The politics behind Hong Kong's Pikachu protests

Why are some Hong Kongers protesting a planned Chinese Pokemon translation?

Last week, dozens of protesters marched to the Japanese consulate in Central Hong Kong. But this demonstration wasn’t about territorial claims, or Prime Minister Abe’s gifts to the controversial Yasukuni shrine -- instead, the marchers carried Pikachu plushies and yellow banners. When they arrived at the consulate, they presented the guards with a 6,000-signature petition rebuking Nintendo for standardizing the Chinese Pokémon names in the upcoming Pokémon Sun and Moon.

Instead of past versions, where Pikachu’s name was transliterated in the Cantonese style 比卡超 (pronounced Bei-kaa-chiu), it will instead use the Mandarin 皮卡丘 (pronounced Pei-kaa-jau). The change effectively erases the local Cantonese pronunciations of many Pokémon, replacing them with the versions preferred in mainland China. One protest leader said the change erases a generation’s “collective memory.”

On the surface, this looks like a nerd identity beef, not much different from Ghostbusters fans arguing that the new, all-female remake is “ruining their childhoods.” But that assumption would be wrong -- the underlying reasons are political. In changing these names, Nintendo unwittingly landed on a linguistic fault line between Hong Kong and Mainland China. Not only does the action stoke Hong Kong fears about language erasure, the Pokémon protest was itself organized by a local political faction that participated in the 2014 Umbrella Movement-- where Pikachu himself became an unlikely symbol.

Two Sisters, Raised Apart

To understand the current tensions between Beijing and Hong Kong, you have to travel back to 1841, when Great Britain seized the territory as spoils from the Opium Wars. For the next century and a half, Hong Kong functioned a major trade port and naval station for the British Empire.

While the British enforced a racist oligarchy for the first century of its rule, after WWII several progressive Governors broke down the city’s all-white elite, inviting locals into government and encouraging a freewheeling capitalist system that elevated Chinese entrepreneurs. The two cultures fused, and the legal system -- based on a British model -- applied equally to everyone. Hong Kongers had free speech, a right to assemble, and a free press.

But British rule didn’t simply change the local culture, it also spared it the worst excesses the Cultural Revolution. Though violent pro-Communist protests rocked Hong Kong in 1967, the city never had its religious or cultural sites destroyed, or experienced starvation during the Great Leap Forward. In other words, Hong Kong had missed many of the events that helped form the modern Chinese identity.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration -- the political agreement returning Hong Kong to Mainland China in 1997 -- acknowledged these cultural, political, and identity differences by creating a 50 year adjustment period for Hong Kongers. According to the treaty, until 2047 Hong Kong would act as a self-governing Special Administrative Region in all matters apart from diplomacy and the military. The People’s Liberation Army has bases in the city, but troops stay inside in order to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy. Chinese citizens need to get their passports stamped by Hong Kong’s immigration department in order to enter the SAR, and vice-versa. This complicated arrangement is known as “One Country, Two Systems.” If you want to know more, here’s a decent video recap.

The result was two cultures, alike but different, gradually drifting toward each other.

The Language Barrier

One of the major differences was language. In 1982, the People’s Republic of China designated a Beijing dialect of Mandarin (called pǔtōnghuà in China, literally “common speech”) as the national language, making it mandatory in schools, government offices, the media, and formal settings.

Hong Kongers, however, continued to utilize Cantonese in casual interactions, professional settings, and its films and TV programs. English was Hong Kong’s second language, and it used traditional -- rather than simplified -- Chinese characters. Cut off from the Mainland, even the Cantonese evolved separately from the native dialect in Guangdong province, just across the border.

But since the handover in 1997, Mandarin has swept Hong Kong. In 2012 it overtook English to become the city’s second-choice language, reflecting Hong Kong’s increased business ties with the mainland and a push for kids to learn it in school. Most locals consider it useful to know -- 84%, according to a recent survey -- but also doubt it will replace Cantonese as the city’s primary dialect. However, the rise in Mandarin has also spurred worries over linguistic erosion. In 2010, the Chinese government spontaneously announced that Cantonese TV programs in neighboring Guangzhou -- just across the Hong Kong border -- would switch over to Mandarin. The announcement spawned protests in the city, as well as in Hong Kong.

A similar reaction occurred this February, when Hong Kong broadcaster TVB spontaneously switched from traditional to simplified characters for their Mandarin news broadcasts. Viewers flooded the station with 10,000 complaints, prompting mainland-aligned newspaper People’s Daily to argue that TVB only wanted to appeal to markets like Taiwan and Malaysia that also use simplified characters.

In other words, by switching to Mandarin, Nintendo dropped itself into a fight that’s more about identity than pronunciation. But the controversy has yet another, stranger, political layer -- since Pikachu had already become a symbol during the 2014 Umbrella Protests.

Pikachu and Pepper Spray

A photograph of the 2014 protests, by Pasu Au Yeung A photograph of the 2014 protests, by Pasu Au Yeung

One of the central provisions of the handover agreement was that, for the first time ever, Hong Kong would elect its own Chief Executive (the office that replaced the crown-appointed British governor). The process for setting up that election, which occurs next year, has been fraught with controversy. In 2014, frustrations boiled over after a mainland Chinese official announced that any candidates running for office would need pre-approval from Hong Kong’s Beijing-influenced Legislative Council.

