Like so many others in recent months, manga artist Tony Lau Kwong-shing packed up his Hong Kong life this summer and bid his friends and family farewell.

The moment he touched down on Taiwanese soil “was a breath of relief,” said the 31-year-old, who arrived in Taipei in mid-July. He had been very open about his plans to leave in the months before his departure. But he kept the details of his travel secret, afraid he would not be allowed to leave.

Tony Lau. Photo: Rhoda Kwan/HKFP.

Days before Beijing imposed its national security law (NSL) on Hong Kong, Lau had published “A Fallen City,” a volume of sketches and scenes captured during the 2019 pro-democracy protests. Lau’s other drawings illustrating Hong Kong’s post-NSL political transformation  popped up regularly on social media in the following months.

Lau has lived with anxiety and dread as authorities pressure artists and other creative industry sectors to fall in line with the national security law and be “patriotic” towards mainland China

Before Lau left Hong Kong, his father gave him his blessing, and a warning: “Don’t come back when you leave this time.”

Pressure grows on city’s creative sector

When Hong Kong’s national security law was promulgated on July 1, 2020, government officials insisted it would affect “only a tiny minority of people.” But Hong Kong’s internationally renowned–and economically important–creative sector has been  feeling the heat. Citing national security, the government has passed new censorship laws for Hong Kong’s film industry, including provisions that will allow films to be retroactively banned.

On November 12, the HK$70 billion Hong Kong M+ art museum is set to launch, and with it the city’s ambitions as a global contemporary art capital. However, pro-Beijing officials are already calling for M+ and other public museums to be regulated to screen out art that may endanger national security.

Leading the campaign against Hong Kong’s creative industries is Chinese state-owned media, which have attacked the government’s Arts Development Council for allegedly funding work by “troublemakers” that may have violated the security law.The state-backed media attacks on the arts council prompted three elected members to resign in August, one of whom cited concerns for his own and his family’s safety.

The precise number of artists choosing to leave Hong Kong is difficult to document, but Taiwanese government statistics show over 10,000 Hongkongers were granted short-term residency visas in 2020, an 84.6 per cent increase from 2019.

The government has maintained that the city’s freedoms are still guaranteed, as long as they do not endanger national security.  But critics say that the “red lines” are deliberately ambiguous and constantly shifting.

Seeing red flags

In the weeks before Lau boarded his flight to Taipei, the artist spotted something he never imagined he would see.

This photo taken on June 30, 2021 shows three police officers walking under a sea of Hong Kong and Chinese Flags. Photo: Michael Ho/Studio Incendo.

“I remember before I left, I saw posters celebrating the Chinese Communist Party’s 100 year anniversary in the MTR. I couldn’t believe that this kind of advert could exist in Hong Kong. It was so surreal,” Lau said. The visual reminder of Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s promised autonomy cemented Lau’s decision to leave the city for good.

“Hong Kong now is constantly changing. And the changes are more and more restrictive,” Lau said.

He added that although he didn’t believe all art should be political–and much of his own work is not– the shrinking space for artistic freedom nonetheless affects his creative output–and his livelihood. In the year before he left, he noticed a substantial drop in commissions for manga projects after he started posting political sketches online.

“Artistic freedom for a manga artist is extremely important,” he said.The week after Lau arrived in Taipei, five leaders of Hong Kong’s  speech therapists’ trade union were arrested over the publication of a series of children’s books. The police claimed the books, about a village of sheep defending their home from wolves, were “seditious.”

Photo: Tony Lau via Facebook.

“Even when I published my book ‘A Fallen City’, I didn’t think I would feel any pressure. But… these constant arrests made me worry whether this book would be a reason for them to target me,” he said.

‘Drift exile’

Lau isn’t the only Hong Kong artist who left for Taiwan to get out of the security law’s shadow. Well-known performance artist Kacey Wong made international headlines last month when he posted his farewell letter to Hong Kong in the form of a music video set to Vera Lynn’s wartime classic, “We’ll Meet Again.”

“For me, this is no immigration. I’m in self exile,” the 51-year-old told HKFP from his new base in Taichung, central Taiwan. Wong is in the process of setting up  his new studio, called “Drift Exile.”

