2014-03 Undoing Nationalism, Fabricating, Transnationalism, Dean Chan / Third Text

2014 Hong Kong Roundtable_24Sep

Undoing Nationalism,
Fabricating Transnationalism
A Hong Kong Roundtable Discussion with Oscar Ho, Frank Vigneron, Lam Tung-pang and Samson Young,

Moderated and Edited by Dean Chan

Dean Chan In this special issue of Third Text entitled ‘The Transnational Turn’, we focus on East Asian mobility and migration. We examine the legacies of East Asian migration, particularly to the West, in historical and contemporary terms, and we also consider how East Asian artists and artworks circulate in other transnational ways today. After meeting all of you here in Hong Kong and learning about the different work you are doing, I have found that many aspects resonate with the work that other scholars and artists are engaged with in this special issue. So this is where this specially convened roundtable discussion comes in – to provide a focus for revisiting and expanding on these themes. I thought we would start with Samson and Tung-pang. Might I begin by asking about the training you received – be it locally or overseas – and how it has impacted on your current art practice?

Samson Young I think my relationship to my upbringing and my training is very complicated. Everybody’s relationship to her or his training is complicated in one way or another. I am always trying to imagine a different situation to the one I am currently in. It’s like an imagination of being able to see one’s face from the outside. But nobody has seen their face outside of their body. You only see yourself in mirrors or videos. It’s never your own face from the outside. In the way that I deal with my training, I try at that and I fail at that. Just to backtrack, I actually grew up and had my undergraduate education in Australia during the Pauline Hanson era.1 It was a political climate that wasn’t very friendly towards immigrants in Australia at that time. I remember in my undergraduate training in Sydney – I have only ever received music training, not contemporary art training – there were Asian music classes and world music classes, and I found myself wondering why things were proportioned in the way they were. Of course, I am not saying that world music must be proportioned in the same way as all the other kinds of music. Rather, I was very much aware that I was an immigrant in Australia. And so whatever I did was tinted by that realization through myself and other people. I remember the first public performance that I received in Australia was a Young Composers Salon at the Sydney International Music Festival. They have studio concerts for younger composers and I had one piece performed that sounded kind of exotic. It didn’t actually sound Chinese. If anything, it sounded more like Japanese, these gestures that were in the piece. A composer came up to me after the concert and expressed that she really liked the piece but she wondered why my ‘Chineseness’ did not come through. Very quickly it became obvious to me that this issue of race, ethnicity or origin is both something that you put forward and a demand that is going to be imposed upon you wherever you are. I think because of that experience – even when I was no longer just working in the concert hall and working instead in galleries and museums and with visual artifacts etcetera – there was a time when I was acutely aware that I did not want do anything that was self-orientalizing. I found that act to be distasteful, dishonest and not where I belong. I didn’t really have that experience because I was somebody who grew up in Australia and then came back to Hong Kong to study and then went to the US. It’s not a part of my repertoire to put forward these oriental motifs. For the longest time, I had this notion, this fictional narrative in my mind, which went like this: as a kid who grew up in Sydney, New York or Hong Kong, as long as we grew up in metropolitan areas, I thought – or I tried to convince myself – that our experiences are going to be the same. I bought into that whole transnational metropolitan narrative and I thought that was my way out. If I had to look into myself and find something that is uniquely my voice then I may have to find metaphors that point to that sort of metropolitan upbringing. That was what I believed in. But as soon as I began to deconstruct my training, especially my Western classical music training – and also another pivotal point was when I came back in 2009 to Hong Kong – I think all of that fell apart. There is such a big difference and gap between my fictional imagination of that metropolitan experience and the lived experience of being in Hong Kong. I no longer believed in the previous rhetoric I was going by. I previously thought that to deal with this issue there was no other way but to maybe do what all these artists, musicians and composers do, which is to self-orientalize and which I really, really did not want to do. But now I realize there is actually more nuance in what people actually do and not everybody is self-orientalizing. There is a whole gamut of approaches and array of expressions so now I come to a place where I feel I need these to be more grounded in the lived experience of where I am.