This declaration triggered a youth-led protest movement wherein a loose coalition of pro-democracy groups camped out on a major overpass outside the Legislative Council building. Dubbed the “Umbrella Movement” after the protesters used yellow umbrellas to defend themselves from pepper spray and tear gas, the groups lived on-site for 79 days demanding a free election. At their height, the demonstrations included 100,000 people.

During that three-month period, protesters created a whirl of protest art around their encampment. The demonstrators co-opted pop culture figures for this artwork, producing posters with Batman, Captain America, and Queen Elsa carrying yellow umbrellas. Any character associated with umbrellas -- Totoro, for instance, or the Villager from Animal Crossing -- got the same treatment.

Pikachu proved a favorite for these protest artists, mostly because his color scheme was a good-enough match for the shade of yellow that was the movement’s calling card. He also had a certain innocence to him, which was a major theme in the protest art -- students tended to select characters that were non-threatening and non-violent while still being powerful. More than one drawing depicted the little Pokémon weeping at what he saw.

When the protesters stormed the Legislative Council building, clashed with police, or got in shoving matches with pro-Beijing opposition groups, they did so next to posters and banners of Pokémon’s favorite electric mouse.

In other words, for young political activists, Pikachu already held meaning as a political symbol.

Where Politics Meets Pop Culture

Since Occupy Central collapsed -- victim of internal divisions, a police push, and a public increasingly annoyed with traffic disruption -- its political organizations fragmented and scattered. Some continue staging street protests without blocking traffic, some have organized into political parties and stood candidates for District Council elections, and others have instigated radical calls for Hong Kong to become an independent city-state.

The wall of a protester's tent during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. Photo by Melanie Ko. The wall of a protester's tent during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. Photo by Melanie Ko.

One of these groups, Civic Passion, was a primary organizer of last week’s Pikachu protest march along with a video-game-and-politics-focused site Lonely Media. Formed in 2012, Civic Passion has increasingly become associated with the radical wing of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. During the Umbrella protests, authorities accused their members of ramming glass doors at the Legislative Council building -- a charge their leader denied -- while opponents have accused them of spreading xenophobia against mainland tourists. The localist group has also demonstrated against “parallel trading” -- a practice where Mainlanders cross the border, buy Hong Kong goods in bulk, then sell them in China. Most recently, they split with other democracy activists over the annual Tiananmen Square vigil, claiming that the traditional event doesn’t emphasize the separateness of Hong Kong.

“Localist” movements like Civic Passion have grown in the city in recent years, as radical democracy groups try to counter the growing influence of Beijing. And while civil disobedience is practically a tradition in Hong Kong (travel articles list “protest-watching” as a fun thing to do) street politics have started getting dangerous. Authorities suspect the localist group National Independent Party of bombing a rubbish bin outside the Legislative Council last year, for example. And in February, a group known as Hong Kong Indigenous started (or took advantage of) an ugly riot over police removing illegal street food vendors during Chinese New Year festivities. The rioters built barricades, started fires, and pried up sidewalks to throw bricks at police. It was the worst political violence in Hong Kong since the 1967 riots, reflected poorly on localist groups, and made their politics a hot topic. The incident escalated tensions so much that when China’s third-highest official visited the city last month, Hong Kong police provided a 6,000-strong security detail and glued the bricks down on his motorcade route.

In other words, this Pikachu protest wasn’t just disaffected gamers, it was a well-known organization injecting political issues into pop culture -- and that’s increasingly where these issues are being discussed.

Pop Culture Protests

In the west, we’ve made pop culture a battleground over gender, sexuality, and race. With each Ghostbusters trailer or casting news for Ghost in the Shell (currently shooting in Kowloon) partisans launch proxy conflicts in the ongoing culture war. Certain films like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Force Awakens even take explicitly political views on diversity and representation.

Hong Kong’s media conflicts, by contrast, increasingly reflect the city’s paranoid relationship with Beijing.

A movie called Ten Years won Best Film at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards--the film is a dystopian political drama about a Chinese-ruled Hong Kong. In the opening scene, a local student self-immolates in front of the British consulate, while a later vignette deals with a taxi driver who’s barred from working due to his poor Mandarin skills. In response, a pro-Beijing group is shooting a horror film called Blood Umbrella, imagining a world where the 2014 protests succeeded and Hong Kong is ruled by rioters.

This pushback isn’t just at the theater, either -- people are getting creative. A few weeks ago, artists snuck a subversive message onto the largest building in Hong Kong -- a light display in the form of a digital clock, counting down to the city’s return to China in 2047. This week, cosmetics brand Lancome cancelled a concert by Canto-pop star Denise Ho Wan-sze after Chinese paper criticized the singer’s support for Hong Kong and Tibetan independence. On Wednesday, pro-democracy demonstrators rallied in front of Lancome stores, forcing Lacome’s parent company L’Oriel to close its shops for the day.

These groups, from the Pikachu protesters to the Ten Years filmmakers, are essentially finding alternate venues to discuss political issues. With the collapse of the Occupy Central protests and the diffusion of its coalition, it seems everything -- even little Pikachu -- has turned into a referendum on the city’s relationship with Beijing.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp

Melanie Ko's photograh has some rights reserved. Pasu Au Yeung's photograph is available under CC BY-SA 2.0.