The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The humble umbrella’s surprising role in Hong Kong’s huge protests

Any visitor to Hong Kong will tell you that umbrellas are already a fixture of life in the city, essential not only for keeping yourself dry during the rainy spring and summer but also providing much-needed shade from the sun. The "world's most expensive umbrella," made of American ox-hide and using antique German frame, was made there in Hong Kong in 1994, and single-use umbrellas can be bought from vending machines in subway stations, adding only further to the item's ubiquity.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that when pro-democracy activists came out on the streets to joing the "Occupy Central" protests, many brought umbrellas with them. Many of these activists, driven to protest by what they saw as the inability of Hong Kong's leaders to stand up to Beijing, probably brought their umbrellas to provide shelter from the late September sun.

As the situation became volatile, however, the umbrellas served a second purpose: To protect their owners from pepper spray.

Protesters used whatever they could get their hands on for protection: Some images even show people using plastic wrapping to cover themselves. The use of the umbrellas as protection was striking, however, and media outlets picked up on it, dubbing it the "Umbrella Revolution." A search of Twitter appears to show that the term has been around since at least last Friday:

Some protesters painted messages on top of their umbrellas, and artists began incorporating umbrellas into logos designed for Occupy Central. "I was inspired by seeing people defend themselves with domestic props," Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong told the BBC. "The contrast was so marked. On the one side there was police brutality and on the other side there were these poor umbrellas."  According to the Associated Press, umbrellas are now being donated to replace those destroyed by the police.

For outside observers, the umbrella is something easy to latch on to: An ordinary object used to fight against state security apparatus. It helped those far from Hong Kong understand a conflict driven by a wide variety of factors including Hong Kong's complicated colonial history and tradition of democratic protests.

For some, the images coming out of Hong Kong are reminiscent of those coming out of Beijing more than 25 years ago. Now "umbrella man" has been compared to "tank man," the unknown civilian who blocked the path of tanks during the Tiananmen Square crisis in 1989.

However, other observers may be reminded of something else: China's economic might. According to one widely cited statistic, some 70 percent of the world's umbrellas are produced in China.