Lam Tung-pang
I was born in Hong Kong and raised here. I did my BA Fine Arts at Chinese University [of Hong Kong]. At primary and high school, I did a bit of calligraphy but that’s it. We mostly did painting and the most famous artists known to Hong Kong students were Van Gogh and Picasso. We were taught Western Masters only when we were at high school. At Chinese University, I started to learn more about Chinese art but at the same time we still studied Western art. In those three years at undergraduate level, we had to study Chinese painting and calligraphy as well as doing oil paintings. There was also Arabic and other art, so there was 5000 years of East and West art history. I learned about Chinese calligraphy for three months, then Sanskrit for three months, then drawing, mixed media, modern art and so on. We only get to taste different things. So after graduating from Chinese University, I didn’t want to stay in Hong Kong. By the 1990s, there was a sense of no hope to be full time artist in Hong Kong, so I wanted to escape from my hometown and study overseas. I completed my MA in London in one year [2004]. After that, I didn’t really want to do back to Hong Kong so I stayed there for another two years. When I got to London, I learned that art is not only about aesthetics or visual elements. It is more engaged with social issues of the time. In Hong Kong, I just learned about Western art through books or videos, which created a distance. In London, I felt like the art I studied was so close. When I opened the book to read about, say, Picasso, I could go to the National Gallery and I can find Picasso paintings there. In Hong Kong, I felt that I always studied Western art through imagination – from pictures, from websites. Being in London helped me criticize how I learned about art in Hong Kong. So when I came back I started to look at local resources like antiques in the Hong Kong Heritage Museum – or Hong Kong Museum of Art where there is a good collection of Chinese paintings. At the Chinese University Library, there is a good collection catalogues and books about Chinese paintings, which I never looked at when I was an undergraduate student (laughs). I could go the library and read about artworks that I could then find in local museums. When I was in London and felt bored or did not want to go to lectures, I could just walk to the museums and look at art. I want to have that kind of feeling – that art is part of your life and around you. That’s why I started doing Chinese paintings and that kind of thing. It’s not because of the Chinese aspect. It’s because they are local resources. That’s how I got into this kind of art practice. When I went to New York on a fellowship by Asian Cultural Council [2013], I started to look at the museums and resources there, but it’s not about Western art as such. It is about looking at the things that surround you. This is the biggest change compared to the time when I was studying at Chinese University.

It seems to me that both of you are acutely aware of whatever contexts you’re in and the expectations of those contexts as well as the pressures which come along with them. You also negotiate those different contexts in reflexive ways – whether you are negotiating the UK or Australian contexts, or negotiating what it means to bring all your experiences back into the lived experience of the Hong Kong context. What’s really interesting to me is this constant push and pull that your different types of mobility have created, and how this has become a generative part of your art practice. Oscar, this is the point where I want to bring you into the conversation. What are your thoughts on this issue?

Oscar Ho
I want to talk about this as an artist first. I trained as an artist and lived in North America for ten years [PERIOD]. In my second year in art school, there was one moment when I did modern ink painting. When you are in a foreign world, you feel so insecure and you want to do something Chinese, so I did that for approximately two months. One day I asked myself, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ I have never been in touch with ink painting. I listened to the Beatles as I grew up! (Laughs) So I stopped [doing ink painting] and did what everyone else did at that time. This is one point I want to make about nationality. Years later I came back to Hong Kong. One of the reasons why I came back is despite the fact that I had good friends and got used to living in the States, Hong Kong is the only place where I didn’t feel like a foreigner. That’s the only place where I walk on the street and feel, ‘This is my place.’ After I came back [WHEN], I continued to make art. Then I found something really funny happening in Hong Kong where all the artists here were making art for the New York critics. So I made myself a project: how can I make art that New York critics cannot understand? That became my mission. It’s not that I don’t want them to understand at all; rather, they have to do as much work as I did to understand their art. Finally I found out that writing stories is something they had difficulty understanding because, in addition to the pictures, the stories were written in Chinese. You had to do some research to understand them. But soon after I worked on that I decided, ‘No, I don't want the Chinese to understand either. I only want to do it for the Hong Kong people.’ So I started writing the stories using Hong Kong colloquialisms instead. Only the Hong Kong audience would understand that writing. There is a kind of transnationality happening here, too. I have only shown my stories around town in Hong Kong once because, at that time, the focus was on my curatorial work. It’s ironic because I like to keep my joy about my artworks private. I show them to friends at home over tea and we talk about the works. There is a kind of intimacy. I want to keep art personal and intimate. But then, this is also a very Chinese way, a literati way of exhibition. In the end, I’m not saying that I am resistant to Western ways. In fact, I have acquired their language and critical vocabulary. But there is a strong desire to resist that kind of domination.

DC Can you expand on this notion of resistance?

