1 – Being Water in Hong Kong artist perspectives from a people’s uprising

By Michael Leung

In mid-September I met friends at Lok Fu metro station at 7:30 pm, and together with thousands of other people, we started a 495-metre (1624-foot) ascent up Lion Rock — a lion-shaped mountain that overlooks Hong Kong. Due to the narrow paths, some of which only allowed one person to enter at a time, for most of the evening we were queuing up chatting with new friends, shouting slogans, singing songs and wondering how much further we had to go. We arrived at the peak at 3 am, to an atmosphere of celebration, body odour and fatigue.

I rested somewhere on the Lion’s back and looked at the lasers beaming from those people on top of the Lion’s head. It brought me back to August 7 when an impromptu party was organized in response to off-duty police officers arresting a Student Union member for purchasing ten laser pointers a day before. Lasers have played a key part in the anti-extradition movement: identifying police and agitators, obscuring CCTV and police cameras, and for entertainment—often illuminating government buildings.

In February 2019 the Hong Kong government proposed amending the Extradition Bill to include China, Macau and Taiwan (at present it includes 20 countries). The murder of a Hong Kong pregnant woman named Poon Hiu-wing, by her boyfriend Chan Tong-kai in Taiwan, was used to justify the government’s proposed amendment (their “Trojan Horse”) because Hong Kong does not currently have extradition agreements with Taiwan.

The proposed bill amendment alarmed people in Hong Kong people because it allows extraditees to bypass public inspections by the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s parliamentary chamber that questions the government). This could result in Hong Kong citizens facing unfair trials in China where unjust inprisonment and attacks on freedom of expression are common and enforced with structural violence under China’s authoritarian regime. Hong Kong — home to 7.4 million people — was as a British colony from 1841 until it was transferred to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997. It maintains a separate government and economic system from the PRC under the Hong Kong Basic Law, which is supposed to permit a legal system, legislative system, and people’s rights and freedom for fifty years. The Basic Law is in stark contrast to the authoritarian surveillance state right next to Hong Kong in the PRC.

The Anti-Extradition Bill movement in Hong Kong began with demonstrations against the bill in March and turned into a continuing mass movement involving thousands of people in June As of September, calendars of upcoming protests arrive weekly via Telegram in Chinese and English.

This article shares some of my personal observations and thoughts from the past weeks on how artists and designers have engaged the movement. These interventions are shared chronologically to help communicate how the protests are evolving, in parallel to the increased police violence, government’s inaction and participation from triad gang members and spycops.

The third anti-extradition bill protest was on Sunday 9th June 2019 and saw over one million people march from Victoria Park to the government headquarters. In the following days it became obvious that the protests would take on a different form compared to the Umbrella Movement five years ago which was a static 79-day occupation in four locations. On 12th June protesters climbed tall road signs and reappropriated them as watchtowers, at times adding their own signage to communicate which roadblocks had police presence and required more protesters (要人, ‘need people’ in English).

In an online article, cartoonist and designer Jason Li documented memes and art featured on placards that adapted popular images from Marvel’s Avengers series, Game of Thrones and Godzilla. Metahaven’s 2013 book Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?: Memes, Design and Politics remains timeless, and is now visible in the placards distributed by illustrators Joanne and Ah Li (known as All Things Bright and Beautiful), and in the surprising reincarnation of American alt-right icon Pepe the Frog — who is no longer a racist mascot but now wears a yellow hardhat and is part of the anti-extradition bill resistance. Unfortunately the “heartbreaking irony” of Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom screened in 29 locations across Hong Kong may have fueled some nationalistic thought in the form of a new Hong Kong “national anthem” called Glory to Hong Kong, as well as street art that oddly incorporates the Celtic cross — a symbol reappropriated by Neo-Nazis.

Photojournalists documenting the protests have become more active on Instagram, especially one from Japan with the handle @kodama.jp. Kodama captures the protests using 35mm film with short descriptions. His beautiful and thought provoking photos remind me of Takashi Hamaguchi who photographed Sanrizuka, the Tokyo Narita Airport struggle in the 1960s and 70s. In a different part of Japan, graphic design duo ITWST showed their solidarity with Hong Kong and condemned police violence in their yellow and black poster, which was on display during the three-day Hong Kong International Airport demonstration (9-11th July 2019).

