Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Pikachu and Pepper Spray: Hong Kong's Geeky Protest Art

Robert Rath | 4 Dec 2014 12:00
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There are gentler versions too. Though Pikachu doesn't have an umbrella, he gets grandfathered in due to his yellow hue, and there's a life-size cutout of Queen Elsa lashed to a lamppost holding an umbrella over her head. Sidewalk drawings show everyone from Link to One Piece characters wielding the iconic parasol. Amid it all, a genuine threat stands out: Mockingjay symbols adorn sidewalks, echoing the protests in Thailand where protesters face arrest for performing the three-fingered salute. A flyer with the symbol reads, "If we burn, you burn with us."

But the movement has a particular fondness for Batman. Bat symbol signs are common, and at one time a large banner reading "Everyone Can Be Batman," fluttered from a pedestrian bridge. The symbol urges demonstrators to act anonymously for the greater good rather than trying to gain attention or fame. Signs around the camp echo this philosophy, asking visitors and media not to take close-up pictures of the demonstrators, so everyone remains an "anonymous hero." It's also practical -- cops and legislators have been known to walk through the camp taking photos to use in later prosecutions.

Photography restrictions get tightest around the study tent, since students worry that attending the protest may impact their academic career. Most protesters are university and high school students, and in high-pressure Hong Kong, a democratic movement isn't a valid excuse for letting grades drop. The tent has existed so long it's nearly an institution, the Jack-o-Lantern candy buckets at its entrance now giving way to Christmas trees. Academic texts fill its lending library, but not far away there's a recreational library stocked with manga.

Manga's role here cannot be overstated. While pop culture figures serve to psych the protesters up, it's through sequential art that they tell their stories and engage in communal mythmaking. Multiple banners and comic pages dot the camp, telling the movement's story. One presents the demonstrators as cute cats and rabbits fending off attacks from robot policemen. Each panel commemorates a significant date or event -- the founding of the camps, the tear gas incident, and the police beating a handcuffed social worker in front of news cameras (the seven officers were recently arrested for the assault). Others emphasize the comradeship among classmates demonstrating together while another tells the story of a couple that found love amid the tear gas.

But even without a strict narrative, manga styles play a role in how protesters present themselves. Women appear as cute preteens or willowy beauties, though occasionally they show the outsized emotions common in the art style. The greatest example ripples on a 20-foot banner hung from the sky bridge -- Umbrella Girl, standing defiant with umbrella and smartphone in hand, a sliver of midriff showing between her shorts and school top. A surgical mask covers her mouth while a snorkel mask perches on her forehead. Men on the other hand either come off as stoic or warriors, with the most popular image also being the most confrontational. In it, a protester punches the ground, his surgical mask, helmet, umbrella and makeshift water bottle armor lending a ninja-like appearance. These images present demonstrators as they'd like to see themselves -- bold, innocent and sexy.

Few depict the police favorably, or at all, though some note the tragedy that the cops across the barricades are often as young as the protesters. Junior officer morale hit an all-time low recently. A striking, humanistic drawing shows a demonstrator holding an umbrella over an exhausted riot cop's head. Used (often unhappily) as enforcers, the Hong Kong police have shown remarkable restraint over the last two months, and at times defended them from attacks by counter-demonstrations.

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