I am thinking about Hong Kong from a much broader perspective. In some ways, Hong Kong is in a funny position. It’s not exactly a nation. In fact, we hate the idea of being national. That’s one problematic. For many of the older generation, they are all immigrants. This is an immigrant culture, or at least it is rooted in immigrant culture. The older generation has a kind of diaspora psychology. There is also a sense of nostalgia. For us [in the younger generation], I think it is more complicated. I think Hong Kong is also a rather unusual example in Asia in that we are not quite nationalistic and we hate to be nationalistic as well. On the one hand, we feel comfortable with the West. On the other, we also feel – at least for me anyway – a certain resistance towards it. After all, the colonial experience is the most significant part of Western experience that many of us have gone through. So we are resistant to it. We like to see the colonial injustice undone. But, on the other hand, we know damn well it isn’t completely undone yet and we don’t want to identify with it. We are in a really weird position. You do realize there are many things in the Western world that are really appreciated and you want to embrace them. At the same time, you want to stand on your own – but you don't have something to hang on to either. For the older generation, it may be different. But for me, unconsciously, I go back to this literati thing. I love poems. I force my kids to read poems (laughs) – Chinese poems and so on. East or West: that’s not my main concern. It’s the infrastructure of power that I am most concerned with. It’s the balance: ‘Yes, you’ve got some good stuff but don’t overwhelm me with that.’ To respect what I have and to have the willingness to be humble, to look at the local, to respect and try to understand what the local has, is essential to me. So, for me, East or West is not the concern, the Chinese or the British is not the concern. It is the balance of power and also the respect for other cultures, which is my greatest concern.

DC Frank, let’s bring you into the discussion at this point. Do you still like Hong Kong?2

Frank Vigneron (Laughs) I do! I’m thrilled with the points Oscar has raised about this question of ‘Chineseness’, this idea that Hong Kong has difficulty in dealing with the question that it is Chinese. I have been observing for about five years the renewal of a fairly backward-looking notion of Confucianism that is being promoted by the state in China through scholars at Beijing University, some of whom have been invited by Chinese University of Hong Kong to give talks, and who defend this notion of ‘Chinese for the Chinese’, Chinese culture as something pure, something that needs to be cleaned up of all these Western elements and so on. It reeks of nationalism. This situation is also expressed in ink art, which is not new at all in Hong Kong. But you had to wait until the 1990s in China to have some consistency there. I’m not saying that Mainland Chinese artists practicing ink art are nationalistic in any way. Actually, it is something you see on the part of curators, like the current exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Art.3 Pi Daojian [the exhibition’s curator] is rather nationalistic. The way he expresses all these notions are, I think, totally unacceptable. Regarding this idea of nationalism, this idea of protecting culture, whatever that means, you don’t see that at all, ever, from Hong Kong artists. There is still a big debate about ink art here. But it is always debates relating to ideas of the traditional, the contemporary and so on. It never takes on this very political, nationalistic tone that you always get from Mainland China. That’s one specific example in the domain of art. As Oscar said, this attitude of ‘borrowing’ (although I don’t like the term) – of taking from here and there – is something that’s been very much alive in Hong Kong for a long time. So, yes, I still like Hong Kong. The more I see the nationalistic trait being emphasized in Mainland China, the more I like Hong Kong and the more I like the actual resistance that Hong Kong curators and artists put up against these attitudes coming from Mainland China. Due to the fact that I am European, I grew up with an understanding of nationalism. We know what nationalism does and that it can lead to fascism and so on. It is very worrying to see China becoming so powerful and putting forward this soft power in promoting Chinese culture. It is also comes with the unnecessary baggage of political dominance. In the cultural world, that is becoming more and more obvious, very sadly so. There was recently a show of ink art put up by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. This followed another exhibition in New York. There were also other exhibitions about ink art – two in London, one in Paris. When you look at the way Europeans and North Americans react to the idea of ink art, they are very happy about it because they feel very comfortable that this is Chinese, one hundred percent, so they don’t have to deal with the idea of hybridity, which usually comes with negative connotations in Europe and North America. I think the idea of hybridity in Hong Kong is more widely accepted and has been so for a much longer time. At the Fine Arts department [at the Chinese University of Hong Kong] we have this lovely guy, Zhou Jin, teaching painting who comes from Hangzhou in China. I once asked him about his thoughts on hybridity. They were all terribly negative: hybridity is like a mongrel dog; it is impure. He didn’t say that he rejected it because he knew he was talking to me. It was clear that he was very uncomfortable with the whole notion of hybridity. But for our Hong Kong alumni, they are really okay with that notion. They basically understand that that’s the way culture functions, that’s the way culture lives.

