Resistance in Hiding: An Archive

At 11pm on June 30th, 2020, the night before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China and one year anniversary of the storming of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, the sweeping National Security Law was officially enacted. Prior to the release of the details, nobody in Hong Kong was allowed to see the details of the law - not even Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

Introduced a month earlier by Beijing, it re-defines and criminalizes actions that the CCP considers to be acts of “subversion, secession, terrorism, and foreign interference” that are seen as threats to national security. Inserted into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, it bypasses the local legislature, effectively ending the “One Country, Two Systems” framework - 27 years earlier than its original expiration date of 2047.

As the city awoke to a new reality, with individuals liable to arrest for even possessing protest-related stickers, citizens quickly adjusted accordingly. With a far-reaching scope of 66 articles, waves of social media accounts being deleted and the contemplation of emigration immediately rippled out. However, amidst an air of fear and uncertainty, a heavy silence of blank pages and code emerged, replacing what many were now unable to voice out.

In line with the Hong Kong protest movement’s reputation for being creatively versatile, satirically snarky, and stubbornly resilient, artists and social media users quickly found ways to work around the new restrictions. Playing with visual, auditory, and symbolic puns, here are some of the workarounds that have been widely shared.

Presented in a style reminiscent of a museum’s archive, this series also draws attention to many of Hong Kongers’ fears that the tumultuous year that the city has just experienced will be remembered as nothing more than a footnote in history, gathering dust in a museum - if allowed to be remembered at all.

At 11pm on June 30th, 2020, the night before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China and the one year anniversary of the storming of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, the document on the National Security Law was finally released, its contents immediately effective as law. None of the details of the law were available to anyone in Hong Kong prior to this moment, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam. With 66 articles that loosely define acts of “subversion, secession, terrorism, and foreign interference” and an extraterritorial jurisdiction that applies to everyone on the planet, it surpassed people’s wildest expectations. Within one month, 20 countries have ended extradition agreements with Hong Kong, including the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, France, and Germany.

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One week after the National Security Law was passed, an invitation to attend a small, public conversation was opened to those who wanted to understand how the law would affect everyday life and the upcoming Legislative Council elections. Amidst an atmosphere of worry and uncertainty, a long line of individuals, friends, and families of all ages filed into a small room. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, attendees were asked to forfeit their phones upon entering in order to facilitate a safe space, preventing individuals from recording and taking photos. The phones were first wrapped in aluminum foil to create a ‘Faraday Cage’ barrier, which blocks incoming and outgoing radio signals. They were then slipped inside of envelopes made of old newspapers and recycled paper with the owners’ names marked, each person trusting that their phone would not be stolen amidst this intimate crowd. An air of sombre anticipation hung heavily in the room, as attendees sought solace and clarity amongst one another, trying to process the new reality that now grips Hong Kong.

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In the days leading up to and following the passing of the National Security Law, a mass exodus rippled out in the digital sphere, with people deleting Twitter accounts, privatizing social media, and downloading VPNs. Interviewees asked journalists to delete their private message histories, and journalists considered asking their editors to scrub their bylines. The erasure of history had begun.

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As early as one day after the National Security Law was passed, sheets of blank paper began appearing as signs of protest in place of placards that would normally sport popular slogans such as “Free Hong Kong” - slogans that were now considered illegal under the new legislation, subject to a lifetime of imprisonment. Initially inspired by an anecdote that a protestor once heard regarding protesters who were arrested by Soviet Union police for distributing blank pamphlets at the Red Square, other protesters also explained that these blank sheets of paper represented the “white terror” that had taken over Hong Kong. Though these sheets of white paper did not have any text, the meaning of these blank spaces were clear to all. As previous signs would have said, “you can’t kill ideas”.

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Since July 2019, Lennon Walls of post-it notes featuring encouraging messages and popular slogans began appearing in residential neighbourhoods across Hong Kong. Filling tunnels, transportation hubs, and restaurant walls, these temporary spaces were seen as fleeting and peaceful moments of solidarity between protestors. Following the passing of the National Security Law, it was announced that these walls would now be illegal, and businesses were instructed to take down any Lennon Walls on their premises. In response, some “Yellow Shops” (businesses that identify themselves as supporting the Hong Kong protest movement), replaced their Lennon Walls with blank post-its instead. One business owner explained that “most pro-democracy supporters will understand and visualize the [messages] when they see the blank notes.”

