How the soft power of the democracy movement is still alive – Antony Dapiran
Based on extracts from City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong
Hong Kong can feel at times like a disenchanted city.
The protests of 2019 drew upon a deep-seated malaise, bringing onto the streets people who felt they were stuck with a leader they hadn’t chosen, running a government that didn’t listen to them, in a city whose housing they could not afford, and with wages and an economy that were going nowhere. During the course of 2020, the new National Security Law coupled with an ongoing crackdown by the authorities has left the population even more dispirited. Many with the means or the qualifications are actively exploring options for emigration. Others despair at what the future might hold for them – or their children.
It is hard to love a disenchanted city. Disenchantment breeds cynicism, and creates an emotional detachment from the community. Yet there is a solution to this state in which Hong Kong finds itself.
Hong Kong’s activists have long had an ability to capture a sense of enchantment … encouraging engagement in civic life”
The feeling of ‘enchantment’, according to political theorist Jane Bennett, is a ‘state of wonder’, a feeling that time and space stand still. In the face of an enchanting experience, you are left transfixed, or spellbound. Places or moments of enchantment can inspire a sense of awe, even fill us with overwhelming feelings of generosity and love for the world. But enchantment can also serve a political purpose, drawing attention to a cause and galvanising community support.
Hong Kong’s activists have long had an ability to capture this sense of enchantment: from the solemn lawyers’ silent marches or annual 4 June candlelit vigils held to commemorate Tiananmen Square, to the vibrant tent city of the Umbrella Movement which grew into a cultural site resembling nothing so much as a large outdoor community arts festival.
In the course of months of protests last year, protesters created sites or moments of enchantment which seemed to offer a solution to Hong Kong’s political and social ennui. That ‘state of wonder’ lifted the fog of cynicism and disenchantment, encouraging engagement in civic life, and offering rays of hope for the protest movement and for the city.
The Hong Kong Way
It almost felt like magic. A few people standing on the street were joined by a few more; people lining the footpath of one block connected to those on the next block. And suddenly, there they all were, hand in hand, chanting slogans and singing songs. On 23 August 2019, the thirtieth anniversary of the Baltic Way – a human chain linking the capitals of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to demand the Baltic republics’ independence from the Soviet Union – more than 200,000 people came out onto the streets of Hong Kong to form the Hong Kong Way. From the crowded streets of Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island, to the famous waterfront of Tsim Sha Tsui, to the suburbs of the New Territories, to the peak of Lion Rock, people linked hands in a continuous human chain that measured 60km in total. They chanted protest slogans and waved their mobile phone lights in the air. Cars driving by tooted their support; passengers waved from the windows of passing trams. The mood was ecstatic, jubilant.
In a city in which interpersonal relationships can often seem cold and distant, it was of great significance that participants were holding hands: this physical act, of reaching out and touching one’s neighbour, was a powerful expression of solidarity. The action inspired a series of ongoing “human chain” protests, in particular among high school students who formed human chains linking campuses.
As a protest action, the Hong Kong Way was extremely effective: entirely peaceful, a striking visual spectacle, and a physical manifestation of the broad support the movement enjoyed from across the community. People of all ages and from all walks of life, families with young children, the elderly – all joined the chain, putting paid to any suggestion that the protesters were just a few hot-headed young student agitators. It also covered the entire city geographically, ensuring that people could participate wherever they were without needing to travel, and spreading the message of the protests by means of a spectacle that could be witnessed in every district.
The Hong Kong Way was a physical manifestation of the broad support the movement enjoyed from across the community”
And most importantly: the Hong Kong way created a moment – and a citywide site – of enchantment. As the clock struck nine, people were saying, ‘That’s it! Time to go!’ and they dispersed, waving to each other as they went, back to their homes, back to the tea houses or bars, off into the night. Fifteen minutes later, the footpath was empty. And that, perhaps, is the one final essential characteristic of enchantment: it is a fleeting moment, by its nature transitory. And so, by its very impermanence, even more enchanting.
On Lion Rock
A few weeks later, on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival [September 13], the call had gone out for the people to climb a mountain to view the moon – and, of course, to protest.
