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This is the commentary for the gallery for 29 September 2014 on Umbrella Diaries.

29 September began with the stench of sour milk. Volunteers were emptying carton after carton into a drain, which they then flushed with fresh water. Someone had donated fresh milk the day before, believing it would neutralise tear gas. By the morning it had all curdled in the heat.

“We didn’t have time to clean up yesterday because the police were making it really difficult”, one volunteer told us. “Hong Kong protests have always been very clean affairs.”

It wasn’t just about being hygienic; the protestors seemed keenly aware that the simple act of picking up litter and sorting refuse, when repeated by enough people, could also be a political tool. The message: “This isn’t chaos. We’re not just out to trash the city. We’re not destructive.”

In the coming days, headlines like “The World’s Politest Protesters” would pop up all over the internet.

So it was fascinating to see what the extent of “cleaning up” would be. In the evening, some protestors of school-going age began drawing flowers and also large characters that read things like “Democracy” all along Harcourt Road – in chalk of course.

Those didn’t last long.

Just days later, other protestors began using bottles of turpentine, rags, and copious amounts of water to remove graffiti that had been spray-painted on walls and tarmac. One told an NBC reporter that it was his responsibility “to try and be a good citizen (and not) damage Hong Kong“.


I stopped in my tracks when I next came upon the graffiti that had read “Democracy”. It was so faint it was barely there. Surely the rain couldn’t have erased it so cleanly?

I was left wondering: Had protestors thought that chalk had not been adequately impermanent? Might they have seen graffiti of any kind as subverting the image they were trying to maintain?

Had the people who were fighting to have their voices heard though universal suffrage been the same people who had policed art, even though it might have been their own?


Selected comments

“For me, the whole point is about how Hong Kong protests are imbued with a politics of civility – so much of the act of occupying is also intrinsically tied to the act of keeping the space intact and orderly.”

“I would have made mention of the “This is Not a Carnival” slogan. My mind is always stuck on how right-wing pro-Occupy people ousted people having hotpot and playing games in Mong Kok.”

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