How the Rubber Duck Became a Thai Protest Symbol

The 2020 Thai democracy protests have had no shortage of unexpected symbols, from Hamtaro to Harry Potter, Les Mis to the Hunger Games. As of November 17 2020, the rubber duck has officially joined that pantheon.

November 17th’s demonstration in front of the Parliament House marked the most violent altercations between police and protesters since the movement began, with the BBC reporting some 40 people injured.

Pro-democracy protesters were reportedly repelled with at least five rounds of tear gas and chemical-laced water cannons, before confronting clashes with pro-royalist protesters also gathering in front of Parliament. As purple water rained on the streets, an unlikely hero emerged: the rubber duck.

Huge, yellow, inflatable, the rubber ducks were pushed to the front and took on the brunt of the water cannons. Few knew where they came from. But all witnessed their heroism: protesters, veiled with thin green plastic rain jackets, ducked behind the ducks as wave after wave of chemicals hit the protesters. Afterward, pictures were disseminated in the press: of the rubber ducks, slightly deflated, stained purple but still smiling.

“They’re our protectors,” wrote one twitter user. “The little duck is our MVP!” wrote another.  ‘Armors, water cannons and tear gas vs. rubber ducks and balloons,’ captioned a dramatic rendering of November 17’s events.

Picture 1: Art by Twitter user @wayu3738

Hong Kong’s Rubber Duck

Immediately, the rubber duck gained a transcontinental fan club. It seemed a natural extension of the #MilkTeaAlliance, especially as the duck also featured in Hong Kong protests earlier this year.

The rubber duck came to Hong Kong through Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s giant ‘Rubber Duck’ sculpture, which floated in the Hong Kong harbor in May 2013. In a twist of defiance, a Sina Weibo user photoshopped Hofman’s ‘Rubber Duck’ onto the famous ‘tank man’ photo to commemorate the May anniversary of the Tian An Men massacre. By June 2013, the term ‘Big Yellow Duck’ was banned on Weibo. As Washington Post journalist Max Fisher asked of the CCP’s Weibo ban, “Are rubber duckies really so dangerous to one of the most entrenched single-party states on Earth?”

Naturally, the rubber duck became more a prominent symbol of defiance for Hong Kong protesters looking to anger the Chinese government. At a protest in August 2019, to highlight lack of government action taken on the Yuen Long Triad attacks at MTR stations, protesters washed the floor with detergent and set rubber ducks afloat. Throughout the 2020 protests, pro-democracy protesters would often throw rubber ducks – and wear Winnie the Pooh masks – at the police to ridicule the CCP. 

Florentin Hofman’s ‘Rubber Duck’ sculpture floating in Hong Kong’s harbor, source: CNN

The ‘Rubber Duck’ sculpture photoshopped onto ‘tank man’, source: Sina Weibo

A rubber duck thrown at the Hong Kong police, source: Passiontimes

Hong Kong and Thai protesters share similar humor in the face of authoritarianism – that is what has fueled the #MilkTeaAlliance beyond its celebrity drama origins. Hong Kongers immediately recognized the resonance of Thai protesters own rubber duck, and created elaborate protest art in response to celebrate the Thai pro-democracy protesters’ November 17th defiance.

Art by Twitter user @philosophynook

Art by Twitter user @badiucao

The rubber duck-turned-protector is now a key Thai protest symbol.

It was especially prominent at yesterday’s protest at Ratchprasong intersection. They were hailed as heroes, lifted up in parade-like manner as protesters walked from Ratchprasong to the Royal Thai Police Headquarters. Protesters flocked to take pictures with the ducks, some held up hand-drawn pictures with their own duck renditions – some featuring six packs and muscular arms.

‘Taking rubber duck debugging to the streets!’ wrote a number of Twitter users, in a reference to the debugging method in which a programmer would force themselves to explain their code, line by line, to a rubber duck

Why the Rubber Duck?

At heart, the appeal of the duck is its innocence. With a smiling face and a round, inflatable body, it seems to best capture the David and Goliath dynamic the pro-democracy protesters find themselves in when they face of the Royal Thai Police. The image of Thai authorities, armed to the teeth with riot gear and shields, facing off against…rubber ducks…highlights the sheer asymmetry of the battle between protester and state. It also helps Thai pro-democracy protesters achieve what their Hong Kong counterparts did: ridicule their oppressors. Protesters have coined the endearing name “น้องเป็ด” or “little duck” in reference to their yellow hero.

The duck’s color is also significant. In the battle of symbols, pro-royalist protesters have all but appropriated the ‘yellow shirt’ as the symbol of conservatism and respect for the monarchy. High school students are among those who have tried to reclaim this symbol ‘for the people’, but the yellow duck seems to do that implicitly. Protesters surrounding the yellow duck at the Ratchprasong protests hailed it with “ทรงพระเจริญ” or “long live the King,” a phrase oft repeated by pro-royalist demonstrators.

Finally, the yellow duck has become a symbol of bravery. The rubber duck has been christened ‘protector’ of the protesters, with fictionalized renderings superimposing the rubber duck’s face onto the body of a muscular, six-pack-ed man. But there are more parallels between the yellow duck and the female high schooler speaking up for democracy: both are, in actuality, relatively defenseless, yet standing at the front lines of the battle for the Thai nation. In many ways, the yellow duck captures what is so brave about some of today’s protesters: that they are engaging the powers that be without force.

This is not the last we’ve seen of the yellow duck. But given the endless creativity of Thai protesters, the yellow duck is sure to be joined by other equally irreverent, equally endearing symbols of protest – the kinds of symbols that have encapsulated the daring of a new Thai generation. For now, may น้องเป็ด stay safe.

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