What two Hong Kong exhibitions reveal about the handover, identity, and contemporary art
On 2 May 2017, AAA held an internal talk about two exhibitions related to the Hong Kong handover: Hong Kong Reincarnated New Lo Ting Archeological Find (1998) and Talkover/Handover (2007). Both were documented by the late artist Ha Bik Chuen (1925–2009).
Last year, AAA moved Ha's archival materials from To Kwa Wan to a space in Fo Tan, where researchers are working on a three-year project with funding from the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
For the talk, Researcher Michelle Wong worked with Collection Assistant Mickey Lee and Research Associate Alan Chan to develop ideas around these materials from the Ha Bik Chuen Archive and our collection.
The text that follows comprises selected highlights from the internal talk. Note that we have edited and condensed the original transcript for an optimal reading experience.
Introduction by Michelle Wong
This year, 2017, is the twentieth anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain back to China. Because of this impending historical moment in Hong Kong we decided to explore whether Ha Bik Chuen documented anything in 1997, and on the ten-year anniversary in 2007 as well. If he did, what did he document and what can we learn from that? What does it mean for us today to be looking at these documentations, for us to experience and study a historical moment through art or through art documentation?
In our research we also focused our attention on what kinds of materials we need to read across in order to better understand an exhibition and the particular historical moment in which it happened. Mickey Lee and Alan Chan are each presenting a case study to show how reading across the different materials often lead us from the Ha Bik Chuen Archive to other materials in AAA's collection.
While this talk only covers the handover from the perspective of Hong Kong, it is also essential to consider that of China. Did any Chinese artists make work responding to the handover? Although it might not have been widespread, the answer is yes. The Guangdong artist Lin Yilin did a couple of performances in Hong Kong in 1996 and 1997, which commented on the handover.1 Hou Hanru curated Hong Kong etc., which was a section of the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale Trade Routes: History and Geography, artistically directed by Okwui Enwezor.
One of the questions this research into Ha's archive and the handover has opened up is a deeper examination of the relationship between artistic practices, exhibitions, and the places they inhabit. At the same time, as our research continues we are interested to explore how other places may have considered the handover of Hong Kong, as well as how we may use this particular event to think of other moments of partition and reunification.
But today, we will focus on Hong Kong and look at two cases: one in 1998, which Mickey will speak about first, and one in 2007 that Alan will speak about afterwards.
Mickey Lee on Hong Kong Reincarnated New Lo Ting Archeological Find
The exhibition I will be speaking about is Hong Kong Reincarnated New Lo Ting Archeological Find, which was curated by Oscar Ho, and took place at Hong Kong Arts Centre in 1998. This is the album of the exhibition's documentation that we came across in the Ha Bik Chuen Archive.
I had no idea at the very beginning why this particular album of the exhibition was so interesting to researchers and users of the archive, but when I looked deeper into it, it became clear why it is important. Although Lo Ting happened in 1998, it was closely related to the handover of Hong Kong, and can be read as an exhibition that responded to that period of change.
Apart from Ha's documentation, an exhibition catalogue that we found in the AAA's collection also shed a lot of light on how I looked into the exhibition. I also looked into Oscar Ho's monographs and reference books, where he wrote in detail about the Lo Ting exhibition. In fact, in order to better understand the Lo Ting exhibition, we have to look into the 1997 exhibition Museum 97: History, Community, Individual, which also took place at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. This show was curated by Oscar Ho, who was Exhibition Director at Hong Kong Arts Centre from 1988 to 2001 (2000–2001 as Curatorial Director).
Museum 97 was an exhibition comprising three parts, the first part of which included the character of Lo Ting, which was allegedly a mermaid who was an ancestor of the Hong Kong. We will come back to this later. All in all, this three-part exhibition teased out and questioned the multiplicity of history, how history is narrated and created, and who has the authority to curate and narrate this history of Hong Kong.
