Lennon Wall Hong Kong
March 1, 2021
A seven-photo digitally stitched panorama of a section of the Tai Po Lennon Wall, Tai Po Market pedestrian tunnel, on October 5th, 2019, Hong Kong. For a larger interactive version, see below.
The images of mass protests, tear gas and street battles in Hong Kong that made world headlines in 2019 may be the frontline of the pro-democracy protests, but the Lennon Walls are the movement’s heart and soul. Mostly tucked away in pedestrian tunnels and overpasses away from the drama in the streets, Lennon Walls capture an intimate snapshot of the pro-democracy movement in time.
In 2019, I made three trips to Hong Kong, totaling about six weeks. During that time, I did extensive photo documentation of the Lennon Walls, collecting a detailed, systematic photo record, in multiple formats, of as many Walls as I could locate. This page is a small intro to the larger project.
I will be adding more material as I prepare it, including interviews with protesters involved in constructing the Walls, explanations of the meaning of some of the art themes, virtual tours using 360° spherical panoramas, and linear panoramas that show sections of the wall as a continuous, high-resolution, interactive image. The first of these is posted lower down on this page. I will be adding more panoramas as I create them, so check back again.
I hope this project will help people gain a better grasp of the passionate desire for freedom and democracy that drove the protests in Hong Kong, expressed on uncountable thousands of small yellow squares of paper.
During the 2019 Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, the city’s multitude of pedestrian tunnels and elevated walkways became exuberant centers of free speech, their otherwise drab and utilitarian surfaces covered in vibrant efflorescences of political commentary and emotional expression. Mass-printed posters announced upcoming protest events or chronicled major movement milestones, while uncountable thousands of hand-written sticky notes expressed individual hopes, dreams and fears for the city’s uncertain future.
Hong Kong in 2019 was a city in revolt, hopeful, fierce and defiant, but ever aware of the looming threat posed by the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party. When asked directly, most protesters answered that no, they didn’t think they’d win in the end. And yet, they felt they had to try, openly professing their willingness to go down fighting for their city and their freedom. Many said they’d be willing to die for their dreams. A few did; countless others were injured, some severely. Through the tear gas and rubber bullets and the strain of relentless protest against overwhelming odds, they never lost their sense of humor and joy. The young people especially were possessed of what I’ve come to call a “hopeful fatalism”, a sense of doom clothed in the exuberance of revolution, with a cutting humor that showed no quarter for their enemies.
All of this was reflected in their incredibly prolific protest art. And the primary venues for their art were the Lennon Walls.
What is a Lennon Wall?
On the origin of the name, from Wikipedia: Located in a small and secluded square across from the French Embassy, [in Prague] the wall had been decorated by love poems and short messages against the regime since 1960s. It received its first decoration connected to John Lennon, a symbol of freedom, western culture, and political struggle, following the 1980 assassination of John Lennon when an unknown artist painted a single image of the singer-songwriter and some lyrics.
After 1980, the wall in Prague continued to be a place for people to express themselves. This original Lennon Wall inspired Hong Kong protesters in the 2014 Umbrella Movement to create their own out of sticky notes on the walls of the Central Government Complex on Harcourt Road in Admiralty, site of the 79-day occupation. The Wikipedia page has some good photos.
The pro-democracy protesters of 2019, in keeping with their decentralized structure, created Lennon Walls at hundreds of sites across the city, some enormous and durable, others ephemeral and topical, many small and secluded away on bulletin boards in the back of pro-democracy cafés.
Virtually any surface in Hong Kong could be made into a Lennon Wall, but subway tunnels and pedestrian overpasses were obvious locations, since they had large, blank surfaces, were well-traveled and, though technically privately owned, were effectively treated as public property. The Walls became semi-permanent fixtures in these locations, mostly ignored at the beginning of the summer by the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), government authorities and mall operators. Hong Kong has an extremely efficient public transit system that is widely used, so virtually everyone passed by a Lennon Wall regularly, if not twice daily, to and from work. Other Lennon Walls were more impromptu and ephemeral, constructed hastily amidst protests, only to be removed by property owners or police immediately afterward. During the “Lunch With You” office worker singalong protest on a pedestrian walkway in Central on November 28th, protesters thoroughly covered the walls and columns with posters, only to have them removed not long afterward. At the airport protests in August, “Lennon People” let anyone post a note on their bodies as they roamed the airport.
