Hong Kong, China – In Hong Kong’s summer of dissent, even the walls were talking.
“Once you read the messages here, you’ll see so many people are in it together, showing support,” said Elmo Ho, 21, while running up and down the stairways in the Fortress Hill district with a reel of sticky tape to reinforce the hundreds of adhesive notes on the walls.
Ho and her 18-year-old sister were also looking for space to display a sheet of plastic crammed full of notes.
“What you see here feels very different from what you usually would read online,” said Ho.
In Hong Kong, nearly everyone owns a smartphone or two, and Facebook messaging and Whatsapp are commonly used. But as anti-government protests have ratcheted up over the past few weeks, the humble sticky notes that have covered pedestrian walkways have emerged as a new front of resistance.
Locals call them “Lennon Walls”, after similar messages appeared in Prague after musician John Lennon was shot dead in the early 1980s. People write their demands and grievances on the colourful squares of paper, while others draw illustrations and doodles.
In Hong Kong, the first Lennon Wall appeared in 2014 during the pro-democracy sit-in known as the Umbrella Movement at the government headquarters. Protesters and their supporters would post messages as a way of cheering each other on.
When the surface at the government building came to life again in June – only for the sticky notes to be taken down in early July – protesters clamoured for more notes to be put up. Within days, more than 80 such walls appeared all over Hong Kong.
“This time around the wall serves to sustain the movement’s momentum all over town,” said Ho, a university student and the unofficial caretaker of the Fortress Hill area wall.
Over the past week, at least two incidents of arson and numerous fistfights have erupted in some parts of the city with walls.
But such bulletin boards have a precedent on mainland China and Hong Kong.
In 1978 and 1989, protesters calligraphed manifestoes on large pieces of wafer-thin paper, called “Big Character Posters,” and plastered them in public areas. A “democracy wall” in Peking University became a hub for protesters.
And when Hong Kong was still under British rule, university students who chafed at their colonial masters did the same. Thus, it’s not surprising that these walls have resurfaced during the extradition protests.
Last September, students at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University posted slogans demanding independence from China.
The surfaces are also a reflection of the limited space the public has to express its discontent.
“This kind of direct democracy is being exercised on the surface of tiny memo notes,” wrote prominent culture critic Law Wing Sang in a recent newspaper column. “This is the latest innovation of Hong Kong’s resistance culture.”
‘Chance to vent’
Returning to his neighbourhood of 30 years in Tai Po, protester Tang Shun was overcome by the messages in the Lennon Tunnel. Every inch had been papered over with a mosaic of notes.
Unlike Fortress Hill, a middle-class area, Tai Po is in the New Territories, a district that offers lower-priced housing.
“This is the rare chance Hong Kong people get to vent, to say their piece,” said Tang, 36, a property manager. “They’ve been keeping it inside for far too long. Those who profess their support for the government don’t come out. If they’d come read the messages, they would see there’s no reason to support the officials.”
On Facebook, Tang said half his friends were still showing faith in the government.
“I’m scratching my head as we all grew up in a free society,” he said.
But Ho of Forest Hill was disappointed to discover that someone had splashed brown liquid over part of the wall that she had been working on.
“Even when you disagree with what others say, you should still respect their right to speak,” she said.
The two sisters’ mother had brought over stacks of Post-it Notes to help them, although she has yet to write a message herself.
Ho’s was among the first few messages put up: “We’ll act in lockstep. Stay united.” she’d wrote.
Ho shrugged at the thought of the wall being cleared out. “We’ll put it right back up,” she said. “This is a chapter of Hong Kong’s history; a show of people power.”