By Jason Li, cartoonist behind “Add Oil Comics“.
We were entering the second month of Occupy Hong Kong. Throngs of students and adults were camped out in high-traffic neighborhoods, waging a long battle for a more open and democratic process around the election of the city’s highest-ranking government official, the Chief Executive.
Despite occupying a four-lane highway downtown and key intersections elsewhere, the protesters had yet to persuade the government to change its plans for electoral reform. They had the numbers—over 100,000 people joined the protest at its peak. They had the world’s attention—Occupy Hong Kong graced the cover of Time magazine not once, but twice. And they were asking nicely—the protests remained peaceful despite police and gang incursions). What more could the protesters do to convince the government to change its mind?
I supported the protests, and I wanted to help. But as an outsider to the world of politics, I wasn’t sure what I could do. For many nights in a row, my friend Lokman Tsui and I had been showing up at the protest site down by the highway to show our support. It was electrifying to be part of the movement, but as the weeks wore on it began to feel disempowering. Our numbers were thinning, and the government seemed content to sit back and wait for us to tire ourselves out. The atmosphere on the ground was tense. Nobody knew what was going to happen next.
Like many others around me during this period, I was glued to the news. Scanning the headlines one day, I came across an article on Inmediahk—a local independent Chinese-language news site—by a young teacher-in-training about her struggles at home. The piece was powerfully written, poetic in its succinctness, and described a common problem faced by many of the student protesters. The author writes about the tense situation that existed between her, an avid supporter of the protests, and her mother, who thought of the protesters as entitled brats. She ends the piece with a plea to her mother, asking the latter to look at the broken system around her, rather than simply rely on biased reports in the local mainstream media.
Reading the article, I found myself subconsciously imagining what it would look like as a comic strip. By the time I reached the end the cartoonist in me had decided that it would make a great comic. But to make sure my instincts weren’t completely off the mark, I checked in with Lokman. I sent him an email and asked, “What about turning this letter into a comic like this — can do Chinese and English versions?” “I love the idea!” he replied.
After several days of drawing, re-drawing and coloring, I was at last satisfied with the end result. I released the comic online: on Tumblr, Twitter and the Inmediahk website. The comic received some traction on Tumblr and Twitter (35 and 50 reblogs and retweets, respectively) but failed to elicit much of a response on Inmediahk (1–2 paltry comments). It wasn’t a stellar response, though I didn’t have any expectations at the time. Turning the article into a comic was as much an act of self-expression as it was an experiment in internet publishing and awareness raising.
A few days later, Lokman and I spoke to the team at Inmediahk about publishing the comic on their Facebook page. We figured it couldn’t hurt to ask, as we ourselves didn’t have access to Inmediahk’s core audience of Hong Kong-based, Chinese-speaking students and professionals. (Tumblr and Twitter do not have much reach here, for example.) After some back and forth, they agreed to publish it.
A few hours later, it went viral.
The comments poured in. First, there was a wave of commiseration:
Sad but true.
Then a wave of consolation:
A few sympathetic parents even joined the fray:
The amount and intensity of the responses was overwhelming. I had hoped that my comic would resonate with the inmediahk.net audience. But I had not anticipated that people would connect to it emotionally, take solace in its words, and feel compelled to share their own stories. Nor did I ever dream that it would be shared on Facebook 2,696 times (the original, text-only article was shared “only” 810 times) and reach a grand total of 783,872 people there. Over the next few days I watched, wide-eyed, as the comments and numbers continued to roll in.
As the activity slowed to a halt a week later, I realized that maybe I was on to something.
A version of this article was originally published on Medium on October 24, 2015.