This piece is part of a series that looks at the past year of protests—in Hong Kong, Beirut, Delhi, and across the United States—through a design lens. We asked writers living in, or with connections to, these places to consider design’s role within the context of these specific movements. Their “dispatches” will be published throughout the week.
It’s easy to get lost at the Central MTR station in Hong Kong. Exits point in all directions, leading to elevated walkways, from which it’s possible to peer down to the crowded streets below. In the last year, it has become more difficult to leave the station, and even harder to find your way. Violent protests have swept the city since June 2019, when an uprising against the tightening grip of mainland China swelled beyond containment.The protest marches have taken over the narrow streets, as well as shopping malls and the entrances to Hong Kong’s busiest metro stations. One year on, a sweeping new national security law has recently been imposed by China on Hong Kong, which targets protestors with harsh penalties, including life imprisonment. The law gives Beijing broad powers to crack down on a variety of political crimes, including separatism and collusion.
It comes at a time when Hong Kong has emerged from COVID-19 to continue the fight for their civil liberties. Protestors have made their demands clear: Beijing must make space for the democratic and economic freedom of their city. Activists ask that the unique relationship between Hong Kong and China be maintained, without authoritarianism and the erasure of the political rights of the people. In the process, students have barricaded themselves within their universities as police deploy rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse immense crowds. Train carriages have been set on fire and storefronts smashed. The fight first centered around the controversial extradition bill, which the embattled leader of Hong Kong Carrie Lam has since conceded to following the clashes.
“Before the protest I was not interested in politics,” illustrator Joanne Liu recalls. “As a habit, I doodled on my iPad every night and posted on my Instagram. It was like a journal where I recorded random ideas. When the protests started last June, I started drawing about them and posting on Instagram, as I always did. Most were my own observations or feelings.” Liu’s whimsical, often naive style of drawing belies their political content. At first glance, an image of a goldfish could belong in a children’s story book; look closer, and it becomes apparent that it’s drowning—an analogy to the suffocation of the people of Hong Kong’s human rights. Liu is part of a growing number of artists, illustrators and designers who have found themselves a crucial part of Hong Kong’s uprising. As in any political movement, the visual identity of the protests are central to their wider impact—both locally and further afield.
Many of these illustrators and graphic designers make use of deceptively simple means to communicate their message. While imagery often circulates via encrypted messaging service Telegram, where graphics communicate instructions for gatherings swiftly and efficiently, Instagram is the popular choice for many to share their thoughts and reflections on a global platform. Here, a single drawing can travel far further than printed leaflets distributed amidst crowds ever could. Their visual lexicon is direct and easy to understand, and pictures are often used in place of text-based slogans. “Drawings are more eye-catching than words,” the anonymous artist-illustrator duo, who go by the moniker Wolf and Sheep, explain. “If our drawings are attractive, these can also draw people’s attention to our words.” The pair posted their first illustration to Instagram in August 2019.
In one drawing, basketballs are hurled towards Carrie Lam’s face, a reference to a clash between the NBA and China over Hong Kong’s protests. In another, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is compared to Winnie the Pooh, the cartoon bear, a resemblance that has frequently been made fun of by protestors. “We saw many injustices in Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement, especially the police violence,” they say. “We felt helpless and wanted to express our feelings. We hoped our works could bring a little impact to our friends or even the society.”
Wolf and Sheep, as well as Liu, have participated in the protests, either by joining marches, strikes or sit-ins at the airport—although all three are clear that they have not risked the more extreme clashes that take place on the frontline. “We always saw the police violence, such as when they terminated the protests suddenly without a reasonable explanation, arrested people who were innocent, and hurt people who were under arrest,” Wolf and Sheep tell me. “However, we also saw the glory of Hongkongers. We stuck together and fought together. I have never been prouder.”
“We stuck together and fought together. I have never been prouder.”
Suwei, a marketing professional who is behind the influential Instagram account @standherewithhk, takes a different approach to protest. He invites fellow users to create images using a downloadable set template, the results of which they can then submit to be posted. There are only two guiding principles: the image ratio must be 4:5, and it should depict a pair of holding hands at its center—a symbol of connection that has become the defining motif of the Hong Kong protests. The results are richly varied, ranging from the sombre to the satirical—“a result of choosing and reshaping,” as Suwei puts it. Amateur and professional illustrators alike are featured on the feed; sitting side-by-side, they are brought together by the protests and the connective potential of something as simple as a digital drawing.
The crowdsourced nature of Stand Here With HK is reflective of the collective power of the protests themselves, as well as their unpredictable, volatile tendencies. Suwei is part of a wider network of zine creators in the city. “I have been following how they express and record through graphic creation,” they explain. Suwei’s whose own zine, which documents the Hong Kong protests through a personal lens, is part of an exhibition with the city’s Zine Co-op. The visual style and content of the images that he shares on Stand Here With HK range from a heavily stylized silhouette of a chain of protestors to a more psychedelic take on the Bauhinia, Hong Kong’s official flower.
“I just happen to be an illustrator, so my way of participating in the protest is to draw.”
For illustrators and designers across Hong Kong, a simple pen and their mobile phone are often all that they need to make their voices heard. “I just happen to be an illustrator, so my way of participating in the protest is to draw,” Liu says. “I think drawings raise awareness about the situation. They show support to the protestors. They remind us of the absurdity of the government.” Graphic cues provide direct nods to bigger issues: yellow has become a symbol of the protests, with activists often wearing raincoats in this color, while umbrellas have remained a prominent fixture of demonstrations. Other emblems are less uplifting; the inclusion in drawings of eyes, whether covered or uncovered, makes reference to the woman who lost an eye at a protest.
The tension in Hong Kong remains, with fear that the new security law spells the end of political demonstrations in the city. A man was arrested during a recent protest after unfurling a Hong Kong flag, with police stating on Twitter that he had been detained for “violating the #NationalSecurityLaw.” The future of Hong Kong remains in the balance, and uncertainty lingers over the fifty-year transition period from Britain’s handover back to China in 1997. The young people who face the unknown are unwilling to let their freedom go without a fight. For them, visual communication is a powerful means of finding their way. As Liu puts it, “Change doesn’t happen overnight, and we need to be united. Art reminds us to keep fighting for the right thing. Also, there’s no law against art (yet…), so it’s still a legal way to bring about change.”