A gateway to Hong Kong in the US

Local artist Danny Yung displays bamboo flower plaque with Mao Zedong’s famous slogan at cultural heritage showcase in Washington DC

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2014, 7:08pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 8:40am

A huge bamboo flower plaque combining one of Mao Zedong's most famous slogans with traditional Hong Kong craftsmanship has put the city at the centre of a symbolic culture clash between China and the United States.

But artist Danny Yung Ning-tsun, who created the plaque, says the Hong Kong government has missed a chance to demonstrate the city's ambitions as a cultural hub at a major international exhibition.

Yung, whose Tian Tian Xiang Shang Gateway is on show at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival - one of the world's largest showcases of living cultural heritage - that opens in Washington today, says Hong Kong has an important role to play on the international cultural stage.

Yung is the sole featured Hong Kong artist with his work, a 10-metre-tall, 33-metre-long and six-metre-deep bamboo flower plaque with the theme, "Day day up", derived from Mao's slogan "Good good study, day day up".

"The mere existence of Hong Kong [in an American cultural festival with a China focus] is already a statement," said Yung, 70, a founder and co-artistic director of experimental group Zuni Icosahedron.

But he lamented that while the Hong Kong government would host a reception for 400 guests, it was not doing more to demonstrate the city's cultural potential.

"If the government has the policy to transform Hong Kong into a cultural hub and [intangible cultural heritage] centre for greater China, this should be shared with the international community," Yung said.

Founded in 1967, the festival this year has a special focus on China's intangible cultural heritage. The mainland is showcasing its traditional arts like paper cutting and dance.

Yung said that as culture now played an indispensable role in global diplomacy, the festival could be seen as a political platform dressed as art.

"I'm not a propaganda person. I'm just very curious about the relationship between Hong Kong and China," he said.

The "day up" slogan first inspired Yung to create a mouthless child character, Tian Tian, with head held high and fingers pointed to the sky.

Yung, recently awarded the Japanese Fukuoka Arts and Culture Prize, said he had been commissioned by the organisers to show at the festival but it was the Americans' idea to include his work in the China section.

Since then, he has received mixed comments on the installation's messages. "They asked me if I was criticising China," he said. "They seem to see everything that has to do with the sky as insinuating China."

Yung said he was now waiting to see the mainland entourage's response to his work. "Will they dare to say that under 'one country, two systems' they will respect Hong Kong's cultural development?"

Organisers said they were drawn to Yung's work - produced in collaboration with the Wing Kei Flower Shop - as he wanted to produce a piece with traditional bamboo craftsmen. Southern China and its Cantonese-speaking region represented a distinctive history and culture and it was important to feature them in this year's focus on China, they said.

Paper and flower-board crafting techniques are among 480 items listed in Hong Kong's first intangible cultural heritage inventory unveiled last week.

Yung said they were among "the most remarkable artistic crafts in southern China's folk applied art".

He said the festival would have been a perfect opportunity to promote the West Kowloon Cultural District, particularly Chinese opera venue the Xiqu Centre, but there were no presentation materials available.

The artist praised the efforts of staff from the Economic and Trade Office to the Home Affairs Bureau, but said there was no coordination from the top.

"It's not just an event," he said of the exhibition.