Hong Kong's T-Shirt Contest

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Hong Kong's triads have been romanticized in countless gangster films and sensationalized by the local tabloid press, but good luck trying to commercialize them on a t-shirt. On Nov. 1, 18 employees at G.O.D., a well-known home design store, were arrested after police raided its outlet in the busy Causeway Bay shopping district, seizing boxes of t-shirts bearing the logo 14K, the name of one of the city's largest crime syndicates.

Police claimed the shop had broken a section of an 1845 anti-triad law called the Societies Ordinance, which allows for the arrest of any person in possession of "any books, accounts, writing, lists of members, seals, banners or insignia of or relating to any triad society." Triad members still often carry such insignia — usually worn on the backs of shirts — that they show to shopkeepers in exchange for protection money. Laws like the Societies Ordinance, police say, have helped slash membership in criminal gangs from an estimated 300,000 in the 1950s to between 30,000 and 160,000 today. But the triads' legacy of intimidation and extortion persists; so far this year, police have identified over 1,800 crimes as being "triad related." Critics argue the 14K t-shirts both glamorized gang membership and intimidated people much the same way wearing a swastika might in the West.

Supporters of what have come to be called the G.O.D. 18, however, call that comparison ridiculous — and the arrests have sparked a battle over just how far freedom of expression goes in Hong Kong, officially a Special Administrative Region of China. "We're in a limbo state," says Tobias Berger, director of the gallery Para/Site, which on Nov. 17 opened 14QK, a show devoted to artists' commentary on the G.O.D. arrests. "There's freedom of speech here, but no democracy. It's not China, but it is China; we're not free, but we are free." On its opening night, artists, journalists and visitors ambled around the gallery, checking out a wall of 14 Polaroid photographs of the letter K and watching four buff dudes cradling a cat in a video called Triads with Kitten. The show's curator, Yeung Yang, says she came up with the project after realizing that following the arrests, "[Artists] had genuine questions about what they could make, what they could say." Yuk King Tan — whose piece consisted of the phrase BELIEVE IN US AND YOU WILL BE PROTECTED spelled out on the wall in gold leaf — says her dentist grandfather paid the triads so much in protection money that he was forced to melt down his own fillings for gold. "When things aren't talked about," she says, "they become powerful."

So far the police have declined to crack down on the artists, noting in a statement that while the department respects "freedom of creativity" it would have no qualms about "appropriate enforcement action against those who contravene the law of Hong Kong." The G.O.D. shop assistants, meanwhile, have been freed on bail and await a trial Dec. 4. Chu Yiu-kong, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Hong Kong and author of the academic tract Triads as Business, says that a judgment permitting G.O.D. to sell the 14K t-shirts could make it much more difficult to arrest triad members. "They'll say, 'this is just for fun'" if caught wearing gang signs, he says, "or 'why don't you enforce the law evenly?'" Steve Vickers, a former Hong Kong police superintendent, notes that because of the triads’ unique structure — labyrinthine underground networks whose henchmen rely on signs and symbols to intimidate victims — keeping the Societies Ordinance on the books is essential to prosecute suspected gangsters. "In the U.S. you wait for bad guys to do bad stuff and then you get them," he says. "That doesn't work here."

It's not the first time G.O.D. (the acronym stands for Goods Of Desire, although the initials transliterate as "To Live Better" in Cantonese slang) has faced controversy. Many of its products are tongue-in-cheek takes on local culture, including a line of leather handbags made to resemble the 75-cent plastic carryalls toted by the city's domestic helpers and squashy bean-bag chairs meant to mimic the antimacassar-clad armchairs favored by China's Communist premiers. Its best-selling tee reads DELAY NO MORE, a homonym of a Cantonese phrase so raunchy that one newspaper refused to publish the tagline in an advertisement.

Douglas Young, G.O.D.'s founder — and the offending t-shirt's designer — says he thinks the raid was "meant to set an example", but insists that the police have things the wrong way around. The logo on his shirts, he points out, is in a completely different style from that of the gang, with Chinese characters in place of the numeral 14 and a swirling typeface reminiscent of old-fashioned Shanghai movie posters. Besides, he claims, the logo is meant to refer to 14-karat gold, not to the triads at all. Before G.O.D. was raided, the store had moved ten of the shirts in two months — sales Young calls "terrible." Since then, however, he has received an outpouring of support from concerned citizens and a multitude of requests for the banned shirts. While the fight over Hong Kong's freedom of speech will likely continue to rage, so far Young has been the clear winner. "Since the arrests," he says, "sales have never been so good."