At the end of 2014, for about 2–3 months, the whole of Hong Kong was concerned with Occupy Central. "Occupy Central" was, and still is, a loaded term and an event which represents many different things to many different people. The normative take on it would be that it was a political movement first initiated by three people, which was then overtaken by student organisations and independent volunteer groups. It was also a political campaign for genuine universal suffrage first proposed by Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a law professor at Hong Kong University, Chan Kin-man, a sociology professor at my university, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Chu Yu-ming, a human rights activist and clergyman.
The original plans to occupy Admiralty for a few days were quickly exceeded by the occupation of two additional sites, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay for seventy-nine days. You could say that the original founders of Occupy Central became supporters of the Umbrella Movement. That the original plans for Occupy Central were exceeded and extended in such a decentralised manner is instructive, and you could see that for some of the protesters, it meant questioning a certain way of life under the capitalist regime known as Hong Kong. The Umbrella Movement (as the protests came to be known), that overflow of social, political and aesthetic desire, was the object of endless debate on newspaper and TV forums, at dinner tables and in street scuffles.
This essay, adapted from a plenary talk I gave on 18th January 2015 at the Imagining Asia Symposium organised by the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, is in part a showcase of street photography, as well a documentary, analytical and personal meditation on the Umbrella Movement. The activities and symbolic objects at the movement's three protest sites (Admiralty, Mong Kong and Causeway Bay) underscored the relationship between political protest and art-making. The movement represented an outbreak of vernacular symbolic expressions in search of an imagined community it was already establishing. I would argue that the protest sites were both material and symbolic, inviting a public to imagine a Hong Kong nationhood, even as the act of protest was fraught with anxieties, conflicts and tensions. Even if the Umbrella Movement was thus a material event that has now largely passed, it is entirely feasible that it will always be present politically and spiritually.
I think this photograph, which shows chalk graffiti on the pavement at the Admiralty protest site, speaks to both the temporariness and continuity of the movement. It is a beautiful work of art, and for some reason, the colours are actually very luminous. It is also very temporary because of its nature, and of course it no longer exists, at least not physically. Or you could say it now exists in the form of photographs. The point I am trying to make is that the Umbrella Movement existed not only as material objects or as physical sites, but also as lived experience and memory. In this piece, though the use of street photography, I will try to take us through some of those lived moments.
On 22nd September, 2014, the first day of the student boycott and a week before Occupy Central was planned to commence, I walked around with two to three film and digital cameras, trying to capture various scenes as they begin to speak to me.
The previous two photographs were taken on that day and represent the self-reflexivity involved in my project. Even at the time, I knew I was not the only person responding to Occupy Central through art. These are photographs in the act of catching a painter in the act of sketching out the scene of the student boycott at my university.
I have not had the chance to confirm this, but unless I am mistaken, the painter is Perry Dino. As reported in the South China Morning Post, he specialises in painting street protests (Carney "Perry Dino"). Here he is using street art (as opposed to "studio art") to engage with and commemorate political events.
I remember feeling somewhat annoyed at the person on the left whose umbrella was blocking my view, the result of which was that I had to manoeuvre a bit to get a shot of the entire canvas but without the actual scene depicted on it. A lot has been said about how the umbrella is a literal and symbolic object of political and material expediency of the Hong Kong people, sheltering them from the sun, rain and pepper spray. But if you take this symbol seriously, one might say that from the point of view of the protesters, the Hong Kong government has not been a good enough umbrella to them. This is why they needed to create their own.
This image is of the site-specific art installation known as the Umbrella Patchwork, created by students from the Academy of Visual Arts at Hong Kong Baptist University. It was made out of the canopies of about 200–250 broken umbrellas that belonged to protesters who were defending themselves from pepper spray and teargas on the night of 28th September. The Chinese character on the balloon is "chang," meaning "to support" or "to hold something up." The students were holding up the pepper spray and teargas-stained umbrellas, in full view of those working in the government offices nearby. However, I feel the work has an extended implication—that because the Hong Kong government has not been a secure umbrella to its people, local residents have had to fashion their own, and these are the broken umbrellas and poor living conditions the students held up for display.
