Phoebe Wong considers an exhibition's haunting imagery after the traumas of SARS and Leslie Cheung's suicide.
The exhibition A Journal of the Plague Year: Fear, Ghosts, Rebels, SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong Story takes its name from A Journal of the Plague Year, a novel published in 1722 by English author Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) which depicts London under siege by the plague that struck the city in 1665:
Defoe goes to great pains to achieve an effect of verisimilitude, identifying specific neighborhoods, streets, and even houses in which events took place. Additionally, [the book] provides tables of casualty figures and discusses the credibility of various accounts and anecdotes received by the narrator.1
Whether the Journal should be regarded as fiction or as an historical account with facts to back it up was a controversial subject in the eighteenth century when the book was published. With the appearance of the new genre of the "historical novel" early the following century, "other literary critics have [since] argued that the work can indeed be regarded as a work of imaginative fiction, and thus can justifiably be described as an 'historical novel.'"2
Seen from this perspective, I would say the Para Site exhibition has appropriated the historical novel form to explore the dialectics of history writing and its oscillations between the excavation and construction of evidence. Documents, ephemera, and contemporary works of art are displayed side by side to guide the viewer in and out of two worlds—one solid and the other floating—engaging sensory as well as reflective faculties in an exploratory experience.
The subtitle of the exhibition works as a montage of sorts and speaks to a chain of events that forms people’s collective memories: boiled vinegar, face masks, quarantines, Amoy Gardens, death tolls, an infected city, Leslie Cheung’s suicide, 500,000 people coming together to rally against Article 23 on July 1...a Hong Kong profoundly altered.
Fundamental to the exhibition is the evocation of the haunting imagery brought on by the traumas of SARS and Cheung’s suicide. In the words of Natalia Chan, Cheung's death became a legend: "the tragedies and damage of the SARS epoch are infused into his flesh and blood."3 The exhibition abounds with documents and works that stand on their own right and yet engage in dialogues with one another that bring them into being poetically. Abandoned and shadowy souls are depicted in paintings by Firenze Lai. Magazine clippings, music albums, and stiletto heels cobble together portraits of Leslie Cheung in show business. An eerie scene from Vanilla Sky of the male protagonist lost in broad daylight on empty New York streets plays over and over again in a never-ending loop. Historic photographs of 1894 plague cases serve as reminders of past epidemic horrors. Stills ingrained with murkiness by photographer Bernd Behr (2003-07) capture the SARS site at Amoy Gardens. A pair of blood-stained straw shoes—remnants from the Sino-Japanese War—evidence the biological warfare waged by the Japanese Army's 731 battalion (collected by James T Hong). The medical pathology records of mid-nineteenth century Lam Qua (whose original name was Kwan Kiu Cheung) are treated as artistic portraits. Select cuts of the movie Farewell My Concubine play. Adrian Wong's chicken-kissing photo defies the inherent threat posed by intimate contact with the SARS host (Chicken Kiss, 2007). Tozer Pak’s July 1 protest march (from his works that appeared in newspapers) is documented.
Poet, literary critic, scholar, and cinephile Natalia Chan undertook in-depth studies of Leslie Cheung, demonstrating the indulgence and obsession of a fan (Chan followed Leslie for over 20 years) as well as presenting cogent arguments and analyses that had taken her deep into the nooks and crannies of Cheung’s life. In her eyes Cheung was a "butterfly of forbidden colours," "his delicateness, vulnerability, glamour, luminosity, pride, and loudness representing a forbidden, foreboding, forbidding, and discarded type of colour that is not of this conventional world, and [is hence deemed] unacceptable."4
In Chan's analysis, Cheung was a forbidden colour in body and gender politics. Let’s begin with his name: Cheung’s English name, Leslie, is gender-neutral, therefore flagging his gender orientation. Then one can consider his sensuous and exquisite looks: a male body with female sensibilities, an air of nobility belonging to the upper class, a gaze that sends come-hither signals, a delicate beauty denoting a tenderness that is completely feminine. More importantly, with his actor-auteur consciousness, Cheung brings forth his own subjectivity. In the early 1990s Cheung made a comeback in show business, taking on roles that challenged him in every sense, roles that were acrobatic and gymnastic, floating around the transgender margins and subverting the rigidity of conventional rules about gender and sexuality. In his concert his attire was at once male and female. Through costume changes, he roamed the in-between frontiers of the two genders. He made the utmost effort to fight for the leading female-portrayed-by-a-male role in Farewell My Concubine. However, with his performance he successfully subverted the homophobia inherent in the movie, reaffirming his artistic talent and his out-of-the box creativity.5
Reading Natalia Chan’s appraisal of Leslie Cheung’s achievements and position as an artist reminds me of the insight offered by poet and critic Jass Leung, who reviewed the reprised performance of the Yuan dynasty opera The Logbook of Ghosts by Zuni Icosahedron in 2009, and argued that "ghosts [are] a spiritual consciousness that exist in the margins of the human world, [and that] the Yuan opera points to an artistic medium that has more penetrating power than mainstream knowledge and value systems."6 Despite being one of the few pan-Asian superstars and an idol to millions, Cheung, in the margins, never found out where he truly belonged.
