The Language of Hong Kong’s protests (II)

Hong Kong protest scene

When I started writing the first part of this post, I didn’t anticipate that I would be writing a part two. Yet here I am, because the sheer longevity of the movement (following the legacy of the Umbrella Movement) has created a jargon of its own.

First, let’s delve into the differences within the pro-democratic faction. Because if you thought protesters were all as united as they seem, you’re in for a bit of surprise…

Deep divisions

Last time, I talked about the two main factions, yellow (pro-democracy) and blue (pro-China). But divisions within the anti-government faction runs deep, and have been so for years.

To approximately describe an individual’s position on the political spectrum, the same way you say ‘moderate left’ or ‘far right’, we use nuances in the colour. 淺黃 cin2 wong4 (light yellow) would describe someone who opposes the authoritarian government, but holds values such as nonviolent protest and peaceful resolution, for example. 深黃 sam1 wong4 (deep yellow) would refer to someone supporting anything from violent protest to independence.

The same descriptors can be used for the blue faction, giving us 淺藍 cin2 laam4 and 深藍 sam1 laam4. Some people might describe themselves as neutral, but under the current power dynamic, they are more often than not 淺藍. These people can be said as 偽中立 ngai6 zung1 laap6 (counterfeit central stance → neutral).

In general, 淺黃 are more likely to say things such as ‘I hope the situation gets better’ or ‘I hope things calm down soon’, whereas 深黃 usually think things have to get ‘worse’ before real change can happen.

This points to the ultimate philosophy of 焦土 ziu1 tou2 (Scorched Earth [policy]: to destroy anything useful to the enemy), which inspired the 攬炒 laam2 caau2 (hug fry) aspect of the movement, or mutually assured destruction. 攬炒 is a term so local that not even the Chinese government managed to translate it; since 炒 ‘fry’ has the colloquial meaning of ‘to fail’ (see 炒粉), ‘hug fry’ conjures the imagery of jumping off a cliff and dragging your enemy down with you.

Initially, this policy aimed to maximise the cost for the Chinese government to harm Hong Kong’s democracy, by threatening to cut off their lucrative profits. Eventually, the hope was instead to use the downfall of Hong Kong as a cautionary tale for the international community to grow wary of the Chinese Communist Party, or as a trigger to bring down the authoritarian regime.

Also within the anti-government faction, there are certain groups who renounce the 黃絲 label, because it has come to be associated with feel-good protest tactics, such as the 黃色經濟圈 I last discussed. Some of these overlap with the more radical pro-independence or -self-determination 本土 bun2 tou2 (original soil → localist) factions.

Some others take pleasure in keeping a distance from the movement and criticising its shortcomings; since they are often associated with the party 熱血公民 jit6 hyut3 gung1 man4 (hot blood public people → citizen) Civic Passion, their opponents call them 熱狗 jit6 gau2 (hot dog, where dog is just a generic insult) (yes, it is a pun on the food). Nowadays, anyone critical of 黃絲 on the Internet are prone to be lumped together with these groups, a process which they call 被熱狗 bei6 jit6 gau2 ([passive voice] hot dog), or ‘to be made into a hot dog’.

In retaliation, they call people who only support nonviolent protest 左膠 zo2 gaau1 (leftist plastic). Plastic is a euphemism of the penis which means idiot. A punnier version is 阻膠—same pronunciation, but with 阻 which means to stand in someone’s way.

Back to the other side…

Speaking of 被, it has become a way to represent involuntary actions throughout Chinese languages, thanks to the authoritarian rule. 被消失 bei6 siu1 sat1 ([passive] disappear ~), or ‘to be disappeared’, is a term that has entered English. It’s what might happen when you are arrested, according to rumours.

被自殺 bei6 zi6 saat3 ([passive] self kill) is a proud Chinese tradition, and with suicide rates rocketing in 2019–20, everyone is suspicious about those jumpers and 浮屍 fau4 si1 (floating corpses). This all is more likely to happen if you 被送中 bei6 sung3 zung1 ([passive] deliver China; also a pun on 送終 sung3 zung1, to attend someone’s funeral), just like the kidnapped booksellers in 2015.

Meanwhile, the blue faction usually believe these are well-deserved punishments. Due to the black bloc tactic, protesters are often named 黑暴 hak1 bou6 (black violence) by their opponents. Female protesters are also named (黃)天使 (wong4) tin1 si3 (yellow sky messenger → angel), referencing a rumour in pro-police circles that protesters are motivated by free prostitution. In addition to funding from 外國勢力 ngoi6 gwok3 sai3 lik6 (foreign country power ~), of course. Oh and protesters are also called 曱甴 gaat6 zaat2 (cockroach ~), because you can’t kill them all, and because who doesn’t love calling people you hate roaches.

黑 does not only reference the colour black, but in general has a meaning of bad, corrupt. Mostly commonly, you’ll see 黑警 hak1 ging2 (black police). In retaliation, the police call journalists 黑記 hak1 gei3, abbreviated from 記者 gei3 ze2 (noting person), because they work against their government by…reporting the truth. And ever since police brutality became a global focus, the idiom 天下烏鴉一樣黑 tin1 haa6 wu1 ngaa1 jat1 joeng6 hak1 (sky below crow ~ same ~ black) became popularly used to compare police action in Hong Kong and abroad.

Unity is the only way to succeed

The greater the threat, the more united people can be. Knowing that ideological differences are inevitable, this movement began with the overarching philosophy of 兄弟爬山,各自努力 hing1 dai6 paa4 saan1, gok3 zi6 nou5 lik6 (older-brother younger-brother climb mountain, each self exert strength), i.e. everyone protests in the way they believe in. Most people took a stand against 割蓆 got3 zik6/zek6 (cut mat), i.e. cutting ties with fellow protesters, and 分化 fan1 faa3 (divide -ify), i.e. deliberate efforts to turn groups against each other.

They are united under significant symbols. These include the slogan central to the movement 光復香港,時代革命 gwong1 fuk6 hoeng1 gong2, si4 doi6 gaak3 ming6 (light restore Hong Kong, time generation revolution ~): Liberate/Reclaim Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times. The slogan was incorporated into the widely known protest anthem Glory to Hong Kong 願榮光歸香港 jyun6 wing4 gwong1 gwai1 hoeng2 gong2 (May glorious light belong Hong Kong).

To provide a clear focus to the movement, since mid-June 2019, another slogan has prevailed: 五大訴求,缺一不可 ng5 daai6 sou3 kau4, kyut3 jat1 bat1 ho2 (five big complain demand, missing one not possible), i.e. five demands, not one less. That’s why the movement is represented by the gestures ??☝?, the two numbers appearing in that slogan.

  • cit3 ok3 faat3
  • siu1 hung3 zeoi6
  • fei1 bou6 dung6
  • caa4 ging2 bou6
  • zan1 pou2 syun2

When Carrie Lam ran for Chief Executive in 2017, she used the slogan #weconnect, in hopes to reaching the hip, tech-savvy generation. While she’s pretty much severed her connection to the majority of the population since then, the slogan has been appropriated by the protest movement, for whenever they discover a shared view or value that helps them reach a new group. For example, after someone of South Asian descent attacked a movement leader, in an attempt to turn the ethnic groups against each other, the rest of Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities saw through the ploy and aligned themselves with the movement.

With so many peoples around the world rising up against oppressive systems, last year in South America and now in Belarus, Lebanon, Thailand, and most recently South Mongolia, we all need to #connect and stand strong together in solidarity for a better tomorrow.

Featured image by Chan Long-hei