Searching for Balance In Hong Kong

Hong Kong
Photo by Tsang Chung Yee

Clara Cheung is searching for balance in an unbalanced world: more so in the context of violent social and political unrest and, given the Chinese communist party’s authoritarian stranglehold, the people of Hong Kong, who had been hoping for a gradual liberalisation of the regime, are constantly teetering on the edge of losing their fundamental freedoms. 

The only way to demonstrate support for democracy was through the local elections, which happened last year in November 2019. Although the newly elected pro-democracy counsellors have limited powers and their reach is very limited, such an appointment within the community represents important leverage if there is any hope for change. 

Given the current climate, it is surprising that the artists who were elected for the first time to the head of the three major Hong Kong Districts are independent of all political parties, and all have chosen to express their artistic work through an intense interest in the community. Namely, Susi Law Wai-shan, Wong Tin Yan, and Clara Cheung won the election with a resounding majority. Their work collectively is indicative of this era.

Clara Chung and her partner Gum Cheng

Clara Chung and her partner Gum Cheng created their first exhibition to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of Hong Kong’s retrocession to China and of the famous Basic Law back in 2007. The “one country, two systems” principle is enshrined in a document called the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. This came into effect on 1 July 1997, the day British rule ended and the territory was returned to China. Although this law allows very little in the way of democracy it is an agreement that is only valid for 47 years.

The eponymously named C&G Artpartment, a space Clara and Gum founded in 2007, is one of the first independent art spaces in the territory, hurriedly opened to offer artists a place where they could freely tackle local socio-political issues; frequently stemming from topics ironically borrowed from current events. Bringing into focus the now famous ‘Umbrella Movement’ – Chung invited artists to express their thoughts on this and other issues that have divided neighbours and the wider society.

Currently exhibiting “Plan B” an exhibition of work by 26 local artists and the second part of a year-long concept called “Plan A”, the gallery says, “These works by ‘THE’ 26 artists involve a large spectrum of artistic concepts, art media and styles. All of them are very spectacular, very much readable, collectable and full of potential for all sorts of things”. Viewing is possible with restrictions in place as a response to COVID-19.  

Susi Law Wai-shan

Susi Law Wai-shan is behind the conversion of the Foo Tak Building, a fourteen-story building in downtown Hong Kong; now almost entirely dedicated to art and artistic organizations. Elected by a personal landslide victory to her post as councillor, her election promises were to “enhance community participation and communal engagement, utilise and open up existing and new public spaces, promote green living”. 

Going on to promise to “safeguard the freedom and rights of Hongkongers and monitor the District Council and the government”. These promises are much harder to deliver but one thing for sure: Susi is a cultural professional first, as well as a champion of the cause. 

Wong Tin Yan

Wong Tin Yan, whose sculptures are based on recycling, recently opened ‘Form Society’; a self-financed space in a working-class neighbourhood. It is there that exhibitions, film projections and access to workshops are available all. Focusing on repairs and recycling, this is an extension of his work as an artist; putting forward the theory that art is first and foremost a state of mind focusing on new possibilities. A reinvention of an old world order being a part of the new world, as well as a lower-key commitment to the close community. 

With no current exhibitions, Wong Tin Yan is focusing on the work at hand and enabling others to express themselves in increasingly difficult circumstances.

Many Hong Kong artists are looking to balance both social activism and politics: refusing to make explicitly political art, but striving, however, to create art that says something and is notable in years to come. With the boundaries of Basic Law being pushed all the time, and a bill passed in 2014 after the ‘Umbrella Movement’ protests stating that anyone living in or visiting Hong Kong and suspected of a crime (journalists, NGOs, social workers, businessmen, priests or pastors), would be arrested, extradited and judged in mainland China. With this at the forefront of the minds of artists and activists alike, it is no surprise current artworks have stopped being made altogether or remain low key.

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