By Hoiying Ng
The figure above is an example of Egao in Hong Kong. The original design on the top was created for the official campaign of the 2012 Hong Kong election reforms. The government promoted its position as ‘Act Now’, to garner public support for the draft plan for the reforms. Because some Hong Kongers felt that the plan was actually a step backwards rather than the democratic reforms they were presented to be, an Egao picture was created as seen in the bottom picture. In this picture the original design of the official campaign was adopted and then re-created to present an opposite message in a vivid manner. The Chinese characters (the slogan) had been changed from ‘Act Now’ to ‘All Wrong’. The picture went viral on social media, and prints also appeared on the streets. Why has this cultural practice known as Egao become so popular in Hong Kong? What does it signify for Hong Kong youth? How does it express their structure of feeling? And can serious political issues really be turned into fun, and vice versa? Or can we do it ‘just for fun’?
Online spoofing is a global phenomenon which affects the global internet culture, but with specific local expressions. When the phenomenon reached Hong Kong, people localized it by blending it with the cultural practices of Mo Lei Tau (無厘頭) and Egao (惡搞), which is one example of what Robertson (2012) has called ‘glocalization’. Mo Lei Tau as a genre of humor has become a significant cultural practice in Hong Kong since 1990. Literally, Mo Lei Tau means ‘came from nowhere’. It can take the form of a sentence without logic or a scene without sense in a movie. People, mostly young people, who practice Mo Lei Tau would probably be labelled as senseless. It would be seen as merely a way for them to make fun. However, Mo Lei Tau nowadays is not only a way for making fun, but also a tool for youth to express their views on political issues: Egao. Egao mostly circulates on social media platforms, where we can see lots of re-created pictures, songs and videos about various social issues or expressing political views. As Gong and Yang (2014) explain, in Egao ‘seriousness’ and ‘fun’ are cleverly combined to provide the basis for a growing high-tech subcultural movement:
Egao is a popular subculture that deconstructs serious themes to entertain people with comedy effects…. The two characters ‘e’ meaning ‘evil’ and ‘gao’ meaning ‘work’ combine to describe a subculture that is characterized by humor, revelry, subversion, grass-root spontaneity, defiance of authority, mass participation and multi-media high-tech. (Gong & Yang, 2010:4)
Egao has grown so big that even political parties employ youth to create Egao (Democratic Party, 2012). Since the cultural practice is thus no longer seen as ‘non-sense’, people now refer to it as Egao rather than Mo Lei Tau. Youth have always been considered immature when engaging in Mo Lei Tau. But with the rise of Egao, would they still be seen as immature?
In this research paper, I will explore to what extent the shift from Mo Lei Tau to Egao reflects a changing ‘structure of feeling’ among Hong Kong youth, and how the youth in Hong Kong identify themselves differently through these two cultural practices. Specifically, I started my research with the following questions: How and why did this genre of humor shift from Mo Lei Tau to Egao in Hong Kong? How and why do Mo Lei Tau and Egao represent a different structure of feeling among Hong Kong youth? What motivates youth to participate in Egao, and how does it set them apart from the mainstream ’adult’ Hong Kong society? And what can society do to break the walls between youth and the generation ’outside’ Egao? However, by the end of my research, my views about Mo Lei Tau and Egao were significantly altered, thanks to my interviewees who openly shared their views with me.
To obtain a comprehensive understanding of Egao as a cultural practice, I have interviewed five people who each engage in Egao to different degrees; from the famous Egao creator whose Egao works are widely shared, to the Egao enthusiast who mainly re-posts Egao pictures or songs concerning particular social issues. Since I lived in Amsterdam at the time of the research the interviews were conducted through online communication channels (which is only fitting for this digital generation): two via Skype, one via Facebook Message, and the other two via What’s App voice chat. Below I will briefly sketch the background of my respondents, but first let me further clarify what Mo Lei Tau and Egao mean in this paper.
