INSIGHT: The writing on the wall
Taipei’s “Lennon Wall,” a vivid but fragile form of protest art, emerged as a liminal symbol of Hong Kong’s ongoing protests.
A worn-out underpass lies beneath the busy street that divides National Taiwan University and a bustling night market. I traveled back and forth through its crisscrossing underground tunnels often during my summer in Taipei, never glancing twice at its dull walls until one August afternoon — I descended the underpass stairs into the middle of a colorful spectacle. Thousands of sticky notes had been posted all over the tunnel walls, covered in scrawled handwritten messages. The same four Chinese characters appeared everywhere — 香港加油 (“don’t give up, Hong Kong”). Overnight, the underpass had transformed into a “Lennon Wall,” a bold form of political art in solidarity with Hong Kong.
An organization of Hong Kong student activists set up this particular wall in Taipei, one of many that have sprung up around the world to support Hong Kong’s ongoing anti-extradition protests. These Lennon Walls emulate the original graffiti-layered Lennon Wall in Prague, originally a tribute to John Lennon as a symbol of peace and resistance in the ’80s and a popular space for free expression. But Taipei’s Lennon Wall was graffiti-free — instead, colorful collages of crowd-sourced sticky notes and posters lined the tunnel walls from ceiling to floor. Sketches of umbrellas and Hong Kong’s bauhinia flower emblem, crude caricatures of politicians and vivid shots of violence on Hong Kong streets accompanied the notes’ messages. They voiced a simultaneous pride in Hong Kong’s democratic ideals and rage at Hong Kong’s undemocratic reality.
In the sea of notes, a few stood out: “Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan,” a chilling premonition commonly chanted in Taiwan’s solidarity rallies. “Freedom is not free,” an American idiom that had taken a new meaning in the context of Hong Kong’s protests. A pointed “Fuck USA/UK/Japan” scribbled right underneath a poster that claimed “USA stands with Hong Kong.” But most notes simply echoed 加油, 加油 (“don’t give up!”) — the same characters written in thousands of different handwritings rang like thousands of voices in unison.
The Lennon Wall’s daily growth followed the protests’ developments — each visit, I encountered freshly penned messages and fragments of cross-strait politics from overhead conversations. This Lennon Wall was a form of activism I had never seen before, lively and visually representative, a variation on political graffiti that maintained order and respect. For the first time, the underpass interrupted the commutes of its countless passersby, who stopped to observe or add their own notes to the protest art. As word of the Lennon Wall spread, journalists and photographers materialized, distinguishable by their impulse to document everything while it lasted. They knew what I didn’t want to admit — that this Lennon Wall, while powerful and captivating in the present, was only fleeting. For a moment, the underpass itself had become the destination.
It must be more than a coincidence that almost all Lennon Walls in the world appear in various liminal spaces — in tunnels, bridges, subway station hallways — spaces where people can’t help but pass on the way to somewhere else, spaces where people do not normally linger. Liminal spaces facilitate change, in the way that the Hong Kong protests’ period of disorder actually gave rise to the explicit “Five Demands” that protesters now march for. The Taipei Lennon Wall’s physical location at the crossroads of an underpass transcends to the metaphorical crossroads that Hong Kong’s protesters face — one path towards democracy, the other towards the unthinkable alternative.
In anthropology, a liminal space is a threshold, a phase of transition in both space and time; liminality induces overturned social hierarchies, broken traditions and doubt cast upon what was once taken for granted. In this period of fluidity, protesters have called on a famous Bruce Lee philosophy to symbolize the mobile, adaptive nature of the protests — “be water.” As people record their grievances on notes at the Lennon Wall — against Hong Kong’s current administration, against the “one country, two systems” policy, against the undermining of autonomy — they mark these signs of liminality. The Hong Kong protesters chose the long shot, and they must know they have already passed the point of no return.
It is the youth of Hong Kong and Taiwan that lead this movement, because they live on this cusp. During a visit to the Lennon Wall, a student approached me and introduced himself as a Hongkonger studying in Taipei. He had dedicated all his free time to his self-appointed station at the Lennon Wall, advocating Hong Kong’s cause to anyone who would listen. His pride for his hometown glowed in his words as he described his ideals of freedom and democracy, but faltered when I asked about Hong Kong’s future. Hong Kong’s youth were born into democracy, he told me, and that is why they are so afraid to lose it. They take autonomy for granted in a way that even those one generation older could not, and refuse to accept anything less. The openness and urgency with which he spoke to me, a complete stranger, revealed his near-desperate belief in the protests. The lives of young people in Hong Kong have been so quickly and irreversibly altered, the liminality of their teenage years disrupted by something much greater — the upheaval of their home. He told me he was going back home to Hong Kong next week to participate in the protests, risking his own safety to make a point right when the rest of the world was pulling away. “Wish me luck,” he had said. His contagious, reckless hope — the tunnel was alive with it.
That was over three months ago. Neither of us could have guessed that the protests would continue in full force to this day. In the face of escalating violence and rising stakes for Hong Kong’s future, it can be hard to have faith in sticky notes and symbolism. Caught in the midst of an infinite shuffle of people and paper notes at the Lennon Wall, I was uncertain whether there would be a light at the end of this tunnel. The underpass has since returned to its original bare state, but not I nor anyone else who saw its full glory would be able to walk through the empty tunnel without seeing a phantom explosion of color, feeling the spirit of protesters that once inhabited its walls.