Health activist finds freedom only goes so far on Avenue of the Stars

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 January, 2010, 12:00am

Mainland performance artist and rights activist Zhang Wen was disappointed to find that freedom of expression in Hong Kong is not as free as it is reputed to be - when a shopping mall guard rudely stopped her street theatre performance in Tsim Sha Tsui's Avenue of the Stars yesterday afternoon.

The 28-year-old promoter of health-related issues from Guangxi province walked down the tourist strip dressed up as an emerald-coloured Statue of Liberty, holding a sign saying 'the goddess reminds you to pay attention to hepatitis B'. Curious tourists and locals had their photos taken with her. But 20 minutes into her walk a guard approached her saying she could not 'dress up in costumes' and walk along the Avenue of the Stars - the rationale being that she might be misunderstood by tourists as an official part of the strip.

Further, she needed to apply for a permit from the management office if she wanted to engage in any form of 'advertisement', said the guard from New World Property, which apparently owns both the strip and mall next to it.

'In mainland cities, if we want to do such stunts we have to do it stealthily,' said Zhang, who has campaigned against hepatitis B discrimination on the mainland since 2008. In January last year she initiated a 'free hugs' campaign in a square in Zhengzhou to show the public that hepatitis B is not transferred through touch.

Just as red ribbons are synonymous with awareness of Aids and pink with breast cancer, jade green ribbons stand for hepatitis B. Although the disease is not contagious through daily human interaction, hepatitis B carriers face severe discrimination on the mainland. Since November, Zhang has travelled alone through nine mainland cities with a 25-metre-long jade-coloured cloth - taking a photo of herself with the cloth twisted into a giant ribbon - in public spaces at every stop. A guard or a policeman has always appeared within minutes to chase her away.

She said she had lasted longer without interference in Hong Kong, but the experience was 'really not that much different' from elsewhere.

Zhang was in Hong Kong with a group of 13 mainland student leaders, 'barefoot lawyers' - often self-taught legal activists - and NGO organisers for a three-day exchange with law professors, university students, NGOs and the Equal Opportunity Commission.

Zhang also met Mirana Szeto May, a core member of the Stop XRL Alliance - the group that is protesting against the building of the HK$66.9 billion Hong Kong-Guangzhou express railway link.

Forms of protest used in Hong Kong could not be used on the mainland because of the different government systems, Zhang said. But she was impressed by Hong Kong activists' innovations in non-violent campaigns, using songs and dance and artwork, and by the wide public support for such campaigns.