Mo Lei Tau, Egao, and its practitioners
Mo Lei Tau is a way to perform a joke, without the specific purpose of mocking any person or anything; in fact it does not seem to have any specific purpose at all. The content of Mo Lei Tau can be messy. It can be completely disconnected from reality. It was recognized as a local culture in Hong Kong since 1990, from Stephen Chow Sing Chi’s style of comedy which has become well known as ‘nonsense comedy’ (Hui, 2012). But Mo Lei Tau is not completely meaningless; it plays on cultural subtleties significant in Hong Kong, which is what makes it so funny to Hong Kong people.
Egao to some extent is considered a cultural practice similar to Mo Lei Tau. However, in my point of view, at least when I started the research, Mo Lei Tau can be a part of Egao but they are actually two different cultural practices. Egao is a kind of re-creation which re-presents certain serious topics in a funnier way. Wong (2013) describes it as ‘a common method for making use of the familiar and official promotion items, selecting and then changing the words, remarks, signs and/or symbols in a subversive and reverse manner so as to insert and present the anti-traditional, anti-authoritarian, anti-mainstream and anti-hegemonic messages’. The use of Egao can thus be seen as ‘seriously playful’ (Li, 2012) and not just for fun.
Different from Mo Lei Tau, Egao always carries a strong relation with current affairs or other aspects of the social and political reality, like the existing pictures, songs, or videos they draw on. The creation of Egao does have its own specific purpose, namely to share the creator’s views on certain social issues or to make fun of someone. There are different topics or so-called targets in Egao. It can be Hong Kong politicians, celebrities, or even the person sitting next to us in the context of various social issues. Egao has a more serious connotation of social criticism, though is no less fun than Mo Lei Tau. Perhaps this is why it is especially popular among the younger generations in Hong Kong, who use it as a creative outlet to express their views in their own style.
My first interviewee, Leung Pak Kin, a Hong Konger in his thirties, is a popular lyricist in Hong Kong music circles. He is also a keen creator of Egao lyrics, and always shares his creations on social media platforms such as Weibo and Instagram. He started sharing Egao since it first emerged in Hong Kong in the early 1990s, when he was still in primary school, and began to publicly share his own creations since 2010.
My second interviewee, Siu Hak, who is also in his thirties, is also a popular lyricist as well as painter and screenwriter in Hong Kong. Since 2001, Siu Hak has been creating a different type of Egao song, rewriting existing lyrics to include current issues in Hong Kong politics and everyday life. His creations can be found on social media platforms and are also featured in some Hong Kong magazines.
My other three interviewees are of a younger age. Twenty-year-old Sylvia Cheung is a fresh grad student who became involved in creating Egao songs during her studies. Unlike Leung Pak Kin and Siu Hak, Sylvia’s Egao are collective works created by the popular music band she is part of, Kungfeilung (窮飛龍), which is well-known for its re-created songs. Sylvia is in charge of the Egao lyrics as well as pictures of the band.
Twenty-four-year-old Jimmy Cheung is a student who keenly re-posts the Egao works he is interested in on online forums and social media platforms. In 2003, still in primary school, he also started creating Egao pictures but he stopped making his own work a few years later. Finally, eighteen-year-old Tim Lam is a student who has never created his own Egao works but enthusiastically re-posts and shares other people’s works with his friends. Most of the Egao pictures or songs he re-posts are about Hong Kong politics.
From Mo Lei Tau to Egao?
I asked my interviewees what they consider to be the difference between Mo Lei Tau and Egao, so that I could analyze the transformation from the one to the other. But I found that, in fact, no such transformation took place, at least not as I previously envisaged it. According to my interviewees, it is hard to separate Mo Lei Tau and Egao. Both Leung Pak Kin and Siu Hak even said they had no idea what my question was about. Sylvia considers that it depends more on how the receivers think rather than on the intentions of the creators:
‘Creators create it for fun, if the audience thinks they have seen any message in the work, they would call it Egao. Otherwise, it is a Mo Lei Tau work, even though the creator may have created the work with some purposes.’
For Sylvia, Egao and Mo Lei Tau are basically the same – they are both about re-creations:
‘I really don’t know if there is a specific word called Egao to describe re-created pictures or songs at the very outset.’
