Designed as a symbol of unity, Hong Kong’s flag becomes the focus of protest

Written by Oscar Holland, CNNHong Kong

Hong Kong’s flag was designed to be a symbol of unity. Its circular arrangement of white flower petals, set prominently against a bright red background, is supposed to embody the rights and freedoms enjoyed under the “one country, two systems” principle.

But in the 22 years since it was first raised, the flag and flower emblem have become targets for pro-democracy activists — including those who smashed their way into Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building Monday evening, after weeks of street protests.

Demonstrators are using the city’s ensign, which depicts a bauhinia flower, as a symbolic tool in their push to block a controversial extradition bill. Banners and protest art, for instance, have pictured the petals wilting, an apparent commentary on the perceived erosion of sovereignty.

On July 1, during an official flag-raising ceremony to mark the anniversary of the territory’s handover from Britain to China, protesters hoisted an upside-down Hong Kong flag on the grounds of the Legislative Council. A sinister black version, now a regular sight at protests, replaced the Chinese national flag on an adjacent flagpole, and both were flown at half-staff in an act of mourning.

Flags at half-staff outside Hong Kong's Legislative Council the day after hundreds of pro-democracy protesters broke into chamber.

Flags at half-staff outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council the day after hundreds of pro-democracy protesters broke into chamber. Credit: Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images AsiaPac

Then, in the occupied chamber, a more potent symbol appeared: After spray-painting over a emblem’s bauhinia and its reference to the People’s Republic of China, activists hung Hong Kong’s colonial-era flag — complete with a British Union Jack in one corner — over a central podium.

Hong Kong’s flag has only been officially in use since 1997. It was adopted as the British handed the territory back to China, at which time a corresponding flower emblem also replaced Queen Elizabeth’s head on coins and supplanted the colonial coat-of-arms on passports and official documents.

Its shade of red is the same one used on the Chinese flag, whose design is also alluded to through the five stars found on each of the petals (in China, the stars are said to represent the Communist Party and the four social classes outlined by Mao Zedong).

A protester inside the legislative chamber after the emblem had been defaced and the Hong Kong colonial flag draped over a podium.

A protester inside the legislative chamber after the emblem had been defaced and the Hong Kong colonial flag draped over a podium. Credit: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images AsiaPac

Activists’ disregard for the flag is hardly surprising given the design’s limited history and clear ties to mainland China, according to artist and activist Kacey Wong. In 2016, and again this year, Wong produced his own plain black flag for use at protests, which he said represents the choice between “freedom or death.”

“Netizens jokingly mock the (Hong Kong) flag, calling it the ‘exhaust fan,’ and that has a lot to say about its legitimacy,” he said in a phone interview. “For me, it’s totally unrelated to the people of Hong Kong in terms of color and in terms of image.”

Although the 49-year-old artist recalled that “at the time, having something new was quite important — a new sense of identity,” he said the flag does not “successfully represent the heritage of Hong Kong.”

A design history

The petals on Hong Kong’s flag are based on the pinkish-purple flower of the Bauhinia blakeana (or Hong Kong orchid tree). The tree was named after Sir Henry Blake, who served as the territory’s governor from 1898 to 1903, and his wife, both of whom were keen botanists. Every known Bauhinia blakeana is believed to be a clone descended from the single, sterile specimen first discovered around 1880.

The Hong Kong flag flutters outside the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal building.

The Hong Kong flag flutters outside the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal building. Credit: VIVEK PRAKASH/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

The flower’s use as a symbol in Hong Kong predates the handover era. Most notably, the city’s Urban Council, which oversaw public services and facilities under British rule, adopted a bauhinia flower as its logo in 1965. Its design featured a symmetrical flower, drawn from a single white line and set against a magenta background — a shade not dissimilar to that of the actual petals.

But the design widely in use today traces back to a 1987 competition to create a new flag and emblem. The contest solicited ideas that could reflect “the status and characteristics” of Hong Kong and “the spirit of ‘one country, two systems.'” More than 7,000 submissions were received, with common themes including dragons (as featured on the historic flag of the Qing Dynasty), stars (as seen on the Chinese flag) and the bauhinia flower.

A shortlist was submitted to a committee of both Hong Kong and mainland officials responsible for drafting the city’s new constitution. All of the proposals were rejected — or at least the committee “failed to decide upon a single set of designs,” as its chairman Ji Pengfei later reported to China’s national legislature.

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Subsequently, the task of designing the flag was handed to three of the competition’s judges: architect Tao Ho, designer Hon Bing-wah and sculptor Van Lau. The group looked to themes that had emerged from the competition entries, Hon told CNN.

