Under My Umbrella: Representing Democracy in Hong Kong

Umbrella from mjue

Curator's Note

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. 


Thanks for this interesting post, Melody! I especially think the last paragraph and your analysis of umbrella as fragile yet ordinary and potentially inclusive object is spot on. Maybe you could comment more on how the Umbrella specifically is a symbol for conceptions of Democracy in Hong Kong (democracy as fragile yet inclusive?). While reading this, I felt reminded of the leftist demonstrations in Hamburg, Germany earlier this year (and though I’d share this). Anti-establishment groups demonstrating against gentrification, Germany’s refugee politics and police violence adopted toilet brushes as symbols of protest. People started carrying around these not at all ordinary items because the police had confiscated a toilet brush as possible weapon early on in the protests. In this context, the toilet brush was able to carry such strong political meaning because of its humorous potential (and was replicated in every so many memes, street art and posters). However, the protester’s political agendas were very diverse (democratic as well as anarchist or communist groups).

Thank you for a great post. In comparison to the toilet brushes Maria saw in Berlin, umbrellas might as well be used as a shield that protects protestors from being seen by photographers and members of the government. Were they ever used this way? From you pictures it does seem that protestors were not afraid to show their faces.

Wow the toilet brush makes another interesting example! I checked the images briefly and it looks (maybe you can confirm) like it most commonly "replaced" torches, swords, or skull & crossbones, as a rallying symbol or beacon. As to Bettina's question: to my knowledge, from articles and from friends who participated, the protesters were not afraid to show their faces. Good question though! The line I have about the "mask of anonymity" of the umbrellas was meant to gesture to the camera's fascination with capturing pictures of people holding umbrellas, almost as much as it wanted to capture pictures of interesting faces. The umbrella is also a face to the extent that you know there's someone(s) behind holding it, especially with its roundness and the many designs. So to elaborate on that line, the umbrella is less about resisting identity capture and more about standing in for a face, and thus for a person, in the moment it's raised to block against pepper spray, teargas, or simply the rain. Maria, your excellent question about expanding on conceptions of democracy would take more research :) I don't have enough expertise to lay out the range, but I can add an additional complication, and that's the question of class--of democracy and exclusion--that has entered the conversation. The current Chief Executive (CY Leung) warned that in free elections, the poor (those making under US$1800/month) would dominate the vote. I don't know if the pro-democracy movement is for direct elections or some kind of representational system. But there is definitely a more complex way in which class bias has entered the conversation about future democratic elections. There is also one area of overlap between the toilet brushes and the umbrellas--in Hong Kong, the public spaces around the protest sites during the height of the occupation became really clean. Not only did a lot of people voluntarily pick up trash, but the bathrooms in the area were cleaned extra well and became stocked with things like mouthwash and other supplies. You could say this was a more subtle extension of the "umbrella" of care by those that were not able to participate but still wanted to support the movement, and also those who were present and wanted to do something constructive while waiting. I was also struck by images of people extending their umbrellas to cover police officers standing in the rain. So maybe one question to ask would be to see how people decide to extend care, subtly and without flashy colors, to those people/places recognized as vulnerable.

Melody~ your post is such a thoughtful reflection not just on the way that everyday items achieve symbolic status in the discourse of democracy, but also the power of photography and publicity to shape how individuals come to represent political participation. Your slide show here is truly stunning. The umbrella may also reflect another aspect of what is important about democratic images - I wonder if the absence of words makes the umbrella a more powerful image globally? Certainly a handmade sign with the words "democracy now!" would remind us of people standing up for democratic rights, but there is something to be said for the simple umbrella which translates easily no matter what language you speak.

Danielle, thank you for your kind response! You raise a great point, that there is something compelling about raising an umbrella, in its silence, over a sign (of course as time went by, signs featured umbrellas...). Although this doesn't have to do with the movement itself, your comment reminded me of a Pixar short film (http://vimeo.com/93015909) that came out last year called "The Blue Umbrella." In that film, the umbrella has more a life of its own, whereas in the HK movement the umbrella, I think, is more clearly a kind of extension of the people.

Danielle, you rightly point out that the Western media has really focused on the umbrella as a symbol of protest without actually (and perhaps I am misunderstanding you here) taking the time to analyze its symbolic capital. Your analysis of the permeability/fragility/humanness of the umbrella is thoughtful and starts a needed conversation about what this symbol of protest means separate from the gaze of the Western tradition. One potentially fruitful thread is to trace the meaning of the umbrella in Chinese folklore, parables, and history. While this subject is certainly not the focus of my research, I recall stories from my grandmother about how the color of the umbrella in Imperial China signified different class systems and social standing. Additionally, and you mention this to some degree in your post, the umbrella protects all who take shelter from cultural fragmentation--a perspective that undoubtedly challenges the media's representation of the umbrella as a symbol of protest.

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