Hong Kong’s home affairs chief on Friday dismissed concerns over the removal of artwork outside a restaurant showing construction workers in yellow helmets, saying it was the owner’s decision to paint over it after residents complained it was linked to the 2019 anti-government protests.
But the owner of Glorious Fast Food, surnamed Ho, said he had only agreed to remove the mural, which was put up in 2011, after officials warned him of possible breaches against the Beijing-imposed national security law.
Secretary for Home and Youth Affairs Alice Mak Mei-kuen stopped short of clarifying how the artwork might have violated the security law, but said the Home Affairs Department had offered “friendly reminders” to landlords and occupants to reflect the concerns of residents.
“We are not a law enforcement agency. When we saw the artwork, my colleagues issued reminders that it might be easily associated with [black violence or Hong Kong independence],” she said.
“It has nothing to do with stifling creative freedom at all. It is up to the landlord and the occupant to decide how to deal with the artwork, and then let our colleagues handle it. They could have chosen to do nothing.”
The artwork in question, created by Hong Kong-born street artist Catherine Grossrieder, showed two construction workers in yellow helmets eating noodles.
Yellow helmets, along with goggles and masks, became a symbol of the months-long social unrest in 2019, sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill. Protesters had worn them to protect themselves in clashes with police.
The Central and Western District Office confirmed that it was removed last month after residents reported that the artwork was associated with “Hong Kong independence” or “black violence” during protests.
Ho told a radio programme earlier in the day that he did not think the artwork, created by Grossrieder years before he took over the restaurant, carried “any political message”.
He said he signed a consent letter from the authorities to have it removed after home affairs officials warned of risks.
“We were told to cover it with paint to avoid breaching the security law,” he said.
Ho said he felt “regretful and helpless” about the work being removed, as it depicted a community that often visited the restaurant in Sheung Wan.
Lawmaker Gary Zhang Xinyu expressed disappointment over authorities’ move, saying that private property rights should be respected and that the principle of presumption of innocence must be upheld.
Artist Grossrieder, also known as Cath Love, declined an interview with the Post.
Separately, Mak also weighed in on controversy surrounding Wong Tai Sin District Officer Steve Wong Chi-wah after the pro-establishment camp held a farewell banquet on Thursday ahead of his move to Beijing for a year for further studies.
The banquet at a Chinese restaurant in Kowloon Bay was attended by more than 500 people including officials, lawmakers and representatives of pro-Beijing district groups. The cost and size sparked criticism.
Mak said instead of throwing a costly farewell party, groups should express their gratitude through letters.
Wong apologised for the farewell dinner in a post on the Facebook page of the Home Affairs Department.
Director of Home Affairs Alice Cheung Chiu Hoi-yue on the same page said “a letter of appreciation and words of encouragement” were enough to bid farewell to colleagues.