The second part of the exhibition is about the idea of community. The curator invited many people ranging from secondary school students, artists, and legislative council members to contribute materials and artworks to the exhibition. Participants receive a prompt to contribute materials that they thought could represent and narrate the fifty years of Hong Kong's history, leading up to 2048, and as a counterpoint to the official history by the government.
You can see here the list of the participating youth in the exhibition and these are their works. These lists show artists that joined the community part of the project as well. This is material that we found in our special collections room in Sheung Wan. They are all contributed by the public. At first I had no idea what these were, and then I looked back into the catalogue and found that they are contributions from the public. Some of them put in catalogues and leaflets from the legislative members at the time. Maybe they thought these materials would help them remember the progress or status of Hong Kong, and so they could look back at this history.
The third part of the Museum 97 exhibition is about the place of personal history within the larger history of Hong Kong, which was then still a colony of Britain, and the general public who had no power and who had no place in participating and negotiating the terms and conditions of the handover. Oscar Ho invited five groups of artists to do interviews with the general public. In this case, May Fung and Jenny Sze interviewed a female elderly shoemaker in Sham Shui Po. They documented the whole story of the conversation and tried to map out the general public's response towards the handover.
Most of the general public didn't feel that they were part of the handover. Rather, it was forced on them. This puts into context why looking back or creating an alternative history is so important for us. This is because we had no part in playing out the official history and we had no power in making any adjustments to it at the time.
Now let us return to the first part of Museum 97. It is the beginning of the story of Lo Ting. Oscar Ho tried to create an origin myth of Hong Kongers that dates back to the tenth century by inviting two writers and public intellectuals to contribute to the story. The first one is Leung Man Tao, a Beijing based writer and critic, and the other one is Tung Kai Cheung, an established writer in Hong Kong. Both are key figures of the Hong Kong literature scene.
It is really interesting that both Leung and Tung merged the "real" history of China, with that of the history of the "Tanka" boat people in Hong Kong. Based on these histories, they developed something new that could generate a new narrative—a mermaid they posit as the ancestor of Hong Kongers.
As I went through the catalogue, I found a fascinating theory narrated by Tung Kai Cheung, the writer. He said that for Hong Kong history—when I was studying in primary school and I think most of us are taught in this way—Hong Kong history is the history of a little village that developed into an international city. For Tung, this kind of history is a fake trajectory. What he is interested to contest is who put forward and perpetuated the narrative that Hong Kong turned from a little village to the international city that we live in today.
He proposes that three powers were at work, namely, the colonisers, the localists, and then the nationalists of China. It intrigues me that instead of questioning the existing narrative, we seem to be more interested in arguing about who authored that story or history. This may not be a very sophisticated theory, and it is by no means uncontested. But I find it an interesting hypothesis and idea that I should keep in mind when I keep looking through the history and the material in the Ha Bik Chuen Archive.
This history of Lo Ting, which first appeared in Museum 97, was further developed into a new exhibition in 1998, which is Hong Kong Reincarnated New Lo Ting Archeological Find. The Chinese title of the show suggests that the exhibition tries to display some new discovery about Lo Ting archaeologically. Let's take a closer look at this second life of the exhibition in 1997.
Oscar Ho created an association to study the discovery of Lo Ting, called Hong Kong Lo Ting Research Association, which was a branch under Research Centre of Ancient History of Hong Kong. When I looked into these lanyards and the lists of the association, it seems to me Oscar was more like an artist creating a work instead of curating a show. He was not just a curator of the show.
Participating artists of this show are called "members" of the association instead of "artists," so it can be read as a play on the power of the curator and the creativity of the curator.
Finally, this is Lo Ting. It is a little mermaid. And this is what some think Lo Ting used to wear. It seems to be half fish, half human—a mythical, godlike figure. I think they were cursed by God and turned into a mermaid. They used to be human, and a whole story was developed around Lo Ting's history in the exhibition.
