Pigs and Diplomacy: Lunar New Year Controversy in Hong Kong Stamp Design

As Lunar New Year approaches, Assistant Curator Yupeng explores the story behind Hong Kong’s Lunar New Year stamps, from the first designs by local artists to controversial pigs.

The Lunar New Year is a cornerstone celebration across Asia. It begins on the first day of the lunisolar calendar (which considers the position of both the sun and the moon) and concludes with the Lantern Festival on the fifteenth day.

The Mythical Origin of the Zodiac

According to Chinese mythology, the Jade Emperor (the supreme ruler of Heaven) invited various animals to take part in a fierce competition to select 12 winners that would represent the zodiac. Animals had to cross a river and reach the finish line on the shore. 12 animals made the finish line: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.

Stamp sheet with anticlockwise arrangement of animals and spaceships on blue background
Stamp sheet with drawings of twelve animals on pink background
Taiwan Lunar New Year stamp sheet, 1981

You might notice the absence of an important animal in Chinese art and culture — the cat. Tales suggest the clever rat pushed the cat into the river to win the race, which meant the cat never made it to the finish line.

Stamp sheet featuring an ancient painting of two children playing with a cat outdoors
Two children play with a cat outdoors
Detail of 1979 Taiwan Stamp Children at Play in Winter

Hong Kong’s First Zodiac Stamps

In 1967, Hong Kong introduced the first set of zodiac stamps to celebrate the Year of the Ram, the first of its kind in East Asia. They were designed by a British artist, a common practice among Hong Kong commemorative issues at the time. The result was a design that was widely considered old-fashioned by people in Hong Kong (Gilbert, 2018, p. 104).

Stamp in red and gold with three rams' heads facing us and the words Hong Kong, the date and Elizabeth II’s Royal Cypher.
Stamp in red and gold with three rams resting and the words Hong Kong, the date and Elizabeth II’s Royal Cypher.
17 Jan 1967. Year of the Ram stamp , commemorating the 9 of February 1967

To address the negative feedback, Hong Kong Post launched a public poll  in 1970 to inform the 1971 Year of the Pig stamp design. The poll asked people what their ideal stamp would look like. According to archival records, there was an unprecedented level of public involvement, and three themes were chosen as favourites: cartoon pigs, piggy banks and braised pork dishes.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office were unsatisfied by the results of the poll and instead invited three local artists to submit designs. Kan Tai-keung, the first Chinese designer for a commemorative stamp in Hong Kong, took the creative reins. This was a major shift in stamp design in Hong Kong.

Behind the Scenes

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) monitored the issuing of stamps in the Commonwealth territories. The aim was to ensure what they considered respectable and common imagery was used within the Empire.

In August 1970, a set of stamp designs were submitted commemorating the Year of the Pig. But a quarrel between the local government and the FCO followed.

The FCO Secretary of State, Alec Douglas-Home, expressed disapproval over the ‘bad taste’ of the initial pig design and rejected it (Gilbert, 2018, p. 107). The controversy extended to cultural sensitivity, with concerns about the design’s appropriateness for Muslim populations. The Hong Kong government insisted on incorporating the image of a pig in the stamp design, emphasizing the lack of offence to the Chinese Muslim community, based on an earlier public survey.

However, the Secretary of State raised further concerns to do with the pig’s proximity to the Royal Cypher and recommended a ‘less conspicuous’ model similar to the 1968 British Honduras stamp This stamp, pictured below, featured a small black boar against a tropical background.

Stamp featuring small black boar against tropical background, with the wording British Honduras 2 cents and Elizabeth II Cypher

15 Oct 1968, British Honduras stamp, 2 cents.

A compromise was reached with the image of the Pak Ngau Shek pig, an improved local breed from Hong Kong. The stamps have a simple composition with a black and white image of a large spotted pig, framed by the value, issue date and the Royal Cypher, with text in English and Chinese characters.

A green stamp with black and white photograph of a large spotted pig framed by the stamp value, issue date and the Royal Cypher with text in English and Chinese characters.
A purple stamp with black and white photograph of a large spotted pig framed by the stamp value, issue date and the Royal Cypher with text in English and Chinese characters.
1971 Year of the Pig stamp

On 20 January 1971, the final design was unveiled. The portrait of a local Chinese pig resulted in divided opinions. Despite their commercial success abroad and positive reception by foreign philatelists, these stamps earned the reputation as the most contested in Hong Kong Post’s history.

There were a few reasons for its lack of popularity in Hong Kong. These included the attribution of bad luck to the use of black and white in the design and the lack of red, a key colour associated with the Lunar New Year. Designers were asked not to use red, along with sunrise symbols and white pigs (baipizhu, a derogatory term that referred to the British police in Hong Kong). The design committee worried that these design elements could draw attention to political sensitivities in the aftermath of anti-government riots in 1967.

Negotiating Cultural Differences in Design

As early as 1965, the Secretary for Chinese Affairs noted  potential challenges, including animals that have traditionally negative connotations in British culture being used in stamp design.

This is illustrated well by historian Harriet Ritvo in The Animal Estate, written in 1987. She noted the British Victorian perception of pigs contrasted with the positive symbolism attributed to them in Chinese culture. For the British, they were seen as ‘selfish, sordid, brutal, and gluttonous’ (Ritvo, 1987, p. 22). In contrast, in Chinese culture pigs are generous and compassionate animals, often associated with wealth and good luck.

As a result, there was a constant negotiation between British sensibilities and Chinese traditions when designing commemorative stamps for the Lunar New Year. Colonial officials gradually conceded and identified ways to celebrate certain animals. For example, swapping animals for less ‘controversial’ alternatives such as rat/mouse, ram/sheep, and pig/boar (Pang, 2022). The colonial government increasingly adopted indigenous wildlife and imagery relevant to Hong Kong in stamp design, but the hybrid products still attempted to appeal to local and British audiences. It could be said that the stamp design process became a reflection of societal shifts and the evolving relationship between Hong Kong and the British Empire.

Stamp featuring a local Chow Chow for the Year of the Dog commemoration
Stamp featuring a local Chow Chow for the Year of the Dog commemoration
28 Jan 1970, HK lunar new year stamps feature Chow Chow, a popular local breed

Special thanks to Allan Pang, PhD Candidate in World History, University of Cambridge


Elizabeth Chang, Britain’s Chinese Eye: Literature, Empire, and Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Stanford University Press, 2010.

Adam Gilbert,  “Post-Imperialism: The Postage Stamps and Postal History of Hong Kong, 1842-1997”, Doctoral dissertation, Sheffield Hallam University, 2018.

Allan Pang, “Stamping ‘Imagination and Sensibility: Objects, Culture, and Governance in Late Colonial Hong Kong’”, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 50, no. 4, 2022.

Caroline Ritter, Imperial Encore: The Cultural Project of the British Empire, University of California Press, 2021.