Notes for Hong Kong, and Other Returns

2007 marked the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to the People’s Republic of China. A major occasion for some, a minor or indeed non-event for many, 1 July was heralded by a succession of political and cultural events of varying scales, in Hong Kong, Britain, Canada and other sites of the Chinese diaspora – celebrating, commemorating or protesting an allegiance, an alignment; re-asserting a claim. The following commissioned collection of short texts was conceived not as an opportunity to ‘look back’ in nostalgia or anger, but to attempt a provisional and oblique re-mapping of a political and cultural territory whose ‘transition’ is always already unfinished and yet arguably foreclosed, caught up in other futures. Inevitably imbricated in, if not overshadowed by, the economic developments in China and East Asia in the last decade, the concomitant re-branding of nations and cities via increasingly globalized cultural industries, and the ongoing ebbs and flows of migration, Hong Kong is here approached from several margins and drawn into multiple, complex, interweaving narratives from and of the periphery, between the UK, US, China, Canada, Singapore, Taiwan and Macau.

Shifting from the speculative and contemplative to the polemical, the 10 texts and photo-essays here are generously contributed by artists, curators and academics whose disparate trajectories momentarily converge in the manifold traversals and negotiations undertaken between quotidian and decennial frames. Alice Ming Wai Jim incisively recounts the history of racialized and specifically anti-Chinese immigrant legislation in Canada since the late 19th century, as well as shifting discourses of Asianization over the last decade, identifying the handover as the catalyst for the emergence of ‘Hongcouver’ in the cultural, political and economic imaginary. A notion both feared and endeared, Jim offers an acute analysis of the shifts in ‘multilocal’ senses of belonging attending the intricate transnational flows of people and money between Hong Kong and Vancouver. In Hong Kong, Tobias Berger, director and curator of artist-founded Para/Site Art Space (established just prior to the handover in 1996), collaborated with Shu Yang, an artist and independent curator based in Beijing, to make an intervention in the 10th annual democracy march that has taken place every 1 July since 1997. Among Others documents both the exhibition of demonstration banners designed by 15 artists from Hong Kong and the mainland, and their place in the march. Coinciding in the UK with a collaborative project between a group of Hong Kong and UK-based curators in which 10 artists were invited to make work exploring their relationship to the former colony, which took place at Urbis, Manchester, Sally Lai cites Tam Wai-Ping’s transient sculpture of ice and sand, Leung Mee-ping’s ironic tourist trade-paintings, and video-works by Kwong Lee and Mayling To, filmed respectively in the UK and the Pearl River Delta, to evoke the multiple narratives of migration and transition that reflect the shifting gravitational pull of confluent and conflicting economic, political and cultural forces.

From the perspective of the Singapore ‘art pond’, Lee Weng Choy compares the island state with Hong Kong beyond the prevailing competitive criteria of wealth and governance, to question the political potential for art in either context. Attributing political impotence in the present at least in part to preoccupations with the future (and a certain degree of material complacency), Lee draws a contrast between a postcolonial SAR whose governing Basic Law decrees that its ‘now’ is also already its future – predicated on stasis, until 2046, when China ‘catches up’ – and an independent nation-state whose commitment to relentless change situates it on a perpetual temporal cusp – ‘in a hurry, on the verge of tomorrow’. Jeannine Tang echoes Lee’s designation of Singapore as ‘a society of the spectacle par excellence’ and questions its art and politics, in her review of its first biennale, Belief, in 2006. Pointing up the relationship between the state’s incessant self-re-imaging and re-branding, government investment in the supremely spectacularized event of the biennial, and the broader role of tourism and the cultural industries in reinforcing and delivering economic imperatives, Tang identifies between the ‘aesthetically seductive’ and ‘politically timely’ a number of artistic interventions that self-reflexively address the fraught conditions of biennale production and consumption (among them Daniel Malone, Cristina Lucas, Amanda Heng, YKON, Lim Tzay Chuen, and Jane Alexander), while raising questions of curatorial power, complicity, responsibility, and the potential for critical, radical practice.

