Written by Denise Y. Ho

May 17th in Hong Kong marked the opening of a two-week ‘Umbrella Festival’, named after the Umbrella Movement, a pro-democracy sit-in protest that lasted from September to December 2014. The Umbrella Movement was one of the largest political demonstrations the city — once a British colony, now a Chinese “special administrative region” — had ever seen. When it ended, activists declared that they “would be back”, that Umbrella was just the first stage of long-term resistance.

The Umbrella Festival is organised by the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, one of the most politically active departments on campus. Its faculty, for example, was the only CUHK unit to strike as a group when last year’s student boycott began. Now the Umbrella Festival bills itself as a “multidisciplinary art festival which actively responds to Hong Kong’s current societal concerns.” The two weeks of programming include ten exhibitions spread around the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre as well as documentary screenings, dance and theatre performances, and workshops: you can learn to fold your own iconic yellow umbrella, watch screenings of documentaries, and take part in a forum on archiving the Umbrella Movement.

 IMG_1568The Umbrella Festival opens with a student dance performance (Source: Denise Y. Ho)

But what does it mean to have an art festival about a social movement? Does it indicate a commemoration of an event of the past? Or, as its organisers clearly wish, is such a celebration a way to maintain the movement’s momentum?

The festival strives to maintain the spontaneous imprint of the much-celebrated public art that came out of the Umbrella Movement. Organisers give each visitor his or her own post-it note to put on a mock-up of the Lennon Wall; the original was a concrete wall in the Admiralty District near the main government buildings, blanketed with individual messages. The graphic design of the festival’s pamphlets assimilate some of the most arresting scenes from Umbrella, including the triumphant goggled and masked man emerging from a cloud of tear gas, and the “I want real universal suffrage” banner that unfurled over the iconic Lion Rock. The band that played the opening ceremony told stories about the individuals who inspired their song: a woman who “found her role in the movement”, a girl kicked out of her house for defying her policeman father, and the people who first raised umbrellas against the streams of pepper spray.

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The exhibition’s Lennon Wall / The original Lennon Wall (Source: Denise Y. Ho)

While trying to portray the Umbrella Movement’s grassroots creativity, the Umbrella Festival is also a professional production, a testament to the talents of students who plan to join the ranks of Hong Kong’s artistic and cultural worlds. It has a glossy website with a bilingual logo, depicting an umbrella sprouting from the barrel of a gun. Visitors can collect sheaves of beautiful leaflets, free postcards, and collectible catalogues. A fold-out map of the ‘Umbrella Festival Journey’ outlines a pathway for visiting all ten exhibitions spread over the six floors of the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, housed in the site of one of Hong Kong’s earliest public housing estates. On the map’s other side, the visitor is encouraged to collect stamps from each gallery to exchange for a free souvenir. Showcasing the organising students’ curatorial skills, an exhibition on the seventh floor classifies the arts of the Umbrella Movement.

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 Collecting stamps on the “Umbrella Festival Journey” / Climbing over barricades on an original protest site. (Source: Denise Y. Ho)

But the curation of the Umbrella Festival does not sit well with the creation of the Umbrella Movement. To view an interior wall of a housing estate marked “The Lennon Wall Continued” is different from seeing the post-its fluttering from the original. To admire the cartooning now labeled with titles and the artists’ names — as in a museum — is not the thrill of watching Apink Cartoons flash through the exit of Admiralty Station cartoon-bombing his work. And to look over the shoulder of another visitor in a photography exhibition to see a handcuffed girl is nothing like the cold shock of seeing her the first time, when the same image flashed on the subway television as the train rattled me home to the New Territories.

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Photography Exhibition (Source: Denise Y. Ho).

What does it mean to exhibit Umbrella? Coming from the academic discipline of cultural studies, the Umbrella Festival’s organisers are deeply aware of the contradiction between social movement and artistic festival.

On the website and in the official brochures, the idea of the movement’s continuation is stressed. Oscar Ho Hing Kay suggested that it would move the Umbrella Movement from the original “occupied zones to every corner of Hong Kong”, and Katrien Jacobs expressed the hope that the space provided by the Umbrella Festival would spark the conversations and connections that became the hallmark of the movement. The social media and tech-savvy qualities of the protest are applied to the festival; CUHK students created their own app to “write our global Umbrella stories”.

Yet on stage and with microphone in hand, Jacobs asked whether one could “do an art festival about a social movement”, challenging the audience to avoid treating the festival as “visiting the grave of a dead ancestor” to both “commemorate the movement and keep it alive.” The following speaker, social activist Augustine Mok Chiu-yu, warned against coming to the Umbrella Festival only for the sake of “consumption.” He provided a local and historical example to Jacobs’ question, arguing that in the wake of Hong Kong’s 1967 riots against British colonial rule, it was the theatre community that opened its spaces for public discourse, that art kept the spirit of resistance alive.

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Bird’s-eye view of the Umbrella Festival / View of Admiralty at night during the Umbrella Movement (Source: Denise Y. Ho)

Whether the Umbrella Festival can live up to such ambitions remains to be seen. Mok’s example of theatre notwithstanding, we are not used to seeing exhibitions as part of social movements. Instead, we are usually presented with two forms, either a top-down official verdict on history or a bottom-up, ephemeral flowering of opposition. In the greater China context, an example of the former would be the National Museum of China, which hews closely the Party line; an example of the latter might be the ephemeral posters of the Hundred Flowers Movement or the 1979 unofficial display of art by the Stars Group outside the Chinese National Art Gallery. In the Hong Kong context, official history leading up to the 1997 handover is presented in the Hong Kong History Museum, while across the street a private museum displays the 1989 Tiananmen student movement and makes both memorialisation and democratic activism its mission.

The original art of the Umbrella Movement was the second, grassroots kind of creativity and is unlikely to become the stuff of the Hong Kong History Museum anytime soon. For all its professionalism, the Umbrella Festival exists in a marginal space. Its site is far from the central government and business districts occupied during the protests. Despite the mostly politically-neutral language of its publications, one does not find government organs like the Leisure and Cultural Service Departments or major financial institutions as its sponsors. Google ‘Umbrella Festival’ and the festival is only the fifth item that comes up.

If the Umbrella Festival is to be successful in the way its organisers hope, it must be more than an academic exercise. It must not be simply the exhibition of the art of a political movement, but rather art as a political movement. In the opening ceremony Augustine Mok pointed out that the problem with the Umbrella Movement was that everyone had his own opinion, “I say what I say, and you say what you say.” Instead, he hopes that “next time” one can use the technique of mass democracy to find a common way forward. But the challenge of doing so has been the Umbrella Movement’s all along, and may have been its undoing.

The challenge for the Umbrella Festival is thus even more than what Katrien Jacobs called for: not only to keep Umbrella alive, but to find a way to make it political.

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On display at the umbrella festival, busts of leaders and the number of votes each received: China’s Xi Jinping (2,952 votes), Macau’s Fernando Chui (380 votes), Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou (6,891,139 votes), and Hong Kong’s Leung Chun-ying (689 votes). The more votes each leader received, the more facets to the face on the bust.) (Source: Denise Y. Ho)

 is an Assistant Professor in the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Image Credit: Denise Y. Ho.