The first canisters of tear gas hit the ground in Hong Kong on Sunday, September 28. Students had been protesting in front of the central government headquarters for a week, demanding genuinely democratic elections, but their numbers had remained fairly small. Things changed that weekend, when the police began attempting to disperse the crowds with pepper spray and tear gas. Many protesters tried to protect their faces with the only thing they had – their umbrellas.
Within days, hand-drawn paper umbrellas appeared on the barricades surrounding the protesters. Pro-democracy citizens began changing their Facebook profile photos to pictures of umbrellas. Umbrellas disappeared from 7–11s across the territory and reappeared as impromptu public art on city streets.
Through some form of crowd synergy and internet-enabled sharing, the humble umbrella, it seemed, had become the symbol of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
As the numbers of protesters in central Hong Kong swelled, the umbrella quickly moved into the realm of design icon. An art professor held a mock competition to come up with the coolest umbrella-themed designs to represent the pro-democracy movement. Most of the designs were yellow, the color of the ribbons worn by the student demonstrators. There was a solid yellow umbrella against a black silhouette of the Hong Kong skyline. There’s a Hong Kong flag, its stylized bauhinia orchid transformed into a flower with umbrellas for petals. There’s an umbrella superimposed on a peace sign.
Less than a week after the initial tear-gassing, umbrella shirts were being produced and handed out across university campuses. A young artist created an “Umbrella Man” statue out of wood blocks and a yellow umbrella and brought it to the main protest site, reminding many of the Goddess of Democracy sculpture on display in Tiananmen Square before the massacre of 1989. Joshua Wong, the leader of the student protest movement, celebrated his 18th birthday at the barricades with an umbrella-shaped cake.
Some media outlets have even nicknamed the entire protest the “Umbrella Revolution,” though most demonstrators disliked the use of the word ‘revolution’ – they’re not interested in overthrowing the government, they said, simply in getting the democratic elections they were promised after the 1997 handover.
What was it about the umbrella that so captured people’s aesthetic imaginations?
First you must understand that umbrellas are ubiquitous in Hong Kong. The weather here is highly unpredictable, with clear skies giving way to frightening lashings of rain in minutes. But umbrellas are just as common in sunny weather as during storms. As in many parts of Asia, tan skin is shunned here. Whole pharmacy aisles are dedicated to skin whitening products, and swimmers and hikers often cover themselves with long sleeves and safari hats. Umbrellas are frequently used as parasols on the city streets; even toddlers carry their own tiny umbrellas on their way to and from preschool.
The umbrella was a perfect symbol for the demonstration because it speaks of orderly civic life, of conscientiousness, of ordinary middle-class respectability. These are values the demonstrators have been very keen to instantiate, to counter the Chinese government’s insistence that they’re crazed radicals intent on destroying the social fabric. Young demonstrators have been picking up litter around the protest sites, sorting the recycling, holding free street-side math lessons so students won’t fall behind in school. They even tried to bring food and lunch to the police. They’re the kind of kids who do their homework and don’t forget their umbrellas.
Throughout history, icons of protest have developed both deliberately and naturalistically.
The peace symbol is perhaps the best example of a deliberately developed icon of a movement. Following some vaguely remembered childhood reading, I’d always believed that the peace symbol represented a dove’s foot, and supposed it to be ancient. It’s actually less than 60 years old, and was created by a British designer named Gerald Holtom. Holtom, a former WWII conscientious objector, wanted a symbol to use in a 1958 anti-nuclear demonstration march from Trafalgar Square to a nuclear plant some 50 miles away. To create one, he used the semaphore alphabet, the flag signaling system once used in military and maritime contexts. He took the symbol for ‘N’ (nuclear) and superimposed it over the symbol for ‘D’ (disarmament), and a 20th-century icon was born. The symbol was quickly coopted by Americans protesting the Vietnam War, and has since become seen as a general sign of peace rather than a specifically anti-nuclear icon.
From the beginning, the gay rights movement has had a plethora of symbols ranging from the well-known (rainbow flag, lambda, pink triangle) to the now-obscure (the violet flower, the lavender rhinoceros). The rainbow flag was deliberately designed for a 1978 gay pride march in San Francisco, while the pink triangle was the symbol worn by gay prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, and later reclaimed by gay rights advocates. The violet is an example of a naturalistically developed icon with an interesting backstory. In 1926, a play called The Captive, by the French playwright Édouard Bourdet, was staged in New York. In the play (which was considered so scandalous it was eventually shut down by the NYPD), a lesbian character gave a violet to a young woman she was trying to seduce. This was probably a reference to the poems of Sappho, which portrayed female lovers wearing crowns of violets. Suddenly, giving violets as gifts became the chic thing among Jazz Age lesbians. As the decades passed, the color purple in general became associated with LGBTQ identity and pride.
Many icons have become so stylized it’s hard to discern their origins unless you’ve been told. During the May 1968 student protests in Paris, one of the most powerful symbols of the soixante-huitards was a jagged red shape resembling a sea of red waves. This was a highly stylized image of the silhouette of the protesters en masse, all carrying the red flags of socialism. For years after, the jagged shape was incorporated into other iconography of socialist revolt.
And what of the raised fist inside a Venus symbol, the classic 1970s Women’s Movement icon? The Venus symbol dates back to ancient Greece, where it symbolized both the planet and the goddess. Ironically, given its current usage, it is said to represent a stylized hand mirror, since Aphrodite was always so busy staring at her pretty face. As for the raised fist, it’s been used as a symbol of popular resistance since at least 19th-century France. In the late 1960s, a San Francisco artist named Frank Cieciorka made a woodblock version of the fist, which he turned into buttons to pass out at anti-war rallies. His simple, graphic version of the fist quickly became used as a symbol for a number of New Left causes, from Black Power to environmentalism. Women’s Movement leader Robin Morgan got the idea to place the fist inside the Venus symbol, and a new icon was born. The symbol was first deployed at the 1968 Miss America pageant protests in Atlantic City. Protesters wore buttons with the symbol in red on a white background. When asked about the color, they were instructed to say it was “menstrual red.”
Will generations to come understand the meaning of the yellow umbrella? Will it have the lasting impact of the raised fist, or will it quickly fade into obscurity like so many other symbols?
This depends, of course, on where the pro-democracy movement goes. It’s been three weeks since students and others began taking over the streets of Hong Kong. Numbers have been dwindling, and few experts think there’s much chance China will give in to any of their demands. But large crowds still gather at night to sing songs, raise their cell phones like candles, draw pictures, and do homework. And no matter what the political outcome, the movement itself has made its mark on history, forever imprinted as the moment when the people of this city stood up and waved their umbrellas in the face of power.