The anarchist monogram in the poster nods towards the multiple anarchist threads that exist and thrive within the anti-extradition bill movement: those abroad (Out of Control – Hong Kong’s Rebellious Movement and the Left by Ralf Ruckus), those in Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Anarchists in the Resistance to the Extradition Bill on CrimethInc.) and those becoming.

Those becoming are the anonymous and determined protesters that we see in the media, who have been part of this leaderless and decentralised movement — always in black bloc and unaware/unfamiliar with anarchism. At each rally, bilingual insurrectionary graffiti appears on different surfaces. The graffiti also shows solidarity with other struggles such as the squats in Exarchia, and the anti-pipeline movement in North Dakota, where ‘Water is Life’ was spray painted on the roadside — intentionally merging both movements together (“Be Water” being the formless and flashmob strategy of the movement, inspired by martial artist and philosopher Bruce Lee).

The Hong Kong Artist Union, who advocate for artists’ rights and have over 300 members, organized a long list of cultural workers, artists and artist groups to strike on 12th June, the second day of the bill reading. The union later gathered artist objects and printed matter at an exhibition called Bicycle Thieves curated by Hanlu Zhang at Para Site, an independent art institution in Hong Kong (29th June to 1st September). One of the exhibits was a zine titled Documents of a Movementmade by 12 contributors that include artists, designers, teachers, craftspeople and cultural workers. The second zine is in progress and will include 17+ contributors, some of which travelled to Hong Kong to support the movement with small interventions, such as bringing supplies and decorating the streets. The zine will include anti-capitalist feminist perspectives that resonate with Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser’s book Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, further problematising the aforementioned “Trojan Horse,” taunts at police and their partners (predominantly towards policemen’s wives) and the 46+ reported cases of sexual violence towards protesters (41 against women and five against men).

Anti-extradition bill-related artworks could be seen simultaneously elsewhere. Alexander Wong’s Masters in Visual Arts graduation work titled Archive Extradition Bill, gathers videos from the 9th, 12th and 16th of June and places them into a digital sphere for the audience to navigate, watch and learn more about the movement. The work was part of the coincidentally named graduation show ‘Flow’ at the Hong Kong Baptist University (6-20th July 2019), which aligns with the strategy of the movement, “Be Water.” Being water for the past 14 weeks makes me recall the critiques towards the ‘feet-dragging’ zombie-like marches in the book Now by The Invisible Committee and the Theory of the Dérive by Guy Debord, where protesters are writing their own psychogeography and reclaiming (public) space all over Hong Kong — from sterile but welcoming shopping malls to Hong Kong’s only international airport, which surprisingly resulted in more than 160 flights being cancelled on 11th August 2019 (An Extinction Rebellion Hong Kong?).

Owing to the guerrilla and ephemeral nature of the protests, design objects such as “Buddhist barricades” blocking the Hong Kong Police Headquarters in Wan Chai and the interactive airport trolleys equipped with laptops and printed matter only exist in documentation — unless they manifest again in future protests. One unique and impromptu “design object” was the three-person slingshot, which involved two people holding a rubber cord whilst one person launched a projectile towards the government headquarters. Independent curator, writer and university lecturer Yeung Yang wrote in her open letter that, ‘We [artists] need to become not only protesting bodies, but also supple and sensuous ones: drawing, painting, dancing, moving, jumping, touching, laughing, whistling, dreaming, day-dreaming, questioning, thinking… All these that we have been doing enrich our capacities to rule ourselves better’ (Facebook, 14th June 2019). As the anti-extradition bill protests continue all over Hong Kong, I know that we will see more creative forms of resistance from those protesting bodies — learning, sharing and flowing towards a better future for Hong Kong.

Editor’s note: as Slingshot goes to press, police are using live rounds, rubber bullets, beanbags, water cannons and tear gas against protesters. When the Hong Kong government tried to ban masks on Oct 4, protesters instead turned out en mass wearing masks, which are not just for anonymity but also protection against tear gas.