Public information announcements via television, radio or poster campaigns are frequent features of life in Hong Kong.
While many offer straightforward, nanny-like exhortations to “do this” or “not do that”, others contain subtle or more detailed messages about official intentions and broader policy agendas.
Public service announcements became widespread in China in the early 1930s and were mostly linked to the Nationalist government’s New Life Movement. This campaign derived from missionary- influenced notions of overall civic uplift and was spearheaded by Chiang Kai-shek’s powerful second wife, Soong May-ling.
The New Life Movement urged people to button their shirts, brush their teeth, refrain from public spitting and littering – and followed it all up with stiff fines designed to enforce changes in behaviour. Like many other generally positive social innovations during the Nationalist era, the New Life Movement was swallowed up by far more urgent priorities after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.
After 1949, the Communists took these methods of social engineering to another level, and campaigns with political agendas became more pronounced throughout the 50s and 60s.
Reading between the lines on various campaigns became an art form. During this frightening smoke-and-mirrors period in China’s recent history, nothing – nothing – happened by chance.
Everything – even the most modest social improvement campaign – offered a submerged harbinger of something else.
Information campaigns, in subtle ways, hold up a mirror to society.
In the 50s, when Hong Kong was flooded with refugees from China, official posters displayed in police stations bluntly stated that the public did not need to pay to get service or assistance. The message was obvious – Hong Kong was very different to where the newcomers came from.
In response to rising levels of public littering – linked closely to increased affluence and the consequent rise of a throwaway society – the Clean Hong Kong campaign was launched in 1972.
Among the best, and most enduring, drives ever devised by the Information Services Department was Lap Sap Chung – “rubbish grub” in Cantonese. With a distinct family resemblance to Britain’s wartime “gremlins”, Lap Sap Chung had a rather long lifespan for a jolly green creepycrawly who spent most of his time loitering around rubbish bins. He was still appearing in new scenarios into the 90s.
Another enormous success was the early-90s anti-marine pollution campaign. A large, delectable steamed fish on a plate suddenly opened its mouth and spewed vast quantities of rubbish over the dinner table; a revoltingly graphic, prime-time reminder of the parlous state of local waters. Predictably, Hong Kong’s already heavily subsidised fishing lobby howled in outrage about possible financial losses, but the message was both stark and completely true; urgent remedial measures were essential.
Probably Hong Kong’s most ludicrous recent information campaign was the sorry attempt to win support for the government’s sham consultation on political reform among the dangerously disaffected youth.
“Your Vote. Don’t cast it away.
You can have universal suffrage in 2017” posters patronised the young with condescension, demotic speech and pictures of crowds heading off towards imaginary, non-existent polling stations, exhorting people not to throw away a vote they don’t even have.
A new low point in disingenuous nonsense, this particular publicity campaign was such a parody of reality it could well have been devised by the Three Stooges themselves. Oh, wait – maybe these clowns from yesteryear actually were behind it …
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong