“People call me ‘Mr. Red-White-Blue,’” says artist and designer Stanley Wong, who works under the moniker Anothermountainman. A little under 20 years ago, he took a ubiquitous, workaday Hong Kong object — a woven plastic tarp with red, white and blue stripes — and turned it into a symbol of the city itself. For decades, the material had been used for awnings, construction sheeting and as a particularly sturdy kind of bag that nearly all Hongkongers had used at some point in their lives. Wong incorporated it into artworks and fashionable products; it was even the focus of Hong Kong’s exhibition at the 2005 Venice Biennale.
“I kept doing it for so many years, some other people started doing it too and people got used to seeing it in a different way,” he says. “And now if they see red-white-blue they will say, ‘That’s the Hong Kong spirit.'”
Little did he know the same material was living a double life on the other side of the world. Nearly 12,000 kilometres away from Hong Kong, the same red-white-blue pattern is equally common in Nigeria, and it shares a similarly hefty symbolic weight. The only difference is the name. “It’s the Ghana Must Go bag,” says Diana Olaleye, a Nigerian-born master’s student at Oxford University’s African Studies Centre. “No one calls it anything else.”
It turns out this humble fabric and the bags it was used to create are called a lot of different things by people in different parts of the world. They are Ghana Must Go bags in Nigeria, Zimbabwe bags in South Africa and Türken Koffer in Germany, names that speak to the flow of global migration, the kind that ebbs and recedes like water in a desert stream. Red-white-blue bags have travelled around the world and back, but their journey began in one place: Hong Kong.
Actually, to be perfectly precise, their journey began in Japan. That’s where the woven plastic fabric made to use the bags was first produced in the 1960s. It is strong and waterproof, which made it particularly useful as a construction sheet, which is still its main use today in Japan. “The Japanese version is in blue – like the IKEA bag, that kind of blue,” says Wong. Shortly after its invention, the fabric journeyed to Taiwan, where local manufacturers applied the familiar red-white-blue pattern. After it was imported to Hong Kong it quickly became ubiquitous, wrapped around bamboo scaffolding and strung over hawker stalls to shelter them from the rain.
Sometime in the 1970s, a fabric merchant in Sham Shui Po named Lee Wah used the fabric to make a bag in his Yen Chow Street shop, Wah Ngai Canvas. (That shop is now closed, but other nearby shops still sell the original fabric.) It turned out to be a massive hit and the bags soon became a must-have for Hong Kong households. They were especially useful for transporting goods across the border to mainland China when immigrant families returned home to see their relatives. “We called them armoured bags because they were very tough,” says Wong.
It was exactly that durability that made the bags indispensable to the millions of Ghanaian migrants who had fled the economic destitution of their own country to work in oil-rich Nigeria in the 1970s. Many of them were living there illegally, and when oil prices crashed in 1982, Nigerian president Shehu Shagari ordered the expulsion of all undocumented foreigners.
“The immigrants were given two weeks to leave Nigeria, lest they be arrested and tried,” writes Diana Olaleye in an article for The Book Banque. Two million people bundled their life possessions into red-white-blue bags and made the journey out of Nigeria, often in brutal conditions. “Nigerian police physically harmed immigrants – beating and gassing them, in the hope that they would depart immediately,” writes Olaleye.
Today, the Ghana Must Go bag is everywhere. “You see people in the streets carrying the bag, in the buses, travelling,” says Olaleye. “We had quite a few housemaids or helpers in the house when I was growing up and the Ghana Must Go bag was one of the bags they’d use to move into the house. It was pretty normal. People just casually use the bags.”
But they don’t necessarily know the history behind the name. “Most people in Nigeria don’t really understand the implications of this bag or why it’s called Ghana Must Go,” says Olaleye. “There was a point where history was not in the curriculum. People don’t know what the expulsion was about. They just know the bag for its practical use – there’s no need to go further to question its name.”
In South Africa, the bag earned the moniker Zimbabwe bag or Shangaan bag in response to another involuntary migration. When Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed after the seizure of white-owned farms in the early 2000s — a botched attempt at land justice — millions of Zimbabweans streamed across the border to South Africa. Once again, it was the red-white-blue bag that accompanied them along their journey.
