Kacey Wong on Art as Resistance
Creating Artistic Resilience: Voices of Asia
Listen to Kacey Wong, an award-winning artist and activist, explain the significance of art in Hong Kong’s political protests and provide a glimpse into the far-reaching impact of the National Security Law on both free expression and artistic freedom.
This episode is from Creating Artistic Resilience: Voices of Asia, a limited-run podcast brought to you by ARC, in partnership with the Mekong Cultural Hub and FORUM-ASIA. Throughout this series, ARC’s Asia Regional Representative, Manojna Yeluri, will speak with artists and cultural rights defenders about their experiences engaging with artistic freedom in their countries.
MANOJNA - To kick start this conversation, I would love for you to paint a picture of the current situation from the perspective of the artistic community. From your perspective, what are some of the serious challenges facing artists and creative professionals who are attempting to work and express themselves in Hong Kong today?
KACEY – We are seeing censorship from the government top down as well as individual galleries that are taking government funding. They're not focusing on the nature of the arts. But they're focusing on the individual's political stance and their viewpoint in the past, so this is very worrying and the individual artists are being branded as black sheep. And in terms of the individual artists, there’s a wide spread of self-censorship going on. For example, some artists just close down their Facebook page in order to avoid future prosecution, such as comic artists who are focused on political satire. Recently there was a Facebook page called “Warm Water Theater,’ which portrays a frog being boiled in warm water. This is a very funny satire and comic, and it is gone. In the past two weeks, there were ten different human rights organizations that closed down their pages.
This is limited not only to fine arts but impacts human rights activism more broadly. There is a general sense that the public space is not safe, including social media. The loss of freedom of artistic expression – that is the major challenge. For the ordinary folks, it would be the loss of freedom of speech as well as their freedom to protest, freedom to have free press. This will create huge blind spots for the arts in Hong Kong.
MANOJNA – If everything is taken away, if everything is curtailed or restricted, then in your opinion what really remains? At least what is the creative community still allowed to play with during this period of time?
KACEY – It is definitely shrinking, in terms of artistic freedom. It's not about what you do in terms of art, it is about the scrutiny of your background or your political stances in the present and in the past. And this makes artistic work very, very difficult. Some artists weren't politically involved in terms of their subject matter anyway, so they think this has nothing to do with them. But actually it does – because all walks of life are highly related to politics. As Ai Wei Wei once said, “Everything is art. Everything is politics.” You just think your work is not politically related, but if you think deeper, it is. Some artists try to actively stay away from very clear frontal commentary of politics. If you take away that freedom of artistic expression, what is left is just decoration. So this is what I mean by the huge blind spots in the arts for Hong Kong.
“It's not about what you do in terms of art, it is about the scrutiny of your background or your political stances in the present and in the past. And this makes artistic work very, very difficult.”
MANOJNA – For the benefit of some of us who may not necessarily have been fully abreast of what's happening with Hong Kong today, would it be possible for you to give us some insight into what you feel is the main source of tension in Hong Kong? Historically, what's been problematic, tying that into how the creative community has attempted to respond to this over the years and whether that's any different today versus how it was in the past?
KACEY – Historically, there's a relationship between Hong Kong and China because Hong Kong was a British colony ever since 1841 until 1997. This is after 156 years of colonial British rule and that's a turn of sovereignty, so from 1997 to the present day in 2021, there's another 24 years. Hong Kong has 180 years of continuous cultural diversity. But there is a strong tie between Hong Kong and China, and the tension is not really caused by the mainland Chinese, because a lot of Hong Kong's population composition actually is from mainland Chinese. Many of the ancestors of refugees from mainland China, for example, trace back to the Cultural Revolution and the Sino-Japanese war back in the fifties and sixties. There was a lot of chaos in mainland China. But Hong Kong was relatively safe and secure, and it became a safe haven for the mainland Chinese.
After the Chinese Communist Party took power, the Cultural Revolution caused all kinds of crazy problems – we’re talking about cannibalism and destruction of temples and the whole sector of the society all being destroyed. And then it opened itself up in the eighties. It was kind of stable for a while, but then the 1989 massacre totally revealed the true nature of the communists. And even then, from 1989 to 1997, people in Hong Kong were still embracing these forced neo-Chinese identities for at least 10 years. So of course there was some immigration away from Hong Kong because some Hong Kongers just don't trust the Chinese Communist Party at all. But it was relatively stable and there wasn't that much tension except for the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
More recently, if we really count the major tension, it was caused by the rise of mainland Chinese Communist Party and China, not only in Hong Kong but globally, as an economic powerhouse. And then they try to take a tighter grip on Hong Kong by trying to pass Article 23, which will take away our human rights. Back then, there were 500,000 people in Hong Kong going up to the streets to protest, and then this tension started mounting and mounting. And I can look back and trace back a few years such as the 2009 anti-high speed railway, and this is actually the rise of localism – the people of Hong Kong and the land that we're standing on shall not be separated, so this is a time of renaissance. In 2012, there was an anti national education brainwashing campaign, and Joshua Wong was one of the leaders. And then there was the 2014 umbrella movement, where there was a lot of interesting arts in terms of advocating for freedom and human rights and democracy, and finally the 2019 anti-extradition law movement.
