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 memes too, of course, since the protesters are children of the internet. But among the more standard offerings like The Rent Is Too Damn High and ALIENS there are jokes unique to the current crisis. Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung -- whose resignation the protesters have called for -- appears as a wolf since his name is a homonym for the animal. Fake Hong Kong banknotes include a wolf's head with "689" as the denomination -- the number of votes that elected him to office. The meme satirizes the fact that out of seven million people in Hong Kong, only 1,200 can vote in elections. When China announced that an awkward snapshot of President Xi Jinping holding an umbrella had won the country's top photography award, occupiers immediately PhotoShopped the umbrella yellow. Another meme, "I Will Now Recap In English," mocks the Hong Kong police's head of communications, who was known to say the phrase at every press conference. One clever protester wrote RPG stats for items like umbrellas and the song "Happy Birthday," which they sing to drown out counter-protesters.

Protest art serves many roles in the umbrella revolution. It bolsters spirits through humor and conveys messages to outsiders. In some cases, like a tent entirely covered in Pikachu cut outs or Stormtrooper masks, it ads personality and comfort to an otherwise desolate living space. Perhaps most crucially, it staves off the boredom that settles on people as they live for weeks on a barren stretch of highway.

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Everyone knows these protests won't work. There's no chance Beijing will allow universal suffrage in Hong Kong. There would be no way to square it with the government on the mainland, and it would open the door for domestic dissent. Beijing supporters see the protesters as ungrateful brats, pointing out that China subsidizes Hong Kong's low taxes and provides all its water. Even among those in Hong Kong who want the vote, the mission's futility has soured public support. It's reckless, they argue, to disrupt the city's infrastructure and endanger its economy when it was clear from the start that Beijing will never allow free elections. There's worry that these extralegal measures will trigger a larger and swifter crackdown than China originally considered. On the other hand, former protests have succeeded in smaller goals like cancelling a "patriotic" education curriculum, so some argue that even failure can be a bulwark against smaller changes. As this article went to press, the protest's leadership has agreed to turn itself in to authorities and called for the demonstrators to disband.

But while its goals will remain unfulfilled, what the movement has accomplished is to create a new political language for their generation. Here, internet-savvy youth have fused a new socially aware rhetoric with youth culture like video games, superhero movies, memes and manga in order to shape how others see the movement and how the movement sees itself. This is Asia's new generation stepping up and using the tools they have to take on crucial political questions, and the implications of that may resound far beyond Hong Kong.

Asia has been restless lately. There's a military coup in Thailand, brutal repression in Cambodia, and ongoing protests everywhere from India to Malaysia.

It's true that these places don't speak the same language, but the real question may be: are they fluent in geek?

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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