At the intersection of Shanghai Street and Hamilton Street you will find a wooden bench on the sidewalk, a plain black slab pushed up against the metal fence. If you sit down and lean back, you will feel the breeze of traffic whizzing past behind your head.

The bench is the work of Sammu Chan, whose main preoccupation for the past three years has been to find a symbiosis between art and the Yau Ma Tei neighbourhood. “I’d call it community art,” he said of the bench. “It’s an artwork set in the community.”

“There are people sitting on it around the clock. In the morning, it is students and people who get off working night shifts. At 8am, the delivery guy is there to distribute his wares. Later it’s a certain type of older men discussing sex workers. At 4pm, it is the Filipino domestic workers and the moms. Much of the time, there are also mainland travellers getting off tour buses.”

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Sammu Chan. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Many such projects have sprung from CCCD Artspace Green Wave Art, located at 404 Shanghai Street. Not dissimilar to the fashionable galleries of Sheung Wan – with floor-to-ceiling windows and conspicuously white walls – but run by people with rolled up sleeves who drink beer instead of wine.

Chan serves as curator and, since 2016, Green Wave Art has gained a reputation for being one of the most versatile and unorthodox spaces in Hong Kong. Every week there was something new: it has hosted exhibitions, concerts, screenings, poetry readings, performances, talks, workshops.

Sometimes there would even be “emergency exhibitions” to respond to current affairs, Chan said. Lately, the art space has been screening four documentary films that deal with protests in Hong Kong and overseas. That event, too, was billed as a “response” – a collective reaction to Green Wave Art’s upcoming demise.

‘Everyone is an artist’

Born in Beijing, Chan first made his name as a performance artist in China’s turbulent 1980s. He later settled in Hong Kong in 2002, where his art has become a regular presence on the streets.

Much of his career has been shaped in response to contemporary China, and every year he creates works to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre, which saw hundreds if not thousands of students and protesters killed by the People’s Liberation Army.

In 2014, he stood at the Mong Kok pedestrian zone while wearing a black blindfold and holding a long pole made of burnt wood. “Tell me, was there really this day? June 4, 1989,” read the inscription.

Tiananmen Square 1989
Protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. File Photo: Citizen News.

Chan was also deeply involved in Hong Kong’s local affairs, and took part in protests opposing the 2007 Queen’s Pier demolition and the 2011 Occupy Central protests.

“A lot of performance artists in Hong Kong are concerned with social movements,” he said. “They see the need to address problems in this cultural environment.”

However, an invitation from an old friend in 2016 made him rethink his role. Augustine Mok, a leading figure in Hong Kong’s theatre scene, asked Chan if he would want to take over the Yau Ma Tei storefront.

Chan agreed because he thought it was a chance to experiment. Instead of being a solitary artist, he could assume the role of a community organiser – bringing together artists of different stripes and amplifying their work.

“Performance art usually takes place in the community, but it is difficult to have a deep connection,” he said. “I used to create work on my own, and there weren’t many opportunities to interact with a community’s dynamics.”

“How do things happen here, and what is the role of art? It takes time to collect one’s thoughts and explore, so I wanted to settle into a place.”

The ground floor premises of 404 Shanghai Street has its own curious history. Since 1999, the government has taken over ownership and leased it out to the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (ADC) for a nominal annual rent. The ADC dubbed it the “Shanghai Street Artspace Exhibition Hall” and would seek bids on how to manage the space.

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Sammu Chan at CCCD Artspace Green Wave Art. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

It remains the only community-level art space in Hong Kong that is subsidised by public funds.

In 2016, the ADC awarded a two-year contract to Mok and his team at the Centre for Community Cultural Development (CCCD) with an annual budget of HK$500,000. Chan was brought on board for day to day operations, along with another performance artist Au Yeung Tung.

“For a long time now, we have had a banner showing Joseph Beuys holding a pole with a crowd behind him,” Mok once wrote. “Beuys is certainly a great influence and we are guided by his famous quote, ‘Every human being is an artist, a freedom being called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking and structures that inform our lives.’”

Accessibility and dialogue are key, Mok said: “We believe that the residents [around Shanghai Street] are not only consumers of art activity, but also creators of various arts.”

Seed bombs

The name “Green Wave Art” was decided by the CCCD team as a kind of inside joke and also a tribute to Yau Ma Tei. In Cantonese, the name is a pun for a particular kind of massage parlour that the neighbourhood is known for.

Just in case the punchline wasn’t adequately clear, the team installed a gaudy neon sign outside that said “China Dream 24 hours.”

Green Wave Art was irreverent, playful, but also determined to address the pressing concerns facing Hong Kong today. One of the earliest projects revolved around land rights in the New Territories, where the government bulldozed villages to make way for development.

However, the artists’ progressive politics did not meet the reaction they expected in Yau Ma Tei. Local residents were no fans of big developers – who were responsible for their high rents and cramped apartments – but some saw the New Territories villagers as illegitimate squatters.

Ma Shi Po
New Territories villagers hold out in Ma Shi Po to oppose development plans. File photo: Facebook.

