A book of sketches of the 2019 pro-democracy protests by local artist Fong So will not be distributed in Hong Kong for fear of the national security law, the artist told HKFP, saying freedom of the press and artistic expression are being eroded in the city.

The work “A Defiant City: 239 sketches of Hong Kong’s mass protest movement 2019-20,” includes sketches of pro-democracy marches from June 2019 up to the following January.

Photo: Fong So.

The 70-year-old artist told HKFP the book’s production was delayed for ten months after being stalled by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the passing of the Beijing-imposed national security law last June.

A major printer in Hong Kong had expressed concerns over the project days after the law came into force on June 30. “All of a sudden, the national security law was imposed in Hong Kong. Only a few days after… the printer gave me a call… he was worried that some images or sketches may have problems,” Fong said.

“After the phone call, I told the printer, if you have doubts… we better stop it.”

The struggle to publish the sketches signals growing self-censorship in the city’s publishing industry, after the artist had published a previous volume of sketches of scenes from Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement. He donated his original sketches to the British Museum in 2016.

The artist has also sent his original sketches of the protests abroad, saying he believed them to be too politically sensitive to safely remain in Hong Kong.

Photo: Fong So.

Fong, who worked as a journalist for over two decades before turning to art, told HKFP he sees a shrinking space for the free flow of information in the city. “I think press freedom in Hong Kong has been eroding, and the situation is worsening.”

Protests erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.” 

‘Very dangerous’

The artist eventually found a Taiwanese printer willing to print his work and the collection was eventually self-published by Fong & Yeung Studio at the end of last year.

Fong, who only advertised his work on social media channels, has since received over 300 orders for the book from Hong Kong, but has decided against distributing it in the city so as not to endanger buyers. “I was warned by friends in Hong Kong that I should not ship the book back to Hong Kong… they told me it was very dangerous in particular for the recipients.”

Photo: Fong So.

“I received phone calls from more than one friend telling me they might check the incoming mail packages,” he added, saying that customs authorities would “very likely” inspect printed matter sent from Taiwan.

The collection of Fong’s work has also attracted international interest. Of the 1,000 print-run, almost 300 copies have been sold to customers in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand while almost 500 copies are waiting to be shipped to Europe and the UK once pandemic restrictions ease.

The threat of security law implications, however, has prompted Fong to issue warnings even to those who purchase his work abroad. “When they order the book, I advise them not to ship it to Hong Kong.”

Fong, who left Hong Kong last September in order to publish the book, told HKFP there was no longer space in the city for artistic expression. “We all know that art is… expression. Even if you produce something or create something, there’s no way for you to show it… in Hong Kong, the [Covid-19] restrictions are used in an abusive way.”

Photo: Fong So.

Nonetheless, the journalist-turned-artist said it was crucial to preserve images from the city’s pro-democracy movement. “We have to keep a record of this part of Hong Kong history, it’s too important.”

The hurdles Fong faced in distributing his work come amid growing concerns of censorship under the security law after Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowed “full alert” against any displays of artwork deemed to endanger national security

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Rhoda Kwan

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.