What are the implications of the marks of erasure on a society in crisis? A reflection on the 2019 Hong Kong uprise
The Corona crisis is turning life upside down, or inside out, and will change the world as we know it. Still, I never want to forget what happened in 2019 in my hometown Hong Kong. Mid December, while in Wuhan, China, the first people started to die from their long infections, I returned to Hong Kong amidst the aftermath of mass marches on the central business district.
The events, beginning with the anti-extradition bill protest, marked six months of turmoil that fractured the city. As is usual during marches, protestors left hundreds of thousands of instances of anti-government graffiti across the roads, walls, street signs and bus stops. Once impassive, the pair of bronze lions guarding the HSBC headquarters now bears the messages of the people’s steadfast heart.
The months of the pro-democracy movement in June 2019 have resulted in an avalanche of online photographs and videos: images of violence and of propaganda bearing witness to the shocks to the cityscape. When walking around town, one can find themself surrounded by what French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s described as the state of being “under erasure” (sous rapture). This concept is related to writing, and means “to write a word, cross it out, and then print both word and deletion.”1 Smudged or semi-erased protest graffiti is the mark of the presence of what the government usually makes sure is absent from public life. This graffiti is an announcement that the opposition, that Hong Kong democrats, exist is a state of sous rapture.
As Derrida writes: “The trace is not a presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself. The trace has, properly speaking, no place, for effacement belongs to the very structure of the trace […] In this way the metaphysical text is understood; it is still readable, and remains read.”2 Although this enigmatic description of the trace is imbued with significance for his philosophical argument, the passage also works in a more literal sense when applied to Hong Kong.
The traces that remain after a supposed erasure - Hong Kong residents “return” to an altered cityscape only after suffering political violence - fascinate me. Erasure is never an act of making things disappear completely, for it leaves remnants in its aftermath. There are reminders of the violence involved in altering a city and its people. I wonder how these traces manifest themselves and contribute to the possible future of the society.
The doing and undoing of protest graffiti
During the week following my own return to HK, in pursuit of signs of ‘erasure’ I visited the areas where the most prominent protests had happened.
The various ways in which protesters have altered existing urban spaces for their cause, in defiance of norms and regulations, runs parallel to their pro-democracy demands. Graffiti of both Chinese and English slogans can be found on almost every sidewalk, crossroad, footbridge, building exterior and subway station. The most common graffiti is “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” sprayed in traditional Chinese, which is the official written language in Hong Kong. Other messages include the popular chant “Five Demands, Not One Less,”3 expressing the calls for democracy, and a trending hashtag “CHINAZI,” a portmanteau of China and Nazi.
Graffiti, especially anti-government messages, is typically frowned upon in a cosmopolitan financial centre like Hong Kong. The island’s government champions stability, as this is intimately tied to efficiency. After every mass march, street cleaners work around the clock to erase the protestors’ graffiti by the order of the bureaucracy, which sees these messages as both remnants of conflict and a provocation to confrontation. To erase them is, as government propaganda says, to restore the city’s normality.
While most young demonstrators are only novices when it comes to the art of protest graffiti, so are the street cleaners. The cleaners, many of whom are middle-aged or elderly, work for the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department or one of its five, outsourced service contractors. The cleaners’ standard duty is to sweep the streets, collect waste, wash public toilets and keep the city clean in general. The strategy that they employ is pretty elementary: hastily removing graffiti by painting over it with bleach, washing it off with a high-pressure water gun, or, failing that, taping over the graffiti with sheets of black or white plastic.
Walking along Queen’s Road Central, one can see protest messages on building facades and billboards. They are legible, despite the fact that they have been painted over, covered up, or smeared. The clean-ups have left obscure traces of prominent phrases.
The act of erasure has left the messages barely visible, but not completely washed away. Almost all of the original messages have been lost, but looking at them from across the roads, they are reminiscent of classical Chinese ink-wash brushstrokes, or expressionist paintings, both of which seek to capture the essence of life rather than a visual reproduction of the reality. With this I can associate the cleaner’s swipes with the essence of oriental martial arts.
Protestors wrote over these smeared slogans. The different coloured inks of the messages are superimposed, creating striking ‘paintings’ in the process. These ‘paintings’ require two ‘artists’ who represent the two poles of the political situation: the protestors and the cleaners.
Not far from the tram stops around Wan Chai MTR station, protest graffiti is barely veiled by white plastic sheets, whose surfaces are also painted upon; soon this too is erased with a patchwork of tape. This is a perpetual process of scribbling and scrubbing, doing and undoing.
That the act of erasing these emotionally-charged protest messages results in something so evocative is impressive. These expressive paint marks condense the essence and energy of the situation in town onto the city as canvas, signifying the various terms running through this period: upheaval, collision, rage, and resistance, collective desire.
Restoration to normality or revelation of cruelty?
As months go by, protesters are turning to more aggressive tactics to defend themselves against the escalating violence and brutality exerted by the authorities. These new tactics include vandalism of metro stations, storefronts and restaurants with close ties to China, and the un-fencing of swathes of pedestrian paths. Public spaces, whose function we take for granted, have all of a sudden become sites of protest. The city’s iconic reddish brown bricks, dug up from pathways, are among the most popular materials that have been fashioned into makeshift barricades throughout the protests.
In response to these urban-scape changes, or, as the authorities say, “unacceptable destructions,” defensive measures have sprung up in the city, which again create only more peculiar ‘traces of erasure’. Many subway station entrances that used to feature glossy, transparent glass facades are now clad in opaque steel fortifications, resulting in a futuristic outer space aesthetic. Other stations, banks and shops are encased in dark iron boards – protesters also coat these new canvases with vivid graffiti and posters.