The distinguishing feature of Hong Kong’s Lennon Walls, what sets them apart from public poster kiosks, bulletin boards or random walls graffitied or wheat-pasted with flyers — and what also makes them unlike their Prague namesake — are the sticky notes that afford and encourage individual expression and participation. Sticky pads and pens, the only materials required, are commonly available, cheap, friendly, quick and easy to use. No special technology, skill, expense, new behavior or learning curve is required. In this way, Lennon Walls are participatory by design. Without this easy, almost playful level of accessibility, the Lennon Walls would be the limited domain of more committed activists willing to take the time and risk of spraying graffiti or gluing on posters—as would become the case near the end of the year.
Hong Kong protest artists seem to have appropriated and repurposed every genre of art known to exist, but the sticky-note mosaics of the Lennon Wall became the movement’s most identifiable motif, its signature form of artistic expression. Art and propaganda, especially large format works, were often rendered in blocky, pixelated form. As one example, slogans in the form of large Chinese characters on walkways at Tsing Yi were built out of individual notes sealed to the floor with clear packing tape, each note with it’s own hand-penned word or phrase. Common protest icons such as umbrellas, along with mascots such as the Cat, Dog and Lin Pig from the web forum LIHKG were frequently rendered in a blocky, pixelated form. (LIHKG is a Reddit-like site used by protesters to organize.) Though it doesn’t seem to have caught on or been widely adopted, the “Lennon Flag” was proposed as a movement symbol. It consisted of a simple pastel checkerboard, no words or other symbols necessary to fly the message of democracy for Hong Kong as the meme became the message.
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The pastel paper pixels of Lennon Art are more than just a clever conjunction of art, activism and participatory propaganda. They seem to me like a natural aesthetic fit for a movement that thoroughly embraces and integrates its online and offline organizing and action. For example, large scale strategic decisions in 2019, such as the airport occupation, were made on short notice by mass up/down-voting proposals on LIHKG and discussions on Telegram channels. Phones were constantly in hand in the streets, monitoring the location and activity of police in real time during protests. Political posters on Lennon Walls often had QR codes printed on them that could be scanned for more information. Protest art, propaganda, singalong lyrics and future protest calendars were often delivered to the phones of anyone on a train or in a crowd who had Air Drop turned on. It is fitting that a decentralized, very-online movement would have a pixel as the trademark artistic element of its offline presence.
The small squares also made their own quiet statement in a way befitting a leaderless movement of individuals with a strong collective goal, a subtext that seemed to say, “As one in a mosaic of millions, you are never alone.”
Many Lennon Walls had a small group of “guardians”, as one described himself to me: volunteers who maintained the wall by providing art supplies, keeping an eye out for trouble, acting as contact points for people interested in the movement and answering questions for passersby. While I was at the Walls taking photographs or looking at a poster, I would frequently be approached and asked if I had any questions about the meaning of the artwork or if I needed translations from Cantonese to English. This is how I met a few of the volunteer groups.
The larger Lennon Walls that I visited, like Taipo and Tsing Yi often had an art supply station stocked and maintained by the guardians. You could get paper, sticky notes, preprinted posters, pens, tape and anything else to add your words or images to the Wall. Posters were usually attached with either spray glue or tape. Much of the Tai Po Lennon Wall was covered at one point with clear plastic wrap to protect the posters and notes, though this would later make it easier for pro-Beijing civilians and police to tear off large sections at once.
When I first visited Tai Po in October, the supply station seemed to be left unbothered by maintenance crews, authorities or the public, despite being unattended. Later in the fall, when pro-Beijing/pro-police individuals (known as “Blue Ribbons”) and the police themselves began systematically tearing down Walls, supplies would be provided while protesters were there rebuilding the Wall, but taken home with them when they left.
