Oscar Ho narrates his shift from seeking a distinctive cultural identity for Hong Kong, to working to dismantle this very concept.
This essay, originally published in a 1998 issue of Art Journal, is included in Oscar Ho's new book, Art Criticism for the People (Typesetter Publishing, 2020), and shared here with permission to coincide with AAA's public programme, centred around art criticism in Hong Kong and Ho's role as an art critic and curator who helped shape the cultural landscape over the last few decades.
Is the planet developing a global culture, or are certain regions of the world once immune from the influence of the West just becoming more Western? Perhaps the issue is not globalisation or local identity but the growing cultural domination of more powerful groups supported by economic and political might over others. For Hong Kong, the threat is not the West, but China. Since the early nineties, when Hong Kong's return to China was becoming imminent, its people have discussed the question of Hong Kong's cultural identity with increasing fervor. Out of insecurity, we have exaggerated our uniqueness and have tried hard to solidify, even fabricate, a distinctive cultural identity, which for some did not exist. As a presenter of culture, a curator can play a role in helping to shape this discourse.
In 1843 the British, who wanted a port for trading with China, took over Hong Kong as part of the ratification of the Treaty of Nanking. Hong Kong became a bridge between the East and the West, with no existence of its own except as a convenient passage between these two cultures. During the first half of the twentieth century, Hong Kong took on another role. Natural disasters, economic crises, and political unrest in China forced many citizens to move to the British colony. Hong Kong consequently became a centre for refugees who had no engagement with the city. They worked hard and tried to make as much money as possible so that they could immigrate to other places or return to China once the situation there improved. Hong Kong was only a railway station, with many romances but no marriages.
After the communists took over China in 1949, another massive flow of refugees ensued. By the early fifties, it was apparent that the communist regime was going to stay. The refugees had no choice but to make Hong Kong home, although psychologically and culturally they were still linked with China. Also in the fifties, after the refugees had established themselves in their new home, Hong Kong's first baby boom, which resulted in a truly "Hong Kong" generation, began. For this generation, brought up in a British colony with no direct contact with China, communist China was a distant entity.
The colonial government naturally had no intention of nurturing the people's sense of identity, with either China or Hong Kong; a colonial power does not need colonists with a strong local identity. Instead, the government encouraged the people of Hong Kong to live in an ambiguous cultural state. In 1984 British agreed to return Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997 as a special administrative region of China. Most Hong Kong people, especially the Hong Kong–born generations, were hesitant about reunification, for we had commonly regarded our motherland as backward and oppressive, and many of us were fully aware of the dramatic differences between Hong Kong and China. On the other hand, the British government's refusal to grant the right of abode in the United Kingdom to its own citizens in Hong Kong also demonstrated that Hong Kong people were not British. Hong Kong remained a transcultural political entity that was neither Chinese nor British, neither Eastern nor Western.
A colonial power does not need colonists with a strong local identity.
After the 1989 democratic movement in Beijing, the people of Hong Kong were becoming increasingly anxious. On the one hand, with one million demonstrators in the streets, many people were surprised to discover how much they were emotionally linked with China. On the other, they were terrified by the fact that fairly soon Hong Kong would return to a nation that could treat its people with such brutality. Since many Hong Kong people were refugees or children of refugees from communist China, the military suppression on June 4 only intensified their fear. There was a general feeling that China would socially, politically, and culturally overwhelm Hong Kong. Many people emigrated. For those who could not or did not want to leave, the need to establish something we could hold on to, an identity, increased. For a city with an ambiguous cultural existence, the urgent necessity of establishing such an identity before the deadline of July 1, 1997, was apparent.
Around the same time, the Hong Kong Arts Centre, an independent arts organisation with no government subsidies, decided to engage in the identification and definition of Hong Kong's cultural identity by examining its visual culture. As the centre's exhibition director, in 1991 I launched the Hong Kong Culture Series of exhibitions, through which I sought to question the prevalent point of view that there was no specifically Hong Kong cultural tradition before the sixties. For the first time in this small British colony, an art institution took the concept of Hong Kong's cultural identity seriously. In fact, the concept of identity had been examined so little in Hong Kong, as well as in China, that we even had difficulty translating the word into Chinese.
The series, which continued through 1997, consisted of two exhibitions a year that focused on aspects of art and culture in Hong Kong from the early twentieth century to the present—a period that has received relatively little critical attention. The exhibitions considered a range of subjects, from the history of comics in Hong Kong to Hong Kong art of the sixties. The series itself was quite successful—probably because it premiered when many people in Hong Kong strongly feared the possibility of being overwhelmed by China. By 1995 the message from such people was clear: "Yes, we are Chinese, but we are very different from the Chinese in China."
