The Umbrella Movement’s kaleidoscopic and iconic “Lennon Wall” featured drawings and hand-written statements (“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” among them) on colored post-it notes.—Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Los Angeles Review of Books, November 11, 2016
Largely absent from the coverage is a far more uplifting and meaningful visual: “Lennon Walls” bearing rainbow Post-It notes of hope and determination from Hong Kong’s residents.—Hana Meihan Davis, Washington Post, August 8, 2019
When we made plans to talk by phone a few months ago, having never met but having each read and liked short pieces the other had written, we knew what our first topic of conversation would be: Lennon Walls, a utopian feature of the Hong Kong protests that fascinates us both. The name goes back to a celebratory structure created in Prague in the early 1980s, the work of young activists who used paint to express their love for John Lennon. The original wall showed that the hopeful spirit of the song “Imagine” could survive Lennon’s assassination and stay alive even in a place of authoritarian rule. Hong Kong’s Lennon Walls—both the single 2014 one that became a key symbol of the Umbrella Movement and the many that have gone up in recent months—use Post-It Notes rather than paint, speak to local concerns, and sometimes include messages of anger and frustration, but overall have the same optimistic feel as their inspiration.
What we did not realize before speaking that first time was how quickly we would shift from utopian to dystopian themes. We soon discovered that, as different as our backgrounds and current situations are, Lennon Walls are not the only kind of creative work whose relevance for the Hong Kong crisis intrigues us. One of us may be a Californian who got his doctorate three decades ago and the other a Yale student from Hong Kong, but we share a deep interest in the dystopian vision of one writer.
Some might assume that the author in question, whose work we talked about by phone and have kept returning to in subsequent email exchanges, must be George Orwell. After all, Hong Kong protesters are pushing back against a Communist Party that is often described as running a Big Brother state. In addition, 2019 was a big year for Orwell, with the 70th anniversary of 1984 and events in Beijing and elsewhere proving him prophetic. And throughout 2019, as reports appeared detailing human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the use of high-tech surveillance across the country, the adjective “Orwellian” was used with increasing frequency to describe the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to rule.
We certainly both admire Orwell, but his dark imaginings have not been the focus of our communications. Nor has it been the murky V for Vendetta universe dreamed up by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, though some protesters in Hong Kong and other places have donned Guy Fawkes masks associated with that dystopian world. We have also not been comparing notes on the creators of the Matrix films, though a powerful late 2014 Louisa Lim article for The New Yorker quoted a veteran of the Umbrella Movement describing the year coming to an end as one during which some locals felt they had taken the “red pill” that allows characters in the franchise to see the brutal side of how power is exercised in their world.
Where Hong Kong is concerned, 2019 was a Hunger Games year. Throughout the summer and fall, determined people, like Katniss Everdeen and other heroes in Collins’s series, took bold actions to try to overcome seemingly impossible odds. Some protesters were in their mid-teens, as Katniss was when she took on a leading role in the resistance struggle in Catching Fire, the second book in the series. Some were even younger. And there is clear evidence that the series was on the minds of some activists, for a two-part phrase that figures in the books became a common sight in Hong Kong in 2019: “If we burn, you burn with us.” This motto is similar in structure to, but has a radically different tone than, the famous “Imagine” line that we saw written out on banners and Post-It Notes in 2014: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
In exchanging ideas about the work of Suzanne Collins, we found that we both had The Hunger Games on our minds five years ago, around the time we each first caught sight of the original Hong Kong Lennon Wall. It was important to the elder of us then because that was the point that he started receiving blank looks in his classes when he spoke of it being useful to think of China as divided into regions where the boot-on-the-face mode of control associated with 1984 was the rule, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, and locales where Aldous Huxley’s vision of control via hedonism and distraction a la Brave New World was more relevant. The problem was that some students, while familiar with Orwell, knew little about Huxley. The elder of us began experimenting with adding comments about The Hunger Games, saying Xinjiang and Tibet were like the tightly controlled district where Katniss grew up, while Shanghai and Beijing were more like the glittering Capitol. This worked well, given how familiar nearly every student was with the novels featuring youths forced to perform as gladiators who fought to the death in televised spectacles, and even more so the films based on them.
For the younger of us, the world of The Hunger Games was important in 2014 for a more straightforward reason: She was a teenager in a school where everyone seemed to be reading the novels and seeing the films. Like many of her classmates, she had devoured the trilogy of books and watched the first three of the movies with equal tenacity. She saw the third movie—part one of Mockingjay, the series-ending novel having been broken up into two films—nearly two months into the Umbrella Movement. And she loved it. She was looking forward to the release of part two the following year, which would show audiences what it looked like when Katniss and other young rebels managed to pull off a version of the David versus Goliath story, toppling the autocrats in the Capitol. The franchise seemed to her a symbol of hope.
Neither of us thought in 2014 that The Hunger Games had direct relevance to the Umbrella Movement. The fiery filmed battle scenes were nothing like the peaceful sit-in on a major downtown thoroughfare that was the main site of action. Yes, there were rare uses of the three-finger Mockingjay resistance salute in Hong Kong that fall, as there were earlier that year in Thailand. Still, to invoke a symbol associated with a violent conflict seemed far-fetched, especially on the largely peaceful Hong Kong Island, despite some police use of tear gas and pepper spray. With hindsight, though, we had to admit that the salute’s use in Mong Kok across the harbor, where some clashes involving not just police and protesters but also pro-government thugs, gave a foretaste of darker days to come. In 2014, the occasional nods that activists made to The Hunger Games and V for Vendetta seemed a minor—not major—part of the struggle’s symbolism.