In Imagined Communities, the professor of international relations Benedict Anderson defined the nation as an imagined community, with a shared sense of belonging which exists in the minds of the people. This, then, was the imagined community of Hong Kong, with an imagined leader. (This cutout of an ironically photoshopped image showing Chinese President Xi Jinping as an umbrella totting protestor was a popular and potent symbol for the movement.) Here was a protest movement that knew it is being watched, that produced accessible symbols that were legible to the world at large. To live in tents was to live in that imagined community, to proclaim a state of homelessness, to protest the high rent and property prices that are out of reach to the average Hong Kong person. It was a protest against having to resort to living in subdivided flats and cage homes.
The Umbrella Movement took place against a backdrop of the high profile corruption case in which Rafael Hui, the former Chief Secretary of the Hong Kong Administration (the city's second highest government post) and property developer Thomas Kwok were charged and found guilty of corruption. C. Y. Leung, the city’s current Chief Executive was also mired in a minor scandal involving a secret $7 million payout from an Australian engineering company UGL while in public office.
Leung, of course, used to be a big player himself in the property business. As reported in the New York Times, he has commented on how genuine democracy is not possible because "then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than [US] $1,800 a month." (Bradsher "Hong Kong Leader Affirms Unbending Stance") Given such comments and the fact that Leung was known by the protesters as the "wolf" due to a similarity between his surname and the Chinese term for the animal, the above allusion to George Orwell's Animal Farm is especially poignant.
Again, as you can see, this was a movement that knew it was being watched, and was very shrewd with its use of very accessible allusions.
The Umbrella Movement was to a large extent a work of bricolage, patching together moments from history, literature and pop culture, drawing its power from movements and impulses from various times.
The quote by Nelson Mandela on the man's shirt refers to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa; the poem on the banner is "My Generation" by Gu Cheng (顧城) and roughly translates as "The dark night gave me dark eyes, but I'm using them to look for brightness." Gu Cheng was one of the "Misty Poets" (朦朧詩人) exiled after the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989—there's another allusion to past political protests.
There were other references to be seen and heard. John Lennon, of course, stands for the anti-Vietnam War protests and 1960s counter culture. At various times, you could also hear the soundtrack of "Can You Hear the People Sing" blaring from speakers at Admiralty. The song, from the musical Les Misérables adapted from Victor Hugo's novel of the same name, alludes to the Paris Uprising of 1832.
The protest had its semiotic roots in populism, mass participation and even touristic spectatorship. If you were an historian, you would probably try to measure up the various historical influences with one another, but you would also need to acknowledge that these are all disparate and very contingent events in history. Yet the references can be quickly grasped by a lay public, and no lengthy explications are necessary for the references to do their work. This was a very culturally shrewd protest that utilised pop culture and literary and historical references for its cause.
The Lennon Wall was a work of participatory art, making use of the very act of popular participation as political strength. It was inspired by the Lennon Wall in Prague, on which political dissidents used the lyrics of John Lennon and the Beatles to protest the former Communist regime. Perhaps the Umbrella Movement was aiming for its own version of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which brought about a peaceful end to Communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. Was Hong Kong in 2014 looking back at 1989 Czechoslovakia and reimagining or dreaming a new country into existence? I am not an historian, so this might be a rather tenuous and blunt statement: but perhaps the 1989 Velvet Revolution may be seen as the successful counterpart to the 1989 Tiananmen protest.
You may say that I am a dreamer, but perhaps the wall is that dream of what might have been. At the Lennon Wall in Hong Kong, the public posted their dreams and hopes, as a protest both against the Communist regime in China and the excesses of Hong Kong's capitalist system.
Here I would like to invoke the rhizomatic conception of knowledge, proposed by the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, which I feel provides a framework for understanding the Umbrella Movement. The notion of the rhizome provides a departure from the binary understanding of this versus that, causes vs effects. Rather, it invites us to see knowledge and events as having multiple courses and intersections, and multiple beginnings and end-points. As Deleuze and Guattari tell us in A Thousand Plateaus, "A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organisations of power and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences and social struggles." We're not dealing with linearity here—there is not one line that proceeds from cause to effect.
