Sequestered in a nondescript office building in Lai Chi Kok, Jason Wong readies himself in front of a row of camerapeople preparing to live stream a press conference. “Please film the sign language interpreter,” the moderator announces. It is a routine reminder necessary due to their tendency to zoom in on speakers, cutting interpreters out of the frame entirely.

For Wong and a small team of interpreters, their practice became political last year. Weeks before tear gas was first fired last year, frustrated members of the deaf community urged lawmakers to hold a workshop to explain a controversial extradition bill that would have enabled fugitive transfers to mainland China.

Sign language interpreter Kimberly Wu
Sign language interpreter Kimberly Wu at a Citizens’ Press Conference event on February 25. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

The government-led proposal marked the start of the city’s worst political crisis in decades. But around 2.2 per cent of the population who identify as deaf found themselves excluded from the debate.

“When the government claimed that they had done comprehensive and extensive consultation [with] all different parties in society, we thought it wasn’t true because all those discussions in the Legislative Council were actually done by the Panel on Security, and sign language interpretation was not included,” hearing interpreter Kimberly Wu told HKFP.

‘Delayed’ information

In a city bristling with live streams, where protests are scrutinised by thousands and press conferences broadcast almost round the clock, audiences take stock of events in real-time, often relying upon multiple feeds to provide raw, unfiltered coverage.

But this near-ubiquitous digital access has posed a problem for the deaf community, with members left depending on lip-reading and other methods to make sense of verbal video exchanges.

The result has been an information gap, deaf native signer Connie Lo told HKFP: “It has affected my daily life,” she said. “Often I have to learn about issues then go back home to explain them to my mother, who is also deaf. By then it is quite delayed.”

Jason Wong Citizens' Press Conference sign language interpreter
Sign language interpreter Jason Wong Yiu-pong at a Citizens’ Press Conference event on February 25. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Some members of last June’s workshop decided to take matters into their own hands, first, by streaming simultaneous interpretations of extradition bill-related events on their personal Facebook pages with the help of friends. Deaf native signer Anita Yu told HKFP she began live-streaming her interpretations last June using multiple laptops and mobile phones, though she was often overcome with anger over Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s “repetitive and nonsensical” remarks.

“The interpreter suffers when the message makes no sense,” Wu added, laughing.

Galvanised by a shared mission, the interpreters joined forces to form a collective of volunteers who offer their services for pro-democracy events.

“This is also part of my advocacy work,” said Lo. “I hope to show others that deaf and hearing people should be able to get the same amount and quality of information at the same time.”

Resisting speech monopoly

Taking to the stage in turns, the team work together. A hearing person usually sits in front, absorbing speakers’ remarks and signing to a deaf interpreter, who relays to the crowd. It is a fluid performance executed with the illusion of consummate ease as members flit between Cantonese, English and Hong Kong Sign Language.

But deaf-hearing collaborations remain rare in Hong Kong, Wu said, as most groups – including the government – often prioritise using hearing interpreters. Asked if there is discrimination within the local sign language community, all team members nod.

In an email to HKFP, a spokesperson for the Information Services Department said the government uses interpreters of all hearing levels: “There was no requirement on candidates’ hearing ability and the interpreters who passed the tests included those who [are] hearing-impaired,” they said.

Sign language interpreter Kimberly Wu
Sign language interpreters Kimberly Wu (left) and Cat Fung (right) at a Citizens’ Press Conference event on February 25. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Cooperation brings a host of benefits to interpretation, such as inclusivity and the proficiency of a native signer who can communicate complex concepts using nuanced facial expressions and techniques, Wu said.

“It’s also about having the presence of deaf interpreters in the whole social movement,” she added. “When they are present on camera and in assemblies, it lets everyone know we are together, even though we are a minority… it’s about keeping a record.”

Hearing interpreter Ham Chu told HKFP that the team’s current work does not differ greatly from their original purpose to make information accessible to all: “This is part of our advocacy work. It didn’t just start in June 2019,” she said, adding that she hoped to insert an alternative narrative into a field overwhelmed by a single voice.

“When the government is providing sign language interpretation for all of the press conferences, they have absolute authority to speak,” Wu added. “Our team is resisting the government’s monopoly on spreading information.”

‘Abnormal’ circumstances

Last September, seated in a drab beige room, Lam announced on television that her administration had yielded to calls for the withdrawal of the loathed extradition bill.

But public anger had already been redirected to the police force, and protesters returned to the streets in droves. With them, the interpretation team worked nonstop, untangling knots of information sign by sign.

Sign language interpreter
From left to right: interpreters Anita Yu, Kimberly Wu, Cat Fung, Connie Lo and Ham Chu hold up signs reading ‘Sign language, interpretation, hearing, deaf, collaboration.’ Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Asked whether they fear for their safety as their public profiles grow, the interpreters shrug off concerns as part and parcel of the job.

“This is a civil war,” Yu said, dismissing calls to remain impartial in crises.

“We don’t have to put masks on ourselves because we are prepared. We’re not fearful,” Lo said. “If you wear a mask then people will not be able to see our facial expression and that is a very important part of Hong Kong sign language so we have to unmask ourselves.”

‘Always advocating’

Nowadays work is much slower. Along with the advent of the novel coronavirus outbreak, fatigue has followed the months of unrest which climaxed when police besieged the protester-held Hong Kong Polytechnic University last November. Since then, so-called yellow ribbon press conferences have dipped in frequency.

Instead, the group has pivoted to focus on the recent hospital worker strikes calling for greater government support to tackle the virus. The pandemic has led to a surge in the use of protective surgical masks. At first, the team opted to go without in order to show their mouths. But when the Chief Executive advised officials against wearing masks to save supplies, interpreters were furious.

Obscuring their faces, they exaggerated their expressions. They also shipped over expensive masks with a transparent window in the middle from the United States, to the annoyance of some confused viewers who accused the group of snipping holes in their masks.

Sign language interpreter
Deaf interpreter Connie Lo holds an inverted semi-transparent surgical face mask. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

The pro-democracy movement had one unforeseen consequence: it has forced professional sectors to reconsider their political allegiances. But advocating mass representation has always defined sign language interpreters’ purpose, the team said.

“We are always advocating for accessibility so we can’t be impartial,” hearing interpreter and teacher Cat Fung told HKFP. “If you claim to be neutral you are taking the side of the oppressor, and this violates our principles as sign language interpreters.”

As the beleaguered protest movement catches its breath, the sign language interpretation group has vowed to stand by, indefinitely at hand.

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.