“(We) discussed and designed the flag based on the combination of bauhinia and stars,” he recalled in an email, adding that he’d considered the flower to be “neutral and easily accepted by people.”

An ‘icon of Hong Kong’

Between them, the judges submitted three variations, though it was Harvard-educated Tao Ho’s that won approval at China’s National People’s Congress in 1990. His proposal — which took the form of a flag and an emblem — featured the white petals still in use today. Unlike the static-looking, symmetrical bauhinia of the old Urban Council logo, Ho’s suggested a clockwise motion.

Although he died in March of this year, the late architect’s website reveals the thinking behind the design: “The stylized flower is asymmetrical, and therefore its form implies movement, alluding to Hong Kong’s democratic energy and economic vitality,” it reads. “The red background represents China and the five stars … hint at the integration of the ‘one country, two systems‘ policy.”
A protester holds aloft a black reinterpretation of the Hong Kong flag.

A protester holds aloft a black reinterpretation of the Hong Kong flag. Credit: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Thomas Chung, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has been studying Ho’s work and legacy, described the late architect as being “very proud of Hong Kong and also passionate about Hong Kong traditions.”

“He had this kind of artistic intuition and was very creative and at times lyrical and poetic … (then) on the other hand, he was very rigorous and was a perfectionist type of character,” he said on the phone, later adding that “the rhythmic curves of the petals and stamens enhance the rotational symmetry, the bold and simple form being visually memorable, proper and dignified but with a certain graceful lightness.”

Committee chairman Ji, in his aforementioned 1990 address, expressed a different take on the flag’s virtues. “The design implies that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China and prospers in the embrace of the motherland,” he said, adding: “The five stars on the flower symbolize the fact that all Hong Kong compatriots love their motherland.”

Protected by law

Sensitivity around the flag is not just a matter of identity — it is enshrined in Hong Kong’s law. The region’s constitution contains strict rules that govern how the flag can — and should — be used. When flown alongside the national flag, for instance, Hong Kong’s ensign should always be to the left, and smaller in size. It must also be flown at half-staff if certain prominent mainland figures die, or if the Chinese government “advises” the Chief Executive (currently the embattled Carrie Lam) to do so.

Desecrating the flag is considered a criminal offense and can lead to large fines or prison sentences of up to three years. The law gives examples of such criminal acts, including “publicly and wilfully burning, mutilating, scrawling on, defiling or trampling” on the flag, though the definition of “desecration” has been the subject of debate in Hong Kong’s courts.

The China's national flag pictured beside that of Hong Kong.

The China’s national flag pictured beside that of Hong Kong. Credit: VIVEK PRAKASH/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Since the handover, a number of activists have been imprisoned under this legislation. In 1998, two men were convicted after they marked a flag with Chinese character for “shame” and drew black crosses over the bauhinia and stars during a demonstration. They successfully appealed the decision, though their appeal was then overturned by Hong Kong’s highest court.
Similarly, pro-democracy activist Koo Sze-yiu was sentenced to six weeks in prison for burning the region’s flag during a 2015 demonstration. A year later, lawmaker Cheng Chung-tai upturned a number miniature flags (both China’s and Hong Kong’s) on the desks of pro-Beijing politicians in the city’s Legislative Council, leading to a fine of 5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($642).

Hong Kong is not unique this regard. Many countries, including the US, have equivalent rules outlawing flag desecration. Such legislation is “totally unnecessary” in a democracy, according to artist Wong.

“Respect is something you earn,” he said. “So if (you have) a law, then it’s really creating more hatred rather than respect. This is one of the reasons why, in recent protests, you’ve seen protesters deface Tao Ho’s emblem in the Legislative Council as an act of denial and rejection of authority.”

The appearance of the British flag — or colonial-era flags featuring the Union Jack — at pro-democracy protests has proven just as controversial.

A protester waves a British flag while during protests in June 2019.

A protester waves a British flag while during protests in June 2019. Credit: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Activists’ adoption of these pre-handover symbols doesn’t represent a desire to return to colonial rule, but it invokes a longing for a bygone time, according to Lim Tai Wei, an associate professor at Singapore University of Social Sciences who has researched the aesthetics of the so-called “umbrella” protests that swept Hong Kong in 2014.

“Youths in Hong Kong appear to have a strong sense of nostalgia, particularly towards the period of the 1980s,” he said in a phone interview. “Although some were not born in that era, they see it as a kind of nostalgia — a return to a period when Hong Kong was seen to be prosperous and had certain freedoms, and when the colonial government had a hands-off administration.

“So the Union Jack is associated with that general sense of nostalgia.”

This article originally appeared here