For decades climbers have flocked to Hong Kong’s Lion Rock, a 1,624-foot mountain on the Kowloon peninsula whose contour resembles a crouching lion. Its main 300-foot, multi-pitch route circumnavigates the neck to ascend the lion’s mane. It’s an aesthetic line, but the formation has become a surprising hot spot during the now monthslong protests that have overrun Hong Kong.
The movement began in opposition to an extradition law proposed by the government of Hong Kong in April. The bill would have allowed the Hong Kong government to deport fugitives to jurisdictions it didn’t have extradition agreements with, including mainland China. It was seen by many as further encroachment by China on the city’s semiautonomous status outlined by the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that’s been in place since 1997. Critics said the bill could be used to target dissidents and curtail civil liberties. By June, peaceful protests turned into widespread civil unrest that has rocked the city and shocked the world. The extradition bill was suspended in September, but demonstrations have continued, morphing into a pro-democracy movement. During that time, clashes between activists and police have grown in intensity. Last weekend a police officer shot and wounded a protester while trying to detain another man. In another incident, a man was set on fire after he confronted demonstrators. As clashes between protesters and police escalate, authorities have warned that the city is on the “brink of a total breakdown.”
Meanwhile, protests have also spread to the city’s crags. Mr. Wong—an outdoor sports instructor in his thirties who asked not to be identified by his real name—has been part of Hong Kong’s burgeoning climbing community since the sport took off there in 2015. Now he’s leading a group of nearly a dozen climbers who make banners featuring anti-government slogans and suspend them from cliffs near the city. Wong is in charge of the team assigned to hang them from Lion Rock.
“As a rock climber, that’s the only thing I can do to support those who take over the street,” Wong says.
The team hikes to the top of the ridge late at night, then rappels down with the banner, anchoring it to the bolts as they go. “The task is risky,” he says. Climbers on the crag have to remember the locations of the bolts by heart as they execute the operation without headlamps to avoid police detection.
So far, Wong’s team has hung banners on three different occasions.
On June 15, when some two million people marched in protest, Wong’s team put up a yellow banner with red and black words that read “Fight for HK.” On August 23, an estimated 210,000 people formed a 25-mile human chain that followed subway stations in 11 of the city’s 18 districts and wound its way up Lion Rock. That night, Wong led a few climbers to put up two black banners that read “Police Triads Abuse Violence” and “Murderous Regime.”
On September 13, thousands of protesters gathered on top of Lion Rock during the Mid-Autumn Festival, a harvest celebration popular throughout China. They lit up the ridge with torches, laser pens, and headlamps, while chanting “Glory to Hong Kong,” the uprising’s unofficial anthem. Wong’s team drummed up morale by unfolding a 100-foot black banner with the words “Implement Real Double Suffrage.” The slogan echoes a banner put up on Lion Rock during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which demanded universal suffrage in Hong Kong.
Lion Rock has long been a symbol of resiliency and the can-do spirit that fueled Hong Kong’s rise to prosperity and its transformation into a global financial hub. Those ideas are echoed in the popular expression “Lion Rock spirit,” which comes from Below the Lion Rock, a TV drama that ran intermittently from 1972 through 2016.
Since the Umbrella Movement, a number of young people and opposition parties have argued that fighting for social justice is the Lion Rock spirit of their time. Climbers who support the protests told Outside that the crag’s status as a cultural icon fueled their decision to use it as a place to voice themselves, even though the banners were removed immediately by authorities.
Wong compared it to making an appeal for social justice on the Washington Monument. “People will take it seriously because of the rich history already ingrained in it,” he said.
“Lion Rock nowadays also represents democracy and freedom,” said Crystal Tsang, a climbing friend of Wong’s.
However, protesters aren’t the only ones aware of Lion Rock’s symbolism. A day after the Mid-Autumn Festival, over 100 pro-government demonstrators went to the top of the mountain via a hiking trail. They removed the black banner hung by Wong’s team a day earlier and instead waved Chinese national flags and unfolded red banners reading “Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China” and “Stopping Violence, Ending the Chaos, and Restoring Order.” Several pro-government demonstrators declined to discuss the protests on Lion Rock with Outside.
As the dissent continues, climbers beneath Lion Rock still don shirts featuring pro-democracy slogans and blast “Glory to Hong Kong” on loudspeakers while hiking up to the crag. Along the way, they exchange smiles and greet each other with an expression that’s become a mantra among protesters: “Hong Kong, keep it up.”