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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.