Amid the sea of protesters that have been hitting the streets of Hong Kong nearly every weekend, one face has emerged as a symbol of the demonstrators’ resolve.
His wardrobe is extensive, his face iconic, and his presence strangely uplifting. He is Pepe the Frog.
Yup, that Pepe the Frog, the one condemned in the West as a symbol of hate.
But on this side of the world, Pepe has a mostly harmless reputation. Even before the protests began this summer, the anthropomorphic frog was a popular figure among Hong Kong’s youth, thanks to a series of viral WhatsApp stickers.
In Hong Kong and mainland China, Pepe, with his sad eyes and dopey smile, has become a popular avatar for millennials to express their cynical outlook on life.
There’s Pepe putting in overtime at the office, Pepe crying while holding a $5 Starbucks latte, and even Pepe giving the finger.
Naturally, the meme would soon cross over into politics as the protests against an unpopular extradition bill and Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, heated up.
There are now WhatsApp stickers with Pepe dressed as a protester, reporter, riot police, and even Lam herself.
It wasn’t long before he was emblazoned on political flyers, protesters’ backpacks, and the sticky notes that have adorned the city’s public walls, known locally as “Lennon Walls.”
A tale of two Pepes
Pepe was created by the comic book artist Matt Furie in 2015 and quickly became a popular meme on 4chan, MySpace, and Tumblr.
He also managed to cross the Pacific to China, where he is known as 伤心青蛙, the sad frog, and became a mascot for disenchanted youth who were frustrated by the pressures of daily life.
Meanwhile in the United States, Pepe became a mascot for the alt-right in the lead-up to the 2016 election and quickly became associated with the Trump campaign.
He was so indelibly linked with white supremacy and anti-Semitism that the Anti-Defamation League publicly denounced Pepe as a symbol of intolerance.
Because of this unsolicited association, Furie “killed” Pepe in a comic depicting his funeral. In at least two instances, the artist has taken legal action against companies that profited from the use of Pepe’s image in far-right propaganda.
But few protesters in Hong Kong seem to know of its alt-right association—and those who do, don’t care.
On the popular messaging board LIHKG, where many protesters have been organizing, one user recalls how an American tourist asked why there were so many Pepes at an airport sit-in earlier this month.
The user replied that it had nothing to do with the far right, and that Pepe simply resonated with a lot of young Hong Kongers because of his expressiveness.
(Read more: Why Pikachu was also at the Hong Kong protests)
In a Reddit thread titled “Take Back Pepe!” one user wrote, “In Hong Kong Pepe, is not at all associated with Trump … The original artist didn’t want Pepe to be used like that”, before sharing a link to download a full suite of Pepe protest stickers.
One member disagreed and suggested it was better to abandon the character because of its associations in the West.
“Leave it and find a better icon with no baggage,” the post reads. “Pepe has a lot of baggage the movement doesn’t need.”
‘Becoming a Hong Konger’
Some protesters still believe Pepe is the perfect ideological ambassador of their cause.
“I originally liked him for his irreverence, which feels very in sync with the attitude of the Hong Kong people,” says Paper Chu, who has participated in the protests since June. “But having him as a part of the anti-extradition movement, as the face of it, feels appropriate.”
(Read more: One Hong Kong bakery’s protest symbol: Angry cookies)
She makes a reference to the Bruce Lee mantra “be water,” which demonstrators have used to describe their adaptable protest methods.
“Water is fluid, can take many shapes, and it’s not easy to grasp or capture,” Chu says. “Those are its unique attributes. The various forms that Pepe is able to take is also quite representative of this.”
While she wasn’t aware of his association with the alt-right in America, she applauds his “reincarnation” as a local hero.
“I congratulate him on becoming a Hong Konger,” she says.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.