Lion Rock is one of the most prominent natural landmarks in Hong Kong – a craggy, cliff-edged mountaintop, its shape said to resemble a crouching lion, looming over the Kowloon Peninsula. In the 1970s a popular television series, Below the Lion Rock, told the stories of ordinary families struggling to make ends meet in the housing estates and squatter settlements of Hong Kong. Lion Rock came to symbolise the values of hard work and striving for a better life in the face of adversity – referred to in Hong Kong as the ‘Lion Rock spirit’, a kind of precursor to ‘Hong Kong core values’ amid the beginnings of an emerging Hong Kong identity in the post-1967 era. As a result, the site carried with it cultural resonances, and a certain nostalgia, for many Hong Kongers.
Given the emotional resonances of the site and its protest history, it was not surprising that the Mid-Autumn Festival in 2019 found protesters back at Lion Rock. Crowds turned out in their thousands, so much so that Lion Rock that night was ‘full’: all the paths leading up to the peak were packed with people out to protest, and to celebrate. Those who couldn’t make the climb gathered in the park below, chanting protest slogans, singing songs, and shining lanterns and laser beams. Above them, Lion Rock’s ridgeline was outlined with the lights of protesters who had successfully made the climb.
It was just one of many outdoor events unfolding across the city that night. People gathered in parks; others climbed mountains. A group of protesters on Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island shone lasers visible to those on Lion Rock, some ten kilometres away across the harbour on Kowloon – a message of solidarity written in light.
Lennon Walls Bloom
When Hong Kong’s protests are seen through the perspective of enchantment, the entire city becomes a canvas for expression.
The best examples of this were the Lennon Walls. These were decorated with thousands of Post-it Notes bearing messages of support, as well as an ever-rotating series of posters, flyers, artwork, and sometimes even installations or works of sculpture. Some art was pre-printed, some hand-drawn, some graffitied directly onto the walls. The walls also served as community noticeboards, featuring advertisements for upcoming rallies or other planned protest actions, information about recent events, and protest propaganda.
The Umbrella Movement’s Lennon Wall had been in just one location, in Admiralty, but in 2019 Lennon Walls spread across the city. Responding to exhortations to let the Lennon walls ‘bloom everywhere’ (pindei hoifaa 遍地開花), any vertical surface in a highly trafficked location – on footbridges and in underpasses, on columns and walls outside stations – became an opportunity for a Lennon Wall. The larger Lennon Walls, such as the monumental Lennon Tunnel at Tai Po, became sites of pilgrimage in their own right, with people travelling from across town to pay homage.
The Lennon Walls were sites of enchantment. They transformed a plain footbridge or underpass into an art gallery; overwhelming in size; organic and ever-changing. One would be filled with a sense of delight upon entering a pedestrian underpass while going about one’s business in the city, only to discover that the tunnel had been ‘Lennonized’ in a cacophony of colour, imagery, and text. With the Lennonization of an urban space, the commuter’s passage through that space became a journey of wonder, with constant opportunities for visual stimulation and for humour.
In the course of the 2019 protests, the Lennon Wall was transformed from a site to an idea, an instrument and expression of protest, and became as a result significantly more powerful and enduring – and, ultimately, indestructible. One slogan put it succinctly: ‘You can tear down Lennon Walls. You cannot tear down ideas.’ And it may be for this reason that the authorities aggressively targeted Lennon Walls, first with ‘clean-up’ campaigns and, more recently, with outright threats that the walls and the messages they bear are now illegal under the National Security Law.
One slogan put it succinctly: ‘You can tear down Lennon Walls. You cannot tear down ideas.’
It also provides an illustration of how the authorities have fundamentally failed to grasp the concept – and power – of enchantment. The government exhorts the population to ‘Love Hong Kong’, deploying crude propaganda, economic bribes or, more recently, naked threats. But this is not a battle that can be won in dollars and cents, or through brute force. They fail to understand that they need to enchant the people.
An enchanting future
To revisit these moments of enchanting protest from 2019 is not merely a wistful protest nostalgia that is, to be sure, very alluring to many in Hong Kong now. This is not simply of historical interest.
Rather, at this moment – as Hong Kong’s activists look for direction in the face of a myriad of constraints, from virus social distancing rules preventing street gatherings, to aggressive policing tactics, to the new National Security Law – I suggest that these enchanting modes of protest can offer a way forward. If the continuing protest movement is to be successful, it will need to continue to create these sites and moments of enchantment to capture the imagination of, and unite, the people.
If the malaise currently plaguing Hong Kong is going to be lifted, whether by the efforts of the authorities or the community themselves, these moments of light from last year may hold some kind of key. Hong Kong needs enchantment now, more than ever. ∎