The “Umbrella Revolution”, the pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong against China’s restrictions on the selection of the next chief executive, has witnessed a blossoming of art and creativity in the last 13 days.
“Occupy Central with Love and Peace”, the ongoing non-violent protest calling for fully democratic elections for the city’s leader in 2017, was launched on 28 September after a week-long student strike. Thousands of protestors have staged large-scale sit-ins in Admiralty, Central, Causeway Bay, Mong Kok, and Tsim Sha Tsui.
Umbrellas, traditionally used here to fend off Southeast Asia’s scorching sun and torrential rain, have transcended the mundane to become an icon of the student-led protest, after they became the only shields between the demonstrators and the pepper spray and tear gas used by the police the night of September 27.
Umbrellas have also become a dominant motif in the outburst of artistic creativity and inspiration by local artists that has transformed the political movement into an open-air art carnival.
Umbrellas, yellow ribbons worn by protestors as a symbol of free elections, cartoon caricatures of politicians, song lyrics, multicolored slogans, sketches, chalk drawings, and oil paintings: all have since decorated the surfaces of flyovers, footbridges, tram stops, lampposts and commercial billboards in the occupied public spaces.
Forleria Lau, a year 4 English major student at Shue Yan University, is referred as ‘Ms. Little Sunflower’ in Admiralty. She paints protestors’ umbrellas with sunflowers and customized slogans for free, as long as it communicates a positive message.
“The sunflowers represent life and hope,” Lau said. “Sunflowers live on the sunlight, and you can view democracy in this movement as the sunlight. The protestors are all in pursuit of democracy like the way flowers blossom under glorious sunshine.”
When requested by a protestor to characterize CY Leung, the city’s incumbent chief executive, as a devil, Lau declined. “I paint those pictures to purify the ugliness in reality, not as an anti-government tool,” she said.
Local artist Perry Dino has been chronicling the city’s most controversial protests since his rendering of the rally against Dolce & Gabbana’s infamous photo ban in January, 2012. The protest began after the Italian luxury retailer tried to prevent local citizens, but not mainland Chinese or foreign tourists, from taking pictures of its window displays, even from the public street.
The 49-year-old oil painter has so far produced eight pieces depicting the ongoing political protest since 31 August, when the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress stipulated that the central government would vet candidates for the city’s future leadership post through a Beijing-friendly nomination committee.
For Dino, each piece consumes seven or eight hours of standing before the canvas at the scene, without a break to rest, or even pee. “I paint to capture the historical moment and to record for posterity,” said Dino. “I want to show the local teenagers what painting is all about.”
“As artists, we build a virtual room inside a broader public space to create an artwork for this city, which is valuable in the capital-driven metropolis of Hong Kong.”
Though in demand, Dino has no intention of selling those protest-themed paintings. Local museums and art exhibitions are his preferred destinations.
In the car park now occupied by demonstrators in front of the Legislative Council in Admiralty, Kiki Ng was flipping her fingers on a guitar to compose a new song, when she listened to the protest story of Li Cho-fung, a secondary school teacher in Mong Kok.
Ng, an art freelancer, joined the artists’ community calling itself “24 hours in the revolution”, which set out to write 24 songs in one day before 3 October. The group was reacting to rumors that the government would initiate a crackdown on the protestors that day after five days of exuberant demonstrations.
“We come up with this project because we want to intervene in (Occupy Central) with artistic means,” said Ng. “We think music or artistic means can make people be more relaxed, because people are generally very tense in these situations.”
The repression never came, and their song-writing marathon has gone far beyond 24 hours.
Based in Mong Kok, the small group of community artists improvises a new song after a half-hour interview with the local residents, or integrates their tunes with poems from the “grass root” people in the district— van drivers, social workers, construction workers, the elderly, teenagers, deaf people, and others.
“The main purpose is to collect the stories (in this protest), transform them into songs, and later explain them to the audience,” said Ng. “In general people say Hong Kong is a place with no sense of identity. Now I think is a moment in which we can create our identities with the people we stay with in these areas.”
For ‘Ms. Little Sunflower,’ art also plays a soothing role in this extensive public dissent.
“In this democracy movement, I think art acts as a moisturizer or a lubricant in lessoning the tension and negative emotions among individuals,” said Forleria Lau.