The Streetscape of Hong Kong Democracy

Photograph by Christopher DeWolf

It’s election season in Hong Kong and you’d be hard pressed not to notice, with eager campaign workers perched on every other corner, trying hard to grab your attention before the District Council elections on Sunday, November 22. Every urban election has its own distinct visual culture. In Montreal, the drop of the writ is followed by a profusion of candidate signboards stacked atop one another on lampposts, turning the city’s streets into totems of unruly democracy. In Tokyo, vans festooned with posters cruise the city, blaring out election messages from loudspeakers mounted on the roof. Election season in suburban North America transforms front lawns into a sea of signs as candidates compete for the support of homeowners.

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Hong Kong is a bit different. Its high density means there are no front yards in which to plant posters, and the cacophony of signage means it is difficult for electoral posters to jostle for place amidst advertisements, shop signs and real estate posters. Candidates compensate by hanging banners from roadside fences and taping posters inside minibuses; others solicit space on hawker stalls and shopfronts. Most notably, though, the candidates themselves can often be found on the streets, raising flags and banners at busy street corners, where they don ceremonial sashes and wave at passersby. Establishment politicians tend to be stand sedately; more radical types shout slogans into bullhorns, raising their fists into the air as their voices echo through the urban canyon.

Does any of this actually work? Most candidates were too busy with the business of getting elected to respond to our messages, but one was happy to talk. Paul Zimmerman is the Dutch-born founder of Designing Hong Kong, a group that lobbies for better urban planning, and he was elected to the Southern District Council in the Pok Fu Lam constituency in 2010. He says most candidates try to position themselves outside MTR stations, shopping malls and other busy areas, but it isn’t always an effective strategy. “People tend to rush to get to the train, so they’re kind of irritated, and when they come home in the evening they can be quite grumpy because they’re hungry. The advantage is you get flow and people see you, but it’s not necessarily the greatest point to have a conversation.”

Photograph by Christopher DeWolf

Photograph by Christopher DeWolf

Options are limited, however. Door-to-door canvassing isn’t allowed by most buildings, so Zimmerman says the best places are in public spaces where people gather, like the ground floor gardens in housing estates, or at bus stops, where people have time to chat while they wait for their bus. The canvassing can sometimes get a bit rough and tumble: in 2010, Zimmerman and his campaign workers were surrounded by 10 workers from the rival campaign of Ellis Lau. During the fracas, one of Lau’s workers fell to the ground and accused Zimmerman of pushing him. Zimmerman was arrested but never charged, and he handily beat Lau at the polls.

Despite the incident, Zimmerman says his experience as a district councillor has been positive. He is the only non-Chinese councillor in Hong Kong (one other non-Chinese candidate, David Schaus, is trying to unseat incumbent Fergus Fung in the Bays constituency of the Southern District), but he says the people of Pok Fu Lam don’t see that as an issue. Maybe it’s because the key to winning isn’t in roadside banners or MTR bullhorn sessions. “From my perspective what is effective is really being on topic,” he says. “Identify something that is relevant in the district and actively work on it.” That might sound like common sense, but as anyone knows, politics doesn’t always make sense — and so the banners and street corner waving live on. And with the Legislative Council election coming up next year, it won’t be long before the cityscape of Hong Kong’s electoral democracy reveals itself once again.

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