Jimmy and Tim, who are on the ‘receiving’ side, both think that Egao contains collective views towards a particular issue, so that audiences can have the same feelings when seeing the work. But what if the audiences share the feeling that the re-created work has no meaning but is only funny, is it then still Egao or by definition Mo Lei Tau? ‘Er…it’s up to you’, Jimmy answered. The two pictures below (Figures 1 & 2) are the examples I showed Jimmy and Tim right after asking them the question just mentioned.
These two pictures do not contain any political message. Figure 1 is a screenshot of a Hong Kong TV drama and Figure 2 is the re-created picture. Jimmy still categorized it as Egao, although he recognized that the picture has no purpose of sharing political views, while Tim categorized it as Mo Lei Tau, although it obviously has the purpose of mocking someone. Here I found that the concepts of Mo Lei Tau and Egao are unclear since there is a great area of overlap: FUN.
Why can’t I do it just for fun?
Taking the perspective of the ‘outsider’, I can easily see what I initially expected to find regarding why the youth would participate in Egao: The world keeps changing and technology is rapidly evolving. Youth involved in the society take the technological advantages to create different kinds of cultural practices. Through these new cultural practices, youth express their thoughts and sentiments, and also keep re-making the culture in their own style although these styles are always ’immature’ (Zheng, 2012). In the age of new media, many youth cultural practices hit suddenly and go off like a dream. According to Zhang, Egao is not only created for fun, it is also an alternative way for youth to express their will and views on politics, culture, and for self-satisfaction.
I believe that many of the Egao creators really do intend to engage social issues or even to arouse other people’s awareness in social conflicts. Since it is difficult for young people to take part in political affairs, they can only use this channel of expression to draw people’s attention. For example, people had no way to vote for rejecting the plan for the 2012 election reforms (only the members of the Hong Kong legislative council could vote on that issue), and so they created the ‘All Wrong’ picture to demonstrate their stance. Like people from older generations, they could have written a letter to the newspaper to complain about the government or politicians, and some also did, but most youth nowadays choose a more effective platform to deliver their message: the Internet (Chan, 2012). But is it really the case that most of the creators create Egao with such serious purpose? Here another question comes up. Why can’t people create their work just for fun?
All my interviewees stated that they create Egao ’just for fun’. They do express their views through Egao but they are not looking for any feedback from others; their creations are mainly meant to satisfy their need for self-expression. Compliments for them are a bonus. As Leung Pak Kin said, somewhat impatiently, about one of his works which attracted a lot of attention in 2010:
‘One day I read the news about the accident, right before I left for work. I just felt that I had many things going on in my mind and I wanted to express it. That’s it. I have no idea why Hong Kong people cared about my work. I have no idea why mainland Chinese paid attention to it. I had no reason to shoot and I didn’t expect people to pass or catch the ball.’
In 2010, Leung Pak Kin created an Egao song about the Foxconn workers jumping off the building (富士康下), which was an adaptation of a well-known pop song in Hong Kong, ‘Under Mount Fuji‘ (富士山下). The new lyrics talked about the poor working conditions at the Foxconn factory. Leung Pak Kin posted this work on his personal Weibo account on May 25th and May 27th. Three days later, on May 30th, a video of a person singing the song had been uploaded to YouTube and other video-sharing websites in mainland China. Both the video and the text became an instant hit on the Internet. Over 2600 people instantly re-posted Leung Pak Kin’s work to their Weibo accounts, and the wave of re-posting lasted for more than one year.
Similar to the case of Leung Pak Kin, Sylvia also never expected her Egao work to become so popular on the Internet:
‘The first re-created song was a class assignment I did with my classmates. We used this social issue as the content of that song because all of us knew the background of that topic. It would be easier for us to finish the assignment if we had a common understanding.’
As a Fine Arts student, Sylvia thinks that she started to practice Egao simply because she loves to create things and it makes her feel happy.
‘When I look at Botticelli’s art piece in class, I wonder how Venus [Figure 3] will look like if she wears the trendy stuff of contemporary society. It would be quite funny and interesting if she wears eyelash extensions and glasses. So I tried to re-create the work [Figure 4].’
Creators create Egao or Mo Lei Tau works for fun. How about the receivers? Do they re-post or forward it for fun or do they have any other reason to do so which differs from that of the creators? Tim said:
‘Laughter always comes first. If it carries any message which is similar to my point of view, of course I feel more enthusiastic about sharing the work.’