The Umbrella Movement was rhizomatic in nature, in that although it was first proposed by the three founders of Occupy Central, it was taken over by two student groups: Scholarism, led by Joshua Wong who appeared on the cover of the Asian edition of Time Magazine and the Hong Kong Federation of Students, led by Alex Chow its Secretary-General and Lester Shum its Vice- Secretary. (These are all very young people between 18–22 years of age, and I remain amazed by their energy and commitment.) The changing make-up of the protests reflects the fact that there was not only one but many impulses that led to the Umbrella Movement: there was the straightforward political protest against functional constituencies, a framework whereby voting for the Chief Executive is in the hands of 1200 representatives, there was the protest against growing income disparity (C. Y. Leung himself has said that half of Hong Kong people earn less than US $1,800 a month) and there was the protest against the city's high property prices, insufficient provisions for public housing and the disproportionate power of property tycoons.
There was popular culture. There was art.
There was the protest against the anti-protest, against the way the students were treated. You could say that the affective tipping point for many who took to the streets was the use of pepper spray and teargas against unarmed students.
There was also a sense of festivity to the event. I am using the word "event" here in the Derridean sense. An event, Jacques Derrida reminds us, "implies surprise, exposure, the unanticipatable." An event is something which we could not have prepared for, and which leaves its irreversible marks even after it is over. An event, in other words, can never be completely over and finalised.
I remember walking around Admiralty with my wife and my ten-year-old son, and it was quite a scene. Carpenters were at work making tables and chairs for study areas for the student protesters. Corporate executives were sitting on concrete road dividers and having their lunch. There were tourists taking photographs and selfies, people singing and teachers offering free English lessons. Someone even offered to massage our feet for free. He was walking around and carrying a sign that said "free foot massage."
There were well-wishers who bought provisions from the nearest supermarket to the various supply tents. In the words of Deleuze and Guattari, the "rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo." Within the space of Occupy Central, we found that intermezzo, that unlikely connection between foot massages, free English lessons and political protests.
The intermezzo is a musical term for in-between music, music between proper compositions. Occupy Central, then, was that intermezzo, in between the proper everyday life of work and study. There are people at work—putting their skills to use. You could find artists, carpenters and teachers who had set up shop in this space. There were sheltered study areas that could take up to about 400 people.
It was business as usual on the one hand, and not quite business as usual on the other. It was a space of work and study and the routines of everyday life, but it was also a suspension of everyday life.
The streets were turned into art galleries.
Occupy Central was an eruption of social and political desire, such that the walls of government offices were literally written over with the will of the public.
All the photographs we have encountered thus far are of the Admiralty site. They are clever, allusive and very learned. When we turn those of the Mong Kok site, we see a slightly different scene.
There was humour there too, of course, that again was very allusive.
These are the minions from the film Despicable Me. And these working class minions were literally manning the barricades. Blocking the streets—this was work that was anti-work, the bio-energy disrupting the flow of the capitalist regime.
There is to some extent a working class sensibility in Mong Kok. Films like One Night in Mongkok directed by Derek Yee, for example, have used the district as the setting for triad activities. There is also the phrase "MK tsai," referring to the Mong Kok youth subculture, whose members often manage to look trendy and shabby at the same time.
The protest site at Mong Kok, like the one at Admiralty, was very canny in its display of identity. If Admiralty may roughly be said to have been the domain of the students, then at Mong Kok we saw the working class doing the work of protest—the site was often punctuated with collections of hard hats and displays of physical labour and exhaustion were much more prominent there.
Who was responsible for exhibits like the legs below? You could probably have identified the creators if you had tried hard enough, if you’d gone around asking. Unlike the exhibits in Admiralty (such as the Umbrella Man, the wooden sculpture at the beginning of this essay) which were presented as pieces of site-specific public art, there was a sense in Mong Kok of making do, working with materials that were repurposed.
There was the use of found objects, mass-produced objects that resulted in very witty displays. I know I cannot fully justify what I am going to say next, but at Admiralty, what we encountered was art, while at Mong Kok, we encountered displays that were not necessarily art. At least, they were not self-consciously posited as works of art, though we could read them as such. Perhaps this had to do with how the exhibits drew attention to their make-shift nature. On some days, the umbrellas were closed, and on other days, the half-mannequins were missing their stockings. Where did they go? Did they go back to the store, repurposed from their repurposing?
The above image is especially chilling—would this be the end result of the Umbrella Movement, I kept asking myself. The streets of Mong Kok were somewhat rougher—on many occasions, there were anti-Occupy protesters yelling at the protesters.
