Hong Kong’s New Chief Executive Could Reshape the City’s Arts Scene

  • Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive-elect, speaks during the Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference in Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

On March 26, Hong Kong held its election for the next chief executive of the city. Carrie Lam, the candidate anointed by Beijing, emerged victorious, beating the popular John Tsang for the top job.

The same day, more than 400 citizens shared Facebook Live videos simply showing what they were doing—riding public transport or watching TV—as a form of protest against the results. The images did not show people at the ballot box because, even as citizens, those posting videos did not have the right to vote. Out of the 7 million residents of Hong Kong, only 1,194 largely-pro Beijing elites sit on the Election Committee, and 777 of them cast their votes for Lam.  

The protest videos were part of No Election in Hong Kong Now: Broadcast Machine, a work produced by artist-activist group Add Oil Team. A special administrative region of China, Hong Kong is torn between Beijing’s tightening grip and the people’s desire for freedom and autonomy. Lam’s victory is the latest manifestation of this continuing dynamic. But it raises questions about what role artists will play in Hong Kong going forward, and how the city’s cultural institutions might be impacted by Lam’s administration.

Lam’s election comes at an important moment for the Hong Kong cultural community. The city has become an international art world hub, a status cemented by Art Basel in Hong Kong, which just wrapped up its fifth edition last month.

What Sold at Art Basel in Hong Kong

But before she was the Chief Executive-elect, Lam served as the Chief Secretary of the publicly-funded West Kowloon Cultural District. During her tenure, major controversy erupted following the surprise announcement last December that a version of Beijing’s Palace Museum would be created in Hong Kong, erected in the city’s 40-hectare cultural hub.

Expected to showcase artifacts from the collection of the Beijing institution, the privately-funded, HK$ 3.5 billion Hong Kong Palace Museum appeared to many as the product of secretive dealings with Beijing—done without prior public or legislative consultation. Former West Kowloon CEO Michael Lynch charged the Hong Kong Palace Museum was out of step with the district’s overall blueprint, and questioned if it served a political, rather than a cultural, purpose. Lam has defended the plan, arguing that it doesn’t require public approval given it is privately funded and that any opposition would prove “embarrassing.”

Still, the shadow cast by the museum has many suspicious. “How Lam executed the Palace Museum plan shows how she functions,” said Kacey Wong, an artist and activist who participated in the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. Hong Kong retains its own legal system and freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Basic Law, the city’s “mini constitution.” But Beijing’s increasing influence over Hong Kong affairs is apparent.

“As a civil servant of more than 30 years, [Lam] knows the system inside out, and she can find the loophole to get around the system in order to carry out Beijing’s order,” Wong added, saying he worries about the possibility of self-censorship by artists and curators as they shy away from politically sensitive subjects.

“Museums and institutions are in difficult positions,” he said. “It’s not just about [showing art that is] aggressive or progressive. Historical topics, such as the colonial history of Hong Kong, aren’t encouraged.”

Just before the election took place, reports emerged that Hong Kong graft-buster’s investigation was looking into Lam’s role in the Hong Kong Palace Museum plan over what one city lawmaker described as the “inappropriate transferral of benefits.” But in keeping with its policy, the city’s Independent Commission Against Corruption could not confirm individual investigations.

Other institutions offer potential bright spots. The recent exhibition Breathing Space: Contemporary Art from Hong Kong at Asia Society Hong Kong Center, for example, contained artworks that carry socio-political undertones. One example was South Ho Siu Nam’s work Defense and Resistance (2013), which shows the artist building a wall around himself with bricks marked “MADE IN XIANGGANG.” The phrase highlights the contradictions in Hong Kong following its handover to Beijing: Xianggang is the Mandarin pronunciation of Hong Kong, which itself is a Cantonese-speaking city.

Artists also said they have high hopes for the HK$ 5 billion (US$ 640 million) M+ visual culture museum, slated for a 2019 opening in the West Kowloon Cultural District, next door to the Hong Kong Palace Museum. Even as some fear censorship, Suhanya Raffel, the executive director of M+, assured the artistic freedom of this mega museum.

“M+ is an important and necessary global museum, bringing to the forefront visual culture of the 20th and 21st centuries with a strong Asian perspective,” she said in an email. “M+ has been structured to ensure curatorial independence with a governance structure that includes its own M+ Board and Acquisition Committee and will continue to function as an independent voice in the community.”

Outside of museums, the streets have become an active space for the city’s creative minds, particularly since the Umbrella Movement in 2014. Beyond just artists, such expression offers a way for young people generally to vent their frustrations with the political situation. And protest and activist art—like Add Oil Team’s Facebook Live videos—are seen by some as more viable when occurring in the public sphere, away from the art world establishment.

“Many artists are now making works and leading projects in the community, whether in local districts or villages, or doing conservation projects,” said Add Oil Team member Sampson Wong. “It’s not just about making an impact on a general public, but also bringing creative satisfaction to artists, connecting them with what’s happening in the society.”

Sampson Wong said despite the public’s frustration over Tsang’s loss in the election, his campaign—which earned him unprecedented support for any politician in Hong Kong—could serve as an inspiration for artists. The artist said the reverse was true, with Tsang’s campaign borrowing ideas of hope and unification from socially engaged art.

Following the results, the question confronting all of Hong Kong is: What comes next? “As a civil society, how can we move forward?” Wong asks. It’s a question he is sure art will play an important role in answering.

—Vivienne Chow

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