For the late historian Benedict Anderson, a nation is an imagined political community. But with the advent of print media, a collective identity began to emerge among disparate peoples, as each newspaper-reader realised that others, too, learnt about themselves and the world through the same lens.

Photo: Stephanie Teng.

In Hong Kong, however, communities may rarely extend beyond the imagination. Whereas Anderson wrote vividly of the confidence felt on seeing anonymous strangers read the same newspapers on the subway, this may not be the case on the MTR. Hongkongers realise the city is internationalised, sub-sovereign and highly politically polarised, and they may be uncertain of each other’s intentions.

Perhaps this explains the allure of mass protests, where – within temporal and spatial confines – an imagined political community physically comes to life. As Hong Kong’s anti-extradition demonstrations enter their third month, a group of netizens – known as Imagine Hong Kong – have begun curating a series of exhibitions showcasing visuals from the protests.

“We hope to trace how we forge and share our collective identity,” reads the preface to Stand with Hong Kong 2.0. “Perhaps in doing so, we can then rethink how to carry the momentum and transform short-lived, spontaneous acts of disobedience into a potent force for change.”

Photo: Stephanie Teng.

Stand with Hong Kong 1.0 – last month’s incarnation of the exhibition – was an instinctive initiative to collate all the multilingual anti-extradition bill advertorials printed in newspapers worldwide on June 28.

Timed to coincide with the G20 summit, the HK$5m cost was crowdfunded by Hongkongers within the space of a few hours. This process is detailed in the current 2.0 exhibition – which features additional crowdfunded advertorials printed in UK newspapers on July 24, calling for the Sino-British Joint Declaration to be honoured.

“We collected the G20 adverts because we were drawn to how newspapers published outside Hong Kong touched Hongkongers,” said Alex (a pseudonym) – a member of the exhibition team.

“We hope to provide a space where they could see the real copies of them, and through this process of re-presentation, they can reflect [on the] protests and form a physical connection with the newspapers,” she added.

Photo: Stephanie Teng.

But since the G20, the protests have spiralled with increasing police-civilian violence, intervention by alleged triads and mass arrests. At Stand with Hong Kong 2.0, a harrowing timeline documenting each day’s events stretches along a wall, beginning with the 2018 murder of Poon Hiu-wing that served as a catalyst for the bill.

Alex told HKFP that the exhibition hopes to provide emotional refuge for Hongkongers, doubling as a quiet space facilitating reflection and contemplation on how they might continue the movement.

“The exhibition to me testifies to the resilience and perseverance of Hongkongers,” she said. “It’s been very difficult in the past two months but we just keep fighting. With everything that we produce and everything we experience, we’re shaping what it means to be Hongkongers.”

Photo: Stephanie Teng.

Exhibition-goers, too, are encouraged to create their own artwork and pen their thoughts into notebooks. Another member of Imagine Hong Kong told HKFP that the comments show how the public has become mentally stronger.

“[In Stand with Hong Kong 1.0], the comments seemed more sorrowful and pessimistic, as if people burrowed themselves into a hole,” she said. “Perhaps it’s because the first exhibition was quite early, and people were lost amid things that had never happened before.”

“But in 2.0, [the comments] seem more optimistic, enthusiastic and emotionally mature. From the comments on what the aims and actions [of the movement] should be, it seems everyone has a clearer direction and is less disoriented.”

Photo: Stephanie Teng.

“I think it’s because everyone has gotten used to the events or accepts the reality. Hongkongers learn very quickly and are very good thinkers.”

Pointing to the popular rallying cry of “don’t blame, don’t break off relations, don’t rat others out,” Alex says the series of exhibitions simply reflects how her group of netizens have sought to contribute to the imagination of the Hong Kong community – in their own way.

“It’s particularly interesting how the [exhibition] campaigns were organised and the protest materials were made anonymously, and frontline protestors are anonymous as well,” she told HKFP.

Photo: Stephanie Teng.

“Perhaps we’re staying anonymous out of fear. But it’s also egalitarian in a way, that whatever we do, we’re just ordinary people who love Hong Kong.”

Stand with Hong Kong 2.0
Date: August 7–14, 2019
Time: 1pm–9pm (Monday to Friday); 10am–10pm (Saturday to Sunday)
Venue: WMA Space (8/F, Chun Wo Commercial Centre, 23-29 Wing Wo Street, Central)

Elson Tong

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.