Coronavirus worries in Hong Kong bring new style of protest art


The coronavirus numbers in Hong Kong are a fraction of what has hit the mainland, and its leadership has refused to seal the land border but demanded a 14-day quarantine for anyone coming from the mainland.

That has fed worries in Hong Kong that the local outbreak could get worse.

At the same time, supplies have run low in hospitals. People have waited in lines for hours — sometimes overnight — to buy masks at the few stores that have them.

The virus art is seen as a natural extension from the months of street unrest.

“This is consistent with what we have been doing all along,” said Ryan, a product designer who helps showcase the artwork. He gave only his first name, fearing reprisals from authorities.

“At a time like this, instead of organizing rallies, our priority is reminding people to protect themselves,” he added. “Keeping ourselves alive is part of the resistance.”

Protest rallies may have come to a temporary halt amid the epidemic, but outrage against the embattled Hong Kong administration has hardly subsided.

One drawing mocks the partial border closure as ineffective — by comparing it to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s face mask, which slipped beneath her nose during a news conference. (The other irony was not lost on anyone in Hong Kong: Lam’s government outlawed face masks in October as part of protest-crackdown measures.)

Another depicts Lam as the superhero Doctor Strange. But instead of conjuring spells, she is churning out clouds of viruses. A demand is stated in bold letters in the background: Close the border.

As early as December — when the earliest cases of coronavirus were reported — artwork appeared on the Telegram chat app calling for people to mask up. A nonstop stream of protest artworks followed on social media.

The mascots of the street protests — a dog, a pig and other creatures — were once drawn with respirators to guard against tear gas. Now they are depicted with surgical masks.

New sections dedicated to public health have sprung up at the “Lennon Walls,” which were once plastered with messages during the protests.

Instead of infographics on how to handle tear gas and wash away chemical residue, there are graphics on different types of face masks and other details, such as seven steps to clean your hands.

For those too nervous to venture outdoors, Ryan and his friends have built a digital Lennon Wall where users can post memos online.

One task is fact-checking statements from government officials, who are criticized for prioritizing politics over public health. (Hong Kong’s director of health claimed that masks are not necessary in normal social gatherings, while a pro-government legislator wrongly suggested, amid an acute shortage, that masks can be disinfected through steaming and reused.)

“We have always been trying to connect blue and yellow,” says Ryan, referring to the competing colors of blue for government supporters and yellow for pro-democracy protesters. “And now’s a great opportunity to win people over and show them how bad our government is.”

The power of art to mold public opinion has not gone unnoticed.

The government has begun to tear down Lennon Walls in public spaces. Police also have released memes of the rapper Drake and performed a rap song in attempts to build rapport with young people and denounce rioters.

But the police have received more backlash than applause.

“It’s far more effective when you prompt people to think independently and draw their own conclusion,” said Y, a university student who coordinates the Telegram channel with contributing artists and identified himself only by an initial to avoid drawing the attention of authorities.

“And that is the most lethal weapon against the Communist Party,” he added.


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