DC That’s a really interesting point. Colleagues of mine have done lectures and speaking tours in Mainland China and they have reported that it is generally their lectures on hybridity that generated the most discontent and debate. When they talk about, for example, Chinese Australian artists, there are lots of questions in response, lots of ‘but that’s no longer Chinese’. I think that is symptomatic of the hybridity question and how it translates – or not – in specific contexts. Tung-pang, would you agree with the landscape of Hong Kong and its hybrid space of possibility as mapped out by both Oscar and Frank? Do you regard it as such a space to practice your art? Why practice your art here as opposed to moving on?

LT For me, I always like to break up ideas of nationality. If I appreciate a certain style or lifestyle, then I will follow. When you share your art with your friends in your house, I really appreciate that kind of intimacy and lifestyle. I don’t think of this as Chinese art practice or that as Western art practice. When I was growing up, I used to draw a lot of Japanese comics. Sometimes I feel that my drawing now has that kind of practice as well. For example, if you are chef, you want the best ingredients or the most appropriate ingredients for your dishes. Of course, you may learn how to cook an Indian dish or a British dish. But the main question is this: what are the dishes can you make using ingredients that are available to you? For me, I appreciate this thinking as a way to break from fixed ideas of nationality. At the same time, I feel a change in Hong Kong. For the younger generation, they have a stronger sense of identity about Hong Kong, especially in recent years after the handover. I feel they are looking for their own lifestyle like some of my friends who go to the farmlands because they don’t want to follow the mainstream where people graduate from university and go to work for a company. They just want to be farmers. For me, that is their fantasy; they are looking for the lifestyle that they want. After 1997, especially in recent years, the Mainland government is changing our lifestyle, so you then try to protect yourself. I had an interesting conversation with an artist from Israel yesterday who said that land and identity are so interrelated for Israeli artists and asked why Hong Kong people don’t have a strong sense about the land. I said that is because we are immigrants. My parents escaped from China and so when I was growing up, they always told me about the Chinese, about corruption: ‘Don’t go back to China!’ (Laughs) So we are from China but at the same time we have distance. The Mainland government currently wants to develop the northeast territory to build public and private housing to solve the housing problem in Hong Kong. But, by developing that area, it is actually merging the Hong Kong and Shenzhen areas of China. That is what the people are against. So what all this means to me is that, for the young generation, we want to protect our lifestyle. Deng Xiaoping stated that Hong Kong can be kept for fifty years with no change but then we start to feel that we are being changed. That is not what we want, so we fight back. When you fight back, you start to have a very strong sense of your identity. We don’t care about one country; we care about two systems. We are happy to take from different cultures and make them part of our art but, at the same time, we want to have a strong sense of Hong Kong or Hong Kong identity, where we start to look back at what Hong Kong has. That’s why right now – as you can see in a lot of magazines and movies – we talk about the golden age in Hong Kong in the 1980s and 90s, and we even talk about kung fu and kung fu movies. This is part of what we were discussing earlier about mixing different cultures. Hong Kong history is now still in the process of mixing and shaping – and that becomes part of our art practice. It’s very complicated right now but this complicated situation is creating something new in this specific moment. For me, the next ten, twenty, thirty years will be the most interesting time.

OH One of the nice things about Hong Kong is that we are under no pressure to be nationalistic. And, in a way, we hate it! (Laughs) I was doing research on Lau Wenxiu who is a very famous illustrator. During the anti-Japanese war, he was an active propagandist and a nationalist. But once he immigrated to Hong Kong as a refugee, he had to let go of all the nationalistic stuff. Being a refugee, you just need to make money [in order to survive]. So he had a schizophrenic creative process. On the one hand, he would make traditional paintings. On the other hand, he was also doing illustration and did some of the most fantastic graphic illustration. I don’t like his Chinese paintings at all but I love his illustrations. Once he let go of national responsibility, he is free. He unloaded the burden of being nationalistic and he was totally free to be creative. When you look at that generation, people like Kam Yeung and Yao Wee Cheong, once they said, ‘OK, I want to make money,’ with no moral obligation, then their art flourished in the loveliest way. So, for us, it’s more complicated. On one hand, we are not a diaspora. We were born here. But then, we have no nation. Our parents had to survive so they took shelter here, this British place. It’s never home. That’s why rootlessness is a very strong cultural experience here. For our generation – because we were born here – there’s a sense of identification but we have such a short history. Only recently have we started to talk about Bruce Lee, for example, to help create that history. For many of our generation, we are starting to look into Hong Kong history. So, something is happening, but as soon as something is happening, we face a very powerful and dominating force called China, which is trying to erase that past by declaring: ‘You are just part of China.’ That is the funny situation of this moment.

DC Samson, I’m interested in your perspective on this. To what extent would you agree with this characterization of Hong Kong? Is it also your Hong Kong?

