Lap Sap Chung: The Monster That Kept Hong Kong Clean

For years after 1972, Lap Sap Chung, a green lizard with a long snout, large red dots, a pointy tail and—for a while at least—a bandit-style black mask around his eyes, told Hongkongers to keep the city clean. Now his successor is becoming increasingly ubiquitous. 

As the pandemic swept through the world, Ah Tak has been spotted all around town, telling us to “wear a mask at all times within catering premises” and to avoid taking it off except during eating and drinking. He is also seen as decoration on different types of garbage containers – most recently, automatic solar-powered compacting refuse bins, which see a happy Ah Tak throwing a full black bin-liner inside one of these contraptions. Large versions of Ah Tak are festooned on top of garbage collection points, and he also admonishes people from the walls of public toilets. He even has his own Facebook page: Keep Clean Ambassador Ah Tak. As the Legislative Council has just approved a new garbage tax for domestic solid waste consumption—which may be implemented sometime in 2023—we can expect to be greeted by even more images of this squeaky clean mascot.

Ah Tak (阿德 aa3 dak1), whose name means something like Little Virtuous, was created in 2016. Compared to Lap Sap Chung, he looks and feels more like an institutional mascot: happy, smiling and educative, a little unstable on his feet as a kind of dinosaurish Teletubbie. He teaches us not to litter and to observe good personal hygiene habits. He’s likeable enough, but he’s no Lap Sap Chung, and his impact certainly hasn’t been the same. That’s because, at least at first, Lap Sap Chung was the very opposite of Ah Tak. His name literally means Rubbish Lizard (laap6 saap3 cung4 拉圾虫), although it is better translated as Litter Bug. Far from a goodie two-shoes, he was an antihero: an inveterate litterer who did everything we shouldn’t. 

Lap Sap Chung was created by Arthur Hacker, who was born in 1932 and arrived in Hong Kong in 1967. Hacker was a classic colonial figure. Educated in the United Kingdom, he studied at Kelly College and through his national service he was assigned to the Sketching Department at the headquarters of the Southern Command, from where he went on to study at the Royal College of Art. After moving to Hong Kong and joining the Government Information Services, he rose through the bureaucratic ranks quite fast, soon becoming creative director. He was responsible for a number of campaigns, including those against smoking and for water conservation, and he also drew more than a dozen stamps for Hong Kong Post. In later years he doodled a lot, making logos for friends and establishments he patronized, including a rendition of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club logo that is still on display in the club’s lounge. He also published a few illustrated books, including Hacker’s Hong Kong and China Illustrated. 

But the highlight of his career was almost certainly the cartoonish Lap Sap Chung. Hacker created him for Governor Sir Murray MacLehose’s Clean Hong Kong campaign, which was launched in 1972 to improve the city’s notoriously poor sanitation. The launch itself was something of a spectacle, as the Royal Marines launched a gigantic balloon that exploded in Statue Square. A group of young women, with purple boots and hats and a purple and yellow mini dress, rushed on the scene to clean up all the pieces of paper and broken balloon that was littering the ground. Those women represented Miss Super Clean, a pretty sexist trope that disappeared from the campaign quite quickly. 

Quite unexpectedly, Lap Sap Chung became a children’s favourite. It is one of those things that are a little hard to explain, because Lap Sap Chung was meant to be repulsive. The most famous slogan of the campaign warned people against becoming like him: “Do not become a litter bug” (chit3 mat6 leon4 wai4 laap6 saap3 cung4 勿淪為垃圾虫). And yet the green monster became quite a success. The campaign went all out: group activities, beach clean-ups, radio and TV programmes, ads in newspapers, in movie theatres and in the street. Lap Sap Chung was an obnoxious character who would spit and smoke. But people loved him. 

To accommodate the favour with which he was received, Lap Sap Chong evolved into a reformed lizard who would find litter in the street, pick it up and throw it in the bins. The transformation into a well-behaved character—not unlike Ah Tak—was quite seamless. It was more in line with traditional government campaigns, which tend to be more direct and less comfortable in playing with a little bit of moral ambiguity. 

But not every mascot is as square as Ah Tak. The government has also launched Big Waster (daai6 saai1 gwai2 大嘥鬼), designed by Karin Wong, a brownish character with eyes literally bigger than his stomach, meant to admonish people not to over-order and waste food. The creature can now be found on the bottle recycling machines that can be seen around town, as well as on the Green @ Community public recycling centres scattered around the city. He’s not quite as alluring as Lap Sap Chung, but with some luck these official mascots will help keep the city green. 

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