Surveying a decade that has seen a proliferation of art biennials in Asia – more than 10 have sprung up in as many years – Chin-Tao Wu offers a provocative ‘worm’s eye view’ of this speciously democratic form, laying out the differing relations of power and motivations in play in collaborations or exchanges based on the ‘import’ and ‘export’ of Eastern and Western curatorial and artistic ‘goods’. Tracing the succession of (Chinese-speaking) Asian ‘pavilions’ that have pitched up in Venice since 1995, Wu considers the peculiar ‘collateral’ status and curious cases of Hong Kong, Macau, and particularly Taiwan here; Taiwan’s tense positioning between China, the US and Japan ensures its people enjoy the unique political uncertainty of a ‘displaced life of occupation by absence’, and the persistent erasure of an independent identity from the cultural map. Against familiar curatorial rhetorical variations, invoking the global, local, inclusivity, dialogue, and exchange, lurk steadfast hegemonies of power and impulses towards the insular and territorial. Matthew Turner revisits the 2005 Second Guangzhou Triennial’s attempt to address the question of the Pearl River Delta as a cultural as well as economic imaginary, by conceiving of it – in the curatorial hands of Hou Hanru, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rem Koolhaas – as a conceptual artistic laboratory. Despite regular attempts to coerce the region, at least nominally, into unified cohesion, the persistent marginalization of Hong Kong and Macau in relation to Guangzhou both demonstrates and ensures that the PRD remains a site of contending and divergent sensibilities, insularities and boundaries; Turner recalls the triennial’s ‘limp tail-end’ and welcomes ‘the unraveling of “conglomerate” culture’.

In Futures, Cities, Hans Ulrich Obrist invokes the variant and plural futures imagined and enacted in the last half-century, and particularly the last decade, across the increasingly globalized worlds of art and architecture, to situate his own curatorial practice. Pursuing and intertwining visions of tomorrow and visions of the city across such projects as Do It and Cities on the Move, through a range of alternative museum and exhibition models, Obrist stresses their dynamic emergence and evolution through dialogues, collaborations and negotiations, between a shifting, international, interdisciplinary nexus of artists, architects, curators and historians. Looking forwards in the euphoric midst of proliferating technologies and nascent yet rapidly booming economies, Obrist nevertheless warns against historical amnesia, recalling Hobsbawm’s sober call to ‘protest against forgetting’. Such a protest may be discerned in both David Clarke’s and Sasha Su-Ling Welland’s texts and photo-essays. Clarke looks twice at postcolonial Macau, from the twin vantage points of a neighbouring Hong Kong-resident cultural historian and a photographer. Comparing the two handovers, from respectively Portugal and Britain, Clarke focuses on the spectacular re-making of Macau since its 1999 transition to SAR, and the recession of cultural memory.

The preservation and fabrication of ‘old’ and ‘new’ Macau(s) – an ever-expanding territory continually redrawn, like Hong Kong, by the relentless process of land reclamation – marks, argues Clarke, a relationship between the architectural and historical dislocated from local identity, manufactured instead for a tourist gaze. While historical Macau is reduced literally in one instance to a façade, new Macau is built on visual templates borrowed from Venice via Las Vegas, and the ‘local’ itself is redefined by the increased populations of both tourism and migration. Clarke highlights a range of critical, artistic responses that attempt to counter the unremitting razing of pasts and coterminous presents. Finally, Welland’s striking socio-cultural history of a site on Beijing’s East Fourth Ring Road, spanning the mid-20th century to the early 21st century, charts its conversion from farmland to state-run textile mill, to the Ocean Paradise real estate development and East Modern Art Center. Each transformation reflects a shift in the logic of modernization, propelling the reconfiguration of social relations in a contact zone of factory workers, urban planners, real estate developers, migrant labourers and artists. The latter’s attempts at commemorating the past result ultimately in the repetition of the many ideological and physical displacements and erasures that have preceded it: the building literally bulldozed to the ground, as Beijing accelerates at once away from Hong Kong, erstwhile symbol of ‘past colonial humiliations’, and towards it, a designated future; whether or not Hong Kong stays still is another matter.

Editoiral, ‘Hong Kong, And Other Returns’, Journal of Visual Culture, 2007, v.6, n.3, edited by susan pui san lok