Hong Kong is politically vexed but culturally resilient
- “Whatever mainland China wants to [impose] on Hong Kong is now quite likely to be achieved. If I could have taken part in the nomination and the voting, it wouldn’t have been any of these [candidates], and I think many Hong Kongers think likewise”
- Irene Tiu, a 24-year-old who works in sales, Time
Fewer than 1,200 people cast their ballots in the election, most of them members of Hong Kong’s elite. Despite her low popularity among Hong Kongers, Carrie Lam, Beijing’s preferred candidate, was elected Hong Kong’s fourth Chief Executive. For many, this confirmed that Hong Kong has fallen irreversibly under Beijing’s authoritarianism, deepening dissatisfaction among locals.
- “Does the mainland want Carrie Lam? Absolutely. She’s simply much more reliable on the primary issue, which is political stability in Hong Kong — preventing Hong Kong from becoming an pro-independence hotbed”
David Zweig, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Time
Hong Kong has become increasingly polarised since its return to China 20 years ago. The conflicts between Hong Kong’s long-standing liberalism and free expression and Beijing’s authoritarianism peaked in months of pro-democracy protests three years ago, known as the Umbrella Movement. These events were a catalyst for many local artists.
While political divisions in Hong Kong are still the subject of much debate, Hong Kong is also a leading market for international artists with no particular stake or interest in local culture. Art week throws together the politically engaged with those who are more aesthetically, conceptually or financially motivated.
Hong Kong as a window on Asian art
Hong Kong’s geographical and trade advantages have established the city as a portal for Asian contemporary art to reach the global market. At this year’s Art Basel, the Insights sector was specifically dedicated to art from the Asia-Pacific, featuring both exceptional historical and contemporary Asian art. Ten Asian galleries showed at the fair for the first time.
Hong Kong’s geographical advantage as a window to Asia also enables it to accommodate a hybrid ethnic group that reflects the city’s multicultural identity.
“Hong Kong has the strong advantage to network with people all over the world that call themselves Chinese or are influenced by Chinese culture,” said Ellen Pau, a Hong Kong-born video artist, at a Salon during the fair entitled, 1997/2007/2017 Made in Hong Kong.
During art week, the Asia Art Archive, one of Hong Kong’s earliest non-profit art institutions which began cataloguing the region’s cultural history in the 1990s, showing Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen’s multi-media project The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia, including an Internet dictionary exploring the question of what unites the region called Southeast Asia.
Another exhibition, .com /.cn, directly addressed the different Internet art practices in China, Hong Kong and the West, internets that are made markedly different not only by language and culture but also censorship. Held at the K11 art foundation, the exhibition casts doubt on the power of digital communication to connect us all around the world.
Not such a cultural desert
On the Kowloon side of the harbour, the long-awaited M+ Museum, part of a government cultural revival project called the West Kowloon Cultural District, is still a vast construction site. “Culture revival”, though, is an oxymoron for those who believe Hong Kong has always been a business-friendly cultural desert.
Now, as well as functioning as a portal to art from around the region, Hong Kong has begun to validate its own cultural history.
“Hong Kong culture started from the '70s or '80s when we started to have more popular culture —Cantonese songs, Hong Kong movies etc," Pau said. "We've collected enough artifacts that we could say there was a Hong Kong culture at that time. Before that, people always said Hong Kong is a ‘cultural desert’. Plastic balls, those kinds of products, comes from Hong Kong. If you ask people what kind of cultural artifacts come from Hong Kong, few people can recognise any.”
“But after the '70s, we did have strong cultural artifacts. And there was a rise in consciousness of looking back into history, the consciousness of archiving, that came about in the '80s. Asia Art Archive started from the '90s, and we were also riding the wave of this archive fever. I think when I started Videotage in 1994, we were already very concerned with keeping an archive of what we are doing.”
Li Zhenhua, Curator of Art Basel’s Film sector said, “Hong Kong is a culture desert, that’s what I thought 20 years ago. And that’s totally wrong. Because we didn’t understand popular culture at that time, that pop could also count as culture. Now with Art Basel and all the galleries and institutions being built, it's clear that Hong Kong is not a cultural desert in terms of higher culture development.”
For Hong Kong, a city that has only developed what we recognise as strong works of culture for less than half century, finding its cultural identity lies more in the process of unlearning and re-recognising.
The M+ Pavilion is already taking up that role. Its current exhibition, Ambiguously Yours: Gender in Hong Kong Popular Culture, retrospectively traces the history of androgyny, camp and gender fluidity in the city. During the boom of Cantopop and Hong Kong cinema in the '80s and '90s performers started experimenting with different expressions of gender identity.
The exhibition speaks to Hong Kong's current political moment.
In the caption to a series of City Magazine's classic androgyny covers, famed Hong Kong editor Winifred Lai writes, “Once upon a time, androgyny was a sign of progress, openness, neatness, and decency. Of course today androgyny still exists, but its association with these qualities are almost non existent. Maybe it’s not an issue with whether boys are boys, or girls are girls, but rather that the association with progress, openness, neatness, and decency is no longer relevant.”
- “A deeper understanding of the sexes should be male = yang/yin, and female = yin/yang. The foundation of humanity combines yin and yang;everyone is created by a father(yang) and a mother(yin), as such, everyone is a hermaphrodite”
Winifred Lai, East Touch, 2001
Hong Kong's status is in flux. The arrival of Art Basel and more international galleries are not only demonstrating present-day Hong Kong's well-combined art and commerce as it was in its golden days, but also brings with it some interest in local and regional art. Institutions like M+ and the Asia Art Archive are actively reflecting on Hong Kong's cultural vitality, planting against the threat of cultural desertification.
Arrests of booksellers and the the election of Beijing proxy Carrie Lam cast a shadow of this activity — not coincidentally, Hong Kong's pop culture influence has markedly diminished since its heyday in the ’80s and ’90s — but what comes next remains to be seen.
- Article by Stephanie Fan