Interactive Lennon Wall Panorama
Click and drag anywhere on the image above or use the arrows to scroll this interactive panorama. Click the “full screen” box for the best experience. This is a composite of 20 sequential images from a small section of the Tai Po Lennon Wall, October 5th, 2019. This is the first of many such panoramas to come! I photographed the Lennon Walls with this in mind, though not all Walls lent themselves to panoramas. I’ll be putting up more from Tai Po, plus: Tsuen Wan, Tseung Kwan O, Sao Mao Ping, Tsing Yi and Kwun Tong. There will be “hotspots” allowing you to zoom in and see some of the artwork full size, with explanations as to the significance of the imagery and translations from Cantonese to English. If anyone is fluent in both languages and would like to help, please contact me! Also, I’m looking for a schematic diagram of the Tai Po tunnel, so I can include a map that pinpoints the location of each panorama or set of photos.
The Hong Kong public actively engaged with Lennon Walls. In my time observing and photographing the walls, people regularly stopped to read the posters or add their own sticky notes. Only once did I see someone openly tear something off: at the Kwun Tong Lennon Wall, located on a wall of advertising kiosks on the sidewalk outside the MTR station, a man angrily ripped a poster off after reading it, crumpling it up and throwing it in the trash as he walked away.
Beyond the immediate content of the Lennon Wall art, which expressed the pro-democracy movement’s politics and sentiments of the moment, the scope and vibrance of the Walls at any point in time can be seen as an expression of the ebb and flow of the protesters’ momentum. By early winter of 2019, authorities had ramped up their campaign to destroy the Lennon Walls as they simultaneously increased heavy-handed efforts to suppress the street protests. Stripping the Walls was often done in the early morning hours, carried out by Blue Ribbons, but with full protection of the Hong Kong Police Force. Protesters would often clean up and rebuild immediately, but could only rebuild small sections before cleaners came back. Someone coined “Battle of Lennongrad” for this tug-o-war between protesters and cleaners.
Many walls, once scrubbed, were never rebuilt or, when rebuilt, consisted of mostly preprinted posters and large artwork, with only a few Lennon Notes put up by individuals. There wasn’t enough time to truly fill a wall with such individualized sentiment before it was stripped bare again. The size and vibrance of the Lennon Walls was in this way a reflection of the movement’s strength and focus. While the occasional gigantic marches and daily smaller protests during this time demonstrated the movement’s unflagging commitment to its goals, the winter’s smaller, fewer and less personal Lennon Walls seemed to reflect the impact of the increasing suppression efforts and the protesters’ decreased energy levels after half a year of continuous conflict.
A strategic feature of the pro-democracy protests was the protesters’ explicit disavowal of visible leaders and this was ultimately reflected in the artwork. During the 2014 Umbrella Movement, individuals gaining too much power and attention caused internal divisions that hastened the movement’s downfall. After the 2014 protest encampment disbanded, many visible leaders were arrested with some still in jail during the protests of 2019. The protesters this time made a conscious, collective, strategic decision to eschew public leaders or highly visible personalities. One visible manifestation of this was universal mask wearing in the streets. Another was the almost completely anonymous nature of protest art. Few claimed credit and art was freely shared.
Distribution channels for protest art also hewed true to the movement’s decentralized, anonymous character. How artwork spread throughout the city was explained to me by one protest artist: the work, usually anonymous, would be put online on one of the Telegram or LIHKG protest channels. Someone who had access to high-quality printing would donate printing and take posters to a rented drop box owned by someone else, the combination to which was shared in discussions rooms online. From there, protesters would take stacks of posters out and plaster them around the city. A protester handing out posters in Victoria Park one day explained that the consistent high quality of the printing and graphic design originated from the many professional designers and print shop owners who chose to donate those skills, feeling unable participate directly in the streets. Most of the protest art is unattributed, anonymous, free to use by everyone, because fame might get you arrested. Under a mask, without a byline, you can be free to draw and say what you feel.