This image is found in Oscar Ho's archive at AAA again, we can have a look. Different people's documentation of exhibitions really do have different textures. This one is documented by Ha, you can see the lighting contrast is a little bit different from the one documented by Oscar Ho, and this one is a more close-up look at the image. It is a bamboo ware created by Lo Ting, I guess. I have no idea how and what it is for but you can see that a lot of effort was put into creating Lo Ting's everyday life. The exhibitors worked really hard to create a trajectory and history of Lo Ting and dated it back to the BC period of Hong Kong.
As part of the exhibition, documentation of an archaeological site, as well as "new archaeological discoveries," maps, and recreation of Lo Ting's everyday life situations were created. There were even artworks "created" by Lo Ting as well. According to these cropped-out drawings in caves, the archaeological site was in Lantau Island.
When I look through these materials, to me this 1998 exhibition was not only an extension of the exhibition in 1997, but also a play on the gallery space because when you place material you claim to be archaeological in a gallery, a certain authority is inferred even though we know the materials are fictional.
The formal exhibition space gives authority to the "discovery" of Lo Ting and the archaeological findings. In the catalogue, Oscar even recounted that he once encountered a father and a daughter visiting the exhibition. The father tried really hard to tell the story of Lo Ting to his daughter. Oscar felt guilty about it somehow. It was like brainwashing a little girl into believing something that is fake. And then he thought that he wanted the exhibition to be received in an ambivalent way because on one hand, he did not want people to truly believe the history he created. But on the other hand, he did not want people to completely dismiss it. He would prefer they sit on the fence, on middle ground, trying to think about the possibility of an alternative history of Hong Kong.
In the catalogue itself, we can find various degrees of reception by different people. Oscar included this one by the president of the National Archaeological Research Association in China, which is a serious organisation conducting archaeological research.
The English title of this article is called "Lo Ting, a Fabrication," but the Chinese title of it is stronger and more dismissive. The literal translation of it is "Fabrication of a New Identity Making People Disappointed." Oscar included that in the catalogue, which makes it more interesting because this puts him in a more open-minded position than others who do work in archaeology. The inclusion of this article indicates that Oscar was not concerned by whether Lo Ting's history is real or not, but what kind of story we can tell about it and what kind of confrontation we can generate out of the exhibition.
At first I thought this idea may have been exhausted after two exhibitions of Lo Ting. However, I found out that in 1999, Oscar tried to develop another new exhibition called [Lo Ting:] New Discovery on 1197 Massacre. One thousand one hundred and ninety-seven was 900 years ago, and I personally think this may be referring to a moment in the past, like that of Hong Kong's handover in 1997. As I went through more of Oscar's documents in our Special Collections Room, I thought that he failed to develop the whole exhibition. But then, when I looked into his monograph, published by Para Site when he had the exhibition Mapping Identities: The Art and Curator of Oscar Ho in 2004, I found photographs of this third Lo Ting show. So it seems it is a trilogy of exhibitions on the fabricated history of Lo Ting.
Even now, the afterlife of this trilogy of exhibitions continues. Clara Cheung of C&G Artpartment gave a talk based on Lo Ting in Parasite's 2015 conference. In her talk, Clara used a political and sociological lens to look into the idea of creating an alternative and mythological history of Hong Kong as a proposal for us to think about the alternative history that we can generate after the Umbrella Movement. It may be a perplexing moment now after the Umbrella Movement, but by looking back into history, we may consider how alternative ideas of histories that do not necessarily follow narratives generated by the authorities can be a possibility for Hong Kong. Clara published an article on AICAHK after her talk. It is free to download and you can go take a look at it.
Alan Chan on Talkover/Handover (2007)
I'll be talking about an exhibition that happened in 2007 called Talkover/Handover, which took place at 1a Space near Cattle Depot. AAA was involved, and the exhibition was just one phase of a research project done by our researcher at the time, Wen Yau.
It started as a look into what the Hong Kong art scene was like in the ten years from 1997 to 2007. These are the materials available in our collection, and in the middle is exhibition documentation we found in the Ha Bik Chuen Archive.
