Umbrella Salvagers

The Monuments Men of Occupy Hong Kong

As police clear the Occupy Hong Kong protest camps, volunteers are rushing to save pro-democracy posters and artwork created during the conflict.

HONG KONG — There were three protest camps in Hong Kong, all operating under the banner of the Occupy Movement, also known as the Umbrella Movement. Causeway Bay’s site is on a main artery in a shopping district popular among tourists, in particular those from mainland China. Admiralty’s is located near the government headquarters and the barracks of the People’s Liberation Army, and is the most vibrant, friendly, and inviting. Across the harbor, Mong Kok’s camp blocked a road used often by tour buses and taxis, and the protestors there took on a more combative role as they faced constant heckling and even physical attacks.

On November 25, police officers appeared with bailiffs who carried out a court order to clear one strip of Mong Kok’s camp. It took the entire day, but the slow pace indicated that it was probably a test to gauge public reaction. The bailiffs and police returned the following morning and dismantled the entire camp. Most of what was left behind—posters, temporary furniture, banners, a few tents—ended up in the landfills, but a few volunteers managed to save some of the more significant artwork. Think of them as the Monuments Men and Women of the Umbrella Movement.

Their effort is called the Umbrella Movement Visual Archives & Research Collective, and their mission is simple: to preserve the visual identity of the current protests in Hong Kong. The collective stresses that it has no intentions of museum-izing the materials it has gathered. Rather, it aims to establish an open platform for public research based on the slogans and new art created by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp.

Hypercapitalist Hong Kong has plenty of art galleries, but the artists who are showcased are typically from mainland China or abroad, and are already established as big names in contemporary art—meaning sales are guaranteed on opening night. Local artists don’t have many outlets for their work, and it’s rare to find curators who comb through art produced by Hong Kongers. The Umbrella Movement changed that. The three protest camp sites weren’t just forums to discuss political dissatisfaction and theoretical dystopias. They were also places for local artists to develop new works. The Lennon Wall in Admiralty is a mosaic of Post-It notes, each square a scribbled wish. Sculptures appeared beside it. Causeway Bay has rotating illustrations inspired by clashes with the police. As Mong Kok was cleared, a man was spotted with easel and brush in hand, recording the scene on canvas as police tried to figure out how to approach the situation.

When the camp in Mong Kok was cleared, the Visual Archives sent a few volunteers to the camp site to retrieve the materials that were being trashed by the police. The volunteers had to lock horns with the cops, who were wary of anyone stepping onto reclaimed public space. One of them went straight for a makeshift altar dedicated to Guan Yu, a warrior god worshipped by the police and triad gangs alike. It was set up in the early days of the protest, after six police officers zip-tied a social worker and beat him in a dark corner of a park in Admiralty. The police destroyed that altar in Mong Kok before she reached it, but the volunteer was able to retrieve some of the relevant posters nearby.

Reactions to the Visual Archives are mixed. Many Hongkongers understand the importance of preserving the explosion of street art, but the archiving effort also has plenty of detractors, even within the ranks of pro-democracy activists and protestors. Some see it as a diversion from the main political objectives of calling for direct elections. One university student who has been camping in Admiralty said, “Who cares about the art if our actions have failed? My future is at stake and I don’t care about a few doodles.” In recent days, there has been a subtle feeling of defeat permeating through the camp. With falling temperatures, retreat has become a much more attractive option than before.

Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement was the brainchild of a law professor, a Baptist minister, and an academic. Eight weeks of occupying public roads has accomplished little, and calls for universal suffrage and for Hong Kong’s political leader to step down have fallen on deaf ears. On Wednesday afternoon, the trio turned themselves in to the police. The law professor, Benny Tai, urged the students to “retreat and take the spirit of the Umbrella Movement into the community.”

That’s a nice way of saying it’s time to quit and go home.

The past two months have been a war of attrition between the Hong Kong government and pro-democracy protestors. The protestors want a say in the elections that choose the city’s political leader, but Beijing sees no reason to give in to their demands. Joshua Wong, the leader of a student group called Scholarism and a candidate for TIME’s Person of the Year, has initiated a hunger strike along with two members of his organization, in hopes that government officials will participate in a dialog. Wong and his fellow students did the same thing two years ago, when there was a push to tailor Hong Kong’s education curriculum to something that was deemed more “patriotic” by Beijing. That initiative was beaten back, but things have changed since then. The Umbrella Movement may have had the moral high ground two months ago, but continued inaction has sapped the energy out of the protests. Public sympathy still remains with the pro-democracy protestors, but there is general disapproval of the act of occupying public roads.

In the mean time, the Visual Archives still has a tent set up next to Admiralty’s Lennon Wall. They continue to identify pieces of public art that they see as representative of the past two months’ protests. Mong Kok’s site was erased, in a literal sense: as soon as the protestors and their tents were removed, fresh paint was slathered onto mailboxes and walls, bus stop fixtures were cleaned with chemical solvents to remove every bit of glue residue, and the roads were sprayed with high pressure hoses to remove every trace of the protest materials. “It’s like they’re removing two months of history from this street,” one spectator said.

There’s no way of knowing when Admiralty and Causeway Bay will be cleared as well, but when the day comes, a few volunteers will be zipping in to save as much artwork as possible. The roads might show no trace of what happened here, but that doesn’t mean the people of Hong Kong will forget about it anytime soon.