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Glory to Hong Kong, composed and written by a musician under the pseudonym of “Thomas dgx yhi” with the support of Hong Kong netizens, is a song that has been adopted as the anthem of the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests - with some even regarding it as the “national anthem of Hong Kong.” Though the Hong Kong government has refused to declare whether the protest song is illegal following the passing of the National Security Law, it has since been banned in schools. Given the tonal language of Cantonese and the fear of potential repercussions following the law, the song has been translated into numbers, with the pronunciation of the numbers sounding quite close to the original lyrics.

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In the week that followed the implementation of the National Security Law, at least nine books written by pro-Democracy and Localist activists such as Joshua Wong, Horace Chin, and Tanya Chan were recalled for “review” in libraries across Hong Kong. A few days later, Hong Kong education officials also followed suit and instructed schools to review reading materials which could “possibly violate” the new legislation. Despite repeated assurances by Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities that the freedoms of speech and assembly would remain protected under the law, legal authorities called these moves alarming, restrictive of the public’s right to seek information, and an infringement of academic freedom. 

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Some artists chose to re-interpret the Chinese protest slogans - all of which were now illegal under the National Security Law - into simple geometric shapes. Though the shapes do not seem to make sense by themselves, the triangles and rectangles begin to resemble the Chinese characters for “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” a phrase that would now be considered as a call for subversion and secession.
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In another creative substitution for protest slogans that are now deemed illegal, artists have replaced the slogan of “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” (or “gwong fuk hoeng gong, si doi gaak ming” in Cantonese) with the near-homonym of “Bacon and Sausage, Vegetables and Noodles” (which sounds like “jin juk hoeng coeng, si coi zaa min” in Cantonese). Some “yellow” restaurants (businesses that support the Hong Kong protest movement), have also been seen to incorporate this dish into their menus.

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A popular staple of Hong Kong bread brands, Garden Bakery’s Life Bread is presented in an easily-recognizable and nostalgic-inducing packaging of blue and white gingham. During the siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the peak of tensions in November 2019 that resulted in a two-week lockdown of the university campus, a police officer was seen mocking the locked up protestors. Noticing that the surrounded protesters were eating Life bread, the police officer made the suggestion that he plans to go to Shenzhen to have hotpot and cold beer following his shift, while the protestors would not be able to leave the premises. Protestors responded by defending the brand, turning up to protests with loaves of Life.

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On the weekend of the 11th of July, unofficial Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Primaries were held to gauge support for the Pro-Democracy candidates in order to maximize the possibility of a “35+ majority” in anticipation of the expected November 2020 Legislative Council Elections. With a turnout of more than 600,000, it was the most-participated primary in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover, with localist candidates winning out over the traditional pro-democrat parties. Warned that the primaries may have breached the newly imposed National Security Law, 12 candidates were subsequently banned from running in the Legislative Council elections. On July 31, 2020, it was further announced by Chief Executive Carrie Lam that the Legislative Council Elections were to be postponed for one year - allegedly due to the recent resurgence of local Covid-19 cases.

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Finally, a popular symbol of the Hong Kong protests, 3M masks have been necessary pieces of equipment for protesters since the summer of 2019, used as protection against tear gas, pepper spray, and surveillance. In October 2019, face masks were banned under a colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance in an effort to stifle the protests, with sentences of up to a year in jail and a fine of HK$25,000. At the end of January 2020, an unexpected need for face masks suddenly emerged as cases of Covid-19 were reported. With surgical masks initially sold out and concern for the filtering of fine particles, the use of 3M masks re-emerged - this time, for casual use on the streets of Hong Kong in broad daylight. 3M masks can still occasionally be seen, a stark reminder of what the city has experienced over the course of just a single year. Now the question lies: What will happen in the next year(s)?

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