Viewed from a Train: Glimpses of the Artist as Hong Kong Citizen

Valerie C. Doran looks at an arts festival held in a Hong Kong village slated for demolition, and how artists respond to social issues in alternative ways.


In Hong Kong, during the third and fourth days of this year's Lunar New Year holidays, an unusual festival was taking place in a small farming village in the New Territories. The village itself was in a somewhat strange state of semi-demolition: whitewashed homes with luxuriant flowers spilling over their walls, and swept courtyards where people sat enjoying tea and savories, were juxtaposed with abandoned houses, bulldozed fields, barrier fences and the rubble of demolished structures. Yet along the main pathway leading through the village, a diverse array of small paintings adorned the cement surfaces, and outdoor walls were plastered with a series of intriguing black-and-white photographs of young Hong Kong people prostrating themselves on urban streets, like Tibetan pilgrims in ritual prayer. Music came floating in from the distance, and a bend in the path revealed a surreal image of a rock band playing in the middle of what looked like a desolate, rock-strewn desert—all that remained of a once-flourishing papaya grove. Hundreds of people—villagers, visitors and artists alike—sat on blankets or stood in the shade of umbrellas relaxing and listening to the music played over two days by over fifty bands and musicians. At the edge of the field, suspended from a tall, withered tree, a gigantic straw-and-bamboo sculpture resembling a kind of totemic head trembled in the breeze. Just beyond, an abandoned area of semi-demolished structures had been reinvented as temporary museums of the written word, or as the sites of art installations and performance works. A cleared area with a dirt ground bordered by a security fence became a site for Today's Hong Kong Museum, a kind of archeology of the future where visitors could imagine what might also be in store for them. 

There were no tickets to this event: no fees charged, no permits granted, no media coverage, no rules applied. But for these two days, from early afternoon to late at night, well over two thousand people travelled the distance to the village, to see the art and hear the music, to buy homemade snacks made by village volunteers, to watch films screened in the open air at night, or to listen to stories told by a village elder. They also had myriad opportunities to read the literature posted in a number of strategic spots, describing the contemporary story of this village—Choi Yuen Tsuen—as a politically and culturally contested site.

The semi-demolished state of Choi Yuen Tsuen was due neither to war nor natural disaster, but ultimately to the ideology of rapid urban "renewal" and "development" that seems to be holding Hong Kong in thrall these days. Organisers of and participants in the art event, dubbed "Choi Yuen Tsuen Woodstock: An Arts Festival among the Ruins," were a loose affiliation of villagers, and artists, musicians, writers, academics, and social activists from all over Hong Kong. Many of them, such as performance artist ger Choi (Choi Tsz Kwan), musicians Ah Kok Wong and Leung Wing Lai, writer Tang Siu Wah, and social worker Chu Hoi-dick, among a number of others, are at the forefront of what has come to be known as the "Post-80s generation" of emerging cultural activists; while others, such as photographers Ducky Tse and Benson Tsang, literary theorist Mirana Szeto, people's theatre activist Yuenjie Maru, environmentalist and writer Zhou Zhaoxiang, music activist Kung Chi Shing, and members of the Woofer Ten art collective such as Luke Ching Chin Wai, Jaspar Lau Kin Wah, and Cally Yu, joined ranks from their own paths of committed cultural activism.

Their collective involvement in or support of the cause of Choi Yuen Tsuen can be seen as reflective of the condition that, for a growing number of Hong Kong citizens—and for many artists in particular—the official rhetoric of large-scale development has started to take on the semblance of some ominous, Matrix-like obfuscation of reality. Their aim is to join with the community and, through the medium of art, to present alternative, and viscerally comprehensible, "pictures of reality" (to borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein). Their organisation of and participation in the arts festival was a joyful gesture of solidarity with the villagers, who were spending their last Lunar New Year in their homes before final eviction; and by attracting a large audience to this peaceful event within this contested site, one of the more powerful forms of civil action. 