On one occasion, I witnessed a woman in her forties yelling in Cantonese with a distinct mainland Chinese accent. You could spin a conspiracy theory out of this—what was a single woman trying to accomplish by stepping off the sidewalk, walking right into a group of male Occupy protesters and yelling at them? Was she trying to create a scene to justify police intervention? This pattern repeated itself time and again: a few of the men would rise to the bait and stand up, but their compatriots would simply say "Peace, peace, calm, calm" ("和平， 和平， 冷靜， 冷靜") in Cantonese, and the scene would end with the men sitting back down on the ground.
As I was walking the streets of Mong Kok, I could not help but wonder at some of the displays—perhaps the Umbrella Movement was too canny for its own good. Some of the displays had the effect of reducing the protest movement into a spectacle.
Tourists would come, step off the sidewalk to take a few selfies and then go home, satisfied at having witnessed the movement.
I was, of course, complicit in this—there is probably no difference between what I was doing and what they were doing.
I am reminded often of Susan Sontag's point concerning photography. For her, "[p]hotography is essentially an act of non-intervention." It turns everyone into a tourist. Perhaps the Umbrella Movement was too pre-occupied with images. Just as symbols may stand in for something, they may do their job too well and replace that something.
I am also reminded of Guy Debord, the author of Society of the Spectacle, who argues that social life is reduced to images and that our relationships are mediated via these images. Even as these displays testified to the will of the people, they stopped short of political mobilisation. Debord has made the point that spectacle "is the opposite of dialogue." And time and again, from the students' failed attempts at going to Beijing to engage with Chinese authorities, to how many local citizens complained that the protests had become an inconvenience to commuters and businesses, we saw how dialogue was blocked.
Perhaps people were too busy producing and consuming such images, to the point of forgetting the real work of revolution.
What, after all, is a revolution? Will the movement find a second wind, allowing the Umbrella Revolution to take its place in history next to the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Velvet Revolution?
I am being very careless and glib here, I know, but how could you have a revolution when even the police were looking so very photogenic?
Those were some of the scenes at Mong Kok. Here are some from Causeway Bay.
The Umbrella Movement was contained within the space of consumerism. It was of consumerism. Especially on the streets of Mong Kong, and also at Causeway Bay, one could easily step off the occupied streets and be confronted with shops and boutiques.
Was the Umbrella Movement an event severed from everyday life, was it really discontinuous or was it simply a continuation of everyday life, imbricated in the capitalist circuits of media production and consumption? I find the juxtaposition of the advertising billboards with the banner in the above image especially intriguing.
As we know, Occupy Central, as a physical mobilisation, has now come to an end, and only time will tell how Hong Kong has been transformed, or perhaps not transformed by it. Perhaps, for now, it is best to focus on the past and to ask "What was Hong Kong occupied by in those seventy-nine days?"
It was occupied by images.
Perhaps it was occupied by simulacrum of a revolution, rather than the revolution itself.
You can see that I am caught in a net of ambivalence. On the one hand, The Umbrella Movement was the articulation of a public will, a mobilisation for the cause of genuine universal suffrage. It was decentralised, consisting of various networks of people. In this way, it was a rhizomatic event, and one that can never be fully eradicated, for as Deleuze and Guattari write:
A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines. You can never get rid of ants because they form an animal rhizome that can rebound time and again after most of it has been destroyed.
The Umbrella Movement could also be seen as an eruption that characterises the relationship between nations as imagined communities and the legal-political machinery of the state. It was a moment when governmental apparatuses found themselves interrogated by the will of the people. If you think of it this way, then there is hope for change. As it says on the Lennon Wall, "even if you're disappointed, you can't lose hope."
On the other hand, there was the hyperreality of the movement, mediated via signs and symbols and imagery; perhaps you could even say that the movement was largely made out of signs and symbols and imagery and nothing else. The media of the movement became more prominent than the movement itself.
Jean Baudrillard has said that the Gulf War did not take place. It wasn't really a war because it was conducted via remote video imagery and media presentations. Could we say the same of the Umbrella Movement? Was it real? Did it really take place?
Perhaps the Umbrella Movement is the appearance of politics, and at the same time, the disappearance of politics.
The ambivalence I feel towards the Umbrella Movement is a public ambivalence.
There are some who say that nothing has changed.
There are others who say that everything has changed.
Eddie Tay / Reviews Editor
22 September 2015
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