Photographing the Lennon Walls: Vignettes
Tsuen Wan, December 2, 2019
A series of pedestrian overpasses leads outward from the Tsuen Wan MTR station’s Exit A. All the walls and rails are covered by bits of tape and scraps of glued-on paper, indicating the original Lennon Wall had likely been enormous before being stripped bare by cops and pro-government civilians. Since then, activists have been maintaining and rebuilding one short section along a pedestrian walkway from Exit A to the doors of a shopping mall.
When I arrive, a small group busily prepares supplies for the evening’s rebuilding work. I introduce myself and explain that I’m documenting the protest movement and Lennon Walls. The activists are, as usual, welcoming. They want the world to know what they’re protesting about.
The Wall had been stripped bare early that morning. In a few hours, it will be rebuilt. The crew first gets to work with scrapers, removing all the loose paper and glue and sweeping up the mess left by the “cleaners”. Newspapers are then spray-glued to the surface for backing. Finally, posters and other pre-printed art and propaganda are put up with tape and glue. They’ve brought a stack of sticky notes and pens. Passersby enthusiastically add their own words.
At the near end of this walkway, closest to the MTR entrance, is a temporary steel shed, part of a construction project. Two men recreate the burnt and vandalized Prince Edward MTR station door on the container’s end wall by pasting up a life-size photo printed out in strips that are aligned and then glued into place. On August 31, police brutally attacked protesters and many random citizens who happened to be in Prince Edward station. The MTR withheld the security camera footage at the request of the Hong Kong Police Force, setting off retaliatory vandalism against the railway, much of it focused on that station in particular. Many activists believe people died there. For sure, many were hospitalized with serious injuries. That entrance has been the site of continuous protest, keeping it closed for most of the late summer and fall, though it is now open. Protesters and cops vie for control of the space on the sidewalk outside, with activists rebuilding the flowery memorial every time the police destroy it. The purpose of this mural here in Tsuen Wan is to remind people of what happened at Prince Edward MTR.
I arrived here tonight on a whim, after another round of documenting the Tai Po Lennon Wall. On the way home, I decided to switch trains and head here before returning to Tsim Sha Tsui and my hotel. I’m dressed only in a t-shirt, having not intended to stay out late. When the air gets chilly, one activist offers me his coat. I decline because he clearly needs it. Another brings me hot tea. They’ve brought snacks. They take care of me, a foreigner, and each other. Solidarity plays a powerful role in this movement, despite differences in tactics. Eventually, they point me to a cheap clothing store in the mall where I buy a sweatshirt to keep warm. At a few minutes before the last train, a little after midnight, I will hastily grab my gear, say goodbye and dash into the station. I will come back here a few more times on this trip. Each time they will be here, busily rebuilding.
Tai Po Lennon Tunnel, November 27, 2019
I’m photographing the Lennon Wall one evening when a woman approaches me and asks if she can help interpret anything about the words or art. We will end up meeting multiple times, doing interviews with activist friends of hers and becoming friends. This time, she tells me a story of a woman in her early 30s who had been suffering from depression for ten years and was on the verge of killing herself: “On the day she decided to kill herself,” my friend says, “She thought, I have to come to Tai Po to have a look before I die.“
“She wrote a note [on the Lennon Wall] and someone, one of the volunteers, one of the elderlies, saw this and notified our group.” They were able to quickly mobilize and locate her, tell her she could be part of their group and eventually get her help and support.
This was not the only suicide they intervened in. My new friend explains that when activists go to the front lines, they go alone, masked for anonymity, to protect themselves from the police and to protect their friends and family from harassment for their protest activities. My friend explains that they do this out of selflessness, to protect others before themselves. On the front lines, the protesters know how to take care of each other, anonymous behind their gas masks, helmets and umbrellas, facing a common enemy. When they leave the front lines, they often do so quietly and alone. The woman who wrote the note had gone to the front line alone but had no one to talk to afterward, no one with whom to process or express her anger at the suffering she’d seen. Despondent, she went to the tunnel.
