Shaping the language of protest

| Jerome Taylor and Elaine Yu 25 Jun 2019

Viral artwork pummeling leaders, word plays and Cantonese cursing – Hongkongers have displayed a characteristically riotous embrace of satire during their huge anti-government protests.

Anger has punctuated many of the rallies roiling Hong Kong in the last two weeks as people vent opposition to an attempted extradition law and frustrations over years of sliding freedoms.

But humor has never been far away.

Legions of tech-savvy youngsters never miss an opportunity to invent new chants, memes, banners and slogans that often turn the criticism against the movement on its head.

Outside the government headquarter complex a shrine has sprung up for beleaguered leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. A black banner underneath reads: “Suspend your mother.”

The first word is a reference to protester demands that the extradition bill be permanently taken off the table, not just suspended as the SAR administration has now done. But the last two words reference a favorite local insult: “F*** your mother.”

Cantonese is an uproariously caustic language with misogynistic insults to an opponent’s mother thrown around during even fairly pedestrian disagreements.

But after police were filmed shouting “Reporter, your mother!” to reporters – questioning their credentials – during clashes, demonstrators seized on the phrase, immortalizing it in WhatsApp stickers, banners and printing it on T-shirts.

It was also a way to skewer Lam, who gave an interview likening herself to an exasperated mother trying not to give into every demand from childlike protesters.

An even more irreverent rallying cry protesters have adopted with relish – and plastered on the outside walls of the legislature – is the phrase “freedom hai.” The word hai is arguably the rudest of what is dubbed “the five great Cantonese profanities” and refers to female genitalia.

Police were also filmed yelling an insult at demonstrators that sounded like “freedom hai,” and demonstrators reclaimed the insult, adopting it with pride. Protester Kit-ying, 25, says the slogan was a “refusal to be oppressed,” explaining: “Especially as a woman, if you call us that, we will turn it into our slogan and transform it from its passive role into an active one.”

Not all the puns are derisive.

One popular chant has been fan sung jung, which translates iterally to “against being sent to China.” But sung jung” is also a homophone for seeing off a dead relative at a funeral, encapsulating fears the extradition law will be the death of Hong Kong.

Yuen Chan, a journalism lecturer at London’s City University, says Hong Kong’s history as a trading hub has birthed a vernacular that absorbs influences “in endless creative and sometimes irreverent ways. In recent years, online culture and increasing interest and pride in local culture have created an even more fertile environment for Cantonese Kongish wordplay and satire.”

Many of the memes have gone viral via the website LIHKG – a sort of Cantonese Reddit – where users can vote on designs and protest plans. There you can find cartoons of Lam showing her as the character Gollum from the Lord of the Rings, doggedly clutching the One Ring, or crying crocodile tears over injured protesters.

The best go viral on chat groups or are simply pinged to strangers’ phones by others using Bluetooth and Apple’s Airdrop function.

Youngsters have deployed so-called “elder memes” – written and designed in a style to appeal to conservative older relatives – in a bid to counter disinformation.

Many popular drawings have been penned by Australia-based Chinese dissident artist Badiucao, who recently unveiled his face for the first time after he said his family on the mainland received threats.

One cartoon is based on a photograph of a lone protester in a yellow poncho getting hit by either pepper spray or water from police.

“It’s a metaphor for Hong Kong as a city against the threat from the whole nation of mainland China ... a modern David versus Goliath,” Badiucao says.


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