An overly strong sense of subjectivity naturally induces in others the fear and anxiety of being marginalised. Hong Kong artist Ricky Yeung’s performance, Man and Cage (1987), featuring him bare chested, painted with oils, and caged for forty-eight hours, speaks directly to the fears and worries of Hong Kong people about integration with China during the 1997 transition. China and Hong Kong are immensely and intensely bound, and in conflict that cannot be untangled or resolved easily. The serious problem of parallel imports of baby milk formulae at the border and the influx of pregnant Chinese mainlanders on return visas entering Hong Kong to give birth, are reflections of these fears and worries. In 2013 Hong Kong people put an advertisement in the newspaper to object to the visits of these pregnant women on return visas; they even compared these women’s children to locusts. The plague overtook Hong Kong in 1894, giving rise to "a dubious association of the disease with Asia and heightening the 'yellow peril' scares in Europe and America at the time."7 Have Hong Kong’s trials been in vain? Liquid Borders (2012-13), an audio collage by local artist Samson Yeung, is a first-hand attempt by the artist to record, on location, the sounds of vibrations of the metal fence at the border and of the Shenzhen River, before the disappearance of the restricted area at the border between China and Hong Kong. In Yeung’s mind, more obstructive than the physical fence is the invisible wall of cultural values, attitude, and consciousness separating the two places. Taipei 101: A Travelogue of Symptoms (2004) by American-Chinese artist, James T Hong, is a video production about the experience of an American-Chinese finding his roots in Taiwan, "discovering to his surprise [that] Taiwanese culture has apparently been invaded forcefully by American culture, and has become so polluted that it’s been globalised as well as Americanised, appropriated by capitalism and cross-border white supremacy."8 A Travelogue of Symptoms was shot during the period of SARS; in the film the off-camera coughing sounds become a metaphor for the "invasion."
In 2013, ten years after SARS, Leslie Cheung’s passing, and July 1, how do these layered memories resonate? Underneath all the changes, does anything remain or repeat itself? What seems most disturbing is not always the plague but the amnesia. In Hong Kong novelist Dung Kai Cheung’s Atlas (1997), a chapter entitled "The Curse of Tai Ping Shan"9 keeps readers contemplating long after they put the book down:
The sad history of Tai Ping Shan was then buried under the flowers and birdsong of Blake Garden. Giant banyan trees locked in the souls of the dead, their benign roots driving out putrid vapours so that everything implied by the name "Peace Mountain" came true. From then on peace spread as widely as the plague had once done. It eroded the memories of Victoria’s inhabitants, while also bequeathing the symptoms of forgetfulness to later generations, so that people eventually began to doubt that Tai Ping Shan had been the home of their forefathers, just as they also failed to realise that many directors of the earliest charitable institution in the entire city, Tung Wah Hospital, had been opium merchants. A small number still obstinately believed in the story of Tai Ping Shan but were no longer able to find any clues to its existence on maps.
Phoebe Wong is a Hong Kong-based researcher and writer dedicated to art, design and visual media.
A Journal of the Plague Year: Fear, Ghosts, Rebels, SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong Story was curated by Cosmin Costinas, Executive Director, Para Site Art Space and Inti Guerrero, Independent Curator.
1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Journal_of_the_Plague_Year. (Accessed on 20 June 2013).
3. Natalia Chan, Butterfly of Forbidden Colours: The Artistic Image of Leslie Cheung, Joint Publishing, Hong Kong, 2008, 22. (In Chinese)
4. Ibid., 25.
6. http://leungjass.blogspot.hk/2009/05/blog-post.html. (Accessed on 20 June 2013).
7. http://urbannomadfilmfest.blogspot.de/2009/12/blog-post_08.html. (Accessed on 15 August 2013).
8. See A Journal of the Plague Year exhibition brochure.
9. Dung Kai Cheung, "The Curse of Tai Ping Shan," Atlas, Dung Kai Cheung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S McDougall, trans., Columbia University Press, New York, 2012. Para Site has reprinted the chapter in chapbook format and distributed it as a free artwork at the exhibition.