Thus, I discovered that the creators and the receivers actually share the same sentiments concerning Egao. First and foremost, their purpose for creating or re-posting Egao is not much different from the case of performing Mo Lei Tau: it is for making fun, especially for making fun for oneself. This made me reconsider some of my own motives for researching, and myself participating in, Egao culture.
We tend to assume that youth participate in practices such as Egao because they want to prove to society that they are not that naive or merely about ‘nonsense‘. In Hong Kong, as elsewhere in the world, there is a prevalent image about youth as being ‘irrational‘ as well as politically ‘apathetic‘, which becomes a source of moral panic. To deal with the moral panic, it seems that youth have no choice but to perform their ‘rational‘ side even if this was not their initial consideration. At the same time, while struggling with the negative labels which society puts on them, youth struggle with the uncertain futures this society has to offer. Though writing about youth in the United States, Flanagan (2008) articulates exactly what I think, as a youth in Hong Kong:
‘They accept as givens the rules of a neo-liberal order, tie their hopes to the happiness it promises, believe that their commitment to education and hard work will pay off but worry privately about whether the system will deliver.’ (Flanagan, 2008: 198; cf. Sennett, 1998)
As part of the youth culture in Hong Kong, I have always tried my best to distance myself from the negative labels from the public and the media which mark us as politically apathetic. By re-posting Egao works related to social issues, at least I can demonstrate that I am aware of what is happening in my society. However, whenever I forward Egao to my friends, the in-text is always ‘lol’ and ‘XDDD’.
If Egao, like Mo Lei Tau, is just for fun, how come it can be related to social issues then? After all, we can see Egao in social protest, in relation to political parties and other social issues. Creators might not expect too much when they create their works, and the receivers might also mainly be out for a laugh at the outset, but the creations still trigger a sense of awareness. As Tim and Jimmy said:
‘Because I want to understand what happened to the re-created picture or song, I always actively try to find the original.’ (Jimmy)
‘Egao indeed attracts me to actively get closer to the social issues, but it’s not enough to motivate me to join the protest.’ (Tim)
Even though, for Tim, it does not compel him to participate in protest, Egao does make him aware of the protest. Still, the question remains why Egao needs to be rationalized as something functional.
Again, why can’t I do it just for fun?
People who are concerned about the position and negative image of youth in society will readily ’defend’ them by proposing rational explanations for the youth’s cultural expressions, so that the public will understand them. They will also try to help the youth to ‘walk on the right track’. The truth is, however, that youth intentionally separate themselves from the so-called mainstream public. This way, they can keep control over their cultural expressions, such as Egao. Egao thus becomes a youth space.
‘Youth claims dominion over e’gao, which has the general reputation of being an adolescent and post-adolescent cyber-subculture…The ‘elder generation’ over thirty isn’t able to understand. Youth-oriented topics abound.’ (Rea, 2013)
Tim thinks that the youth are trying to put away the old ideas from the elder generations; they are transforming the old concepts into new concepts. Youth have their own communication style and are not looking for approval.
‘We are proud to be isolated as we don’t think we have to be understood by someone who is not in the ‘same level. …This is a normal process. The elder generation had also experienced similar situations when they were young’.
Siu Hak, though he is over thirty, shares the same youthful thought about ‘active isolation’:
‘Egao is like a football match. Whether you like to play football or not, it’s your own business. Yet, when you want to join us, at least you have to know how to play.’
‘Outsiders’ can only be the audience during the football match. By the same token, only outsiders would like to find the reason behind why people do the things they cannot understand, or even to judge why they should or should not be doing those things. In the case of Mo Lei Tau and Egao, creators never think of why they create the popular works.
‘If you think too much, it will not be fun at all and that’s what we call the Bad Egao.’
