This week, in one of the largest protests Hong Kong has seen in years, an unlikely pop culture icon was spotted among the crowd.
Pikachu was there at the march, as people held up signs and carried plushies of the famous yellow Pokémon.
Hundreds of thousands gathered on Sunday to protest a proposed extradition law that would allow the city to transfer fugitives to other jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has no extradition deal, including mainland China.
Pikachu was there, in part because the Pokémon’s Cantonese name sounds similar to the Chinese name of one of the extradition bill’s supporters.
But Pikachu first emerged as a protest symbol in Hong Kong back in 2016, when Nintendo decided to change its Chinese name.
At the time, the Japanese video game giant announced that it would use the Mandarin pronunciation of Pikachu’s name as the universal Chinese name to appeal to the mainland market, where Mandarin Chinese is mainly spoken.
This change also altered Pikachu’s Chinese characters, which changed the way his name is pronounced in Cantonese.
Whereas it used to be 比卡超 (bei-kaa-chiu), the new characters made his name 皮卡丘 (pei-kaa-yau), which some argue sounds less like Pikachu’s name, at least in Cantonese (the Mandarin pronunciation is pikaqiu).
The name change came as mainland China lifted its 14-year ban on video game consoles in 2014. The first Pokémon game to get released in mainland China was Sun and Moon in 2016, when Pikachu arrived with its new Mandarin transliteration.
Since its opening, China’s video game market has flourished. In a short three years, it became the largest in the world, with over 600 million users and generating more than $24 billion in revenue in 2017.
During that 14-year ban, when Pokémon had yet to enter mainland China (officially), Hong Kong was a bustling market that readily embraced video games.
And since Hong Kong predominantly uses Cantonese, most people grew up knowing Pikachu’s Cantonese name.
The name change to Mandarin struck a nerve with some locals, who saw it as an affront to Hong Kong.
“This is not only a commercial decision, but relates to cultural exchanges,” one protester told the South China Morning Post in a rally outside the Japanese consulate at the time. “We want to let the Japanese consulate know that a company from their country is disrespecting Hong Kongers.”
Afterwards, Pikachu has appeared in subsequent protests as a cheeky icon.