Asia Pacific | FOCUS

The language of Hong Kong's protests: Crude and caustic memes and slogans often turn criticism of movement on its head

by Jerome Taylor


Viral artwork pummeling city leaders, clever word plays and Cantonese cursing that would make a sailor blush — Hong Kongers have displayed a characteristically riotous embrace of satire during their huge anti-government protests.

Anger has punctuated much of the historic rallies roiling Hong Kong in the last two weeks as the public vents huge opposition to an attempted China extradition law and frustrations over years of sliding freedoms.

But humor has never been far away.

The legions of tech-savvy youngsters never miss an opportunity to invent new chants, memes, banners and slogans that often turn the criticism against the movement on its head.

Outside the city’s parliament, a shrine has sprung up for the finance hub’s beleaguered pro-Beijing leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam. A black banner underneath reads, “Suspend your mother.”

The first word is a reference to protester demands that the extradition bill be permanently taken off the table, not just suspended, as the government has now done. But the last two words reference a favorite local insult: “F—- your mother.”

Cantonese is an uproariously caustic language, with misogynistic insults to an opponent’s mother thrown around during even fairly pedestrian disagreements.

But after police were filmed shouting, “Reporter, your mother!” to journalists — questioning their credentials — during clashes with protesters earlier in the month, demonstrators seized on the phrase, immortalizing it in WhatsApp stickers and banners and printing it on T-shirts.

It was also a way to skewer Lam, who gave an interview where she likened herself to an exasperated mother trying not to give in to every demand from the childlike protesters.

An even more irreverent rallying cry that protesters have adopted with relish — and plastered on the outside walls of the city’s legislature — is the phrase “freedom hai.” The word “hai” refers to female genitalia and is arguably the rudest of what are dubbed “the five great Cantonese profanities.”

Police were filmed yelling an insult at demonstrators that sounded like “freedom hai” — and demonstrators took the insult and adopted it with pride.

Protester Kit-ying, 25, said the slogan was a “refusal to be oppressed.”

“Especially as a woman, if you call us that, we will turn it into our slogan and transform it from its passive role into an active one,” she said.

Not all the puns are derisive.

One of the most popular chants has been “fan sung jung,” which literally translates to “against being sent to China.” But “sung jung” is also a homophone for seeing off a dead relative at a funeral, encapsulating fears that the extradition law will be the death of their city.

Yuen Chan, a journalism lecturer at London’s City University, said Hong Kong’s history as a trading hub has birthed a vernacular that absorbs influences “in endless creative and sometimes irreverent ways.”

“In recent years, online culture and increasing interest and pride in local culture has created an even more fertile environment for Cantonese Kongish wordplay and satire,” she added.

Many of the memes have gone viral via the website LIHKG, a sort of Cantonese Reddit, where users can vote on designs and protest plans. There you can find cartoons of Lam showing her as Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings” clutching the “one ring,” or crying crocodile tears over injured protesters.

The best go viral on chat groups or are simply pinged, using Bluetooth and Apple’s Airdrop function, to strangers’ phones as they walk down the street.

Many Hong Kongers are members of constantly buzzing private WhatsApp family groups. Youngsters have deployed “elder memes” — written and designed in a style that appeals to their more conservative older relatives — in a bid to counter disinformation and win them over.

Many popular drawings have been penned by Australia-based Chinese dissident artist Badiucao, who recently unveiled his face for the first time after he said his family on the mainland received threats.

One popular cartoon is based on an AFP photograph of a lone protester in a yellow poncho getting hit by either pepper spray or water from police.

“It’s a metaphor for Hong Kong as a city against the threat from the whole nation of mainland China. … It’s a photo of a modern David versus Goliath,” Badiucao said.

Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer who has written a book about the city’s protest movements, said this year’s demonstrations have a “darker tone” than the failed pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement” in 2014.

“The humor is there, to be sure, but often to leaven much more serious issues, almost as comic relief,” he said.