Neon Light Exhibit a Reminder of Hong Kong’s Struggle for Democracy

A Neon light exhibit depicting Jimmy Lai, the detained Nobel Peace Prize nominee will be displayed in Sydney’s CBD until this year’s prize is announced.
Neon Light Exhibit a Reminder of Hong Kong’s Struggle for Democracy
Poster of the exhibition of neon sign “Jimmy Lai in Chains.” (supplied)
9/16/2023
Updated:
9/19/2023
0:00

A neon light exhibit depicting a detained Nobel Peace Prize nominee will be shining in Sydney’s CBD until this year’s prize is announced.

Jimmy Lai, the founder of the now-shut pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, is facing a trial in December on one charge under the British colonial-era sedition law and three charges under the city’s national security law, including collusion with foreign forces.

The 75-year-old media tycoon, one of the most prominent Hong Kong critics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, including CCP leader Xi Jinping, was arrested in August 2020 for violating the national security law—a law with vaguely defined crimes and often used to stamp out dissent by the Beijing-controlled Hong Kong authorities.

Mr. Lai has been nominated by bipartisan American policymakers for the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize along with five other Hong Kongers.

“The nominees are representative of millions of Hong Kongers who peacefully opposed the steady erosion of the city’s democratic freedoms by the Hong Kong government and the government of the People’s Republic of China,” reads a statement by the United States’ Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

“Through the nomination, the Members of Congress seek to honor all those in Hong Kong whose bravery and determination in the face of repression has inspired the world.”

Neon Light in Memory of Hong Kong’s Heyday

Mark Tarrant, the Australian attorney who represented human rights activist Drew Pavlou, is the one who came up with the idea of a neon light show.

“I grew up in Hong Kong as a child and have common memories of neon … It was very cheerful to see so much neon,” he told The Epoch Times on Sept. 14. “It would have been the late 1970s to the 80s when I was a child in Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong’s neon signs marked the former British colony’s heyday in the second half of the 20th century as the economy prospered. The signs included big brands, major department stores, and family-run businesses.

“Traditionally, shop owners wanted their businesses to be passed on through the generations,” Cardin Chan, the general manager of Tetra Neon Exchange, a non-profit collecting Hong Kong’s famous neon, told The Guardian. “They invested a lot in getting a sign commissioned, because to them, a sign carries the soul of a business.”
However, under tightening government regulations in recent years, scores of neon signs, some of which had hung for decades outside, were deemed illegal and have been removed, stripping the city of its once-glaring glory.

Art to Express Australians’ Sympathy

Mr. Tarrant said that many Australians have a strong affection for Hong Kong, and he wishes to give expression to their concerns through the art piece.

“Australian engineers really helped build modern Hong Kong. We had Australian pilots flying Cathay Pacific for many years now, and I think Australians are really concerned about what’s happened to the city that many Australians have lived in, the city they used to love to visit,” he said.

“Hopefully this sends a message to Jimmy Lai that Australian people do have a lot of sympathy for his current incarceration, and he’s deserving [the] recipient for the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize.”

Steven Coles, the neon artist who designed the exhibit, flew from Melbourne to attend its debut in Sydney’s Town Hall.

Mr. Coles, whose work focuses more on mental health and social issues, said this was his first time working on such a topic.

“[I want] to create awareness that there is this wonderful human being being wrongfully incarcerated,” he said.

Hong Kongers in Sydney sign on the back of the neon light exhibit to show their support. (Tom Yu/The Epoch Times)
Hong Kongers in Sydney sign on the back of the neon light exhibit to show their support. (Tom Yu/The Epoch Times)

Sylvia, a Hong Konger who now resides in Sydney, said she was impressed by the exhibit.

“It’s so much better than I imagined even though I did see a photo of it before,” she said. “It’s really attractive standing on the street. It’s certainly a piece of art.”

Calls for Australian Government to Help

Mr. Xia Yi, a Sydney-based China affairs commentator who attended the debut, said the Australian government should raise the issue of Jimmy Lai with the regime in Beijing.

“We know that Prime Minister Albanese will soon visit China to meet with [CCP leader] Xi Jinping. I hope that during the meeting he will not give up his principles, he will not give up our values, and that he will raise the issue of human rights with the Chinese government,” he said.

“It is hoped that [the Chinese regime] can have a fair trial and treat politicians fairly, which is very important. I think the Australian government should be able to make its voice heard and do something in this regard.”

Mr. Xia said he also wishes the Australian leader could mention Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun, the two Australians who are still detained in China.

Prime Minister Albanese has confirmed that he will visit China by Christmas in a push for the easing of trade sanctions.

Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, looks on as he leaves the Court of Final Appeal by prison van, in Hong Kong, on Feb. 1, 2021. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, looks on as he leaves the Court of Final Appeal by prison van, in Hong Kong, on Feb. 1, 2021. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
Mr. Albanese has called for the release of Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist who is the mother of two, but said his visit to China will not be conditional on Ms. Cheng’s release.

“Visits and engagement and dialogue should not be transactional,” he said in August. “The worst thing that can happen between nations that have disagreements is that they stop talking.”

The Labor prime minister also said that since being elected, his government has had increased contact with Ms. Cheng.

The Epoch Times understands that Sydney city council has approved Mr. Tarrant’s request to place the Jimmy Lai neon light display in a vacant shop at 303 Pitt Street, Sydney, from Sept. 17 until the winner of the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize is announced, which will take place between Oct. 2-9.

The Epoch Times has reached out to Sydney Mayor Clover Moore, and New South Wales Premier Chris Minns for comments.

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