Yes there is good and bad Egao. Rather than rationalizations about their function, there are certain justifications for Egao works in terms of content and style. Based on my five interviewees’ opinions, good Egao works should have the following criteria:
- Getting to the point:
‘The audience can laugh at first sight of the work.’ (Jimmy)
‘I feel good if the creator shows me we have the same language.’ (Tim)
- Carrying your own style:
‘You should have your own style. You cannot just copy others’ skill to make your Egao works. That is never good Egao.’ (Leung Pak Kin)
‘We have our own style. I never expect they can do as good as us.’ (Siu Hak)
‘I used to create Egao but I gave up later because I don’t have my own style of Egao.’ (Jimmy)
- Making it easy for audiences to understand the correct (moral) message:
‘Just like walking a fine line. You have to take the balance. The best Egao should be able to put the person being mocked in a situation in which he or she is at a loss to react properly, not knowing whether to cry or to laugh.’ (Leung Pak Kin)
‘Creators should have his or her own baseline of morality.’ (Sylvia)
‘Egao is a kind of judgment. That’s why I always remind myself to be aware of my intention in creating Egao.’ (Siu Hak)
‘It doesn’t look good if it tends to bully someone.’ (Tim)
- Inspiring the audiences:
‘It is great if it can make people think like: ‘Why didn’t I think of this point?’’ (Leung Pak Kin)
‘I would love to share it if it can make me laugh every time I see it.’ (Tim)
- Showing skill:
‘I stopped with it because I’m not good at using Photoshop, how can I create a good re-created picture by using MS Paint?’ (Jimmy)
‘If it is hard to discover that is a re-created picture, it’s good. The more it looks like the original picture, the better the quality of the work.’ (Sylvia)
‘I have a high standard of rewritten lyrics. At least you have to know the language system of Cantonese. Basically you need to make it in rhyme, do you know how many rhyme in Cantonese…?’ (Siu Hak)
‘If you have the passion to fuck someone around through your works, people can feel it.’ (Leung Pak Kin)
- Not aiming at pleasing anyone:
‘Never follow the fans’ expectations of your work. You know what, people who think their works are good, are actually never good. If you calculate too much, the work will not be pure at all. Creations are born instinctively as to what you want to do at that very moment.’ (Leung Pak Kin)
‘I don’t know what the song will look like in the end. Just start it and let it fly.’ (Siu Hak)
These, among others, are the hidden standards of Egao. Although no one would list the criteria as such, both the creators and the receivers take the standard as given. The ability to recognize and appreciate ‘good Egao‘ thereby becomes a form of agency for youth which makes them part of this culture. Being part of the Egao culture grants them the power to judge ‘good Egao‘ for themselves. Outsiders, in particular the elder generations who never engage in today’s youth culture, or anyone who does not understand Hong Kong culture, are not qualified to judge.
Hong Kong youth identity and agency
Parody is not a new phenomenon and it is prevalent across the world, from online spoofing in the West to Kuso culture in Japan. What distinguishes Egao and Mo Lei Tau are the local conditions which create a unique Hong Kong identity. According to Hui (2012): ‘A unique Hong Kong identity—as opposed to a larger Chinese identity—slowly emerged, driven by the enormous social, economic, and cultural gaps between Hong Kong and mainland China.’ Unlike mainland-Chinese versions, Hong Kong Egao creations are more playful in text and language structure. The traditional Chinese characters used in Hong Kong allow more room for Egao play as the characters are complicated. Also, as Siu Hak mentioned, the rhyme and tone are extensive enough for people to play with.
Other than the physical characteristics of Hong Kong Egao, we can also take the culture within Hong Kong society into consideration. According to Siu Hak:
‘Hong Kong culture is an ‘instant noodle culture’, people need snacks for entertainment.’
He is right, Hong Kong citizens, especially Hong Kong youth, need quick laughs. According to a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Youth Group Federation in 2013, Hong Kong students experience great study pressure. Over 35% scored 7 to 10 points on a 10-point scale of stress. Siu Hak deems that Hong Kong youth need opportunities to laugh for releasing stress. But stress release is not the only effect of Egao. It also helps youth to form and express an identity for themselves in Hong Kong society at large.
Although Egao is often described as a subculture, it actually helps youth to form another, alternative mainstream in Hong Kong. Since they are not satisfied with the ideas of the dominant mainstream society, they create another voice through Egao. Creators never think about getting people’s attention but by incident, a coherent set of opinions is formed. Through the process of getting involved in Egao, youth can find their own identities. These identities are not yet fixed, neither do the youth want them to be. In the process, they will see for themselves how Egao will develop and where it will take them.
