The memes of the Hong Kong protests

The World
Two people wrap tape around a column covered in post-it notes to protect the "Lennon Wall"

Hundreds of thousands of people have packed Hong Kong streets in the last few weeks in sometimes violent protests that have marked the biggest demonstrations and turmoil since the city was handed over to China in 1997. 

In the streets, clashes have sometimes become violent. But the movement exists online, too. 

Jason Li, a cartoonist and designer from Hong Kong, has been cataloging memes as they’ve been appearing. 

Related: In Hong Kong, anger and frustration toward China aren't new

“I even found a thread in a forum in Hong Kong that was saying, ‘Hey, we should use means to attract foreign media. You know we want more international eyes on this issue,’” he says. “And so they remixed certain American memes. There's one that's like Disaster Girl — this little kid looking at this burning house and smiling in a way and using that to portray like our government not listening to the people.”

Related: I am from Hong Kong, not China

The memes have evolved with the protests, he says. He gives the example of Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong, whose portrayal in the memes has shifted. 

“I think there's been, like, a couple of different portrayals,” Li says. “I think first, she was portrayed as a cruel person. For example, in a disaster girl meme with a little girl smiling at the burning house, the little girl was supposed to be Carrie Lam and the burning house is supposed to be the future of Hong Kong. And so at first, she was this Machiavellian, cruel, government official person. That evolved a little bit because Carrie Lam also gave a lot of press conferences and tried to sort of placate the masses by giving short speeches. And in one of them, she called ‘protesters are children that she needs to rein in,’ which obviously from the protesters' point of view and meme-makers’ point of view was just great ammunition for creating memes, so that there's other memes where she's portrayed as, like, a mother wielding guns.”

Li says he’s seen three or four waves of different memes. 

“The beginning, I think, was more awareness-raising and the cruelty of the government,” he says. “And that morphed into — after the protests, on particularly on June 12, became violent and the police are caught on camera attacking protesters and even journalists — so there were a lot of police violence memes. The latest wave I've caught, I think there's been recently a lot of self-care memes, so let's take care of each other in low moments.”

Li translated and interpreted a handful of different memes from Hong Kong for The World. 

The government as Thanos

A meme shows an image from "Avengers: Infinity War" with Chinese characters and English on top of them.

@重度疑心病患者, @陶傑出青年 on LIHKG

In a frame from “Avengers: Infinity War,” Thanos is a stand-in for the Hong Kong government, Tony Stark is a Hongkonger and the knife is the extradition bill. This meme is a good example of the first waves of memes, Li says.

Carrie Lam as ‘disaster girl’

A version of the disaster girl meme with Chinese characters on it. There is a girl smiling at the camera while a home burns behind her.

@你有抵抗力 on LIHKG

This meme is called “disaster girl.” The text at left over the burning house reads: “The future of the Hong Kong people.” The text on the girl, who is meant to be Carrie Lam, reads “Bitch.”

Mocking police violence after the June 12 protest

Police injured dozens of protesters on June 12. This meme shows an officer pointing a gun, which likely would have been full of balls of pepper spray. The text says “journalist, journalist, journalist … your mother!” The “your mother” is based on a swear word police yelled at journalists. Then, the officer turns and the text says “run away, run away, run away ...”

Bruce Lee’s 'Be water, my friend' 

In a famous Bruce Lee quote, the actor and director describes water as formless. “Be formless, shapeless like water … water can flow or it can crash.” Protesters have used that thinking to disperse when they need to and then return shortly afterward.

Raincoat man as a symbol of solidarity

This meme reads: “Friends don’t leave, Hong Kong people don’t give up.” A man wearing a yellow raincoat fell to his death on June 15 after unfurling a banner protesting the extradition laws. His image is now in many memes about tribute and sacrifice. 

Five demands

The animation above lists the five demands of the protesters: full withdrawal of the extradition bill; retraction of the “riot” characterization of the protests; release of all arrested protesters; investigation of and accountability for police brutality; and Carrie Lam’s resignation. 

A black Hong Kong flag

The Hong Kong flag is typically a white bauhinia flower on a red background. Here, protestors hoist a black version of the flag, the flower depicted wilted or covered in red bloodstains. Images of the flag are now being used for avatars on social media profiles.

Lennon Walls

The main text on the image above says “Lennon Walls blossoming, defending freedom in my city, add oil Hong Kong!” Hong Kong’s Lennon Walls first appeared during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, modeled after the Lennon Wall in Prague. Now, there are dozens of them all over Hong Kong, covered in messages about the extradition bill. 

'Lion King' wordplay

In Cantonese, the word for “lion” sounds like “shredding paper,” which is what happens when police tear down Lennon Walls. The word “lion” in English sounds like the Cantonese word for “arrest.” The headline of the poster above reads “Shredding King” and the subtitle says “The King of Arrests.” 

Li has collected dozens of memes. He says the memes offer a more nuanced look at the protesters than comes through regular news reports. 

“I think memes also really just show the inner state or inner lives or inner emotions of the protesters in a way that we wouldn't normally get from a journalist or from just normal reports,” he says. “The two extremes of sadness and anger are pretty well displayed in these memes.”

More: Jason Li wrote about Hong Kong protest memes for Hyperallergic

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