“They’d come here and scold us,” Chan said. “Turns out they thought [the villagers] were squatters because they insisted on staying on the land after the government took it back.”

“Because of this, we held a debate on ‘squatters vs. real estate hegemony’… but they were still not convinced. Then, we artists used our own money to organise a free tour to Northeast New Territories.”

Many people changed their minds after the tour, Chan said with some satisfaction. The programmes at Green Wave Art often have ambitious themes, tackling not just local but also international topics – but there was never any fear that the issues were too highbrow for the kaifong, the people from the neighbourhood.

The key was to get people involved, Chan said, with one favourite example being a family portrait project. “For the better part of a year, we offered a photography salon every Sunday, and a lot of people came once we said it’s free,” he said.

While simple on the surface, the project was an astute response to two social trends: first, family portraits were popular keepsakes for Hong Kong’s elderly, and Yau Ma Tei had an ageing population. Second, there were no places families could go for traditional-style portraits because the old studios had all closed down.

“To our surprise, we discovered that we were also helping to increase people’s family time,” Chan said.

“Sometimes we rejected our good friends who were great painters or photographers. They would get angry and say, ‘Why would you exhibit such bad work but not exhibit mine?’ I replied, ‘no, your work had no contact with the community,’” he said.

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The interior of Green Wave Art. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

After three years, Chan said that not all residents have warmed to Green Wave Art, but at least there was some level of mutual recognition. Just look at the “seed bomb” project, a cheeky rebuke to Hong Kong’s problems of space: people were invited to make little balls of dirt with seeds in them, and then to chuck them anywhere they please. It was designed as a small act of empowerment – allowing the public to reclaim spaces which were too often denied them.

Parents would bring along their children to seed bomb workshops, Chan said. Later they would come back and show him pictures of saplings.

Art without license

Trouble arrived at Green Wave Art on December 3, 2018 in the form of a letter from the ADC. The government-appointed body said the art space would be shut down by the end of April, because someone complained that it lacked a licence to be a “place of public entertainment.”

The decision was met with immediate outcry from Hong Kong’s artist community, with some accusing the ADC of imposing political censorship. Chan and artists that frequent Green Wave Art have always been outspoken on political issues, but last November they took their protest one step further.

When political satirist Badiucao’s exhibition was cancelled over security concerns and art space Tai Kwun tried to axe a talk by Chinese dissident author Ma Jian, the group of artists decried the two incidents as “Chinese-style political censorship” that threatened Hong Kong’s freedom of expression. Green Wave Art was sealed off with tape for seven days.

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Green Wave Art closed in protest. Photo: Stand News.

“We had no other way. A hunger strike was too old-fashioned, and I didn’t dare to commit seppuku [Japanese ritualistic suicide], so the only way was to close up shop,” Chan said. He added that he had no regrets about the protest, and he was surprised by the lack of strong reactions from some of his fellow artists.

As for the ADC’s decision, Chan said he had no proof that it was a reprisal or political suppression.

Nevertheless, it was “absurd” to use licencing as an excuse, Chan said. Why would it be a problem now, when previous tenants had run similar projects since 1999 without issue? Why was it necessary to close down the art space so urgently instead of just letting the lease run out?

In a brief statement to HKFP, the ADC did not give any details on the closure. The Council made its decision “after considering the current situation of the visual arts sector and the long term development of the project, including the use of space and its target grant recipient,” it said.

“We will look deep into the future direction of this project and devise the best operation mode for the space with an aim to foster arts development in Hong Kong.”

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), which handles licencing issues, told HKFP that Green Wave Art had no licence to be a “place of public entertainment” – but also was unable to say if a licence was needed at all: “Whether the activities held on the concerned premises are required to obtain a [licence]… depends on the actual modus operandi of the activities. As for the past events held on those premises, the FEHD does not have such information,” a spokesperson said.

Under the Places of Public Entertainment Ordinance, the definition of entertainment would cover a “concert, stage performance, musical, dramatic or theatrical entertainment, lecture or story-telling, exhibition” and more. Any person who operates a place of public entertainment without a licence can face a maximum fine of HK$25,000 and six months in jail.

A spokesperson for the Lands Department, which owns the premises of 404 Shanghai Street, said licencing issues were the responsibility of the tenant, not the landlord. The Lands Department added that it “had not received any request for assistance from the tenant in its application for any license or permit.”

green wave art sammu chan
Sammu Chan. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

As April draws to a close, it is unclear where Green Wave Art may go.

One option may be to simply ignore the eviction notice and continue running the space without public funds. Green Wave Art’s predecessor, Wooferten, was also at odds with the ADC when its original contract expired in 2013. It stayed in place for another two years before closing down.

Chan was also seeking new venues, and some possible options were already lined up. “It is very important for it to be on the street level. If it’s upstairs, or in an industrial building, then it becomes just another artists’ commune,” he said.

Sitting on the community bench he built, Chan looked at the people of Yau Ma Tei going about their day: “At first I felt bad. Now I tell people, as long as we are around, we will find space.”

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Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.