Among the sea of faces on Hong Kong’s streets on Sunday were more than one hundred people wearing quirky over-sized animal masks — a band of activists bringing popular protest internet memes to life.
Hong Kong’s democracy movement is largely leaderless and organised online.
LIHKG, a local Reddit-like web forum that serves as a virtual command centre for the movement, is filled with memes and a host of animal cartoon characters that have been embraced by activists.
The most popular are a cute pig and a shiba inu dog, who often appear dressed in the movement’s ubiquitous yellow tradesman helmets.
The other is Pepe the Frog, who carries none of the far-right baggage he does in the West, used by Hong Kong protesters as an irreverent symbol of their dissatisfaction with Beijing’s rule.
On Sunday a group of activists joined the crowds wearing colourful Pepe, pig and shiba masks made out of fibreglass, their wobbly heads in stark relief against a vast forest of umbrellas as the crowds marched.
The stunt was the brainchild of Simon Lau, a former government advisor who has since founded the pro-democracy online radio station Sing Jai.
“There is a story of Hong Kong people’s suffering behind every helmet,” Lau told AFP, adding 117 masks had been made in the last ten days.
“But in the face of police brutality and tyranny, we want Hong Kong people to carry on with humour, confidence and positive thinking,” he added.
Rony Wong, a surveyor in his thirties, was wearing a Pepe mask with a nurse’s hat on top and said he chose the design because he wanted to thank medical professionals who have been helping those wounded in the protests, often in underground clinics.
“I believe the medical sector is with the Hong Kong people,” he told AFP.
A furniture shop worker who only gave his surname, Mok, was wearing a black Pepe helmet with “1984” on one eye and the Chinese Communist Party symbol on the other.
“1984 was the year when the joint declaration was signed,” he said, referring to the treaty between Britain and China that paved the way for Hong Kong’s handover and guaranteed the city would maintain freedoms unseen on the mainland for at least fifty years.
Hong Kong’s protests are fuelled by years of growing fears that authoritarian China is stamping out those liberties.
Sirius Tam, a 21-year-old university student, was wearing a Pepe mask with a bag of “Life Bread” sticking out of the mouth.
The local bakery brand has also become a symbol for protesters after a police officer was filmed boasting that he and his colleagues could go and eat hotpot across the border in Shenzhen while protesters would have to make do with the simple bread.
“What has been stirred up in society the past few months won’t simply fade away if the government refuses to solve the problem of systematic injustice,” he told AFP.
He said protesters like him feared that if they stop hitting the streets, Beijing will only clamp down harder on the city’s remaining freedoms.
“Then what change will we have achieved?” he asked.