Her story is a variation on a universal theme: in extremis, the protagonist goes to a cave, a downward tunnel or a dark place that leads to an underworld where she will find an answer or face a challenge. Tai Po Lennon Tunnel and other Lennon Walls provide more than a place to hang posters. They serve as social and material centers for the movement. People who cannot join the street battles will quietly bring money, food, supplies or transit cards (also used to buy food at many stores), giving them to the Tunnel volunteers to be distributed to young, poor frontliners. Young activists, many kicked out of their homes for their activities and now sleeping in parks at night, come to the Tunnel to find support. Others come seeking hope.
The network of volunteers who keep watch over the Tai Po Tunnel and other Lennon Walls is not always obvious. Some, like my friend, take on the role of public interpreters. Others maintain a quiet, low key watch. On one late-night trip shooting 360° panoramas in the Tunnel, something easier done without daytime crowds, my friend appeared from around the corner. “They said you were here and I decided I needed to come here to protect you.” Someone had already recognized me as a supporter and told her I was there alone. On another late-night trip, an “auntie” whom I had interviewed on a previous visit, approached me, lifted a cover from the top of her small grocery hand-cart and handed me a copy of a thick book on Hong Kong’s Lennon Walls that had just come off the press that day in a very limited edition. Someone knew I was there and made sure I got a copy. [I’m still hoping this book will come out in English. It is only in Cantonese, but looks beautiful.] This same network of people also watched for people who might be seeking help or solidarity from comrades. People knew to come to the Lennon Wall. There would be friends there.
Earlier in the summer, a young activist handing out flyers at the Tai Po Lennon Tunnel had been attacked with a large knife by a pro-CCP man. The protester was slashed open and eviscerated, but survived. Others have been attacked and beaten for putting up posters. The manner in which I was systematically shooting photos could easily be understood as supportive of the protests, so my friend’s concern for my safety may have been well founded. As we spoke in the Tunnel the first time we met, my friend interrupted our conversation, striding quickly toward two young women putting up sticky notes. An older man had been pretending to read the notes, edging in way too close behind the women. She forcefully interposed herself between them and told him off in no uncertain terms. She is small, but fierce and has studied martial arts. I have no doubt that had anyone tried to hurt me or anyone else there that she would have ripped their eyes out.
Sha Tin Lennon Tunnel: Trump, Pepé the Frog and Hong Kong Protesters
I first encountered Pepé on an impromptu Lennon Wall at the Hong Kong airport protests in August. I asked a couple protesters about the cartoon character. They and others I subsequently asked were all aware that Pepé was a far-right icon in the U.S., but none cared. One said, “to us he’s a cartoon frog. We like him because it appeals to the youth. We made him our frog.” Pepé had already been around, I later learned from another protester, as a WhatsApp sticker before the protests began. This is an important point. Pepé belongs to Hong Kongers as much as to anyone. The protesters’ unapologetic use of him for their own ends demonstrates a broader unwillingness to be limited by foreign expectations about how they should live their lives or conduct their protests, whether those expectations come from the U.S. or from China or anywhere else. Call it “democracy with Hong Kong characteristics.”
Pepé in Hong Kong protest art is usually depicted as either an angry pro-democracy fighter, decked out in protest “gear” — yellow hard hat, gas mask and goggles — and shaking a fist or, equally often, as a sad frog, despondent about police brutality or afraid for the future of the youth. Pepé is rarely happy. Expressions of joy are usually left to Lin Pig or the Shiba Inu mascots from LIHGK. Other times, iconic groups of protest-related people, such as “medic”, “press” or “school boy” are drawn as Pepés. Specific individuals are also subject to Pepé-fication. Even Donald and Ivanka Trump aren’t spared being Pepé-fied.
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I heard about this unusual Lennon Art installation the way I heard about many others: through a Twitter post. After a few messages to determine the rough location, I got on the train to Sha Tin and set off looking for the wall. Following the map app would’ve taken me down a busy, if direct, thoroughfare. I decided a more roundabout path looked more interesting. It took me through a lovely park, a footbridge over the river and along a bike/pedestrian path directly to the tunnel.