There is other documentation in digital format stored on CD, and also lots of newspaper clippings that Wen Yau collected.
It's a project that involves a lot of research, as well as documentation and archiving work about itself.
This is one of the booklets, called A Documentary of Talkover/Handover, which was published for the exhibition. It documented different aspects of the research and also the conversations between the artists.
This exhibition comprised twenty-three artists, selected according to a survey on what the Hong Kong art scene was like and who was most active around the handover period, between 1996 and 1998.
These statistics became a criterion for the curators to select which artists to put into the show. There were two groups of artists—they started out by selecting from the list of twelve artists who were active at the time, then asked these artists to select other artists who were active around 2005 and 2006.
The exhibition's logic, then, centred around these dialogues between artists active during 1997 and 2007. There were a lot of conversations about the political autonomy of Hong Kong back then, and about the social responsibilities of artists.
I looked into the exhibition documentation done by Ha Bik Chuen, which we found a couple of months ago in his archive—it was almost like an entry point into this moment of history.
You can see that Ha took his camera into the exhibition, taking snapshots of whatever interested him. You can also see from these photographs, here in the left-hand corner, a work by Sara Wong Chi Hang, who collaborated with Leung Chi Wo, whose work is in the bottom left-hand corner.
On the right are some works by Kum Chi Keung, and a lot of these artists were making work that use different kinds of metaphors and symbols to try to represent a Hong Kong identity and their feelings about the handover.
It's quite an interesting work by Leung Chi Wo. It says in Tibetan, "I don't like my name," which alludes to the alienation Hong Kong people feel about not having the autonomy to narrate themselves.
There was this atmosphere surrounding the show, a feeling of not having the autonomy to talk about oneself, of not having the autonomy to narrate oneself because there was a lot of political interference from Mainland China to mess around with Hong Kong politics.
It was this general feeling that characterises the works in the exhibition. And here is more work by Kum Chi Keung and also, in the upper right-hand corner, a piece of work by Yu May Ming, which shows a different way of portraying the handover.
Some of these artists used works that were more loaded with political content, like the one written in Tibetan, which makes you think about the peripheral areas of China where many people were not allowed to recognise their own narratives and were subjected to official narratives from the government.
There are other artists like Yu May Ming, at the top right-hand corner, who collaborated with another artist. The work itself and all these photographs were not explicit representations with direct political symbols. Some of these artists talked about politics in the sense that, well, whatever they did during this period would be a representation of society. So in the exhibition there are these differences in how artists speak about their feelings towards the handover.
You see these two birdcages at the bottom, they are by Kum Chi Keung and another artist called Ah Gum, who did a painting responding to Kum's by repainting Kum's birdcage from a photograph Ah Gum found in a newspaper. So it speaks about the representation of artwork in the media, and also about how our experience of politics and art are mediated.
On the bottom left-hand corner, you will find Frog King being Frog King. He wasn't actually doing any particular work to respond to the handover. This is one from his 9 Million Artwork Series called Frog King Museum.
On the bottom right-hand corner, you have Kurt Chan, who did a piece of work called Lover's Bite. The documentation here is not very clear, but it's actually a sniper rifle mounted on a plinth that speaks to what he characterised as "white terror" after the handover, when a lot of political issues became very sensitive with a nearly ubiquitous paranoia. It's loaded with symbolic political meanings.
This is more documentation from Phoebe Wong. We have our own documentation of the event at AAA.
Sanmu (Chen Shisen) did a performance in the exhibition. This is documentation of the opening evening itself. His performance addressed the handover by cutting a pig heart on top of a newspaper, and so here you see different gestures and different dynamics of interacting with the politics of Hong Kong.
The exhibition also speculated about the future. This is a newspaper published by Stanley Wong, also known as anothermountainman. Tomorrow's Daily claimed to be a newspaper from the future, specifically, 1 July in 2047. In the newspaper he invited different writers to contribute stories and myths and made-up news articles, meant to show how ridiculous the future will be. It also spoke to the uncertainty and anxiety about changes, and also how unprepared people are with them.
