Playful Protest: Popular Culture and Humour in Hong Kong and London

As I’m sure many of you have, I’ve been following the events of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong very closely. The protests, known to some as the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ because of protesters using umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas, have been going on for some weeks now. The protesters accuse the Chinese government of reneging on multiple promises to allow Hong Kong a free and fair democracy by placing restrictions on who is allowed to run for the position of Chief Executive, effectively Hong Kong’s leader, in 2017 (for more information about the Hong Kong demonstrations, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-29413349). An end appeared to be in sight as talks between the government and the protesters were scheduled for this Friday (the 9th of October), but they were called off the day before they were due to take place. One of the things that struck me as I have watched events unfold is the many similarities between the protests in Hong Kong, and many recent demonstrations in London. One example is the playful, light-hearted approach some protesters take, evidenced in placards and banners made and carried by the demonstrators.

This design was mass produced on placards and posters during the student tuition fee demonstrations in London in 2010.

This design was mass produced on placards and posters during the student tuition fee demonstrations in London in 2010 (Source: Author’s own).

Placards, banners, and signs are an integral part of a demonstration or protest. Along with the shouting of chants and slogans, they convey the message of the demonstrators to observers. Many, such as the poster in the image above, are mass produced by large groups and organisations involved in the demonstration. But many others are home made, painted or drawn onto pieces of cardboard and old bedsheets. These allow individual protesters to express themselves, publicly declaring their own opinions and perspectives. For many the placard is a temporary object, the streets after a demonstration are often scattered with them, and they are sometimes used as fuel for impromptu fires. However in 2011 the Save our Placards project (see http://saveourplacards.blogspot.co.uk/), run by Goldsmiths and the Museum of London sought to change that, collecting placards after the Anti-Austerity March for the Alternative on the 26th of March. They collected over 300 objects, 10 of which are now in the Museum’s collections. The project demonstrated the vast amounts of creativity and variety that can be involved in placards and has shown that they are worthy of attention by those studying protest.

One thing that placards make clear is the playful attitude of many protesters to issues they are trying to draw attention to. In both the recent Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong and student demonstrations against austerity and raised tuition fees in London in 2010 and 2011, protesters have taken an irreverent approach through the use of humour and references to popular culture.

In the top right of this image a banner references  Les Miserables (Source: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/03056/sing_3056506k.jpg)

In the top left of this image a banner references Les Miserables (Source: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/03056/sing_3056506k.jpg)

A placard at an anti-austerity student protest in London in 2011 (Source: author's own).

A placard at an anti-austerity student protest in London in 2011 (Source: author’s own).

The above two images, one from Hong Kong and one from London, contain references to popular culture. The first, a photo from Hong Kong, is a banner which says ‘Do u hear the people sing’, a line from one of the most famous songs from the musical Les Miserables, which culminates in the 1832 June Revolution in Paris. The second, taken in London, asks ‘What would Dumbledore do?’, probably a reference to the phrase ‘What would Jesus do?’ sometimes used as a way of making decisions. Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the fictitious school of magic in the Harry Potter book and film franchise. The people who made both of these signs are using their knowledge of popular culture to articulate their own opinions and demands, one a demand to be heard, the other a call to the British Authorities to consider their actions.

A humorous placard in the recent Hong Kong demonstrations (Source: http://scontent-b.cdninstagram.com/hphotos-xpa1/t51.2885-15/927173_309133819274872_1878847170_a.jpg).

A humorous placard in the recent Hong Kong demonstrations (Source: http://scontent-b.cdninstagram.com/hphotos-xpa1/t51.2885-15/927173_309133819274872_1878847170_a.jpg).

A humourous topical placard at a demonstration opposing a threefold increase in tuition fees in London in 2010 (Source: Author's own).

A humorous and topical placard at a demonstration opposing a threefold increase in tuition fees in London in 2010 (Source: Author’s own).

The above two photos show placards which take a more humorous approach to protest. The second, taken in London, is particularly topical as it was part of a demonstration against the UK coalition government’s plans to raise the cap on tuition fees from just over £3000 to £9000 a year in 2010. Humour is a common way of dealing with upsetting or traumatic situations, and I think humour in protests is no exception, making the difficult and strenuous task that is activism easier to cope with.

I am often struck by the similarities between different protests around the world. You don’t have to look very hard to find multiple connections and links. A playful approach to protest is one of these similarities, and I’m sure it can be found around the world, not just in Hong Kong and London.

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