray-painted swastikas. I get the idea – they’re trying to compare Xi with Hitler, today’s Beijing with the Berlin of the 1930s and World War II. I still hate it. As far as I am concerned, I’d rather not see swastikas period. It’s worth noting that there are very few direct references to European communism – neither to the Bolsheviks, nor to Karl Marx himself. Or, if they are there, I miss them.
I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier: my view of the protests is skewed. There is a lot that I miss in the posters and the graffiti: references to events that I’ve never heard of; phrases I can’t read and don’t take the time to look up. There’s also an enormous amount of wordplay. Like any academic, I’m also hyper-aware of even the most distant reference to the events I study. Nor – in case I have not made this clear enough thus far – do I endorse everything the protesters do. But I recognize the overall outline of the events. The Hong Kong protesters are on the front lines of the global fight against authoritarianism. They are not on the only such front line, so I don’t know if what’s happening in Hong Kong right now qualifies as the Revolution of Our Times, as the protesters claim. Nor do I have any idea what the future has in store. But I do know that the protesters are making history. They know that, too.
Noah Shusterman is an historian of the eighteenth-century Atlantic World currently teaching at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Religion and the Politics of Time: Holidays in France from Louis XIV through Napoleon (2010) and The French Revolution: Faith, Desire and Politics (2014). His third book, a prehistory of the US Second Amendment, will be published in 2020. He tweets at @ncshusterman and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Title image: From a bus station in Ma On Shan, in Hong Kong’s New Territories.
One thought on “Scenes from Hong Kong: Revolution of Our Time, Histories in Real Time”
This was a fascinating read. I especially appreciate all of the photos you included, which give a strong sense of the variety of ideals (and languages!) the protestors are using in order to inspire one another and get their message across.
I was slightly puzzled by a few of your statements, though, such as “There are calls for freedom and democracy that cite the US’s tradition, with little investigation into the role of slavery in the founding generation”. Well, why should the protestors investigate such things? They’re protestors, not scholars, and what they’re looking for in history is in accordance with their immediate needs at this time. They’re inspired by ideals such as democracy and freedom of speech, and citing the US as representative of that is all about convenient, shorthand inspiration to keep their spirits up. As a trained academic myself, I can understand the automatic impulse to see the historical complexities that lie beneath such ideals, but I also think that we need to accept that sometimes that’s not really what it’s all about. Protests are about action, not analysis, and for the many people in the world still living under oppressive regimes, “the western tradition” still offers an important precedent for progress in human rights, however imperfect that tradition may be.