To give some background, Choi Yuen Tsuen is being demolished and its community displaced in the name of a massive government infrastructure project, the HK$67 billion Hong KongGuangzhou Express Rail Link (XRL for short), to be constructed by the privately owned Mass Transit Railway Corporation (also a major developer). Informed by the government in late 2009 that their village was slated for demolition, the villagers, while given some monetary compensation, were also given a short deadline to leave their homes, which left them with few options of places to go. A significant number of farming households wanted to continue to farm, and asked for more time to locate land and build their homes before being evicted. The government refused. Social workers, and political and arts activists joined the villagers' cause, forming the Choi Yuen Tsuen Concern Group, and in the process discovered many other aspects of the XRL project policies that they felt were questionable. A major protest was organised outside the Hong Kong Legislative Council in January 2010, a significant development of which was the appearance in full force of the "Post-80's Youth anti-XRL" movement, formed of a loosely affiliated but closely collaborative association of young cultural activists, including artists, musicians, educators, students, writers, performing artists, and social workers—who coordinated via Facebook, and had already taken other anti-development causes under their wing. The black-and-white photographs exhibited during the arts festival at Choi Yuen Tsuen were, in fact, shot by Benson Tsang during this demonstration, and show the protest action undertaken by the Post-80's group on that day.

At this point I would like to take a brief detour and revisit two quite different cultural events that took place in Hong Kong in the month before the Choi Yuen Tsuen festival, and where something of relevance emerges. On January 25th, a forum on the subject of "cultural leadership" was held on the campus of the University of Hong Kong, co-organised by the British Council. The forum, entitled "Leading Change," was presented as part of HKU's new Advanced Cultural Leadership Programme, and included UK-based specialists from the Clore Leadership Programme, as well as a couple of artists. Among the latter was a young Irish choreographer and performance artist named Fearghus O'Conchuir, who gave a talk on the idea of "the artist as skilled citizen." Stressing that artistic practice "should anticipate, react to and lead change not only in the cultural sector, but in the wider society," O'Conchuir talked about the importance of the artist's "pioneering position at the edge of society," where he or she may be "driven to attend to what is neglected by or invisible to the majority of people." He also stressed the importance of recognising the "valuable centrality of [artists'] liminal perspective in any consideration of how to lead and foster a vibrant, diverse and sensitive civilisation."

O'Conchuir is an artist particularly concerned with the "flowing" relationship between bodies and buildings, and often performs in abandoned or contested architectural sites. Describing the implicit message of his work, O'Conchuir stated: "When I dance my strange idiosyncratic dance in these kinds of places, I claim my right and responsibility to be part of the big energy of change, my right to place art alongside all the other necessary activities of daily life and I proclaim, not shouting but not yielding, that these places in our changing cities in the corners and folds of someone else's urban plans are by right places for others too to express their idiosyncratic individuality."

A few days after hearing O'Conchuir at the HKU forum, I went to a panel on art criticism held at Fotan, an old industrial district near Shatin, which has gradually developed into a thriving artists' community. The panel was part of an event called "Writing Fotan," a series of workshops, forums and panel discussions organised by a group of local artists, curators, and writers including Anthony Leung Po Shan, Jeff Leung, Enoch Cheng, and Vivian Ting, which focused on issues of artistic and critical practice in Hong Kong. Three guest speakers from Taiwan and Guangzhou had been invited to the event to share their views. At one point in her discussion, the Guangzhou-based editor and critic Wu Jianru made a unexpected and somewhat provocative observation: "I have been wondering about the question of why so many Hong Kong artists create art as part of some kind of social or political protest activity. Why don't they just participate directly in the protest actions as protestors, rather than as artists, and then do their art apart from this? Is their intention in making protest art to somehow please or ingratiate new audiences?"

