Thin City Got Umbrella


Commissioned by TAR, an Italian biannual magazine, which addresses issues and modes through the arts, aesthetics and visual language, my article "THIN CITY GOT UMBRELLA" shared the insights of Umbrella Movement – 2014 Hong Kong Protest for Genuine Universal Suffrage, in perspectives of social involvement, design and creativity.

The article↗︎ was published in November 2014. 

Three chapters include:






Search the word Umbrella Revolution on the web, and you will find it yields thousands of results. “Umbrella” certainly has been the most pressing word for Hong Kong and for the Chinese Government lately.

And now imagine something that does not exist yet. A Multipurpose Unbreakable Umbrella, for instance. This is what I am working on right now: an affordable umbrella that will stand against teargas, with flexible rebound features to disperse pepper spray, and with toxic-chemical-resistant fabric. It could be practical during typhoon season, and could have international buyers.

Anyway, on 28 September 2014, there where a lot of broken umbrellas, ripped open by the police. Students and citizens were fighting with their bare arms against the pepper-spray, and tear gas bombs were dropped on the protesters by the police. The only protection tools available were food plastic wrap and umbrellas. The latter was preposterously described by the police as a kind of weapon. Overnight, umbrellas transformed from a household item into a symbol of defiance.

The protest had begun because the future candidates for the position of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive will need to be pre-screened and approved by the Chinese mainland Government’s. This has been announced in August. Students began to boycotts classes, and teachers boycotted their lectures. A rally on September 27 made a bold point to the Beijing Government: HK citizens would accept no unfair political reform.

The head officer of Hong Kong, C.Y. Leung - also known as “Sly Wolf” - refused to negotiate with the students. Around 4.000 protesters then surrounded the government complex. When one of the student leaders, 17 years old Joshua Wong, crossed the border set by the police, he and others with him received a treatment of pepper spray and physical violence, then got arrested. A great number of citizens came out to protect the students in return. The crowd of supporters demanded the release of the arrested, crying out "Students are no guilty for any crime.” I saw parents and teachers beg and kneel in front of the police. The protests have been declared illegal by the police.

The protesters, identified by yellow ribbons, are calm and rational. Some activists have requested C.Y. Leung to step down for incompetence. But no single party can claim ownership on the protest. No one can represent the Hong Kongers, except the citizens ourselves.

The two latest covers of Time Magazine Asia included two of the key figures of the pro-democracy movement of Hong Kong, media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai Chee-Ying andstudent Joshua Wong. But there are other protesters who choose a more reclusive approach. They are keyboard fighters. Multimedia art has been used as a medium to raise awareness among citizens and international media, and in order to create a “safe platform” for participant protection.


Kacey Wong, a veteran local artist and lecturer, launched a mock online competition for the best Umbrella Movement logo design. The top three prizes for the contest were “Justice, Democracy, and Freedom.” In an interview to the BBC, Wong said “never underestimate art, it will mobilise your emotion, as somebody speaks out the problem to you."

Probably strategies like that of Wong benefit from lessons learned after the most recent TV broadcasting license bid that took place in Hong Kong. HKTV, formally known as the Hong Kong Television Network, had their license application rejected by the Hong Kong Government, ini october 2013. Two other television operators were competing for the license. The government gave no reasonable explanation despite an HKTV entrepreneur disclosed that he had been asked by a government official to join the bidding process in 2009. HKTV’s free trial programme on youtube received positive acclaims and high viewing rate from thousands of viewers. Its facebook page has more than 239.000 likes. The rejection from the Government created strong outcry among the general public.

Why did this all happen? The core values of HKTV are "We lead the development of the industry” and "We are the people's leaders and pioneers.” They had embraces freedom of thought and speech, while the other tv channels have been self-censoring their programmes along safe political lines.
The Umbrella Movement visual campaign has received lots of support. A local illustrator like Cuson Lo has been drawing sarcastic political comics. The graphic designer Ar To, also born and raised in Hong Kong, joined in the protests with his own style cartoons, inspired by Pieter Bruegel.

The New York based illustrator Yuko Shimizu and the Australian artist Jeremyville dedicated beautifully executed and strong conceptual works to the Umbrella Movement. Local stars and indie bands have also taken part in the protests from the start.

But the pro-democracy citizens themselves have left their marks by intentionally creating visual signs all around the city. This is a recurring behaviour among the Hong Kong people, as witnessed by the “Neon Signs HK” exhibition produced earlier in March by the M+Museum, which is interested in acquiring examples of neon signs from Hong Kong’s street, that may not survive for long.

“In the context of Hong Kong - writes M+ curator Aric Chen - neon signs are thus especially hard to ignore. In their own right, they play the communicative role of typography, illustration and graphic design, being as enabled and constrained by their technological medium as the book is by the printing press, or a digital design is by its software. “


Likewise the protest signs that flourished during the Umbrella Movement visualised the citizens’ messages through a great variety of forms and media. From text and illustration on signs with bold brush stroke, to folding Umbrella-shaped origami; from an “umbrella freedom goddess sculpture” to hanging quoted poems and lyrics; from drawing with chalks on the main roads, to illuminated mobile phone screens.

The streets have become a living room. Some protestors only slept nine hours during the whole first week. Generous citizens sent folding beds or hammocks to rest under the bridge. The protesters also constructed a co-working study room in the mid-road of the occupied area. Citizens have successfully redefined the public rules.

In some cases, these signs have been spectacular. Like the “Bamboo Bulwark”, a bamboo scaffolding - which is an ancient building technique in China - designed to protect an encampment of pro-democracy student protesters.

Lau Yuen King Joey of CreamArt Limited detached a broken umbrella frame, and reused the fabric to design a cushion for environmental and social purpose. The product - "Umbrella Gathering" - is intended to benefit the protesters who stand and sit on the road to demand universal suffrage. This object was awarded a prize aduring the “Design for Well-Being Award”, a 10 days festival at Hong Kong Polytechnical University.

Hong Kong has long been teased as a "cultural desert” for its low interest in art- except for its investment value. This “Umbrella Movement Street Gallery" proved that the charge was invalid. Participants with all walks of life, regardless of age, gender, profession and belief, have been the exhibiting artists. One day, true freedom and democracy will be accessible as an umbrella to us. //