In this interview series, we get to know the 2024 Freshwater Fellows—a cohort of nine human rights leaders working with the Freshwater Institute to develop alternative revenue streams for human rights initiatives in East Asia. We want to know how they got their start in human rights work, the challenges they face, and what they do to relax and stay optimistic.

Our first interview is with Alric Lee, co-founder of Lady Liberty Hong Kong. Alric spoke with Freshwater Institute’s Shawn Shieh and Wan-Ling Cheng while he was visiting Taipei in early December 2023 to organize the first Hong Kong Liberty Art Prize Exhibition.

  • Tell us about yourself. How did you start working in human rights?

I didn’t have any direct human rights experience until 2019 when I got involved in the Hong Kong democracy movement. I was living in Japan at the time and made a trip to Hong Kong, where I saw news of protestors bringing out a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue from the 1989 Tiananmen protests in Beijing. I thought it strange that these protestors were using a symbol from China to promote Hong Kong’s identity. As an architect, I thought I could contribute to the movement by proposing a Hong Kong version of the Goddess of Democracy based on the figure of a Hong Kong protestor.

I was going to extend my stay in Hong Kong for a week to create this statue but ended up staying three months. We wanted to be democratic about the process of creating the statue, so we asked netizens to submit their designs to be voted on in a competition. We received 16 submissions and ended up selecting nine to be voted on. Over 6,600 votes were cast, and the winning entry received around 3,000 votes.

Around this time, we were joined by several other volunteers who became the core of our team. One of them, a public relations person, suggested the name Lady Liberty Hong Kong (the Chinese name 香港民主女神is translated as Hong Kong Lady of Democracy) so that’s how we got our name. We wanted the name to reference the Statue of Liberty in New York.

  • Freshwater Institute is supporting civil society leaders to develop innovative human rights projects. Can you tell us how your project came about?

We started this as a sculpture project and never thought about how we’d develop it, but we were encouraged by Hong Kongers involved in the protests. We began thinking about how we could use art to keep up the morale of the people and maintain unity and solidarity among people in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong diaspora. We wanted our project to serve as a voice for those who had no voice because they were imprisoned or in hiding. We wanted to serve as cultural ambassadors for Hong Kong people.

Toward the end of 2019, we began carrying out charitable fundraising by producing smaller versions of the Lady Liberty Hong Kong statue here in Taiwan and selling them. The income we generated was used to support our operations and promote the narratives, influence and solidarity of Hong Kong pro-democracy groups and activists on the international stage. We priced the statuettes at HK$600 (about $77 USD) and have sold around 10,000 of them over the last four years, raising a total of over HK$5 million (about $640,000 USD).

The passage of the Hong Kong National Security Law in June 2020 led to a significant decline in our sales as Hong Kong residents, who formed our main customer base, became increasingly nervous about buying our products.

In addition to the Lady Liberty statuettes, we also produced other artwork made by Hong Kong artists and auctioned them online. One of those pieces of art was auctioned for almost HK$100,000 (about U.S.$13,000).

In the early years, about 80 percent of the artwork was bought by Hong Kong residents, but with the decline of Hong Kong buyers after 2020, that portion has gone down to around 50 percent, with the other half coming from buyers in the United Kingdom, Canada, U.S., and Australia.

Lady Liberty Hong Kong statuette.
  • What are some of the challenges you face in this project and in your work in general?

The logistics have been a nightmare. Local logistics partners in HK closed one by one, which means we’ve had to find new partners. To make things worse, our logistics partners in Taiwan have been violating their contracts by doubling their fee while our goods are in storage. COVID exacerbated the situation by disrupting the shipping and driving costs up. We’ve lost a lot of money having to pay for unexpected expenses. Now that the pandemic is less severe, the situation has gotten a bit better. Sometimes, we’ll take the goods with us when we travel to save on shipping costs.

Language is an additional challenge since we need to have everything prepared in three languages – the Chinese used by Cantonese speakers, the Chinese used in Taiwan, and English.

With all these logistical challenges, we’ve been thinking about moving to digital products.

The May workshop was the first time we had a systematic way to think about our project’s development. (Editor’s note: the May 2023 Civil Society Innovation Lab was the first Freshwater workshop that brought together human rights groups from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China to explore different business and fundraising models.)  It helped us to organize our thoughts about our business model into different parts that could be tested to see what has been working and what needed to be changed. For example, we were doing a lot of social media posts, but this turned out not to be an effective way to reach potential customers.

It also helped us think about different categories of customers and a new revenue model developing digital artwork available on a subscription basis to reach new customers. These are things we’d never thought about before. We only thought we would serve Hong Kong customers, but the Human Rights Accelerator Program encouraged us to consider other customers and partners such as institutional funders, galleries, universities, media, and academics.

A colorful poster showing a line of people wearing gas masks walking towards a city, with mountains and a rising sun on the horizon.
Lady Liberty HK protest painting, 2023.

The workshop was also the first opportunity we had after the pandemic to interact face to face with other groups working on similar issues, particularly the Hong Kong groups. It was the first time we came in touch with Taiwan groups who told us they knew about us and said our symbol for Hong Kong resonated in Taiwan. Their support gave us more confidence to move forward.

One of the Taiwan groups in the Human Rights Accelerator program – the Judicial Reform Foundation – has been particularly supportive. JRF is co-sponsoring the art exhibition we are holding now in Taipei and has helped connect us with other Taiwanese partners.

We’ve been thinking about creating paintings for different events such as protests supporting Hong Kong democracy in Japan. When we showed our painting to people, they asked if they could download it for their own use. That was the first time we realized people were interested in our digital products. We opened a Patreon account and asked our supporters to consider signing up for monthly subscriptions so that they could receive new digital art works that they could use in their phones and computers.

To raise more awareness, we decided to hold an art prize competition to invite artists from around the world to create art in different categories – photography, 3-D art, multimedia, and literature – in support of the Hong Kong democracy movement. The theme of this year’s competition is Glory to Hong Kong which is the title of an anthem that came out of the 2019-20 protests in Hong Kong.  Participating artists gain recognition and we gain their loyalty and the copyrights to their artwork which we then sell. Part of the proceeds from the sale of the art go to the artist, and the rest supports the Hong Kong cause.

The response to our competition was better than we expected with 42 artists participating and over 13,000 people voting. The winning entry received 3,300 votes. We now hope to build something similar to a Nobel Prize for art in support of Hong Kong democracy.

Jack So’s “HongKonger” evokes the violence of police attacks on pro-democracy demonstrators.
  • If there is one thing you wish people could know about the issue you work on, what would that be?

We’d like to use art as a tool to create awareness and support for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, and to send a message that the Chinese government is only as powerful as we want it to be. We want to send a message that art and creativity more generally – as an outlet for self-expression—can be a way for us to gain back the agency and power that the Chinese authorities are trying to take away from us.

  • What keeps you motivated?

I’ve been so busy and focused on dealing with our challenges, and worried about the future. So I find it helpful if I can stay focused on the moment, staying in the present, reflecting on my own thoughts and on the journey itself, as a way to stop worrying about the future, about what the Chinese authorities will do, about what will happen to Hong Kong.

  • What is something you do for fun or to relax?

I like going to a café and thinking about nothing. I don’t like to think too consciously about trying to relax because that in itself can be stressful. Sometimes I enjoy taking a walk, moving my body, as a way to relax.

  • Thinking of the human rights issue you are working on, what would success feel like to you? What would make you feel like it was all worth it?

Success to me would be if Hong Kong people could get their power back so that they could live freely and without fear.

Pro-democracy protestors in Japan with Lady Liberty Hong Kong art work, 2023.