Every Friday night A Him, a 14-year-old Hong Konger, sheds his school uniform, packs his paint and roams the city on a skateboard looking for walls to scribble on. His tags range from the rousing (“Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”), to more juvenile digs at the police (“Popo sucks”).
As increasingly violent pro-democracy protests disrupt Hong Kong, graffiti remains a peaceful but persistent form of resistance in a city renowned for order. Tags and scrawls provide a crash course in the slogans, memes and demands of the protest movement, which remains determined to get its message across. “If the police tear down posters, graffiti is the only option left,” says A Him.
Political messages in China have traditionally been made on the streets through the medium of “big-character posters”, which feature large hand-written messages posted in public spaces. These hark back to the imperial era but became a prominent feature of the 1960s Cultural Revolution when propaganda and public-shaming via big-character posters was common.
A key feature of the Chinese Democracy Movement in 1978–9 was the mounting of thousands of big-character posters on a wall in Beijing, each drawing attention to political and social issues in the country. During the “Umbrella Movement” of 2014, when Hong Kongers staged mass sit-ins to demand more transparent elections, tens of thousands of Post-It notes were stuck to a wall outside Hong Kong’s main government building. Dubbed the “Lennon Wall”, the collaborative artwork evokes the same cultural trope.
Graffiti was used to protest the detention of the artist Ai Wei Wei by the Chinese authorities in 2011, when a stencil featuring Ai’s face with the message, “Who’s afraid of Ai Wei Wei”, appeared all over Hong Kong. It was a campaign intended to highlight Hong Kong’s vulnerabilities. “If he can be arrested, then there’s no identity we can hide behind,” the graffiti artist told NPR. “Being a Hong Kong citizen doesn’t help anymore; being rich or social status doesn’t help. There’s no shield any more against this very naked power that’s trying to engulf us."
Years later, the same shadow hangs over the city and the story continues to be narrated by writing on the wall. A Him can’t think of anyone he knows who is supportive of Hong Kong’s police, let alone the government and its leader, Carrie Lam (depicted above). That includes his father, who has supported anti-government protests since the days of the Umbrella Movement, when protesters used yellow umbrellas to defend against the use of pepper spray from the police.
Other colours have become symbolic, informing everything from graffiti to the clothing worn during marches. Jet black indicates support for the current pro-democracy protests, widely regarded as the Umbrella Movement’s direct successor. Pro-government supporters have long used the colour blue to show their support. Green, the colour of Hong Kong police uniforms, along with white (as the opposite colour to the protester’s black) have also been used in public demonstrations calling for the forceful suppression of the protests.
A visit to Molotow Hong Kong, the only graffiti paint store in the city, is revealing. Silver and gold used to be its best selling colours, says owner Bernard Li. The buyers are usually middle-aged or elderly citizens looking to repaint a Buddha in a temple or at home. Since the protests broke out, Li has seen many young Hong Kongers arrive to his shop and there is only one colour they are after – black.
“Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times”（光復香港，时代革命)
光復 (gwong fuk) translates here as “liberate” but the phrase is more than just a call to tear down the establishment: its dictionary definition means “to recover lost territory” or “restore something to its former glory”. It nods to anxieties about Hong Kong’s economic decline in contrast to the breakneck speed of development on the mainland. Shanghai, along with tech hub Shenzhen farther south, are cities that embody China’s dizzying ascent to prosperity, attracting workers from across the mainland just as Hong Kong did in the 1980s.
Wan Chai is a commercial district populated by skyscrapers filled with thousands of well-paid office workers. Many now strike a balance between work and protest, taking to the streets during lunch breaks to block traffic for an hour. To save themselves from disciplinary proceedings at work they cover their faces with grey and black masks, making their stance clear by using an outstretched hand to symbolise the slogan, “five demands, not one less”.
Only one demand, the full withdrawal of a bill that would permit Hong Kong residents to be extradited to mainland China, has been granted so far. The four remaining ones are amnesty to all those arrested for involvement in the protests; ceasing to use the term “riot” as a descriptor of the protests; an independent inquiry into police brutality; and the introduction of universal suffrage for the election of all seats in the legislative council, as well as that of the chief executive.
Hong Kong’s university students are another relatively privileged group of people determined to challenge the city’s government. In November, five universities were occupied by students and the campuses became a battlefield for police and protesters. Students from mainland China were jeered as they dragged suitcases along debris-strewn roads en-route to boats that would ferry them to Shenzhen.
“I’m not sorry they can’t go to class because of us,” says Thomas, a student protester at the University of Hong Kong. “If they come to Hong Kong, I expect them to appreciate the values of our people.”
Built like a tank and known around campus for his signature blue mask, Thomas is one of a number of students in his university who have participated in protests and graffiti excursions across the city. His grades are slipping and he is tired of the harried escapes, but he believes it’s a sacrifice worth making. He points to a piece of graffiti he painted on a pavement inside campus: “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”.
