Emily Yueng, 20, said she had no idea about Pepe’s checkered past. After she learned, she wondered if maybe she and other protesters ought to stop handing out posters with his image at the airport.
“But still, different countries have very different cultures,” she said. “Symbols and colors that mean something in one culture can mean something completely different in another culture, so I think if Americans are really offended by this, we should explain to them what it means to us.”
Pepe was not always seen as a racist symbol. He was created more than a decade year ago by Matt Furie, who killed off the character in 2017 after it had been adopted by the alt-right.
Members of the alt-right on forums like 4chan and certain corners of Reddit had appropriated his image, much to Mr. Furie’s dismay. He said the frog, perpetually stoned, was meant to be positive, and denounced any link to racist or fringe groups.
“It’s completely insane that Pepe has been labeled a symbol of hate, and that racists and anti-Semites are using a once peaceful frog-dude from my comic book as an icon of hate,” he said in 2016, when the Anti-Defamation League added Pepe to its list of hate symbols.
He added in a 2016 essay for Time magazine: “I understand that it’s out of my control, but in the end, Pepe is whatever you say he is, and I, the creator, say that Pepe is love.”
In Hong Kong, Pepe was never transformed from the chill frog-dude Mr. Furie intended him to be. Mr. Law said he thinks Pepe would protest alongside Hong Kongers: Pepe is sad just like them.
“I think we can redefine Pepe in this movement,” he said.
Katherine Li contributed reporting.