Zimbabwean artist Dan Halter was already living in Cape Town when the influx began. As a weaver, he took a natural interest in the bags, and he began to incorporate them into his work. “I use it as a symbol for migrants,” he says. In 2008, a wave of xenophobic violence swept across South African cities in response to Zimbabwean migration, and Halter began arranging the bags in the form of the Japanese 8-bit video game character Space Invader (no relation to the famous French street artist who was inspired by the same character) as a metaphor for immigrants – or “aliens,” as they are often referred to in official language.
He also began to trade bags with migrants, offering them a new one for their tattered old one. “They’re basically the cheapest kind of bags that are tough enough, but they are actually vulnerable along the seams,” he says. “What’s beautiful here is how they get mended – I’m interested in how people mend them.”
Back in Hong Kong, Stanley Wong was busy on his own versions of red-white-blue. He traces his interest in the fabric back to his days in advertising. “Everyone in Hong Kong had been using this red-white-blue material in different ways since the 1960s, but nobody really cared,” he says. “It’s so mundane, so day-to-day, so cheap. I was also one of them. I didn’t notice it.” But when his company sent him to work in London in 1989, he remembered seeing one of the bags on display in a boutique in Soho.
He was bewildered to see such an ordinary Hong Kong product being presented as a fashion object. “What made these British people find this so interesting?” he wondered. “At the time I was almost 30 years old — 10 years in the industry — and it slapped me in the face. I woke up. I thought, ‘Outsiders, foreigners think we have interesting things, but we don’t care. We just take it for granted.’”
Wong began taking photos of the red-white-blue material in different contexts, documenting its use across Hong Kong and in Guangdong Province. In 2000, he was invited to create a poster for a graphic design exchange with the theme of living heritage, and he made one by stitching together different pieces of red-white-blue fabric. “People found it very familiar,” he says. That led to more and more work using the material, eventually culminating in rwb300, a social enterprise that sells red-white-blue products in support for the New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association.
For Wong, red-white-blue represents something akin to the “Lion Rock spirit” – a kind of working-class faith in the potential of Hong Kong. “In the ‘60s and ‘70s, we worked hard for a better tomorrow and trusted that things would be better,” he says. Hong Kong has taken a much darker turn in recent years as the wealth gap grows ever wider and the political situation has deteriorated. “I want to make something that gives people a more positive way forward,” he says.
In recent years, the appeal of red-white-blue has spread to the fashion world, as various brands have made high-end products using the pattern. “The earliest one that did it is Comme des Garçons,” says Wong. “Balenciaga did it, Céline did it.” Adidas worked with Hong Kong designers Consortium to create a red-white-blue sneaker. In 2015, Louis Vuitton made its own branded version of the bag and sold it for US$300 (HK$2,350).
“The bag being used in that way by Louis Vuitton is a reflection of people not really understanding the historical implications of the bag and how it emerged and how it is used transnationally,” says Olaleye. “The impression I had growing up was that it was people who were not quite well off who were using the bag. It symbolised economic struggle. So to see the bag being appropriated in that way by Louis Vuitton made quite a few Nigerians laugh.”
Wong isn’t particularly impressed by the haute couture creations. Although he created a red-white-blue installation for Hermès in the past, he notes that it was an artwork, not a commercial object. In the case of red-white-blue repurposed as high-priced designer bags, he says, brands “just see it as an interesting gimmicky pattern and material. They don’t see the social message behind it.”
And that message — whether it’s in Hong Kong or Nigeria or South Africa, in the pound shops of London or the dollar stores of New York — is one of grassroots perseverance. It’s the willingness to climb walls and cross oceans in search of a better life. Red-white-blue is a bag used by people fording rivers, making their way to factory towns, making do in a cubicle home because they can’t afford to rent a proper flat. It’s a bag that is useful precisely because it is inexpensive, durable and accessible.
Even the cheerful colours may have a pragmatic origin. As Wong was researching the origins of the red-white-blue material, one of his friends visited a factory near Taipei that makes the material. Although there is no official reason as to why the colour combination was adopted, a manager at the plant told the friend that the material was often used to provide shelter for weddings and funerals – two occasions that in Taiwan are often marked outdoors. In Chinese culture, red is the customary colour for weddings, blue for funerals. So the factory developed a pattern that combined the two together: ultimate good value for a good-value material.
“I don’t know if it’s true or not,” says Wong. “But it’s a good story.”