Drawing for democracy: Hong Kong cartoonist speaks out

In the aftermath of the pro-democracy protest in 2019, the Hong Kong government has been repressing the dissents in multiple ways. Political cartoonist, nicknamed VA Wong Sira post-90s generation who amassed 65k Instagram followers and wished to stay anonymous, has become a target.

He was a Visual Arts and Liberal Studies teacher in secondary school who made satirical cartoons in his spare time, but the Education Bureau has been sending him letters to warn that his artworks contain “groundless allegations towards police and the government” and demonstrate “misconduct behavior .”

After the national security law was implemented in June 2020 amid Beijing’s heavy crackdown, schools didn’t want him, not even as a substitute teacher.

Among Hong Kong’s political dissidents, Va Wong Sir is lucky. Last year, the committee members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists were arrested on suspicion of “conspiring to publish seditious publications” over a children’s comic book featuring sheep and wolves. The police interpreted one of the books, Dustman of the Sheep Villagein this way: “The sheep were very clean and the wolves were very dirty […] the book said that because of this reason, they hoped to close the border […] It’s clear that [they] hoped to create hate leading our government to the current situation,” under the context of COVID-19 lockdown policies at the time.

Haunted by the arrests of his colleagues in the education sector, Wong had suffered from panic attacks every night. Whenever he closed his eyes, he would hear cops madly ringing his doorbell to arrest him. Hours would pass, but nothing would happen. Wong became too vigilant to fall asleep.

Nonetheless, Wong said he would keep drawing political cartoons and believe in the future, especially when Hong Kong teenagers have grown stronger and more independent following the 2019 protests.

Why did you start drawing political cartoons?

“I was about to apply for a Master’s degree, so I started drawing political cartoons in May 2019, or just everyday life cartoons, to make my art portfolio more prolific. I had been painting about the 4 June vigil, the New Territories Small House Policy and the controversial legislative motion to adjust tolls at the three cross-harbour tunnels,” Wong told FairPlanet.

But when the anti-extradition protest exploded in June that year, Wong responded quickly by drawing satirical cartoons opposing the government and police brutality, which later hit a nerve with the authorities.

In January 2020, the Education Bureau issued a letter that it had received an anonymous complaint about Wong creating controversial cartoons in his social media account, and asked Wong whether he was responsible for drawing the cartoons. A few months later, the school told Wong that they decided not to renew his contract, citing insufficient budget. That night, he saw that the school had posted an online recruitment ad for a teaching position, exactly the same as his previous one.

Pain, but no regrets

If you had a chance to rewrite the past, would you do everything the same?

“Of course, I’d do the same. I don’t think I have done anything wrong. If you gave me ten opportunities to go back, I would repeat the same path ten times.”

When he was a child, Wong always dreamed of being an art educator. He holds a Bachelor of Visual Arts degree from the Hong Kong Baptist University, and has worked for some graphic design companies. But he did not find satisfaction at those jobs. Wong then decided to work as a teacher’s assistant in secondary school and simultaneously pursue a Postgraduate Diploma in Education from the Chinese University of Hong Kong – a mandatory requirement to become a teacher in Hong Kong’s public schools – so that he could be qualified to become a teacher one day.

It took three years, but Wong thinks it was worth it, as he is now a certified teacher of Visual Arts and Liberal Studies.

In 2019, many of his students took to the streets to protest against the extradition bill legislation that could send Hong Kongers back to China for trial. Some would tell him about their plans, but Wong would shake his head in disapproval. “You’re still a student. You shouldn’t go out. It’s supposed to be done by adults.”

“I don’t think I have done anything wrong. If you gave me ten opportunities to go back, I would repeat the same path ten times.”

After multiple rounds of discussions, his students insisted on joining the protests. Other than “be careful” and “take care,” Wong found it difficult to offer more verbal support. “I was very worried. Every time I read the news that a youngster got caught, I panicked. What if that was my student?”

His worst nightmare came true one day. When he was frantically swiping through Instagram stories about arrested protesters, he recognized a familiar teenage face. He had screenshotted and sent it to other teachers, asking “is he our student?”

Soon, other teachers confirmed the news. The student was arrested and prosecuted for possession of an offensive weapon with intent.

The student was not close with Wong, yet he came to Wong’s art room one day. “He said, ‘Goodbye! Sir!’ I thought he was bidding farewell to me since the school would not renew the contract. But, the fact is, he said ‘goodbye’ because he is going on trial the day after. I turned away and cried, not letting him see my tears .”

Crackdowns within education system

Meanwhile, Wong was facing more severe consequences. In April 2021, a second letter was sent by the Education Bureau to warn him about his art by him, accusing his cartoons of containing “groundless allegations towards police and the government.” A month later, a third letter ruled that Wong was demonstrating “misconduct behaviour.” There was no punishment except being forever stigmatized with this label whenever he applied for a teaching position.

Do you agree with the Education Bureau’s judgement?