“Death to all the families of corrupt policeman” (黑警死全家)
In the 1980s, positive media coverage gave Hong Kong’s police the reputation of “Asia’s finest”. Later, the film industry helped boost the city's reputation with a string of action films, usually featuring an undercover cop busting some nasty gangsters. Corruption has been a long-standing problem within the force but data compiled by the University of Hong Kong's public-opinion institute in 2015 show that in the first decade after Hong Kong was returned to China, locals generally held a favourable opinion of the police.
This changed with the Umbrella Movement in 2014. Police were criticised for using heavy-handed tactics as well as allegedly turning a blind eye while local gangs attacked unarmed protesters. Since then hatred for the Hong Kong police has reached unprecedented new heights. In September 2019, a high-ranking police officer shocked Hong Kongers when, during a press conference, he described a man who was beaten by a police officer as a “yellow object”.
Some protesters have retaliated by doxxing police officers and their families, attacking officers with knives and targeting riot trucks with remote-controlled bombs. Homegrown rappers like JB have gained millions of views on YouTube with songs that sample audio from real protests and feature lyrics such as “fuck the Popo, fuck their mothers”. His hit track from this summer, “FUCKTHEPOPOPO”, has contributed to the phrase being scrawled across walls.
The police do have some supporters. “Ah sir” (阿sir), an age-old Cantonese-English term used to respectfully address members of the force, has been turned into a chant by pro-government civilians, many of whom find escalating violence from the protesters hard to stomach.
Sham Shui Po
“Communist Party Railway” (黨鐵), “Dog Railway” (鐵狗)
Many companies have been targeted by protesters in recent months, but none has incurred quite as much damage as the Mass Transit Railway Corporation (MTR), which operates Hong Kong’s subway system. The People’s Daily, known by many as the political mouthpiece for the Communist Party of China, published an editorial in September 2019 grilling the MTR for not stopping protesters from using its trains to escape the police. The company began to cut back late-night trains and close stations during protest days, a decision widely perceived as kowtowing to the Communist Party of China’s wishes.
This has earned the company the unflattering moniker of “Communist Party Railway” (黨鐵), written vertically on the wall of this MTR station exit. The character for “dog” (狗) was then added horizontally to the character for “railway” (鐵). “Dog government（“狗官”）and “dog police”（狗警) are two other insults frequently found in graffiti around the city.
Yau Ma Tei
“The entire Communist Party must be exterminated” (全黨死清光)
The pro-democracy movement is desperate for international support and solidarity, and American and British flags are often waved at rallies. In August 2019, mass sit-ins at Hong Kong’s airport hoped to draw international awareness to the protests. Some locals held placards around their shoulders declaring in English: “Do you want to know what is happening in Hong Kong? Come talk to me!” Posters in languages spoken by large immigrant groups, such as Korean and Tagalog (spoken in the Philippines), can be found all over the city.
The rare sighting of a “Chinazi” slogan is another sign that protesters are conscious of their image outside Hong Kong. Initially adopted to emphasise the totalitarian nature of the Communist Party of China’s methods of control, the term has largely fallen out of favour after protesters realised many Westerners took offence.
The moniker survives on some walls around the city, but not for long. Every morning public workers endeavour to scrub clean or paint over the nightly proliferation of anti-government slogans.
Yau Ma Tei
“Wearing a mask is not a crime, it’s legal you unreasonable dog officials” (蒙面罪，立法无理狗官)
Nathan Road is one of the longest and widest roads in Hong Kong. It stretches from the deprived neighbourhood of Mong Kwok to the tourist area of Tsim Sha Tsui, where, until the protests hit tourism, flocks of visitors would take selfies by the harbour. The road hosts frequent bouts between protesters and police and the endless lines of graffiti running the length of its concrete traffic barrier reflect the intensity of the conflict.
This piece of graffiti is a direct rebuke to the government’s attempt to outlaw masks at protests. Anonymity has helped sustain the protest movement. Hong Kongers of all ages, from middle-school students like A Him to office workers at Wan Chai, wear masks not just to conceal their faces but to show solidarity with those on the frontlines.
In October 2019 the government invoked emergency powers in order to push through an anti-mask law. Its enactment triggered one of the most violent weeks of clashes the city had seen. In less than a month, police arrested over 300 people for breaking the new law. Just over a month later, Hong Kong’s High Court overruled the law, deeming it unconstitutional – a decision swiftly condemned by the Chinese government.
Over the past decade, more than 160 Tibetan monks have self-immolated in protest of what is often described as a “cultural genocide” of the region. Whether it is the plight of Tibet, or the repression and incarceration of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, Hong Kongers often articulate their fears for the future by referring to the policies of suppression the Communist Party of China enacts in its hinterlands. With no resolution in sight, Hong Kong’s young protesters are starting to make clear their lives could be next and the monk has become a symbol of a clear conscience. The graffiti slogan “If we burn, you burn with us” (seen above), is not a metaphor.
Much of the suffering experienced by people inside China’s borders is muffled by censorship, but in Hong Kong martyrs are created quickly. The recent protests have resulted in two deaths and accountability is lacking. Suicides have also been linked to the unrest.
“I just don’t want Hong Kong to become the same as China,” says Thomas, the student protestor.