In a recent conversation, Mirana Szeto pointed out that many of the artists and cultural activists involved in the Choi Yuen Tsuen festival and protest actions have been engaged in issues of heritage conservation and of communities threatened by "urban renewal" for a number of years, with the watershed period being the six-month protest action against the demolition of the historic Star Ferry piers in Central in 2006. In an essay published in 2008, Carolyn Cartier, a specialist in human geography and issues of urbanisation in China who was based in Hong Kong for several years, gives a riveting description of witnessing one of the performance actions undertaken by artists during the Star Ferry protests:

When I visited the site in December 2006, the entrance to the piers had been boarded up, and cultural activists had mounted placards, information boards and banners all around. What caught everyone's immediate attention though, in the middle of the roadway where taxis had queued, was a young woman sitting on top of a high ladder, dressed in taut black, looking towards the clock tower. Scissors in hand, she intermittently and methodically cut off pieces of her hair and gave them to the cold breeze. Police stood by and watched; news camera crews filmed her and bystanders with digital cameras put them on movie mode. She was having a mesmerizing effect, her silent performance speaking to Hong Kong people: the loss of the Star Ferry piers is deeply personal, like losing a piece of yourself.

The young woman in question was ger Choi (Choi Tsz Kwan), at the time a student of artist Kith Tsang Tak-ping, who was a main organiser of performance actions throughout the protest campaign. Cartier also quotes a statement issued by a group of students of Tsang at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University who participated in the protests, concerning their mission as activists:

Our art action responds to the urban environment; Our art action looks after the urban environment; Our art action brings history back to the forefront of urban spaces; Our art action aims at raising public awareness of caring for our own historical-urban environment; Our art action appeals to the public's support to save the Star Ferry and the clock tower; Our art action questions why and how our histories have been systematically erased from both sides of the Victoria Harbour; Our art action welcomes public participation.

The week after the Choi Yuen Tsuen arts festival, I met with the artist Luke Ching and asked him his view on the idea of artist as citizen. "Artists have an alternative way of engaging in the role of citizen," he said. "Because we don't have democracy [in Hong Kong], we make use of the power of our imaginations to overcome power. We want to link with the people, to understand the way a farmer uses his tools, for example, and then to extend the associations, to stretch the space of imagination in order to open up new ways for people to understand the realities of their environment." When I asked him what he thought the Choi Yuen Tsuen arts festival had accomplished, he responded: "For me one of the most important effects was that it created more positive energy for the villagers at a difficult time. And it was another good example that the art culture should be developed from the bottom up."

In 1934, the German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin (18921940) presented a lecture entitled "The Author as Producer" at the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris. 

In his text, Benjamin urged authors and artists to go beyond observation-response and ideological identification and to engage actively in social change as "producers." In 2004 the curator and critic Okui Enwezor drafted a kind of response to Benjamin's speech, in a lecture entitled "The Artist as Producer in Times of Crisis." Enwezor describes "a visible turn that has become increasingly evident in the field of culture at large, that is the extent to which a certain critical activism in contemporary art has become a way to pose the questions raised seventy years ago anew through collective practices…To that end, recent confrontations within the field of contemporary art have precipitated an awareness that there have emerged in increasing numbers, within the last decade, new critical, artistic formations that foreground and privilege the mode of collective and collaborative production."  Clearly, one can see the connections: artists in Hong Kong responding to a sense of urgency, engaging in collective social action, opening up alternative rooms for the imagination. 

One picture of reality that emerges is the high-speed railway as cultural metaphor: of the insane speed of "development," which allows no time or space to see what has been leveled in its path; of the sense of being forced to board a fast train to a destination for which we never bought a ticket.


Valerie C Doran is a critic, curator, and translator in the field of contemporary Asian art with a special interest in cultural cross-currents and comparative art theory. She is presently Honorary Lecturer in the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine at the University of Hong Kong and is a contributing editor of Orientations magazine. She is an academic advisor of Asia Art Archive.



1. English translation of Wu's verbal comment is my own.

2. Carolyn Cartier, "Culture and the City," The China Review, 2008, vol. 8, No 1.

3. The full text of Enwezor's lecture can be found online at 16 Beaver,



Valerie C. DORAN, 任卓華

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