I do not go through life looking for opportunities to give Hong Kong judges a hard time. But someone has to do it.

Last week we had the judgment of Mr Justice Andrew Chan in the matter of five men accused of criminal contempt by obstructing bailiffs enforcing a court order.

They were convicted. The offences, which could be described as having a whiff of politics about them, took place four years ago during the clearance of the Mong Kok part of Occupy. The law’s delays, as Hamlet observed, are one of the things we all have to put up with.

Yung Yiu-sing. Photo: Citizen News.

Ploughing through Chan J’s 17-page judgment, the Hong Kong Free Press’s diligent reporter came across a fine self-contained gobbet of horse manure. I quote: “The slogan on the back of [Yung’s] T‑shirt [“rather die for speaking out, than to live and be silent”] indicated his intention and described his involvement beyond doubt.” Chan also wrote that Yung had no intention of leaving the area, and was seen holding a loudhailer throughout the day and assisting others to make broadcasts to the crowd.

So young Mr Yung Yiu-sing was convicted, it seems, partly on the evidence of his tee-shirt. This is very disturbing.

To start with, the slogan concerned seems a very fragile peg on which to hang the conclusion that the wearer set out to obstruct the bailiffs. The offending shirt did not say “Occupy Mong Kok for ever,” or “Who cares what some old fart in the High Court thinks?” The slogan concerns speech, not occupation.

And there is nothing particularly unusual or ambitious about it. It is descended from Pasionaria’s “Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees”, which dates from the 1930s and in turn perhaps owed some inspiration to Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death”, which was orated in 1775.

Even if you think, as a conservative and elderly judge might, that this is so subversive in its implications that the wearer must be a rabid revolutionary, before hastening to judgement there are some further possibilities to consider.

We have all seen people wearing tee-shirts which said incongruous things. This seems a particular problem in Japan, where people wear tee-shirts with English slogans which either don’t make sense at all or mean something which the wearer would be embarrassed by if she knew what it was.

Questionable t-shirts. Photos: Reddit.

Such accidents are not unknown in Hong Kong. Generally people who buy cheap tees from factory outlets and such are tempted mainly by the low prices. If it happens to say “I’m too pretty to do housework”, or “Good girls are better liars”, they do not mind, but they do not mean it either.

I do not criticise. I have a tee-shirt I bought in Japan with a lot of writing on it. I am assured by a colleague who reads the language that it is a recipe for cooking fish. This is a relief because I cannot read it myself. It only occurred to me when it was too late that my shirt might say something unfortunate like “Hands off the Diaoyus”, or “Yasukuni Shrine Supporters’ Club”.

Did Mr Yung buy the tee-shirt himself, one wonders. Shirts are a popular gift. My own harmless preference for animal faces is well known. Over the years it has produced two rhinos and an elephant from my wife, and some psychedelic cats from an office colleague. People with political tastes presumably get political tee-shirts.

And did he choose it that morning, or was it just the one at the top of the heap? Freud is supposed to have said, when asked about the hidden significance of putting a phallic object in his mouth and sucking it, that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Sometimes, perhaps, a shirt is just a shirt.

So we should all, I think, deny vigorously the suggestion that the wording on our tee-shirts is evidence of our “intentions and involvement” in anything. A person whose tee reads “Vote for Guy Fawkes, the only man to enter parliament with honest intentions”, may have poor political taste, but he is not going to blow anything up.

A person whose tee-shirt says “Eat the rich” is not prone to cannibalism, and a picture of Adolf Hitler is not necessarily evidence of Fascism. It sometimes comes with a small caption underneath saying “My picture of Che Guevara is in the wash”.

Photo: Foul mouth shirts.

As far as I can tell from some hasty Googling the international consensus is that nothing written on a tee-shirt should be taken too seriously. The only exception I could find was an American lady who was refused boarding on a booked flight because she was wearing a (I presume) feminist effort which went “If I wanted the government in my womb I would fuck a senator.”

If Hong Kong judges are going to jump to conclusions on the basis of tee-shirt slogans we are all going to have to examine our collections closely. Would there be objections to “Free Tibet”, and would these objections be withdrawn if it was followed, as it sometimes is, by “with a purchase of another Tibet of equal or greater value”?

Perhaps someone could commission a tee-shirt for Mr Chan, with the useful phrase “Aucupia verborum sunt judice indigna”, which means “Catching at words is unworthy of a Judge.” It is a quote from one of Mr Chan’s colleagues, albeit one who was working in 1616. Before tee-shirt slogans became evidence.


Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.