“Certainly not. A visual arts teacher drawing pictures in his spare time – there’s nothing wrong with it.” Concerning his political views, Wong said that he never advocates for Hong Kong’s independence, “but right now, it seems that if you oppose the government, that is tantamount to supporting Hong Kong independence. So the space of free speech is very narrow, there ‘re not many things we can say.

Still a qualified teacher, Wong has been struggling to find a job. “Although they did not revoke my teacher’s license, no one is even giving me a chance of an interview, given that I have ‘misconduct behaviour’ on my record. I have no chance to become a teacher anymore. I cannot even work as a substitute teacher.”

Vexed and helpless, he complains, “So what do [the authorities] want me to do? Do you want me to die, or want me to become a Chinese red guard?”

To make ends meet, Wong published two cartoon collections and sold products related to his creation at flea markets. He said the income was meager, barely enough to sustain his daily life.

Certain news media outlets, including the now-defunct appledaily and CitizenNews, have approached him, looking to publish his arts and pay him remuneration. But both halted operations. form appledaily staff members were prosecuted under the Beijing-imposed national security law. Under such difficult circumstances, Wong is still figuring out what to do in the future, “I might end up switching careers, and become a salesman. If it is necessary, and I have no other choice…”

Last year, the Education Bureau announced a reform of liberal studies, one of the four senior secondary core subjects. What is your view of this move?

On the official website, the government denounces the current curriculum as having “too much emphasis on discussion of current affairs […] such discussions being polarized and too focused on political issues, and misinterpretation of ‘critical thinking’ as a readiness to challenge authority.”

Examination lengths will be shortened, teaching hours will be sharply reduced, the grading changed to a pass/fail system and liberal studies will be renamed Citizenship and Social Development.

As a former liberal studies teacher, Wong said he was disappointed. “This is obviously the authorities’ efforts at brainwashing. The changes make students […] unable to identify what is right and wrong, what is black and white. Liberal studies became a subject learned by rotation. The country is this, this and this, and you have to like it.”

He further added that not only liberal studies, but additional subjects were reformed to emphasize patriotism and China’s development. “Chinese history will mention the Basic Law, and even subjects like geography have to talk about how the Guangdong Daya Bay Nuclear Plant benefits us.”

vanishing freedoms

How would you describe the level of freedom in Hong Kong right now?

“Very bad. It’s very, very bad. I could even perceive the changes in my artworks. Before, I’ve put many words in my cartoons. I’d blast anyone fiercely and directly. But since I received the Education Bureau’s letters, I’ve realized that we can’t say ‘haak ging’ (literally ‘despicable cops’, or cops that might have association with gangsters). And as the court ruled, we can’t say ‘the eight words’ (the slogan Free Hong Kong, revolution of our times that were found by the court to be inciting secession). Unbelievable! There are some words that can’t exist, that can’t be pronounced. There are films that we can’t watch.”

“My productivity has decreased,” Wong admitted, “I actually draw a lot, but I dare not post them on social media. I’m afraid that once I post them, I will be arrested the next morning.”

Are you worried about breaching the national security law?

Wong let out a sigh, “the worst-case scenario is doing time in prison. You know how dreadful Hong Kong has become. We used to see people using pens [to report, comment and draw cartoons] to offer support at the back. But when the protesters and political leaders at the frontline got arrested, people like me became the next target.”

“I have anticipated the worst. But I didn’t wish [being arrested].” In contrast, his mother is much more anxious. She called her son in tears when the pro-Beijing newspapers Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po attacked him. But Wong said, “It’s ok. Ella She knows who her son de ella is. She knows that I ca n’t hold my tongue to criticize injustice. She knows I am stubborn.”

“I actually draw a lot, but I dare not post them on social media. I’m afraid that once I post them, I will be arrested the next morning.”

His mother is the only one who frets about him. Many people have suggested that he shut down VA Wong Sir’s social media account to avoid any potential retaliation from China. But Wong refuses to toss in the towel: “many political cartoonists, such as Zunzi and Ah To, are still drawing. Why should I give up?”

Let youngsters shape the future

Wong has faith in students as well. Since Hong Kong teens have been spontaneously participating in the 2019 protest movements, “leaderless activity is, indeed, a good practice. The adolescents used to be easily swayed by others. But it changed. No matter how TVB, teachers or media portray the pictures , they have their own thoughts.”

Of the more than 10,000 people arrested during the movement, nearly 40 percent were students. Critics say the students were being impulsive.

“leaderless activity is, indeed, a good practice. The adolescents used to be easily swayed by others. But it changed […] they have their own thoughts.”

“I think it is the adults who overthink. Pondering this, pondering that, and then do nothing. This place belongs to the youngsters in the future. Why don’t we let them prepare and shape their society?”

Wong described the future of Hong Kong as “doomed, dark, and very difficult.”

He said, “we might be holding hands to face the apocalypse. But, deep down, I still believe in the possibility of ‘cung gwong’ (the liberation of Hong Kong after the Japanese occupation, or literally ‘the dawn comes again’) I don’t know. I am not a revolutionary. I don’t know what could be done to make that happen. But I believe in it.”

Image by VA Wong Sir

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