Resistance in Hiding: a visual archive

At 11pm on June 30th, 2020, on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China, and just one year after the storming of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, Beijing enacted a sweeping National Security Law. With 66 far-reaching articles, the law re-defines and criminalizes actions considered to be acts of “subversion, secession, terrorism, and foreign interference”, and seen as threats to national security.

Inserted into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the new law effectively ended the “One Country, Two Systems” framework 27 years earlier than its original expiration date of 2047.

As the city awoke to a new reality, with individuals liable to be arrested for merely possessing protest-related stickers or for just repeating protest slogans, waves of social media accounts were deleted. At the same time, countless online information requests for emigration were quickly made.

In line with the Hong Kong protest movement’s reputation for being satirical and stubborn, some artists and social media users worked around the new restrictions by playing with visual, auditory, and symbolic puns. Amidst an air of fear and uncertainty, resistance in the form of blank pages and codes emerged, replacing what many were now unable to voice out loud.

As the situation in Hong Kong shifted from taking place on tear-gassed streets to a much more insidious existence, this series seeks to document the invisible impacts of—and responses to—the National Security Law. Many Hong Kongers’ fear that this past year, with all its turmoil, will be remembered as nothing more than a footnote in history – if allowed to be remembered at all. This series seeks to ensure that what Hong Kongers experienced will not be forgotten.

Photos by Katherine Cheng

Within one month of Beijing enacting the National Security Law, twenty countries ended extradition agreements with Hong Kong, including the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, France, and Germany.
In response to the National Security Law, Hong Kong citizens deleted Twitter accounts, privatized social media, and downloaded VPNs out of fear. Interviewees asked journalists to delete their private message histories, people began to self-censor, and companies such as TikTok pulled out of Hong Kong citing security concerns. In ever-increasing tensions between China and the U.S. the American president declared that WeChat and TikTok would be banned in the U.S. if not sold by their Chinese-owned parent companies within 45 days.
One week after the National Security Law was passed, a local group organized a small, public conversation open to those who wanted to understand how the law would affect everyday life and the upcoming Legislative Council elections. Attendees were asked to forfeit their phones upon entering in order to facilitate a safe space, preventing individuals from recording and taking photos. The phones were first wrapped in aluminum foil to create a ‘Faraday Cage’ barrier, which blocks incoming and outgoing radio signals. They were then slipped inside of envelopes made of old newspapers and recycled paper with the owners’ names marked. An air of sombre anticipation hung heavily in the small, crowded room, as attendees sought to process the new reality that now grips Hong Kong.
As early as one day after the National Security Law was passed, sheets of blank paper began appearing as signs of protest in place of placards normally printed with protest slogans – slogans that were now considered illegal under the new legislation, and now subject to a lifetime of imprisonment. Initially inspired by the arrest of protesters in the Soviet Union for distributing blank pamphlets in Red Square, protesters also explained that these blank sheets of paper represented the “white terror” that had taken over Hong Kong. Though these sheets of white paper did not have any text, the meaning of these blank spaces were clear to all.
Since July 2019, Lennon Walls of post-it notes featuring encouraging messages and popular slogans began appearing in residential neighbourhoods across Hong Kong. Filling tunnels, transportation hubs, and restaurant walls, these temporary spaces were seen as fleeting and peaceful moments of solidarity between protestors. Following the passing of the National Security Law, it was announced that these walls would now be illegal, and businesses were instructed to take down any Lennon Walls on their premises. In response, some “Yellow Shops” (businesses that identify themselves as supporting the Hong Kong protest movement), replaced their Lennon Walls with blank post-its instead.
Glory to Hong Kong”, composed and written by a musician under the pseudonym of “Thomas dgx yhi” with the support of Hong Kong netizens, is a song that has been adopted as the anthem of the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests – with some even regarding it as the “national anthem of Hong Kong.” Though the Hong Kong government has refused to declare whether the protest song is illegal following the passing of the National Security Law, it has since been banned in schools. Given the tonal language of Cantonese and the fear of potential repercussions following the law, the song has been translated into numbers, with the pronunciation of the numbers sounding quite close to the original lyrics.
In the week that followed the implementation of the National Security Law, at least nine books written by pro-Democracy and Localist activists such as Joshua Wong, Horace Chin, and Tanya Chan were recalled for “review” in libraries across Hong Kong. A few days later, Hong Kong education officials also followed suit and instructed schools to review reading materials which could “possibly violate” the new legislation. Despite repeated assurances by Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities that the freedoms of speech and assembly would remain protected under the law, legal authorities called these moves alarming, restrictive of the public’s right to seek information, and an infringement of academic freedom. 
Some artists chose to re-interpret the protest slogans – all of which were now illegal under the National Security Law – into simple geometric shapes. Though the shapes do not seem to make sense by themselves, the triangles and rectangles begin to resemble the Chinese characters for “L******* H*** K***, R********* of O** T****” when seen from afar. In this version, the geometric shapes can be seen incorporated onto an Oreo-flavoured cake by a bakery, decorated with light purple frosting as the trimmings.
In another creative substitution for protest slogans that are now deemed illegal, artists have replaced the slogan of “L******* H*** K***, R********* of O** T****” (or “gwong fuk hoeng gong, si doi gaak ming” in Cantonese) with the near-homonym of “Bacon and Sausage, Vegetables and Noodles” (which sounds like “jin juk hoeng coeng, si coi zaa min” in Cantonese). Some “yellow” restaurants (businesses that support the Hong Kong protest movement), have incorporated this dish into their menus.
A popular staple of Hong Kong bread brands, Garden Bakery’s Life Bread is presented in an easily-recognizable and nostalgic packaging of blue and white gingham. During the siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the peak of tensions in November 2019 that resulted in a two-week lockdown of the university campus, a police officer was seen mocking the locked up protestors. Noticing that the surrounded protesters were eating Life bread, the police officer made the suggestion that he plans to go to Shenzhen to have hotpot and cold beer following his shift, while the protestors would not be able to leave the premises. Protestors responded by defending the brand, turning up to protests with loaves of Life.
On the weekend of the 11th of July, unofficial Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Primaries were held to gauge support for the Pro-Democracy candidates in order to maximize the possibility of a “35+ majority” in anticipation of the expected November 2020 Legislative Council Elections. With a turnout of more than 600,000, it was the most-participated primary in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover, with localist candidates winning out over the traditional pro-democrat parties. Warned that the primaries may have breached the newly imposed National Security Law, 12 candidates were subsequently banned from running in the Legislative Council elections. On July 31, 2020, it was further announced by Chief Executive Carrie Lam that the Legislative Council Elections were to be postponed for one year – allegedly due to the recent resurgence of local Covid-19 cases.
On August 10, 2020, Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai of Apple Daily, his two sons, and six other staff members were arrested early in the morning, with more than 200 police officers raiding the paper’s headquarters in the afternoon. In a show of support, members of the public lined up as early as 2am that night for copies of the paper, and shares in Lai’s media company (Next Digital) surged by 1,200 percent the next day. Over the course of the next week, companies, groups, and individuals bought ad space in the paper, offering words of encouragement or merely blank space.
3M masks have been necessary tools for protesters since the summer of 2019, using them as protection against tear gas, pepper spray, and surveillance. In October 2019, face masks were banned under a colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance in an effort to stifle the protests, with sentences of up to a year in jail and a fine of HK$25,000. At the end of January 2020, an unexpected need for face masks suddenly emerged as cases of Covid-19 were reported in Hong Kong.
With masks now vital for the fight against Covid-19, Hong Kongers are wearing them in broad daylight.