SY Yes, I think we can all agree that there is something of a crisis going on here in terms of how we see ourselves. I agree with everything that has been said so far. But I want to go back to your anecdote on speaking about Chinese Australian in China and how that is very uncomfortable to people. I think hybridity is a form of making do but it is also a form of resistance. So it threatens an imagination of China proper as in ‘this is China, right here.’ Things get really complicated when you talk about Hong Kong or Malaysian Chinese or American Chinese or Australian Chinese, then you have to begin to talk about nuances of communication. These labels need some nuance. Of course, there are people who are very resistant to the way in which mobility in Hong Kong is now becoming nailed down or compressed into something that is more grounded in nationalist rhetoric. I have encountered other artists who won’t participate in this conversation precisely because they want the label ‘China’ to have more nuances. They don’t want one group of Chinese to be dominating the discussion. Both of these attitudes are attitudes of resistance, I feel, so at this point through the Liquid Border project and things I have been thinking about in the last two years, I am trying to decide which way I lean and how I want to resist. I agree with Tung-pang that this is a very exciting time for Hong Kong. At the same time, sometimes I wish I knew what it is like on the other side of the fence where I don’t have to deal with this issue of always having to put up a resistance or when you have a high degree of mobility and you are nimble but that also means you always have to construct everything from the ground up. That also can be very tiring.

DC Yes, where mobility can also paradoxically create a form of immobility that freezes and fixes.

SY Right. There is so much talk about transnationalism and how it is one way to undo nationalism. But you also have to ask about focusing on the essential level, how people see, how people listen, how people hear things. Is there really a transnational way of hearing and seeing? It goes back to what I talked about. I can’t see myself from the outside. I can’t imagine anyone being able to see himself or herself from the outside and so, by inference, does anybody have the ability to see from a transnational perspective? I feel that is something Hong Kong also needs to answer. If you are not resisting on this front or that front, then what do you do? Can we really claim to be transnational? I have not figured all this out yet. It’s tiring but it’s also exciting.

FV I want to go back to how art critics, academics and curators from Mainland China look at Hong Kong artists. It’s not always the case but sometimes there is a great deal of condescension.

LT They just think we are foreigners! (Laughs)

FV Exactly. One idea seems to pop up all the time. I was reading articles written about _______ exhibitions at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Some of the jury members were from Mainland China and they said, ‘Oh, yes, these Hong Kong artists, they’re not so bad. They seem to be more aware about Chinese culture.’ This made me very angry because, honestly, ignorance about Chinese culture is just as prevalent in Mainland China as it is in Hong Kong. In fact, I know a lot of Hong Kong artists and academics who are extremely knowledgeable about Chinese art. This creates the situation where of a lot of Hong Kong artists enjoy being in-between things and who actually make it their career to be always here and there at the same time. However, seen from Mainland China, this is always presented as a stigma, as a problem, as something that makes Hong Kong artists not really Chinese. Excuse me, Samson, were you born in Hong Kong?

SY Yes, I was born in Hong Kong.

FV People like you would be seen as complete foreigners (laughs) by a lot of Mainland curators, art critics and so on. This situation is both a little sad and a little worrying, too, because condescension usually means that they will ignore the whole issue.

OH In the end, it’s always a matter of power: who holds the right to define what is Chinese. In some respect, Hong Kong is more Chinese than China. Take Cantonese opera, for example. The Cantonese opera in China is taught through the Russian model of academy operas. They miss some parts – like the religious parts of it and a lot of the ritual elements. They now actually copy what we have preserved [in Hong Kong] and bring them back [to China]. So the definition of ‘Chinese’ they are talking about is the one that those who are powerful hold on to. In the end, China is too complicated to be defined in a simple way. There is a certain imposition now through the infrastructure of power about what is Chinese. I was a curator and I worked quite hard on cultural identity for a while in Hong Kong. Something I learned is that identity is a fabrication. It is only an instrument, a technique, so at the end of the day, once again, the main issue is power, the structure of power and the struggle of power.

1. Pauline Hanson is the former leader of One Nation, a right-wing political party, which briefly rose to prominence in the late 1990s in Australia. Her infamous maiden parliamentary speech in 1996, which included criticism of Aboriginal welfare benefits, immigration and multiculturalism, was widely reported in the national, regional and international media. She eventually lost her seat in 1998.
2. See Frank Vigneron,
I Like Hong Kong … Art and Deterritorialisation , The Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 2010.
3. ‘The Eternal Tao: New Dimensions in Chinese Contemporary Art’, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 17 May – 18 August 2013.