There's also a time capsule they made about the exhibition. Each artist was invited to place an item, actual works, articles, or writings into this time capsule, which is kept in our Special Collections room. It's very interesting to think about how so many of the works were actually political protestation, with many dealing with uncertainty and anxiety; but during the opening night it was actually quite festive. Everyone was celebrating, and that dynamic was quite strange and even in conflict with the work.
So having shown some of the exhibition documentation, I would like to speak about another aspect of the research project, which are the conversations and interviews they did.
Most of the materials I looked into are actually not exhibition documentation. When I first looked into this album from the Ha Bik Chuen Archive, I actually could not tell much from the pictures themselves. They did not give enough information. A lot of the information actually came from this documentary Wen Yau published and also from the interviews they documented, in which these artists were having collaborations and conversations with each other.
So you can see on the top left-hand corner, Kum Chi Keung collaborated with Ah Gum. Next to that is Stanley Wong, who collaborated with Anthony Leung Po Shan. At the bottom left-hand corner is Leung Chi Wo with Sara Wong Chi Hang, both of whom are founders of Para Site. On the bottom right-hand corner are Ching Chin Wai and Leung May Ping.
So what were they talking about in this dialogue and how did they reflect on the issues that most concerned them in 2007? Some of them addressed the effect of political art in Hong Kong—but how do you incorporate art into social movements or the other way around? How does art influence social movements? There were also a lot of conversations about the social responsibilities of artists, and there was a general feeling of powerlessness among Hong Kong artists in the face of the political pressure they felt.
There's also an aspect in 2007, which we have probably forgotten, which has changed today. What a lot of the artists were speaking about in 2007 was how Hong Kong as a society was quite apolitical, young people were very apolitical. This is not the case today, I can say, after the Umbrella Movement and the last five to six years. There is a lot more concern about politics from young people, and people in general are more outspoken on political issues.
It's interesting to think of 2007 as having that political atmosphere, and this exhibition was a response to that. It's actually a demand at the time that got these artists to make these political works.
And so this was a public conversation they had about the exhibition, with a sort of rupture between the artist and the curator.
This is a work by Jeff Leung, and why I call it a rupture is because, while Jeff Leung was one of the artists invited to exhibit, the work he exhibited was actually a sub-curation within the exhibition.
He did not exhibit his own work, but rather invited another artist to exhibit in his place. The piece exhibited was a papercut by Bovey Lee, who lived in America. That disrupted the curatorial decision of Wen Yau and Selena Ho.
Because this exhibition started as a research project with objective data collected, there was a kind of scientific criteria in how these artists were selected. When Jeff Leung invited another artist, it disrupted how the curators related to this close network of artists they had aleady chosen. This was one of the early moments where they had a conversation in Hong Kong on the power politics between artists and curators.
Some of the issues raised in the reception of the exhibition were about the representation of politics. John Batten said the exhibition was not political enough because there weren't enough direct references to political events in Hong Kong. He was referring to 2003, when there was the Article 23 issue with a massive protest, the stepping down of Tung Chee Hwa, and the SARS outbreak. You can see from these reviews the demands people had for this kind of exhibition, what they wanted to see from an exhibition on the handover. Some people were looking for direct references to political events, while I think a lot of these artists were trying to speak about the feeling of the handover in a more abstract way.
There's also another issue raised by Jasper Lau about this exhibition being very fragmented, as if the artists were just talking to themselves. I agree with that, and this is also the difficulty in speaking about this exhibition. Its scope is big and involves a lot of artists; and because the curators did not explicitly mandate what specific issues to discuss regarding the handover, they gave the freedom to the individual artists themselves. This generated a lot of fragmented conversations, though I think this is also the logic of the exhibition. This exhibition framed itself as a question; it allowed the artists to express their own questions instead of pinning down a conclusion.
