On Our National Day Advertisements

Next Wednesday, October 1st, is National Day. Around town banners, flags and posters advertise the occasion, proclaiming the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It is this nation defined by politics, not the civilisation-state that it so often claims to represent, that we are being asked to celebrate. Both politically and aesthetically I find myself cold to the appeal.

An advertisement plays to a specific market. It references a specific culture to convey not only a message but also, and more importantly, a feeling. Colour and hue is used to set a general tone. Set to this is an image to communicate a more specific message, and to refine the way we react to it. If a slogan is used, the words, their tone and the font used will likewise appeal to this combination of message and feeling. All however is understood within a specific cultural framework.

The National Day advertisements appearing in Hong Kong vary between districts, but all follow a general design. Our National flag, the Five Starred Red Flag (Wu Xing Hong Qi), is prominently draped across the top of the image. There has been no attempt to mellow the boldness of the red, to make the flag work within the image; the flag is not meant to be a part, but rather to sit astride. It is not only a focal point, but a visual separate from the whole.

The bottom of the advertising image is anchored by an outline of a place in Hong Kong rendered in a purple pastel. It is always a place, never a scene as people are not shown. The place itself varies between districts, which would help give each advertisement a more local feel if it was not overwhelmed by (garish) colour.

In my home district the image is of the river that runs through the town, backed by the high-rise towers that look on to it. A concrete bridge built in a mock and distinctly recreational “Chinese” style when the town was developed in the early 1980s serves as the focal point. Looking at it I am reminded of an image of the Great Wall – and as with this image we are asked to celebrate only the physical, the which can be seen, and not the community it represents.

Between the city and the flag, and covering a good third of the advertisement, is a swirling sky of sharp, almost neon, purple. The sky is alive with explosive fireworks that shower the city in white and yellow dashes. And yet even here, amongst the explosions, there is not a trace of energy in the scene. There is not a hint of movement, and the sparks fall to sparkle. Instead the fireworks are rendered through the most basic and least imaginative of stock symbols – a circle of dashes that spread out in ever increasing concentric lines.

Hong Kong is a city with a developing appreciation of design and aesthetics, and a nascent art scene and creative industry. More importantly, we are a city whose cultural and artistic references are far more international than in any other part of China. We are, as we sometimes boast, “Asia’s World City”, the signs of which is as much in the aesthetic of our lived environment as that which is purpose made. It is in how we look at and engage a medium, in what we are culturally conditioned to see and feel.

Government advertising may not be good, but it does generally work within a recognised artistic and cultural framework that most people in Hong Kong will identify. These include a colour palette and style of layout that, on the whole, draws from, both separately and in combination, Japan, the West and the more traditional or local Chinese arts. These artistic and cultural influences are neither good nor bad, but they are what make this city and its people different.

The National Day advertisements don’t feel like a Hong Kong advertisement. They don’t carry the artistic influences you would expect of a local design. They do not engage us in a culture we understand or in a way in which we are likely to respond. These advertisements don’t seem to be for Hong Kong people. They don’t look as if they belong.

Yet these advertisements were produced and distributed by our own government. Looking at them though I can’t help but wonder who had the final say. Who ultimately gave approval? It would be nice to know that Hong Kong people were still free to design an advertisement to promote to our own people the National Day celebrations we are paying to put on. It would be even better to know Hong Kong people were free to decide on how to celebrate the occasion. But perhaps I am asking too much.

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