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‘Of a particular time and place’: In praise of the Umbrella Movement’s iconic artwork

Back in October 2014, I distinctly remember a quietly surreal weekday morning when I had an unusually pleasant stroll through Hong Kong’s normally-hectic Central business district. With the sun shining brightly, I was able to saunter leisurely from Exchange Square to Admiralty along the tarmac of Harcourt Road in complete peace and quiet. The atmosphere was dreamlike, in a post-nuclear Armageddon kind of way.

This was at the height of Occupy Central when the city’s traffic was completely paralyzed by protesters and their makeshift barricades. The tunnel outside Jardine House, normally a major thoroughfare, was completely deserted. The walls that lined the tunnel became a giant dust stencil graffiti canvas. As far as I can tell, no surface was damaged and no ink was used at all. Just as people sometimes mark out messages in the dust built up on old cars using their fingers, the wall surfaces of the tunnel, covered in years of soot, became a message board with images and words drawn out where fingers had removed dirt.

occupy central art umbrella

Photo: HKFP.

Emerging from the tunnel and heading towards the flyover in front of Admiralty Centre, I was greeted by the sight of numerous multicoloured tents. It was around nine o’clock and everyone seemed to be fast asleep in their little make shift homes. I was thinking: this is a chance to camp out on some of the world’s most valuable real estate for free! Perhaps The Mandarin Hotel could have offered their patrons this chance-in-a-lifetime option?

As a creative person, inspiration occurs when the familiar and the unfamiliar collide. I felt highly energized and began to notice everything in a sense of heightened intensity. The tool that I had with me was my iPhone and I began to photograph what I saw. I am sure that it was also equally inspiring for other creative people too because it was not long on my walk that I came across many installations that involved much ingenuity and design skill. The central barriers were used as table supports for desks and benches, elegant steps were created to ease the traversing of the barrier itself and soil was even placed on the ground where a makeshift lawn was taking shape.

occupy central art umbrella

“Umbrella Man”. Photo: HKFP.

As expected, the ubiquitous yellow umbrella was used as a common component in many installations. With the help of plastic zip lock fasteners, these lightweight contraptions were joined together forming gigantic structures that swayed precariously in the wind.

True creativity is when one is able to harness the resources around oneself. Many of the creations were the result of artfully combined materials that had been discarded after weeks of protests. For example, a giant ‘Goddess of Democracy’ was created using a multitude of planks of varying sizes.

For me, the most impactful ‘work’ was the so-called ‘Lennon Wall’ – although I have reservations about the designated name (since the original Lennon Wall in Prague was created under different circumstances and was also visually very different). I felt this particular wall deserved a more specific title, perhaps ‘The Post-it Note Wall’? For it consisted of numourous square, palm-sized, Post-it notes, which covered the curved wall along a staircase that crept up one side of the Legislative Council Building in Tamar. I have never been a fan of this building, although I am a great admirer of the main architect Rocco Yim, who has created some of Hong Kong’s best buildings. I feel the grey and harsh surfaces used in the development were unnecessarily harsh and inhumane. The colourful patchwork of Post-it notes in various shades of pastel was, to me, the perfect riposte to the grim grey environment. It offered a chance for the public to organically add to a building that is supposedly for the people. Anybody could leave their thoughts on the wall. Blank Post-it notes and markers were conveniently provided by a volunteer ‘guardian of the wall’, a friendly muscular youngster who ensured the notes did not fly away and that no single message concealed others.

occupy central art umbrella

Photo: HKFP.

Even at a time when anti-government sentiment was at its highest, I was surprised to notice that not all the messages were hostile to the authorities. There were those who simply expressed their love for Hong Kong. Many were expressing their love for fellow citizens. Browsing through the messages was, for me, the highlight of the day. It was a truly touching experience. At a time when Hong Kong was so divided, this was a great symbol of unity.

I felt that the Post-it Note Wall could be a new tradition for Hong Kong. A place for anyone to leave their feelings. In fact, I was so moved by the Post-it Note Wall that I appealed to our Chief Executive in a CNN interview to ‘not tear down this wall’. This was intentionally an ironic twist to the famous Ronald Regan demand for Mikhail Gorbachev to ‘tear down’ the Berlin Wall. A few days later, when I came across the Chief Secretary Carrie Lam on a public occasion, I plucked up the courage to approach her and speak about its preservation. She told me that it would not be possible to keep it there after Occupy Central, but she would consider having it ‘archived’. This sounds to me like forever having it warehoused – out of sight, out of mind.

Many of the world’s great traditions were initiated by a collective coming together through public sentiment. The Pont des Arts Bridge (‘love lock’ bridge) in Paris was a famous contemporary landmark when the public started to adorn it with padlocks. It was allowed to stand until it could not take the weight and finally collapsed. Likewise, throwing coins in the Trevi fountain in Rome, feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, London. These are cultural traditions which started organically and have all become a signature of their home city. The Post-it Note wall could have been a symbol of a government that listens.

occupy central art umbrella

Photo: HKFP.

As we come up to the first anniversary of Occupy Central, there has been talk amongst ex-protestors of redisplaying some of the artwork in public. As much as I am keen to see how the sentiments behind the works have withstood the test of time, I have serious reservations about presenting them outside the context in which they were so impulsively created in the first place. The power of the works was achieved in a particular time and place. Their haphazard execution by people – not all of which were professional artists – was appropriate for the original event. But when presented in a sterile gallery-like environment, it would inevitably become a glaring deficiency that would detract from the original motive. The outpouring of ‘energy’ that was expressed through its impulsive nature would translate unfavourably into a sense of shabbiness. If the intention to restage the artworks is to prolong the memory of the event and introduce the message to a new audience, then I am afraid the original works would fail to convince under cold scrutiny.

I believe an exhibition of well-chosen photographs would be a far more powerful record of the three months that forever changed Hong Kong. Ideally, it could be at Tamar itself or a venue provided by the government. This would be a magnanimous gesture of reconciliation, an olive branch to heal a divided society. But as long as the protestors and the authorities see each other as illegitimate, such a venture would not happen.

It seems one year on from the protests, our society is still unable to reconcile our differences. This is contributing to Hong Kong’s continued stagnation relative to our neighbouring cities.

'Of a particular time and place’: In praise of the Umbrella Movement's iconic artwork