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Miming Memes through the Waterways: The coded bodily communications in Hong Kong and beyond

Principle Investigator:Hsiu-ju Stacy Lo, Postdoctoral Researcher, National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University

2019 shall be marked as the year of “manifestations” as well as the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. What the Chinese Communist Party called the “political virus” originating in Hong Kong spawned a profusion of what I call “mimed memes”—embodied communications and coded expressions—developed in an environment of increased digital surveillance and censorship. Demonstrators from the pro-independence rallies in Catalonia, the milk tea alliance in Thailand and India, and to Extinction Rebellion everywhere were taking lessons from the decentralized, networked and leaderless anti-government protests in Hong Kong, widely known as the “Be Water” Movement. Inspired by a quote from the homegrown action hero Bruce Lee: “Water can flow or it can crash,” the protest movement—ignited by the city government’s attempt to pass a bill to allow extradition to mainland China—mobilized the protesters in extraordinary ways. Mobilization under the increasingly tense circumstances required a customized language and bespoke toolbox to navigate the rapidly changing scene. As such, the everyday practices and innovations grown out of the protest movement carry implications for a digitally altered consciousness of body and language (in the broadest sense of the term to include visual and verbal). The virtually spread “memes”, defined by the updated Oxford English dictionary as “an image, video, pieces of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations” propel physical developments in the real world forward. From cyberspace to the streets, a meme aesthetic has been co-created to embolden the movement followers and to makes the average person part of the protesting crowd.

The evolving methods, tactics, and the expressions invented in the so-called “Be Water” Movement bear witness to a turbulent global context where human actions and communications have increasingly come under digital surveillance, commercially or politically. The 2019-2020 protests in Hong Kong demonstrated not only collective creativity, but also tactical fluidity in response to the ever-shifting conditions on the streets and in cyberspace. Appropriation of these tactical technologies has since furnished other playbooks, benign or malevolent. Examples include the “infodemic” amid the coronavirus pandemic, US Capitol riots and the “meme stock” trading mania surrounding GameStop and Bitcoin. By investigating a myriad of “waterways” that the protesters and other inspired individuals have adopted in the resistance movements and the everyday life, this study examines the sensorial interconnectedness of artificial intelligence, the human body, and expression, and to critically consider the “meme” aesthetic against a backdrop of heightened surveillance and censorship.