The Hong Kongers are facing a situation where we cannot be ourselves anymore. Not like when the Brits were governing us. So we are forced to integrate, and our rights and identity are being erased. Hong Kong in a way has become a police state now.
MANOJNA – What is your perspective on whether the creative community has been able to effectively communicate what's happening on the ground in Hong Kong today with the international community? Do you feel that with all of the projects and all that is happening on ground, they have been able to be a more realistic picture of what's actually happening in Hong Kong today, or do you feel that something is amiss in what's being filtered out?
KACEY – I think there are some, but most don't come from the fine arts. Mostly come from when you have millions of the citizens taking to the streets, marching peacefully or waving the flag, for example. These are touching moments, because if you're comparing a mass demonstration in the West, usually it ends up in some kind of destruction of the society, at least physically, you see people sometimes cannot control themselves and shops are being raided sometimes. But in Hong Kong this didn't happen and it was always done in a controlled fashion. Two million people on the streets, and nobody tried to steal their TV or jeans in the shop, so this is quite abnormal for the international community to watch. So these are very moving, and I think most people in Hong Kong believe in peaceful and non-violent means to fight for freedom and democracy. But in terms of the arts, there are some examples. For example, during the Umbrella Movement, there was a lot of site-specific installation, such as the Umbrella Man and the Umbrella Canopy, and since it's such a long occupation, artworks spring all over from the sites that are occupied, and those are widely reported. In the past decade, Hong Kong has had a July 1 demonstration every year, where you can see artists setting up their performance group with political satire and humorous artwork. This is publicized widely internationally.
That’s the power of the arts, a work that shows the suffering or will reveal some kind of horrible truth or some funny criticism. Those are being disseminated internationally in the newspaper and on social media.
“That’s the power of the arts, a work that shows the suffering or will reveal some kind of horrible truth or some funny criticism. Those are being disseminated internationally in the newspaper and on social media.”
MANOJNA – There's so much value in what you just shared, especially because we're increasingly realizing that there's so much value in shared solidarities and cross-border solidarity. What really really sort of stands out to me, what you mentioned is the fact that a big responsibility is to be able to almost visibilise or raise awareness, rather than simply point at solutions – it's just as important to actually raise awareness and pretty much initiate those difficult conversations.
Do you feel that the creative community in Hong Kong right now is really embracing that responsibility, or do you feel that some of them are shying away from it? And what informs their decision to do so?
KACEY – For the artists, who decided to go into the continuous sustainable resistance way, they will probably change the work into more abstract forms rather than direct. So we can look at it as public and private. Public means like a public space, gallery museums and even social media. Works can be done but it can be done in a more abstract and non-directive way. I think it's more difficult to prosecute an artist – I think it's easier to prosecute a writer because the words sometimes are easier to interpret. For example, an artist painting a black rectangle and then making a statement saying “I'm happy” – you don't know it’s true meaning, right? For those artists who decided to continue the resistance they can become like secret preachers – preaching the good message of freedom and democracy among the inner trusted circle.
I think the worst is to do nothing. That is what the enemy wants you to do – do nothing.
MANOJNA – that’s incredibly powerful, and I think it's interesting to hear you say that there are ways to almost circumvent that sense of surveillance, by not necessarily choosing to be direct with one's expression. I guess that's the advantage of choosing to express yourself creatively, because you can be as creative as you want to be with your expression and your interpretation.
It might be easier to prosecute a writer as opposed to an artist for exactly this reason because there is a more direct interpretation of the written word, as opposed to a creative expression. Do you feel that because of this kind of ambiguity, artists who are at risk actually find it more challenging to receive support as human rights defenders or as activists? Do you feel that somehow they fall through the cracks when it comes to a definition of an artist being a human rights defender and hence eligible for that kind of support or aid?
KACEY – Compared to the spoken language, like poetry, a painting is definitely less clear, depending on how you portray. But for me, I don't think it’s that different – you can always hire an expert to interpret the work.
“I think the worst is to do nothing. That is what the enemy wants you to do – do nothing.”
