The humble umbrella has become a symbol of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. The image , dubbed the ‘umbrella man’, emerged as an iconic image of the protests early on, and has been compared to the ‘tank man’ photo from June 4th. His importance has drawn my attention to the umbrella as an object and as a symbol.
The umbrella as quintessentially Hong Kong or Chinese?
In recent years, Hong Kong has followed popular trends in Japan and China and many women use umbrellas not only for protection from the rain, but also from the sun. Moving to the UK from Hong Kong, I was struck by the difference in attitudes towards the sun and rain, specifically what seemed like reluctance by the British to use umbrellas in all but the heaviest rain. Therefore I see the umbrella, used by Hong Kong people rain or shine, or in recent days even as temporary shelter, as an item very rich in local flavour.
The umbrella as a shield, or a weapon…
The reason the umbrella has been so endearing is its simplicity, domesticity and even fragility. A piece of technology that has not changed for hundreds of years, it is being welded in Hong Kong against riot shields and chemical (admittedly non-lethal) weapons. For days the clear inequality of the strengths of the apparatus used by protestors compared to police has captured the attention of the media and produced amazing images. Some Facebook friends of mine who are in the police have started hitting back on the internet, saying ‘how would you feel if you were attacked with the point of an umbrella?’, in justifying the use of tear gas. However, when comparing tear gas and a pointy umbrella, the social and symbolic context of the weapons are more powerful than the potential for injury—anyone might poke themselves with an umbrella any day, or get hit by one in a particularly unlucky moment, but tear gas and pepper spray are much more frightening in their unfamiliarity and association with force.
The umbrella as a symbol?
The umbrella as a symbol has been surprisingly slow to be popularly adopted as representative of the pro-democracy movement. I myself felt a sense of ambiguity when attending the pro-democracy rally in support of the Hong Kong protests outside the Chinese Embassy in London on Oct 1st: I brought an umbrella but did not use it, and I also found it odd to the standing under someone else’s open umbrella on a clear and mild evening. Perhaps umbrellas are too passive, they are tools of shelter from nature and the elements whereas what Hong Kong people are fighting against is an unnatural, non-humanitarian absolutist power. Umbrellas are also part of a bad-luck myth, but that’s really just for the superstitious.
No one can yet predict the outcome of the demonstrations and the situation in Hong Kong is changing by the hour. However if the image of the umbrella does endure, it will be because protesters are successful in staging a movement that is restrained, non-violent, widespread and could change the course of history, just like the humble umbrella.
Stefanie Lai recently completed MA World Cities and Urban Life at Goldsmiths College. She has lived in Hong Kong and London, is interested in mobilities, especially cycling and walking in the city, and has recently been experimenting with photography.