But by the middle of 2019, much had changed. A clear sign of this was the proliferation of the phrase “If we burn, you burn with us,” a key line in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Sometimes, it would appear on posters showing film star Jennifer Lawrence playing Katniss, who in a memorable scene shoots a flaming arrow. Sometimes, it would be painted on walls as graffiti or written out on banners. In still other cases, it would show up online beside images of real-life activists using low tech weapons, such as sling shots, which resemble those deployed by youths in the films as they fought against the more advanced armed forces of the rulers in the Capitol.
Some images coming out of Hong Kong have made The Hunger Games seem less like a dystopic fantasy than like an actual locale’s new normal. We are thinking of shots of bloodied protesters—as well as of passersby in the wrong place at the wrong time—juxtaposed with spotless police gear; of streets set alight by Molotov cocktails hurled by militant frontline protesters; of vandalized storefronts, often of buildings owned by government supporters; and of subway stations and malls filling up with tear gas, patrolled by officers with batons, guns, and darkened masks that shield their features.
And it is not just protesters who use terms that bring the series mind. “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” Yang Guang, the spokesperson of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, warned in a press conference in August.
The Hong Kong crisis has inspired many historical comparisons, with people citing parallels to past crises centered everywhere from Belfast and Berlin to Ukraine and South Korea. None of these references are a perfect fit. None tell us what will happen next in Hong Kong. But some can help us bring blurry aspects of the ongoing struggle into sharper perspective. The same is true for forays into fiction, including references to the anime series that have inspired some protesters. We definitely see value of this kind in the Hunger Games analogy. Unlike the series, there are no clearly defined leaders of the Hong Kong protests. There are also many reasons to doubt that the ending of the struggle on the streets will resemble the simplistic and satisfying conclusion of the trilogy in which Katniss and her beloved live happily ever after in a liberated land. Still, if used judiciously, the comparison has its uses.
The main value of keeping The Hunger Games in mind when thinking about the Hong Kong crisis lies in appreciating that many participants see themselves as taking a final stand. Here, the allusion to The Matrix, as mentioned above, is helpful as well. When Beijing and its local proxies refused to give any ground in 2014 over how the next Chief Executive would be selected, despite the widespread support for the Umbrella Movement and the moderate methods protesters used to press their case, this was an eye-opening “red-pill” moment for some local residents. More such moments followed between 2015 and 2018, serving as gradual but assured wake-up calls for many in Hong Kong. For some, it was when five local booksellers whose publishing activities displeased Beijing were spirited across the border into mainland China. For others, it was Beijing’s interference with a local court gearing up to decide whether two people elected to serve on the Legislative Council should be disqualified from office for the mocking way they took their oath of office; or when word came that it would soon likely become a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to show public disrespect for the Chinese national anthem.
Events such as these helped frame 2019 as Hong Kong’s last stand, giving protesters the sense that too many of their values had been stolen away. So, too, did two things that happened early in that year, well before tear gas began to fill the air in mid-June and the first Molotov cocktails were hurled weeks later.
One important development came in April. That was when moderate leaders of the Umbrella Movement were sentenced to months of jail time on charges dating back to the non-violent rallies of 2014.
The other, which was the specific trigger of the massive march of June 9 that set the current movement in motion, was Chief Executive Carrie Lam introducing an extradition bill. For millions of Hongkongers, this was seen as the first step in creating a situation where fear of retribution would govern the city: where all residents local or foreign would worry that engaging in behavior displeasing to Beijing could mean finding themselves at the mercy of the brutal legal regime across the border. If the bill went into effect, anyone could potentially be subjected to the sort of treatment that the booksellers had had to endure—with the difference that no force or subterfuge would be required to get them across the border onto the mainland.
In a piece appearing near the start of a year, it is worth ending on a forward-looking note. So, here, despite knowing how often Hong Kong has made fools of forecasters, are some cautious predictions for the year that has just begun.
First, an easy one, since Suzanne Collins has already announced her intention to do this. 2020 will see the publication of the first addition to the Hunger Games series in a decade. It will take the form of a prequel.
Second, in Hong Kong, by contrast, there will be sequels—not to the series but to the protests of 2019. This seems a safe bet because the sense that a final stand is underway has not yet dissipated. The final weeks of the last year saw everything from a peaceful march by more than half a million people, which one of us was on the scene to witness, to new acts of vandalism that damaged buildings and renewed police violence. The first sequels have already taken place, as there have been several January protests.
Third, while there are many reasons to view the current situation across the mainland through different sorts of dystopian lenses, and while both activists and independent-minded artists are finding less and less room to maneuver there, in Hong Kong, Hunger Games analogies aside, things will not be as bleak. There will still be at least momentary flashes of hopefulness among activists and artists, even forays into utopian creativity.
One reason we make this last prediction is that when police and thugs tear down Lennon Walls, people rebuild them almost instantly. Another is that on Christmas Day, there was another clear indication that the “Imagine” spirit lives on in Hong Kong.
Here is what happened on the 25th of December. Local artist Sampson Wong and his “Add Oil Team”—known for daring, playful, and often optimistic light projections—created a work that paid homage to the billboards that John Lennon and Yoko Ono had put up around Christmastime exactly 50 years earlier in a dozen cities around the world, Hong Kong among them. “War is Over! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John and Yoko,” was the wording on those billboards half a century ago. Wong and his colleagues, choosing as a fitting canvas the now blank concrete wall in the heart of Hong Kong Island that in 2014 was turned into the city’s first Lennon Wall, projected this variation on Christmas Day: “TYRANNY IS OVER! If You Want It. Happy 2019 from Add Oil Team, Hong Kong.”
Image: William Sauro/The New York Times Photo Archives