He made his exit plan after authorities arrested 53 former pro-democracy lawmakers and election hopefuls on security charges in early January, for running in a self-organized primary poll. “We’re talking about publicly elected councillors and to arrest them–meaning no law, no order–that was a gigantic alarm bell, I must leave,” he said.

His instinct that it was time to go proved spot on. Just a week after he applied for his Taiwan visa in February, Wong’s name appeared on a “wanted list” of figures in an article in Ta Kung Pao, a Chinese state-owned newspaper that nowadays is a bellwether for upcoming government and police actions. When the security law was first imposed on Hong Kong last year, Wong had told HKFP he believed the law would galvanise creativity in the city. His eventual decision to leave was a way to ensure his own artistic creativity continues “by whatever means necessary.”

“Some [artists] might go underground, some may show their work at home, or in undisclosed places with censored audiences to play it safe, some artists are doing that. For me, moving to Taiwan is exactly this kind of creative response to this increasing limitation on the arts.”

Lau and Wong now are free to continue their artistic career in Taiwan. Most Hong Kong artists won’t be so fortunate. The Employment Gold Card, a special visa scheme that allowed these two artists to establish residence in Taiwan, sets a very high bar for applicants. Artists must prove their credentials with evidence of work exhibited at international arts festivals, and internationally recognised awards. 

“Patriot,” by Kacey Wong. Photo: CitizenNews.

“I know many who want to leave [Hong Kong] but can’t. The most direct way is to come to Taiwan on an investment visa, but we [artists] all don’t have that much money,” the manga artist said.

‘Art will become pure entertainment’

The speed with which authorities have clamped down on the creative sector also surprised Lau, the manga artist. “Before, I thought this would happen in ten years’ time, but it’s happened almost immediately,” he told HKFP.

“I think Hong Kong’s future is that it will become exactly the same as any other mainland city, both in terms of the city’s appearance but also people’s hearts. Everyone will no longer have critical thinking. They may even report on others who don’t think the same way as they do,” Lau said.

“There will definitely be no more space for critical art. I think art will become purely for entertainment. Because art that exists for entertainment is very easy to control, and won’t provoke certain polarising views among the people.”

Art gallery. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

“If even the opportunity to think for yourself is sealed off, I think art will just become pure entertainment and not touch people’s hearts,” he continued.

The hollowing of art in the city will mean more and more Hong Kong artists will leave, the artist predicts.

“They will find it too hard to get used to the pressure… I have friends who used to get government funding for their work, and now if we get funding, the government has even more reason to control what we create… now they will not let you draw things they don’t want to see, or even require that you make certain things they consider to be correct.”

Photo: Tony Lau via Facebook.

Wong also believes the future of art in Hong Kong will be one-dimensional. “I guess more decorative stuff is going to appear,” he said. “Artists are super sensitive, so they will also self-censor since the price to pay is just too high.”

“[The art world] will be cleansed automatically, and it will go into this code that we have already witnessed in mainland China.”

Trading places

Ironically, Taiwan and Hong Kong have traded places as creative havens. Before 1987, during Taiwan’s four decades of martial law, books banned by the government found willing printers in Hong Kong.  Now, more than thirty years later the cultural flow is moving in the opposite direction, and Taiwan has become a refuge for Hongkongers seeking creative freedom.

Photo: Tony Lau via Facebook.

Wong said he is discovering a lot of things about Taiwan that remind him of Hong Kong, in an earlier era. “This is how I grew up, with different cultures and different opinions and choosing on my own.” But unfortunately right now, with the Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown on Hong Kong, that is no longer possible.”

Settling in, starting over

Taiwan, with its similar culture and robust art scene, was an obvious choice for both Lau and Wong. But the experience of settling into a new place has been easier for one artist, less so for the other.

For Lau, the young manga artist, relocating to Taiwan was surprisingly comfortable. He was able to tap into his existing Taiwanese fan base and network, and the country’s Japanese cultural influence is a boon to his career in the genre. A few weeks out of quarantine he was already forging ahead with new collaborations.

Photo: Tony Lau via Facebook.