The rapid evolution of modern technology is of course one of the factors determining how Hong Kong Egao presents itself. Nowadays the Internet ‘has become a venue where more and more people are publishing, learning, playing, befriending and networking, having fun and airing grievances, participating and engaging in social and political affairs’ (Li, 2012: 5). One of the burning questions for Hong Kong youth remains the political relationship with mainland China, which also gains a new dimension with the Internet. Like the case of Leung Pak Kin’s Egao song about Foxconn workers (富士康下), the messages from Hong Kong to mainland China only take a few days or even a few hours to transmit. Egao is an act of agency for Hong Kong youth to recognize what it means to be part of Hong Kong culture, and in that sense reinforces pride in the unique Hong Kong identity as opposed to China. Egao and Mo Lei Tau are created just for fun, for a laugh, but one that fits the Hong Kong instant noodle culture.
I have asked my interviewees what they will do if the Hong Kong government implements the Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23 which states:
‘The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.’ (Hong Kong Government, 2003)
In effect, this Law represents an implicit warning against political criticism. Again, the findings surprised me. All of my interviewees said that they will still continue to create Egao or re-post Egao. If the main reason for youth to participate in Egao is ‘just for fun’, I supposed they would no longer engage in it once it becomes illegal and they risk getting arrested. My interviewees’ response lead me to conclude that ‘just for fun’ is indeed the basic motive for youth to participate in Egao, but that there are many reasons and meanings behind ‘just for fun’. It may be a kind of rebellion related to self-expression, a self-identity process, self-reflection, and so on. By stating that they will keep pursuing this form of ’just fun’ even if it were prohibited, it is certainly a form of agency.
Let it go
So what can the Hong Kong society do to break the walls between youth and the elder generation outside of Egao culture? My answer would be: never try to break the wall with your own definition of Egao or Mo Lei Tau. Or as Leung Pak Kin said:
‘Do not expect that [holding high expectations of] what Egao can do for the society is the best way to support this local cultural practice.’
From my observations, Egao may be something more than just for fun, but it is better not to touch it. Just observe. Let it go, and we can see more possibilities in ‘just for fun’.
Before I started my research, I assumed that the youth involved in Egao practice are not doing the same thing as in Mo Lei Tau. I felt that people in Egao are more motivated to show their social and political engagement. However, by taking the perspective of the youth who really enjoy Egao, whether by creating it or sharing it with others, I encountered something different from what I had expected.
In our effort to understand our own and others’ identity (like outsiders trying to understand the youth’s identity), we tend to think that we need to completely dissect particular expressions for their rational reasons in order to create certainty of meaning. We feel scared when faced with uncertainties. In the case of my research, I was desperately searching for rational agency as the reason behind the cultural practice. However, we have to bear in mind that agency is never the reason behind the cultural practice, it is the cultural practice itself. Looking for explanations behind the cultural practice may therefore even destroy the agency that exists in the fun itself. As Leung Pak Kin said:
‘When you consider that all things can be explained, the world is not interesting at all. If there are some doors we cannot open, we can find the excitement.’
Why must we find an excuse to rationalize what we do? Is it possible for us to do something without ‘reasonable’ reason and not be blamed for it as immature? The Egao creators in Hong Kong simply do not care how people react. ‘We do it just for fun, so?’ As Leung Pak Kin said, Egao or Mo Lei Tau is mental graffiti. Sometimes it carries a message, sometime it doesn’t. It is not necessary for us to understand every single piece of graffiti. Appreciation is enough. Although they are not looking for approval, young people do feel glad when meeting with positive public opinions about their cultural practices. As Siu Hak said:
‘What if I found that I have fans who like my works? Well…I feel happy. Yes, I feel happy. And…That’s all.’
Happiness always doubles when we do not expect it too much. Like the popular Egao works, it has its own way to go. That everything happens for a reason doesn’t mean we should do everything with a reason. We really do it for no reason, so what? We may be going nowhere, or somewhere. Let us see which direction it takes us.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
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