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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Portrait of a Young Region

Plumbing Hong Kong's post-handover mood

By Nina Wu / Hong Kong


KITH TSANG SUSPENDS DRIED fish bladders from the ceiling and calls it art. Wong Shun-kit made a windmill, added a "no entry" sign, and says it represents the fickle winds of politics. Regardless of your views on Post-Modern art, Hong Kong's artists are making a powerful statement these days that is hard to ignore. Call it the post-handover blue period, but Hong Kong's artists are on a voyage of self-discovery -- and the portrait they're painting is of a people in search of a cultural identity during confusing politically times.

"At first, I was happy [following the handover] because I thought I could now say that I was pure Chinese," says Tsang, a Hong Kong-born installation artist and design professor at the Polytechnic University. "But when I thought about it deeply, I realized that I am not Chinese. So then I had to ask myself, Who am I?"

Tsang hopes to "dig out what Hong Kongness is" through a series of installation pieces he is creating. Exhibited at Para/Site gallery, Hello! Hong Kong explores his experiences and those of ordinary people growing up in the Special Administrative Region. In one piece, Tsang arranged furniture from his childhood, bamboo boats and text written on green tiles. Overhead, lanterns made of dried fish bladders were hung by wire. The sculpture, Tsang explains, refers to a time in his childhood when the family was too poor to buy paper lanterns for the autumn festival, so he made his own.

Installation art -- a collection of objects forming a sculpture -- suits Hong Kong's lifestyle and space restraints, Tsang says, because it's based on reusable materials that can be easily built and torn down again for storage. "Hong Kong is always in erasure," he says. "Even the spirit itself is in transit."

Oscar Ho, curator of the Hong Kong Arts Centre, has no doubt about being "Hong Kongese." "Just visit China and Hong Kong and you'll see the differences," says the Hong Kong-born, American-educated Ho. In June, he curated Hong Kong Incarnated, a series of exhibitions, film workshops and performances based on personal stories of people living in the city. The goal of the show, he explains, was for Hong Kong people to define themselves and their history on their own terms. For his part, Ho is clear on Hong Kong's cultural future. "We will be part of a larger culture, whether we like it or not," he says. "We are part of the system, but we are also different. Now we can create a new sense of cultural awareness and identity."

Some local artists worry politics will block their inspirations. "No freedom, no creativity," warns Wong Shun-kit, a 44-year-old painter. The outspoken Shanghai native should know -- he began his career in China helping his father paint portraits of Mao Zedong. During the Cultural Revolution, Wong spent his evenings pouring over Western art magazines and gallery catalogs. But during the revolution, Andy Warhol's portrait of Mao wasn't a fitting poster pin-up, so he destroyed the evidence -- by scrubbing the images off the pages while hand-washing laundry.

"People were always watching," says Wong, sipping a beer in Club 6.4, a bar named after the Tiananmen killings. "If you threw anything out, there was always a person there. Everything was public in Shanghai back then, even the toilets."

After moving to Hong Kong in 1983, Wong found the opposite was true. "Hong Kong artists are ignored," he says. Nevertheless, Wong has managed to carve a niche as an installation artist and co-founded the Young Artist's Association. He now considers himself a Hong Konger.

Wong's political views feature strongly in his work. In Night and Day, a two-painting self-portrait, his image is shown on one canvas shutting his apartment curtains. The window looks out onto the moonlit skyscrapers of Hong Kong. Inside, Chinese President Jiang Zemin is seen on television, pointing his finger at the audience. In Day, Wong stands alone in the morning, with a rucksack and an oil lantern. The towers are gone, replaced by an expanse of land and water. Wong gazes north, toward China. Day, he explains, expresses his feelings now that the handover is complete. "For the future, we need to wait and see," he says. "We need to see clearly before making a jump. There are many questions, but no answers."

At Hong Kong's annual Tiananmen vigil last June, Wong built a sculpture based on the legend of Don Quixote. On a wooden windmill, he painted a red circle with a diagonal slash through its center -- the international symbol for no entry. The vanes radiating from the hub, says Wong, symbolize art's susceptibility to the fickle winds of politics. "I wanted to say that after the government changes, the new one may say No to artists," he explains. "So many Nos. When China doesn't like something, it says No." It's a worked in progress and now Wong is adding a figure trapped behind the no-entry sign -- perhaps attempting to break out.

Although Tsang celebrated the end of British rule, he also feels uncertain about the future under China. But has no plans to leave. "I can find my roots in Hong Kong," he explains. Instead, he is raising his two children to be independent thinkers. He took his two-year-old daughter to the Tiananmen vigil in June. "It was a good opportunity to educate her about what's happening around her," he says.

Ho is optimistic about the future and says that while China will influence Hong Kong, the SAR will play a persuasive role in China. "In areas like Guangdong, Hong Kong has tremendous influence over the way of life, television programs, style and fashion," he says. "They [Hong Kong and China] are getting closer and closer, because both cultures are changing," Ho says.

While most Hong Kongers view change as inevitable, they would prefer Beijing do most of the growing.


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