Karen Cheung explores Asia Art Archive’s collection of zines on the ongoing political movement in Hong Kong.
How would you describe what zines are to someone who's never heard of them? They can look like books or pamphlets, and are generally A5 or smaller, illustrated or handwritten or collage-y, but its appearance almost seems beside the point. More significant is the subjective experience of a zine that’s particular to each of us: for me, reading a zine is like having a secret whispered into my ear as everyone else tears up the dance floor. Like rediscovering a forgotten cassette of music I made from when I was sixteen. Maybe I’m mistaking intimacy with an affectionate carelessness: the grammatical errors and typos, the sheets that are always hastily stapled together, corners protruding in all directions. Maybe that intimacy is intentional: many zines published either anonymously or under a nickname often detail a stranger’s deepest insecurities without ever revealing its author. But on a quiet winter night, in the solitude of my bedroom, reading zines always make me feel a little less alone.
The definition of zines vary depending on who you ask. There are purists who claim that you can’t call a publication a “zine” if editors and designers were involved. I personally prefer the definition given by three zine librarians—Holly Callaghan, Nicola Cook, and Loesja Vigour—who were residents at AAA in 2019: as long as the maker calls it a zine, it’s a zine. (That said, Holly has also warned that brands and organisations sometimes “use zines for a quick diversity fix or some punk points” in her zine This is fake diy).
To call something a zine is to pay tribute to the lo-fi, do-it-yourself (and sometimes, with others) ethos inherent to independent work, a declaration that you don’t need permission from a publisher to put your work out into the world. Zine-making and publishing can be an act of resistance when the gatekeepers of mainstream publishing and art scenes continue to reserve resources and opportunities for white, straight, cis men.
In Hong Kong, while zinesters from collectives like Zine Coop or Display Distribute have long been making zines and promoting zine culture, zines took on new significance with the 2019 political movement in the city. Shortly after the protests began in June, zines of all shapes and sizes began circulating. They are often freely distributed under the creative common licencing of CC-by-ND, downloaded and printed via a shared cloud folder, or found in the form of QR links on social media platforms of artists and zine presses, AAA Collection Assistant Samantha Chao tells me. Sometimes they are found in neat stacks in indie bookstores, sometimes sweaty volunteers hand them out at protests, and sometimes their digital versions go viral on Facebook. There are zines that explain the protests to English-speaking readers; zines that document the movement using timelines and diary entries, providing an alternative, personal archive of sorts; zines that give tongue-in-cheek commentary. Zine Coop and veteran zinester Ranee Ng is now exhibiting some of these publications from their collection in the traveling exhibition, Freedom-Hi! Zines from Hong Kong's Civil Movements.
A number of these zines can be found in AAA’s zine library, which launched earlier this year. The collection—built by AAA’s Elaine Lin and Siu Shun Wai—is an attempt at reorganising the Archive’s existing zines, previously scattered across various categories. As a democratising medium, the inclusion of zines in AAA’s Collection furthers its mission to “make the invisible visible,” says former Collection Manager Elaine Lin. While Lin initially formulated the collection to focus on three categories—zines that are artist-made, produced by art spaces, or related to contemporary arts—the scope has since expanded to include zines on Hong Kong’s biggest social movement since the Handover, thanks to team members Samantha Chao, Stephen Lam, and Charlotte Mui.
Zines are an ideal medium to respond to an ongoing movement: the low cost and ease of production and publication mean that creators can react to real-time developments, and they’re less stuffy and sterile than purely informative brochures or articles. It isn’t only zinesters, illustrators, artists, or writers who make zines; in Hong Kong, they have been authored by anarchists, activists, and protesters, as well. The fragmented vignettes often found in zines precludes the need for a conclusion, which one would more or less require of a book. It also allows the maker to be as creative—and as politically provocative—as they want, without fear of commercial bookstores in Hong Kong refusing to carry their work. “The zine format embodies the subjective, personal, visceral, emotional perspectives to documenting and sharing the sociopolitical movement,” says Samantha. “The directness in how one receives a zine—often face-to-face, given its small circulation—is a part of its intervention.”
* * *
My favourite category is self-care zines. Unlike online forums and Telegram chats, where discussions of resistance strategies dominate in Hong Kong, self-care zines build bridges of practical knowledge and headspace for introspection between the creator and the reader. These zines offer digital security tips, advice on managing emotions during turbulent times, and basic first-aid instructions for protest injuries. Save Hong Kong Ourselves, Self-Help First-Aid by Yan Yu, for instance, is a pamphlet featuring illustrations of household items that would help with pepper spray or tear gas (bottled water, baby shampoo, baking soda, etc.), printed on thin paper with a lime green background. Another, Post-Protest Emotions by Humchuk, is a black-and-white zine filled with line drawings, accompanied by captions that give suggestions for self-care when one is experiencing compassion fatigue: take deep breaths, grant yourself permission to laugh or cry, do stretches, give yourself a hug. “When you feel better, when you’ve calmed down, you can give a hug to those seeking help around you,” one caption says.
The zine that ended up in your tote bag when you head home after a march wasn’t made with a transactional purpose in mind, the way buying a book promises some wisdom from the writer in exchange for cash. Somewhere, someone just wanted to let you know that they cared about your well-being. In that sense, zines are the perfect representation of the spirit of camaraderie and mutual support amongst strangers at protests.
These zines both reflect and contribute to the undercurrents of unity that have persisted throughout the protests, even when Hong Kongers diverge on their views of protest and resistance tactics. Slogans such as “No one gets left behind” and “We can’t afford to lose even one person” have emerged over the past few months, particularly after protest-related deaths and scenes of the often-livestreamed violent clashes prompted experts to warn of a mental health crisis. The trend in the past was for different camps to attack each other for their differences during movements—from decisions on whether to escalate protest actions or who gets represented on the “main stage”—and to shame each other for not doing enough for the city.
With the current protests, however, there has been an unprecedented awareness of the toll on one’s physical and mental health; the value of not turning against your fellow demonstrators, known affectionately as “手足” (your brothers- and sisters-in-arms); and the importance of self-care, which often gets misconstrued as selfishness, when really it is as essential as coming up for air after holding your breath underwater for too long: an opportunity to reset after days and weeks of protest fatigue and PTSD. And at bleak moments when all efforts appear futile, self-care can be a powerful, radical act. It allows people to carry on.
Karen Cheung is Associate Editor at AAA.