Hong Kong 'firefighter' cartoonist bids farewell to newspaper strip after 40 years

By Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) - One of Hong Kong's most prominent political cartoonists, whose newspaper cartoon strip was axed on Sunday after four decades, defended freedom of expression in the face of political pressures while urging others to keep speaking out.

"Apart from news reports, cartoons are used to record some of society's moods, or some very layman ideas, those of ordinary people, and to question and challenge," Wong Kei-kwan, 67, told Reuters on Monday.

"I think this is what should be done in a healthy society," said the cartoonist whose satirical drawings have garnered a huge following in the Chinese-ruled city since 1983.

Wong's work addressed China's tightening grip on freedoms in Hong Kong, including a national security law that has been used to arrest scores of Hong Kong activists and shut down civil society groups and liberal media outlets.

Wong also took on human rights in China and the major democracy movements in 2014 and 2019 in Hong Kong, a bustling port and financial hub that returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise its freedoms would be safe.

Ming Pao had been the last mainstream media group to publish Wong's cartoons after police raided and shut down the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper in 2021. The founder of the Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai, 75, is serving a jail term on fraud charges and faces an upcoming national security trial.

Ming Pao decided to axe the strip following six official complaints, including from Hong Kong's security chief, though he gave no official reason for doing so.

Looking back on his career, Wong said several cartoons that focused on media pressures were among his most poignant, with one showing the words "press freedom" balanced on a knife blade.

Hong Kong leader John Lee said last week that while Hong Kong legally enshrines press freedoms, the government is also obliged to oppose false and biased messages.

Since the national security law was introduced in Hong Kong in 2020, around half a dozen journalists have been arrested for alleged offences including subversion and sedition.

Despite the narrowing space for critical expression, Wong, whose pen name is Zunzi, said he wouldn't leave Hong Kong, nor stop speaking out.

"We're a bit like firefighters... Firefighters only go to places where there is a fire. Firefighters can't flee when they see a fire, so we should stay here and record our times."

In recent weeks, Wong's books have also been pulled from the shelves of public libraries across the city.

"This is more of a gesture," he said, noting the proliferation of images and words online, including compilations of his work spreading virally over the past week.

In his last cartoon published in the Ming Pao over the weekend, Wong bid farewell to his readers by sketching his main character, a lawmaker playfully named "What", and his wife, huddling beneath umbrellas in a rainstorm.

"Sometimes there's hope and sometimes there's disappointment. These come and go," Wong said during an interview with Reuters in which he doodled a picture on a whiteboard of a man whistling in a hot bath.

"We, the ordinary people, do what we're able to do, while trying to keep a positive attitude as we wait."

(Editing by James Pomfret and Nick Macfie)