In Hong Kong the umbrella could not be more ordinary. During the year that I worked there, umbrellas were a daily sight, crowding streets as people unselfconsciously raised them to protect against the hot sun. I had thought of umbrellas as accessories, fashion items, commodities—until I saw images from the pro-democracy demonstrations this past October. Crowds of umbrellas appear again and again as a rainbow wall, raised to protect an unseen multitude of people from pepper spray and tear gas.
The gallery of images I assembled draws from photo documentation of the demonstrations as well as artistic responses. I should note that it was Western media that gave the movement the name, “Umbrella Revolution,” while the demonstrators referred to the movement as "Occupy Central." Yet pro-democracy images still use the umbrella, a figure both internal and external to the movement. Despite its clear utility as protection in protests, what is it about the umbrella that has made it the “face” of the pro-democracy demonstrators?
Some of the graphic images show an umbrella covering Hong Kong, like a kind of bubble over the city. This not only signifies protection, but also Hong Kong’s exceptionality within China and its status as a Special Administrative Region (S.A.R.). The motto “one country, two systems” refers to possibility of reintegrating former territories like Hong Kong within China, yet allowing them to function according to different economic and political systems. Graphic imagery of umbrellas speaks to Hong Kong as an exceptional territory, sometimes using umbrellas to evoke the 5-petal Bauhinia flower on its flag.
Yet perhaps the umbrella’s most compelling quality is its fragility. Rather than an impermeable shield, the weakness of the umbrella perfectly represents non-violent protest. It signifies and enacts resistance (as in the image of umbrella stifling gun) through a demonstration of vulnerability—not unlike the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture adopted by protesters responding to Michael Brown’s murder. Indeed, perhaps the most “human” of the umbrella images are those where umbrellas are folded out the wrong way, broken and askew. The umbrella is a mask of anonymity that signifies the resistance of the individual(s) standing behind it. An ordinary object, the umbrella possesses a latent potentiality, an inclusive and hospitable sign under which to gather (even including police), extending the fabric of democracy.