In the process, however, we forgot the other peoples of Hong Kong—Indians, Euro-Asians, Filipinos, and others, many of whom have been here for generations. While we had tried to solidify a distinctive culture of our own with respect to China, we had simplified the complexity and diversity of Hong Kong. Once we recognised the potential danger of assuming such a narrow cultural identity, we sought to redress this issue. In the 1995 exhibition Being Minority, we invited artists from various Asian nations—Indian, Thai, and Filipino, among others—to collaborate with local ethnic communities and produce work out of their encounters. It is telling that while we originally had intended to invite Hong Kong artists of different ethnic origins, we had difficulty identifying artists from these communities, probably because the local art environment provided little infrastructural support for artists from ethnic communities to develop and grow. It is unfortunately telling that the public response to this exhibition, unlike those that focused on work made by artists of Chinese heritage, was poor.
Meanwhile, as Hong Kong approached reunification with China, Beijing and its local supporters launched many active campaigns nurturing Chinese nationalism. After Tung Chee Wah took office as the chief executive of the special administrative region, it became obvious that the new government would initiate a major public reeducation campaign designed to cultivate re-identification with the motherland. By 1996, when a wave of so-called sudden patriotism emerged in Hong Kong, we presented the exhibition Being China (being Hong Kong). This exhibition featured works by over thirty Hong Kong artists known for using Chinese elements. Through this exhibition, we hoped to reveal how Hong Kong artists perceived China. The China to which these artists responded had many faces. It could be the China of mountain and mist of the Sung and Yuan dynasties, the China of Yan Yeng and bamboo, or the China of Shanghai during the thirties. But very few artists engaged with the communist China of the present. At a time of political transition, many people, especially politicians, were zealously displaying their love of China. But to what China were they referring? It seemed as if people were fabricating a China based on what they needed. For example, many wealthy individuals in Hong Kong in the nineties became newly interested in the sophisticated and international city of Shanghai in the thirties. Eager to be Chinese again, these individuals, however, found it difficult to identify with contemporary China, which did not correspond with their world of refinement and taste. Being China (being Hong Kong) attempted to reveal the ambiguity of this nationalistic passion and to ask, What, except size, is the difference between nationalism and regionalism?
The more we studied Hong Kong culture, the more we found the discussion of a distinctive cultural identity problematic. Hong Kong's success is based on its ability to accommodate and use whatever cultures are available. Built on the active integration of many cultures, it is shaped by a nexus of geographical and historical factors (for example, the fact that it has been a British colony and a refugee centre). Precisely this ability to use anything without becoming obsessed with the distinctive self that generated such creativity and imagination is central to Hong Kong's cultural identity. In Hong Kong movies, for example, it is not uncommon to see a hero who takes moral and friendship obligations seriously (as in traditional Chinese novels) and is at the same time a lonely outsider (as in French film noir) with the most unbelievable fighting skills (as in Japanese comics), whose story is told with sensational effects (as in Hollywood cinema).
The more we studied Hong Kong culture, the more we found the discussion of a distinctive cultural identity problematic.
For me as a curator, the shift from seeking to nurture a distinctive cultural identity for Hong Kong to working to dismantle this concept was a significant reversal. However, since Hong Kong's return to Chinese political authority in 1997, it has become increasingly apparent that discussions of cultural identity in Hong Kong are polarising into these two extremes. On the one hand, the communist Chinese government and its senior officers are working hard to enlist the people's patriotism; on the other, the sense of Hong Kong–ness has never been stronger. As a city of refugees, Hong Kong used to treat refugees from China with compassion and kindness. Now, with the growing sense that such immigration poses a real threat to Hong Kong's unique existence, there is increasing resentment of Chinese immigrants as invaders who are unwelcome violators of our land and culture. In the past one hundred years, Hong Kong has never been so narrow-minded as it is now.
What makes Hong Kong unique is its diversity. Diversity does not necessarily mean globalisation or Westernisation. Instead, it means awareness of many layers and dimensions of our culture. Cultural identity is important at some historical moments, when a people (or an individual, for that matter) needs to strengthen and protect itself from becoming overwhelmed. However, an obsession with defining a singularly distinctive culture can be devastating, at least in the case of Hong Kong. The success of Hong Kong is built on its ability to accommodate, absorb, adopt, manipulate, and transform anything that can help resolve our problems and enrich our life. Being a trading port and a refugee centre, the rootlessness of Hong Kong's culture gives birth to an open, accommodative culture that is essential to our survival. One day, when the people of Hong Kong are no longer afraid of being overwhelmed, they might begin to appreciate the diversity of their own culture more powerfully.
Oscar Ho is Adjunct Associate Professor of Practice in Cultural Management at the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He specialises in the practice and critical studies of cultural management, particularly in the area of visual arts, museum management, and curatorship. He was formerly Exhibition Director at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, Senior Research Officer at the Home Affairs Bureau of the Hong Kong Government, Founding Director of Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai, and Programme Director of the MA programme in Cultural Management, CUHK. Ho received his curatorial training at Deutsche Museum in Munich and Museum of Modern Art in New York. He has been active in curatorial practice for nearly three decades and has curated many exhibitions locally and internationally in Asia, Europe, and North America.