It is quite interesting how this exhibition talked about the topic, because around the same time there were other exhibitions happening, which spoke about the handover in much more explicit ways, and with more of a political outcry. This exhibition had a certain subtlety, and allowed a lot of ambiguity and conflict between the artists and curators to unfold, which is the interesting point and also its difficulty.
Michelle Wong: When you study exhibition history, there are often these gaps that you have to fill with your own historical understanding and imagination. So let us take the liberty to speculate. Do you think these shows would have happened any other time apart from the time that it happened?
Mickey Lee: For the Lo Ting exhibitions in 1997 and 1998, I think it happened in a larger climate that even started before the actual handover, where there were a lot of TV programmes and documentaries on the history, myths, and local stories of Hong Kong because people were particularly focused on examining their own identities at that time. To me Oscar Ho responded to those urgent concerns by curating and creating these Lo Ting exhibitions.
Looking at the aesthetics of the exhibition, as well as the appearance of Lo Ting the mermaid, I think it was something more historical, instead of something that can be recreated again, or created in the future from now. People in Hong Kong have changed a lot in their political and social perspectives after different political movements and social participation in the past few years. The tactics and strategies to engage with history has changed a lot.
MW: So it's no?
MW: Do you think Talkover/Handover can happen at another time?
Alan Chan: Wen Yau is actually curating a second version of it right now and to be honest, I do think it can happen again in Hong Kong. That is because these artists from 2007 expressed feelings about Hong Kong that are more or less still felt today. Of course, the political environment has changed and there are also changes in how young people relate to politics, but the context of not having that political autonomy to narrate oneself, that autonomy that has been under attack or even taken away from Hong Kong people is still in the air. I don't think the issues touched upon in the exhibition were unique to 2007 and I do think the mode of the exhibition still has validity, even though its conversations were very fragmented, non-specific, and general.
A lot of these issues were actually flagged in the documented dialogues between the artists involved in the exhibition. And when I was looking into them, it was actually very rewarding to see the conversation itself and see how their conversations unfolded organically and I don’t think the mode of the exhibition has expired.
MW: What is the place of nostalgia in these exhibitions?
ML: For Lo Ting, it's more like a recreation of the everyday life of the issues back then. To be honest, after looking into those materials related to Lo Ting, I still cannot relate to the mermaid and to the history created—it's really hard to connect to the history created in the sense that in the digital age, the idea of facts and truth has changed a lot since the exhibition was held. The way I look at Ha's pictures and how I look into archaeological materials is quite different from the perspectives that people had back then.
Also, as Alan suggests, I think Oscar Ho heavy-handedly curated and created the show, in which I feel kind of distant from in a sense that I myself do not have a participating role in telling the story. So this is not a story that I can relate to fully.
As a result, because of my distance from the time that the exhibition was held, I guess the idea of nostalgia was not my primary focus when I took into the materials.
AC: On whether Talkover/Handover was nostalgic, the general feeling I get from the exhibition documents—also from what is not in the document—is of course mediated and can only be coming from a historical distance. Now I don't think the exhibition was nostalgic, as a lot of these artists were speaking about an uncertain future, and they were talking about the now, their "right now": how they were to narrate themselves and how uncertain they were about their identity.
A lot of the issues were about the pressure from Mainland China at the time, and they were not looking back into history or into the past to find ways to narrate themselves, which Oscar Ho actually did, but in a mythological way, with a different mode of narratives. These artists in 2007 were not looking into the past—most of them were very conscious of themselves engaging in postcolonial conversations about identity and they were not trying to look into a good old past of the British colonial era. A lot of them were looking towards the future but it is also about their powerlessness in the face of it, about how artistic action can be turned into political action, and how art activities can change society.
It has some kind of pessimism towards the future, but at the same time, accompanying this pessimism is also some kind of idealistic idea about what art can do. So it also has a lot of hope in it, which is what I feel from the conversation these artists had, and that is quite lovely as well.