In an exclusive live interview with HKFP, artist Kacey Wong has said that the future of Hong Kong dissident art will be new, alternative platforms, adding that the national security law will only galvanise creativity in Hong Kong.

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The Cornell-educated artist – who describes himself as a “cultural fireman” – is known for his political performance art. He has targeted issues including the Tiananmen Massacre, Chinese censorship and the national anthem law. His 2018 protest performance piece, “The Patriot”, shows him playing the Chinese national anthem on an accordion from inside a red cage outside the Chinese Government complex of Hong Kong.

‘Rule by fear’

Addressing fears surrounding the looming national security law and its potential effect on political art, Wong said the law was – instead – likely to be targeted at seizing capital from the city’s wealthy. “For people like you and me, they will just send police and hooligans to beat us up,” he says, “That’s how it works in the mainland: they rule by fear.”

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Kacey Wong’s protest performance piece against the national anthem bill in 2018, “The Patriot”.

He added that the fear of offending China within the Hong Kong art world existed long before the introduction of the national security law: “We have been seeing [within] government-run art institutions, curators and higher management self-censoring. This is understandable, as most museums are under LCSD [Leisure and Cultural Services Department], which is under Home Affairs.”

Wong said that the recent government promotional campaign in favour of the national security law may result in tighter self-censorship. “The Home Affairs is basically a local propaganda machine… Can museums and critical [decision makers] bypass their influence? I think the answer is no. [Museums] will watch… which kinds of artists they are hiring and exhibiting very closely.”

New, external platforms

In the near future, Wong – well known for his public performance art – eyes alternative and online platforms for exhibiting art “to keep pushing the boundaries of what art and where art can be.”

“If you continue to think in the old paradigm you will never be able to have true freedom.”

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Kacey Wong. Photo: Sarah Karacs/HKFP.

Since the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, Wong has sought to push the boundaries of art as a means of political dissent on the streets. “I’m not saying art on the street is better than traditional art galleries…but it’s important to think out of the box. This is how we can do something authentic [for] the society. Art is about how artists feel about the spirit of the time.”

The popularity of the growing number of grassroots art spaces, like Parallel Space in Sham Shui Po gives him hope: “These spaces are very small…but if you go there you see the queue waiting to go in. They go around the block, almost.”

“We’re in a stage where we don’t have to rely on traditional venues,” he adds. “Authenticity and genuine care and love are more valuable than a prestigious venue. This is why you see so many people…even under the conditions of a pandemic queue [ing] up to support the yellow economy. This is a game changer for business and culture.”

Concern abroad

According to Wong, the future of Hong Kong dissident art also lies outside of the city. “Since the [2014] Umbrella Revolution, there was a lot of concern abroad. A lot of genuine curiosity about how the Hong Kong people fight for freedom and liberty in support of democracy. They want to learn from us.”

He has exhibited his work about the Hong Kong struggle internationally in the past year, with exhibitions in Paris, Japan and Taiwan.

“We have to continue to test the water. In the past five years, I have been experimenting.” He points to his work from 2018, when he joined the July 1 protests in a pink tank. “But that time of freedom is already gone, it’s not possible right now. The streets are becoming more and more dangerous.”

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The Real Culture Bureau by Kacey Wong. Photo: Kacey Wong.

Wong is not just referring to police brutality: “I’m talking about the blue ribbon uncles [who] will suddenly beat you up…or the triads. This is a very disturbing time.” he says. “In terms of my own art, I [have] started to do hidden performances, rather than with props. The reason is very practical, when shit hits the fan, you can run really fast. ”

‘Laugh harder’

Commenting on the recent cancellation of an RTHK comedy programme and the value of satire, Wong believes the form is a fundamental part of Hong Kong identity. “I think it’s in the spirit of all Hong Kong people. In the 80s, Hong Kong was super famous for producing silly, satirical movies we exported around the world,’ he says,’ this [has been] part of our lives since day one.”

Wong thinks the attempt to quash comedy is futile. “Once you start to stop people from laughing, there are two possible reactions. One is you laugh even harder,” he says.

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Artist Kacey Wong. Photo: PH Yang.

“The power of comedy and satire is that it helps people to relax,” he adds, “If you let people vent out their anger by laughing, the anger will dissipate… If you stop them from laughing, they get angrier and angrier. This is what’s happening in Hong Kong. It doesn’t help the society.”

‘Creativity needs limitations’

When asked how the new law will affect the future of art in Hong Kong, Wong is optimistic. “I have been teaching for 16 years and something I’ve learnt about creativity… it needs limitation. The greater the limitation, the greater the creativity.”

“I’m so glad to see so many brave young HK artist who are stepping up against this unjust law. That’s why you see all these nice, interesting shows popping up everywhere in Hong Kong right now. Even if they pass [national security law], they’ll just change the code a bit.”

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He is confident the oncoming security law won’t be a deterrent: “You can’t stop people from laughing, it’s like stopping them from breathing. They’ll laugh more.”

Additional reporting: Tom Grundy.

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.