Culture

Hong Kong’s Lennon Walls explained

Aug 06, 2019

Hong Kong has been rocked by waves of protests against an unpopular extradition bill.

But while opposition to the now-suspended bill has at times been fierce, the episode has also inspired many Hong Kongers to express themselves in a quieter, more creative way.

Since early July, displays of colorful sticky notes have sprouted up across the city. Known as Lennon Walls, the displays of anti-bill messages and other protest statements have transformed entire underpasses, bridges, and even storefronts into multicolored billboards.

A Lennon Wall in the Tsuen Wan neighborhood of Hong Kong. The walls filled with colorful sticky notes have become a form of protest in the city.
A Lennon Wall in the Tsuen Wan neighborhood of Hong Kong. The walls filled with colorful sticky notes have become a form of protest in the city. / Photo: Sam Tsang/SCMP

Here, we break down how the protest movement has become a major source of inspiration for all sorts of art and memes.

Origins of the Lennon Wall

The colorful walls get their name indirectly from one of the most iconic figures in popular music—John Lennon, who was also an anti-war activist in his later life.

The original Lennon Wall sprang up spontaneously in Prague after his assassination on Dec. 8, 1980. Lennon’s pacifist anthems recorded after the break-up of the Beatles, such as “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine,” became anthems for anti-war movements across the world.

The latter song, with the lyrics “Imagine all the people, living life in peace”, was also sung during the 2014 Occupy protests in Hong Kong.

After Lennon’s death, an unknown artist painted a picture of him and some lyrics on a wall located in a secluded square across from the French embassy in Prague.

The Lennon Wall in Prague.
The Lennon Wall in Prague. / Photo: AFP

At the time, Western music and symbols were repressed—and sometimes banned—in the country, still known as Czechoslovakia and behind the iron curtain, and the image of Lennon was essentially a form of protest.

The Czechoslovakian secret police, the StB, quickly painted it over, but the initial image of Lennon triggered an unstoppable deluge of anti-Communist graffiti.

After the peaceful toppling of the Communist regime in November 1989 during the Velvet Revolution, the wall became a popular—and ever evolving—site for calls to activism worldwide and a vibrant landmark in the city.

A supporter of the protests writes an encouraging message at a Lennon Wall in Hong Kong.
A supporter of the protests writes an encouraging message at a Lennon Wall in Hong Kong. / Photo: Sam Tsang/SCMP

In November 2014, on the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the wall was painted over in white by a group of student artists, leaving behind only the words “wall is over.”

But the wall did not remain blank for long, with the graffiti and messages soon returning.

In April this year, the Czech Republic branch of Extinction Rebellion, a climate activist group, repainted the Lennon Wall with the words “klimatické nouze,” which means climate emergency in Czech.

How the wall became a site of protest in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, the Lennon Wall first appeared during the Occupy protests in 2014 on an outdoor staircase leading to the Hong Kong government’s headquarters.

It was taken down as police cleared protesters from the area.

The Lennon Wall outside government headquarters in 2014.
The Lennon Wall outside government headquarters in 2014. / Photo: May Tse/SCMP

Last month, the Lennon Wall quickly reappeared at the same location after one million people marched to voice their anger over the extradition bill, which would have allowed the transfer of fugitives to jurisdictions with which the city lacks an extradition agreement, including mainland China.

Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, suspended the bill on June 15, but protesters continue to call for a “complete withdrawal.”

(Read more: A Hong Kong bakery’s protest symbol: Angry cookies)

Among the posts on the Lennon Wall were messages such as “Hong Kong, add oil,” “Carrie Lam step down,” and “My dear, democracy is a good thing”, along with caricatures of the police, who had pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, and fired rubber bullets at protesters.

As the protests continued, more and more of the colorful walls began to spring up across the city. Among the biggest are in the Tai Po, Causeway Bay, and Austin neighborhoods.

Outside Hong Kong, Lennon Walls have sprung up in Berlin, London, Tokyo, and Toronto.

There is even a Lennon Clock in Vancouver’s Gastown, where supporters have left notes on a steam-powered clock that rings every 15 minutes.

The walls have become a place for people to gather and commiserate. A video shared on Twitter shows a group of people at the Lennon Wall in an underpass tunnel near Tai Po Market Station singing one of the unofficial anthems of the protests, “Under a Vast Sky” by the local rock band Beyond.

But the walls have also met with anger in some places, with supporters of the Beijing government and police attempting to strip away the messages. This has led to altercations and several people arrested.

On July 10, more than 200 police officers in riot gear visited the Lennon Wall in Tai Po to remove posters that disclosed the identities and personal details of some officers.

The writing on the wall

Memes have also appeared on Lennon Walls as Hong Kongers turn to humor and wit to vent their frustration with the government.

One popular installation at the Lennon Walls involves posters of Carrie Lam next to a hanging flip-flop, allowing passersby to strike the chief executive’s likeness with the shoe.

A flip-flop hangs next to an image of Carrie Lam, allowing passersby to hit her likeness with a shoe.
A flip-flop hangs next to an image of Carrie Lam, allowing passersby to hit her likeness with a shoe. / Photo: Zoe Low/SCMP

The practice derives from the Chinese tradition of “villain hitting,” where people can pay someone to curse their enemies by hitting paper figures with an old shoe.

(Read more: How Pikachu became a Hong Kong protest meme)

Large QR codes invite people to “scan for the latest travel tips” but actually link to websites explaining the protests in simplified Chinese, the predominant script on the mainland, suggesting the target audience is mainland Chinese tourists who are unaware of the events unfolding in Hong Kong.

The walls have also become a place to display polished protest art. Slick posters and designs have been a staple of Hong Kong protests since 2014. London’s celebrated Victoria and Albert Museum even featured several pieces of art from the Occupy protests in a special exhibition called “Disobedient Objects.”

Artwork commemorating four people who took their lives, citing their opposition to the extradition bill.
Artwork commemorating four people who took their lives, citing their opposition to the extradition bill. / Photo: Zoe Low/SCMP

This year, art featuring four walking legs against a black background offered a poignant reminder of four people who took their own lives, citing their opposition to the extradition bill. 

“We will continue on for the four of you,” reads text above the image.

Other art includes caricatures of Carrie Lam and the police, and pictures of famous tourist sites in Hong Kong with the encouraging words “add oil.”

With more demonstrations planned, protesters’ anger shows no sign of abating, but there is at least one thing Hong Kong can be sure of: there will be no shortage of inspiration for local artists and creators.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

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Credit

Producer and Narrator: Venus Wu

Videographer and Editor: Mario Chui

Animation: Ray Ngan

Mastering: Victor Peña