This Lennon Tunnel is small, providing a couple of short walkways under the busy streets above. The scraps of paper and glue between the existing posters tell that it had once been more developed and that the contest between those posting and those tearing off was in full swing. By December, this was the case for many Lennon Walls. More than once I saw pictures of new Lennon Wall art online, only to find it destroyed in whole or part by the time I got there. I wasted no time getting to this one.
My friend in Hong Kong explained this image as (summarizing), “Trump and Ivanka hand in hand with protesters, fighting together for freedom.” The relationship between Hong Kong protester imagery and U.S. politicians is complex but, from what I observed, mostly boils down to opportunism or a cringe-worthy lack of understanding of how little Trump and the GOP actually care about the fate of Hong Kong. Many protesters saw Trump as standing up to CCP Chairman Xi Jinping on trade and human rights, but didn’t realize that it was all a game for Trump, one that he was bound to lose anyway. When looking tough on China was no longer convenient, Hong Kong was soon forgotten. Some protesters understood this and saw it as a useful political moment in which to stage pro-U.S. demonstrations, while others pinned real hope on Trump being able to help Hong Kong. I hope they weren’t too disappointed.
In the weeks before I shot the photo above, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA) had made its way through Congress and onto Trump’s desk. Images of Trump and other U.S. politicians increased on Lennon Walls during November in particular, as did calls for the passage of the HKHRDA. As much as the American iconography was an attempt to curry favor with U.S. politicians, every U.S. flag or heroic image of Trump was also a way to say “fuck you” to the regime in Beijing and their Hong Kong proxies, a personal middle finger to HK Chief Executive Carrie Lam and equally-hated CCP Chairman Xi Jinping. Predictably, authorities claimed that this represented foreign interference in Hong Kong’s affairs, but few took it seriously.
This is not to suggest that there aren’t pro-fascist supporters of Trump or that there isn’t a local version of the U.S. alt-right in Hong Kong, just that the images of Pepé and Trump are more benign than that and should never be assumed to mean the same thing in Hong Kong as they do in the U.S.
Coda: Lennon Wall, March 2021
Hong Kong’s Lennon Walls are mostly gone now, scrubbed off in the wake of the COVID pandemic and the CCP–imposed National Security Law (NSL) that makes virtually any dissent, including merely uttering most of the movement’s slogans, into a punishable act of sedition. The future of Hong Kong and the pro-democracy movement remains unwritten, but for the last year the streets have been largely quiet and clear of tear gas and barricades. Umbrellas now shield Hong Kongers from sun and rain instead of rubber bullets. Face masks are worn to protect from a killer virus instead of to hide one’s identity. Though the gears of authoritarian control were already moving steadily to assert control over the unruly city in 2019, the Chinese Communist Party used the forced lull of the pandemic to impose their draconian rules in a sweeping blow in June of 2020. At least two of the protesters I interviewed at Lennon Walls — a young frontliner and a protest artist — have already fled Hong Kong for other countries.
We can never know the outcome of the protest movement in a counterfactual Hong Kong, the one where a pandemic never happens, but it’s easy to believe that had the CCP tried to pass and impose the NSL without the city’s people already sheltering from the pandemic, the response would have been protests more massive and determined than those of 2019. But we will never know. What we can do is find ways to push our own countries to pressure the Chinese government to cease their violations of human rights and basic freedom in Hong Kong and elsewhere. The people are still there and must not be forgotten.
As the pandemic wanes and people have had time to regroup and reassess their options, a few small protests have begun to happen even as the crackdown intensifies. Friends in Hong Kong send me snapshots of posters, graffiti and protest art defiantly pasted up on former Lennon Wall sites despite the extreme risk such activity now carries. With such widespread and passionate resistance as 2019 saw, it’s truly hard to imagine the movement not rising again in some form. It would be a tragedy if Hong Kong, formerly a vibrant world city, became a second-tier shadow of its former self under mainland Chinese rule. The people deserve better.
Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of Our Time.