Hong Kong’s ‘true colours’ — creativity under the shades of umbrellas

Brian Chui is drawing portraits of protesters and passers-by.

In the middle of a flyover in Admiralty, the business district on Hong Kong Island, everything around Brian Chui is a blend: rows of skyscrapers overhead; a line of more than twenty people in front; a village of tents sprawled along the road.

But he does not seem to notice any of those.

Sitting by the table made temporarily out of wooden boards, he has his eyes firmly on the face in front of him, and he creates quick strokes on the 15-meter-long art piece named “People Who Guard Hong Kong”.

Chui is a 36-year-old New York-based product designer who came back to Hong Kong to support the movement that has entered its second month. He is one of the many artists who have found this public space an outlet for creativity.

“If you’re interested, sit down, and let me draw a portrait of you, then you’ll become part of history. This moment in time, we’re all part of it,” he says.

A ‘moment in time’

Chui is part of a civil disobedience campaign that kicked off in Hong Kong on September 28, when pro-democracy protesters flocked to the roads of Admiralty, as well as two other major shopping districts, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok.

Responding to the framework of the 2017 chief executive election set by the Chinese government in August, protesters called into question Beijing’s commitment to govern Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” principle, which allows the city to have “a high degree of autonomy.”

Best known as an international financial centre and a bustling entreport between East and West, Hong Kong is often stereotyped as the city that prioritises economic achievements over arts and culture.

In a bid to build Hong Kong into a creative hub, the government in 2009 has been making moves such as setting up CreateHK — an agency “to lead, champion and drive the development of creative economy in Hong Kong.”

But in an indication that the government thinks the arts in Hong Kong is still lacking, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor suggested in May 2014 the third phrase of construction of the West Kowloon Cultural District should only proceed when the city becomes more culturally developed.

Now, in what may be the biggest ever political sit-in of Hong Kong, the unprecedented burst of street art shows how creative the city already is.

“If they just come for a look [at the protest site], they’ll realise that art is not only in the hands of elite artists, but in the community,” says Clarisse Yeung Suet-ying, chairperson of Hong Kong Culture Monitor.

Once a battleground, the protest sites have been transformed into spaces of inspiration, canvas, or even galleries, with protesters making all kinds of art on the streets.

‘Art is our language’

“I think art is something we all possess. Skills are added, but I think for every one of us, art is our language,” says Chui. “So the fact that art exists here [at the protest site] is normal.”

Just a few meters uphill, across the highway from Chui, office clerk Winky Cheung, 27, and a group of friends are making miniature paper models.

“As long as you have a printer and pieces of blank paper, they could be made,” Cheung says. She made the models with free resources shared by bloggers on the Internet.

“Whether people are professional artists or not, maybe they are totally unrelated to crafts and productions, but because of this movement, they will want to produce a lot of things,” says Cheung.

And she is no exception. At the protest sites, art is everywhere, whether in the form of a wall of rainbow-coloured Post-it notes with messages of encouragements for the protest, or as a wood art sculpture of a man holding an umbrella. These pieces were not only produced by professional artists, but also by ordinary citizens like Cheung, and sometimes as a collective effort of passers-by as well.

“Lennon Wall”, a wall of Post-it notes in Admiralty.

‘Something missing in life’

But amidst the images of yellow umbrellas — a symbol of the movement as protesters used umbrellas to shield themselves from the police’s pepper sprays, one recurrent characteristic of these artworks is a wry sense of humour.

Taking the inspiration from the Chief Executive CY Leung’s claim of foreign influence behind the protest, Cheung names the models “We Are Honest And Aboveboard In Colluding With Foreign Forces” with a laugh.

Winky Cheung (in black) and a friend are taping their models on the road.

“I am aboveboard in making a pair of foreign characters, a pair of characters that represent justice well, and I’m honest in exhibiting them here for you all to see,” she says, looking at the crowd surrounding the models moments after she and her friends put them on the street.

In fact, visits to the protest sites have become leisure and learning activities.

On a Saturday afternoon, parents learn how to fold origami umbrellas with their children on the streets, tourists snap photos with the life-size paper statue of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and protesters hand out yellow umbrella key chains as souvenirs for passers-by.

Installation composed of origami umbrellas folded by passers-by.

“I think this movement is also showing some relax, something missing from life. Hong Kong is a very fast place,” the Italian painter Francesco Lietti says, as he takes a sip of coffee in the small cafe hidden around the corner near a back alley in Causeway Bay. Lietti brought blank canvas to the protest sites and invited passers-by and protesters to paint their opinions.

Francesco Lietti with one of his paintings in the movement.

Behind the glamor of neon signs and skyscrapers in the crowded financial hub is the reality of 7.2 million people living on 1,104 square kilometres of land.

Fierce competition, especially in the housing market, has caused a lot of pressure for Hong Kong residents. The city has been ranked first for the least affordable housing in the world for four consecutive years, according to a survey published by the US-based consulting company Demographia in 2014.

Politics is the driving force of the movement, Lietti says, but because of the pro-democracy movement, people are also experiencing new ways of living in the city.

Traditional art versus creativity

For art critics like Yeung, the new experiences cannot simply be interpreted as traditional art.

Despite being a Fine Arts graduate, Yeung does not find traditional art pieces the most appealing in the movement, but rather the stairs with water-barriers and the bamboo barricades.

“The things that appeared over the night, are the skills of the people, the creativity of the people,” she says.

In Hong Kong, bamboo scaffolding is a traditional technique often used in the construction industry, whether for repairing walls, or building high-rise skyscrapers. On October 13, protesters, along with construction workers, built bamboo barricades across Queensway, a major road in Admiralty over the night. The barricades were made to prevent the police from entering the protest encampment.

“People’s creativity has been looked down, ignored and hidden,” Yeung says.

For Yeung, the best art piece she has seen in ten years is the banner hung on Lion Rock.

On 23rd October, a banner writes “I want true universal suffrage” was hung on Lion Rock. The song “Beneath the Lion Rock” is often regarded as the unofficial anthem of Hong Kong, as the mountain represents the can-do spirit of Hong Kong people.

“The most amazing thing is when you think about the lyrics … everyone can get the message easily. What else can be as straightforward and simple as this?” she says. Her voice catches.

The sit-ins have blocked major roads in Hong Kong for almost seventy days now, and with protest camps in Mong Kok cleared by the police on November 26, there is uncertainty over what will happen to the movement, and to the art it spawned.

But art experts are optimistic that the art will live on the people of Hong Kong, long after the protest sites have been dismantled and return again to bustling streets.

The movement is “defining for the whole generation of people who are involved in it,” says David J. Clarke, professor of the Department of Fine Arts at The University of Hong Kong.

“Once you’ve experienced, [and been] able to exercise your political power, then you’ll always have that experience,” says Clarke. “The same thing with the power of expressing yourself through creativity. Once you’ve done it, you’ll just carry on, using that freedom of expression.”
A close-up view of Chui’s painting.

Originally published in Nov 2014.