One afternoon, I found fresh cement poured into dozens of holes on the ground on a sidewalk in the city’s busiest business and tourist shopping area Tsim Sha Tsui. This is where protesters had dug up bricks. Someone had scribbled “Free HK” before the concrete hardened, perfectly immortalising an act of resistance, that type of act the government is trying to cover up.
Marks of erasure as a testimony?
As the protests rage on along with violence and more collisions, I wonder how many of these traces will make it to the end, how many of these marks will bear witness to the writing – and un-writing – of the city’s memoir. There are sites of key moments in the protests that are now remembered as city landmarks. “This is where the 17-year old teenager was shot; this is where the man in a yellow raincoat once stood, before falling to his death as a final act of defiance and leaving behind his iconic banner; this is where a teargas canister dangerously landed right in the centre of the crowd.”
The markings throughout the city inevitably tell an important story, even if they may be eyesores to some. Should we obliterate all these scars, restore this physical damage or, as some may suggest, preserve them as a part of the city’s history, an important heritage? But what can we do with these traces? And how do we handle their precariousness? Vandalism, despite its destructive agenda, can also be understood as a phenomenon that is worth examining in relation to the city’s landscape and history. When certain kinds of damage emerge in the city, both the government and residents should examine why people felt the need to do what they did. What can we do to salvage or preserve these marks, or even give them a potency beyond the event of their emergence? How do we memorise resistance?
As a witness to these traces of erasure around the city, from scrubbed-off graffiti to repaved sidewalks, I begin to understand these marks as a subtle testimony of what happened. These traces are cultural expressions that serve as a response to crisis, a way to look trauma in the eye without having to represent violence in atrocious images. When violence as a problem is made visible through a paranoid exposure - stressing on a pre-emptive knowledge of a possible violence, believing on the idea that when a piece of information or idea becomes more and more transparent, then and only then will there be any significant effects - that exposure may changes it and expands it, very often also problematises it. Susan Sontag wrote that: “For a long time, some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war.”4 There is sometimes this paranoid assumption that people have to see the painful effects of their oppression, poverty, or deludedness sufficiently aggravated as the only way to “validate” and “awaken” the consciousness of the pain, so as to emphasise on the intolerable situations as if the more intolerable it is, the more efficient to generate “solutions”. However, when we try to discuss the topic in which violence and the brokenness of subjects are abundant and spectacular, do we always focus only on the relationship between visibility and recognition? Blatantness doesn’t necessarily lead to recognition, not to mention reconciliation. To me these subtle testimonies might function as an alternative approach, one that approaches reconciliation outside a juridical economy of truth.
Along the way, traces of erasure also agitate history that has been written and communicated, its dominant narratives and prevailing discourses. When traditional history is often written in a reductive manner to what is selected, manipulated and approved by the authorities, especially in a totalitarian regime – which in many cases are a chronology of glorification as well as victimisation - these trivial traces help one to remember and explore the uncharted territories of history. They are an art form against obliteration in a multi-faceted society, whose collective memory is constantly hijacked and breached. They are a genuine attempt to preserve important parts of our truths.
As Thomas De Quincey says in Confessions of an English Opium Eater, “There is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind.” The submersion of experience in memory is a text erased or overwritten. In the context of Hong Kong, intense demonstrations of the past year have already dotted permanent marks on the city’s landscape despite their retreat. The pro-democracy movement will change the entire narrative of the city. These traces of erasure function as emblems of fact or scraps of evidence to support the assertions of history. They serve as structural links between historical events, memory and aspirations, between what is made to be educated as facts and what is needed to be remembered. The surface of erasure always conjures a reminder of some primal violence; the eliminated facts will always be evidence of a repression of some kind, be it physical or political.
As Hong Kong ushered in a new year a new strain of life-threatening disease has swept the globe. The dreaded pandemic and the accompanying social distancing and lockdown have put a stop on street demonstrations in Hong Kong, but it is too early to assume the protest movement has gone away.
It wasn’t until I started writing about these visible marks of erasure that I realised the question of technology is indeed essential in our contemporary experience of traces. I started to think about digital traces, the innumerable pictures and videos that were circulated on media platforms, fleeting and ephemeral, during the protests. They are in fact one of the strongest and most powerful traces that we can hold on to, in spite of them being repeatedly censored and removed from the internet.
For many activists in Hong Kong, the coronavirus-enforced hiatus has given all a chance to regroup and to prepare for future waves of demonstrations and protests which are to be expected once the pandemic is resolved. Perhaps it is because the organisation and discussion of the entire movement was started on online platforms, in a collective yet leaderless manner, that people have long adapted to thinking about movement while online. The pro-democracy movement at this stage has only been transformed, thanks to a total lack of confidence in the government’s coronavirus measures.
As I write, new traces are being created online, despite the chance of being ‘reported and deleted’ for leaving such messages online. People in Hong Kong are actively disseminating news about the virus via social media, especially information that has been “suppressed by international organisations, China and Hong Kong Governments.”
1) Gayatri Spivak, “Translator’s Preface” to Derrida’s Of Grammatology, XVII.
2) Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena: and other essays on Husserl’s theory of signs, trans. David Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p.156
3) The five demands are: full withdrawal of the extradition bill, a commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality, retraction of the classification of protesters as ‘rioters’, amnesty for arrested protesters, and dual universal suffrage for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive.
4) Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003
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Photo by Ng Kang-Chung taken from thestar.com.my