Header image courtesy of Hong Kong Memory
In a dramatic commencement of the “Keep Hong Kong Clean” campaign, an almost cult-like ceremony took place in front of Connaught Centre in Central on 31 October 1972. It heralded the official beginning of the smear campaign launched against one of the city’s greatest public enemies: Lap Sap Chung, the litterbug of Hong Kong.
Towering 30 feet above a crowd of excited onlookers, bright scarlet flames flickered, eating their way through patches of green and red affixed to a grand structure held together by bamboo scaffolding. Before crumbling into ashes, this giant burning form depicted a gnarly creature that resembled a poorly transmuted dinosaur crossed with a plump lizard, dotted all over in bright red spots, with gangly wires in place of hair.
Cheers rang out as the carnage of waste was quickly swept up by a gang of young women donning yellow and purple mod dresses that would put Totally Spies to shame.
Born out of the MacLehose era of Hong Kong’s colonial government, the garbage monster was designed to be the face of the Urban Council’s civic campaign. Its goal was to foster a sense of duty to ensure cleanliness amongst the public.
Characterised as a time of burgeoning social reform that saw the golden days of public housing, education, and health service policies, the clean-up initiative came as an attempt to instil the feeling of individual responsibility amongst citizens and bolster Hong Kong’s reputation as the colonial crowning jewel.
Its name Lap Sap Chung (垃圾蟲)—the Chinese transliteration of “litterbug”—was conceived by Arthur Hacker, who served as the creative director of the Government Information Services at the time. Having created illustrations for a wide variety of public service announcements ranging from anti-smoking warnings to reminders to conserve water, Hacker was recognised for his simplistic yet instantly impressionable doodles.
One of his most noteworthy examples is the Foreign Correspondents Club logo, which is still on display at the club lounge today. When it came to the creature in question, Lap Sap Chung was drawn in a fashion that was meant to evoke repulsion and terror, yet its campy qualities lent themselves to a sense of mischievous charm more than anything.
Aside from the explosive statue-burning ritual, the initial rollout to introduce Lap Sap Chung included many posters, youth-led community events, and television commercials. Amongst them was a televised skit that made sure to showcase the monster’s horrendous behaviour of leaving trails of trash behind its forked tail everywhere it went, which was met with its eventual capture and (bodily) punishment.
There was a great emphasis on the moral perils of being a litterer, with authorities even going so far as to name and shame convicted offenders in published newspaper ads to go along with the materials. One of the seminal pieces of media that Lap Sap Chung will forever be remembered by is a poster captioned “Don’t become a litterbug” (切勿淪為垃圾虫; chit3 mat6 leon4 wai4 laap6 saap3 cung4), which depicted the character in front of a rather bleak black-and-white photograph of a landfill.
Despite these attempts to carve out a negative impression of Lap Sap Chung, children were greatly drawn to the strange character’s quirky appearance, shifting the audience’s attention away from fear towards fascination and, eventually, adoration. Maybe it was its blank yet calming stare and goofy stance that did the trick, or perhaps this was a result of Lap Sap Chung’s upbeat accompanying jingle sang by Francis Yip, an earworm of a tune that burned itself deep into the common consciousness of Hong Kong in the 1970s.
Showing no signs of diminishing in their fervour for the green beast, the government began to slip in a redemption arc to Lap Sap Chung, with later commercials showing the beast picking up litter from the streets to dispose of properly in the bins. Its full makeover came much later in 1991, when the government decided to rebrand this villain-turned-loveable-mascot into the “cleanliness bug” (清潔蟲; ching1 git3 chung4).
Although it never really took off to the same degree, the evolution marked a step towards the modern-day descendant of Lap Sap Shung that we see plastered all over the city today. Known as Ah Tak (阿德), this “clean-up lizard” (清潔龍; ching1 git4 lung4) was conceived in 2016 to carry the torch of Lap Sap Chung, serving as the next generation’s ambassador to bring a fresh voice to the age-old admonition against littering to a modern audience.
A green dragon with orange spikes dressed up in a pair of hardy denim overalls, Ah Tak’s design echoes Hacker’s past composition, but with updated elements. The name itself shows colloquial Cantonese wordplay, meaning something along the lines of “the righteous one,” whilst also being worked into the pun asserting that “everyone can keep Hong Kong clean” (清潔香港人人都德; ching1 git3 heung1 gong2 yan4 yan4 dou1 dak1).
Armed with a buzzing presence on social media and his signature toothy grin plastered all over the latest Internet memes, the dragon has managed to usher in a new era of clean-up-consciousness throughout the city, keeping the streets of Hong Kong clean.