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Hong Kong's Protest Umbrellas Have A Deep Political History

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Umbrellas have become a symbol of the Hong Kong protests. The people demonstrating in the streets carry umbrellas to help shade them from the hot sun. And when faced with police trying to disperse them, the umbrellas become something different. Here's how Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong describes what he's seen.

KACEY WONG: All of these citizens are using umbrellas to shield themselves against the pepper gas by the policeman. And it looks kind of like a moving rainbows and forming some kind of shield.

SIEGEL: Well, now Kacey Wong is calling on artists come up with designs for the so-called umbrella revolution. This is not the first time the umbrella has been packed with political symbolism. In 1938, a politician turned the umbrella into a demonized accessory. He was Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who went to Munich to negotiate with and to appease Adolf Hitler.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN: This morning, I had another talk with the German Chancellor Herr Hitler. And here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine.

(APPLAUSE)

SIEGEL: Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement came undone the following year when Germany invaded Poland. Chamberlain turned the word appeasement into a pejorative and he did similar damage to his trademark. Chamberlain typically carried an umbrella. Edward Miller is a professor at Northeastern University Global, who has studied the political history of the umbrella. Ted Miller, what happened after Neville Chamberlain's association with the umbrella?

EDWARD MILLER: Well, wherever he traveled the opposition party in Britain protested his appeasement policy by displaying umbrellas. And throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, Americans on the far right, they employed these umbrellas to criticize their leaders who were supposedly appeasing the enemies of the United States.

SIEGEL: And just to be seen with an umbrella or, lord knows, to be seen under an umbrella in the rain - in America this was considered a scene a politician devoutly wished to avoid.

MILLER: Absolutely. In fact, there is a rather pathetic photo of Dwight Eisenhower, who because of his vice President Richard Nixon - who told him that you can't be president with an umbrella - Eisenhower has come back from the 1955 Geneva Convention and he is present outside in the pouring rain and poor Ike is well, he's very wet. He is soaked.

SIEGEL: Have you had any success, Ted Miller, in your research in figuring out when the umbrella beat the rap? That is, when do you think did it cease evoking memories of Neville Chamberlain, who evoked memories of Munich, which evoked memories of appeasing Hitler?

MILLER: Well, I don't know if it ever lost the power completely. There's many more instances in the 1960s and the 1970s. There's one instance right when Richard Nixon was returning from China. He was met at the airport by Young Americans for Freedom and they were holding umbrellas.

SIEGEL: The symbolism of that would be claiming that he had appeased Beijing and sold out Taiwan by going to meet with the Chinese communist regime.

MILLER: That's right.

SIEGEL: Having worked this turf, this is a huge week for you. I mean, what's happening in Hong Kong looks like it's going to turn an entirely new leaf for the embattled umbrella.

MILLER: Absolutely. And in the case of Hong Kong, it's no longer a symbol of appeasement but a symbol of defiance and a symbol of strength against an opposition.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Miller, thanks for talking with us today.

MILLER: Thank you very much, my pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Edward Miller, Professor of History at Northeastern University Global, talking about the history of the political symbolism of the umbrella. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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