Even tyrannical governments are doing the same in the court – they try to get their pro-establishment expert to interpret whatever in order to pin against the citizens. It seems easier because they think they know the words, but for artists, I think that is less obvious. All arts, like figurative arts, visual arts, they’re abstract to begin with. And I think there's pros and cons in that abstraction. The pro is that because it's abstract, these can mean many things at the same time. It's never that precise. And the cons= is, because of that abstraction, you are open for attacks from the tyrannical governments. So as we have seen recently in Vietnam, an artist painted a black rectangle and still got censored. It's not what you say, it’s how they interpret, right? That is one strong side and the weak side of the arts, the fine arts – it’s always the reader, not the writer or the creator.
I think right now the ridiculous situation is expanded to not only what you do but what you have done before. It's almost like a background check for disqualification. People think that if I'd just delete all my Facebook and change my name, I’ll be safe, but this is just false security. The government right now is encouraging people to report on each other. So this is really twisted and there is almost a government with evil intentions. And even if they cannot find the evidence, they can fabricate. In my opinion, this is the fall of the law in Hong Kong. Ordinary law becomes a weapon to be used against the art institute.
We have seen that recently in the June Fourth museum. They sent in the hygiene department, accusing them of not having an entertainment license. This is very ridiculous.
MANOJNA – Absolutely, and that’s what complicates things further because there are so many loopholes and if one does want to take action then there are so many different ways to be able to do that. Even with social media it's not to say that tech companies and digital platforms are also complicit. I think it's very powerful that you mentioned the sense of false security and it's also incredibly worrying, isn't it?
KACEY – I think it breaks down to this theory I read long ago from an army psychiatrist – he marked down that there's only four options on the battlefield. Hong Kong right now is a battlefield. And there’s a war on culture going on. There’s fear. And then freeze. Fear. Freeze. Fight and flight.
So when you're in fear, you'll just stop and freeze your body, you maintain a posture by not doing anything because you're afraid anything you do will be wrong and can get you into trouble. Some who decided to leave and fight another battle somewhere else and some would continue to fight.
So for Hong Kong, we're facing two options – that is either staying or leaving Hong Kong. If you choose to stay, one was hide and dive.. Hide your identity and sink down and become a secret preacher, preach the good gospel to those whom you trust so that you can maintain the fire of the truth and stay warm and nice when the time comes again. And build inner circles and international networks, or support each other by joining the yellow economy when you’re still allowed. The yellow economy is the businesses that support pro-democracy and human rights movements in Hong Kong and we have a lot of that right now; they're still allowed. And stay mentally healthy – that's very important. This is the way you can sustain the war on the arts.
And for those who are leaving. I think that they have the responsibility to continue to advocate for those who cannot. Use the newly found freedom to advocate for the people of Hong Kong and also to create international networks and connections. So everybody is useful. Those who are staying and those who are leaving Hong Kong – no one is useless. The only time when you'll feel defeated is when you say to your mind that you are defeated. Otherwise, continue the fight. This is how you will win one day.
MANOJNA – Thank you for fighting the good fight because clearly that's very much what you’re doing. I think it's important takeaway that you mentioned now everyone is useful because I do know that there's always a sense of confusion about a concept of identity, almost a conflict about staying or about leaving, but it's obvious that the answer can’t be black or white, because the situation isn't as simple either.
Considering your experience in Hong Kong for almost a decade, what do you think the creative community can look forward to? Is there something that you would like to really share with the creative community in Hong Kong and at large?
KACEY – I think the creative community can look forward to – like the weather? The weather sometimes is not something that you can change by yourself, as the individual. But you can choose how you react to the weather. If it's raining, you bring an umbrella or if it's too much sun, you try to stay in the shade. You cannot just be angry with the weather. The situation in Hong Kong right now is like we’re facing a black storm coming from the north, coming from Beijing, coming directly from the Chinese Communist Party. It’s a black storm and the inside is red.
So what can you do? It won't go away even if you want it to. So one way to deal with it is to continue to produce, continue to do the arts. Continue to live an honest life. Continue to create art that depicts the truth. The people of the future will appreciate that because you didn't lie. You are with time on time, and you also think about the future.
This is every artist’s responsibility in a time of crisis and that is the purpose.This is wonderful, to have a purpose.
MANOJNA – Kacey, thank you so much for your insight. Thank you so much for this message and taking the time and the effort to answer all these questions for us today because I know for a fact, that even speaking with us at this time is difficult and it's risky. The fact that you’ve chosen to do this right now says a lot about how you feel about Hong Kong. Thank you so much for that.
KACEY – Thank you for allowing me to tell you the story of Hong Kong.
In order to learn more about Kacey Wong and stay engaged with his activism, visit his website and follow him on social media.