A group of Hong Kong artists gathered in Prince Edward on Tuesday night to burn custom-made paper offerings to honour the traditional Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival. Some artistic pieces included miniature protest gear and a “ballot box” in solidarity with the city’s pro-democracy movement.

YouTube video
A video of the “On Fire” event held on September 1, 2020 by artist Kacey Wong.

A Winnie the Pooh effigy was also spotted, a reference to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, whose appearance as been compared to the cartoon bear.

The annual street art event titled “On Fire” was curated by the C&G Artpartment, a local art space founded by artists Clara Cheung and Gum Cheng. Cheung told HKFP on Wednesday that the duo began to invite artists to create their unique joss paper designs in 2016. They would gather to burn the pieces as a gift to ghosts which many believe roam the earth for the whole seventh months of the lunar calendar.

Hungry Ghost Festival 2020
Photo: Kacey Wong.

Cheung said apart from keeping on with the Chinese tradition, the artists also saw it as an opportunity to “communicate” with the spiritual world about social and political issues in the city. The offering she created this year, for instance, was a paper deer. It was a reference to the Chinese idiom which is literally translated as “pointing at a deer and calling it a horse,” similar to the English expression of swearing black is white.

Hungry Ghost Festival 2020
Clara Cheung’s paper deer offering. Photo: Neo Chu.

She said the act of setting the paper deer on fire symbolised Hongkongers wanted to bring an end to what they saw as a distortion of facts by the authorities: “Even if we can’t resolve these social issues properly in the human world, maybe spirits from another realm can help us.”

Hungry Ghost Festival 2020
Mini-sized protest gear created by artist Kacey Wong. Photo: Kacey Wong.

Among the 15 artists who contributed pieces to the event was Kacey Wong, who created a set of scaled-down items frequently used by protesters during last year’s large-scale demonstrations, including a respirator, goggles and helmet. The other set featured miniature Molotov cocktails, gloves and a hiking stick, which Wong said were used by “fire magicians,” a term coined by demonstrators to refer to those who hurl petrol bombs.

Hungry Ghost Festival 2020
Mini-sized protest gear created by artist Kacey Wong. Photo: Kacey Wong.

Wong told Stand News on Tuesday night that he respected the roles of frontline protesters: “[In real life I don’t have the courage to throw bricks or hurl petrol bombs, but I hope I can do that after I die, so I burned [the offerings] to myself.”

The government has condemned scenes of violence at last year’s demonstrations and deemed acts such as firebombing to be a form of terrorism.

Artist Peggy Chan, on the other hand, made a few “ballot boxes” representing the demand for universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

Hungry Ghost Festival 2020
Artist Peggy Chan’s “ballot box” to represent the demand for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Photo: Kacey Wong.

Cheung of the C&G Artpartment said artists had shared grave concerns before the event, citing fears in light of the national security law which criminalises secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces. They were also worried about being ticketed by police under the current coronavirus ban on public gatherings of more than two people.

“We didn’t promote the event to the public on Facebook and we didn’t collect the artists’ names and statements like we normally would when curating art pieces,” said Cheung, who is also a Wan Chai district councillor.

Hungry Ghost Festival 2020
Some artists created helmets in the shape of the coronavirus. Photo: Neo Chu.

Nevertheless, police did not show up during the event. When Cheung was asked if she was worried about a potential clampdown on the gathering in the future, Cheung said “On Fire” would continue to celebrate traditional Chinese customs and serve as a platform for people to make bold statements.

Hungry Ghost Festival 2020
A piece of joss paper money featuring a drawing of Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Photo: Kate Cheung.

“We already had a lot of concerns this year and the suppression is quite serious, but because of this, we want to find a gap to express ourselves,” Cheung said.

Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.