“After coming to Taiwan, I definitely have more creativity. I feel less pressure and I feel I can draw more and catch up on lost time,” Lau said. He is finding that Taiwan’s manga culture is more advanced and integrated than Hong Kong’s. “Self-publishing …is a relatively new development in Hong Kong. But in Taiwan it has been around for a decade,” he said.

He is currently working on a book about a traumatic and formative childhood bullying incident during a year in mainland China, as well as pursuing other projects, including one with a local Taiwanese tattoo artist. A French publication of “A Fallen City” is also set for release next month.

Performance artist Kacey Wong (Left). Photo: inmediahk.net. via C.C.2.0.

But Kacey Wong’s self-exile to Taiwan hasn’t been as seamless. Hong Kong, the place, the politics and the culture, is woven into the fabric of Wong’s best-known work: his satirical performance art during Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy marches and the 2014 Umbrella Movement. With his base now located outside the place that has been such a strong influence on his art, Wong faces a challenging period of creative transition.

For an artist whose creative work is so closely associated with Hong Kong–he’s known for his satirical performance art during Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy marches and the 2014 Umbrella Movement–exile in Taiwan come with a heavy price tag. 

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

“I think my art career in that aspect has been terminated, to be precise,” he told HKFP. “I have been doing that kind of performance art during protests for the past decade… but now, the crackdown is in full scale, there’s no protests in Hong Kong. Not to mention, you have to pay a super heavy price for these small actions.”

“So one has to be more creative, as well as adaptive. My move to Taiwan is exactly that. By pulling myself out of the red zone, I can continue to advocate for those who are still in Hong Kong and cannot speak out,” he continued. “I imagine another Kacey Wong, who’s stuck in Hong Kong now, and I imagine, ‘What should I say in order to help?’”

Kacey Wong. Photo: via Twitter.

Wong plans to reinvent himself as a performance artist and evolve to reflect his new home,Taiwan–an island of diverse landscapes and nuanced layers of historical identity.

“This is very important because it’s related to how I’m going to continue to grow and learn as a student of the arts,” he said.

Thinking about his future artistic direction played an important part in Wong’s choice of where to settle in Taiwan. “Taichung is in the middle of the island, so to explore the beautiful east side, the cultural north side, and the historically-grounded south side, it’s all within two to three hours.”

Photo: Allan Lau via Pixabay.

He decided to come to Taiwan, rather than someplace in the West, because he “looks like everyone else” here and doesn’t feel the need to “constantly prove himself.” But even with the invisibility Hongkongers enjoy in Taiwan, Wong didn’t feel immediately at home.

In fact, during his first days in Taichung, he felt a deep disconnect between himself and his surroundings. “This place was so foreign to me. I felt like I was in a dream. I looked around, I looked at the cars, the people passing by me… and I couldn’t believe that I was here, physically.”

“And then I slowly realised I felt like that because I needed to anchor myself with the people and the place. So in the past month, I’ve been actively going out to say ‘Hi!’, opening up the map to memorise the names of the streets, look at the coins, the money, and appreciate everything,” he said. 

Taiwan welcomes new artists

Hong Kong’s exile artists are, so far, finding new friends and a warm welcome from the local arts community. Galleries and Taiwanese artists have been enthusiastic about Hong Kongers coming to add their talents to the scene.

A spokesperson for the Taiwan Art Gallery Association said that the arrival of Hong Kong artists “will undoubtedly have a positive influence on a diversified development of the visual arts industry as a whole.” 

Photo: Paul Arps via Flickr.

“It sounds like a great thing!” Taiwanese artist Ting-Ting Cheng said. “I always believe that the more people in the art scene, the better, so we can have more diverse works, different opinions. I think [the influx of Hong Kong artists] will be nothing but positive.”

Will Taiwan become the preferred place of exile for more Hong Kong artists? A lot depends on whether Taiwan relaxes its employment visa restrictions to allow less well-known Hong Kong artists an opportunity to emigrate. In the meantime, established artists like Lau and Wong are excited about finding a new way forward for their art careers in Taiwan’s freer creative atmosphere.

“Right now, everybody is very much focused on escaping the Chinese Communist Party, but I think one also has to think about what happens after you successfully escape,” Wong said..

“What are you going to do in the next 25 years, 50 years? That’s important too.”

Rhoda Kwan

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.