Hong Kong’s fears for its freedoms can inspire an arts and culture boom

Vivienne Chow believes Hong Kong is entering a golden era of creativity, amid fears of political censorship, as artists are inspired to tell local stories to the world

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 December, 2016, 6:28pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 December, 2016, 6:40pm

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. The political turmoil that Hong Kong has experienced over the past five years might have been sending shivers down the spines of many who fear Beijing is tightening its grip on the city’s freedoms. But the reality is that there is no better time for Hong Kong to showcase its unique brand of creativity to the world; in short, no better time for a cultural boom.

This logic might seem peculiar, but think again. Thanks to the political crisis, Hong Kong has been in the global spotlight. Arts and cultural productions inspired by recent events have been earning a great deal of publicity around the world, even more so than in the heyday of the city’s entertainment industry in the 1980s and 1990s.

Our situation isn’t rosy, by any means. Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, once described his anxiety over the city’s autonomy, which he feared would be “given away bit by bit by some people in Hong Kong” instead of being “usurped by Peking”.

Hong Kong should expect to see some of its best artworks and cultural productions in the next decade or so

This is precisely what is happening in the city’s cultural realm. Although Article 27 of the Basic Law stipulates that “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication”, political events following the dissolution of the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests continuously threaten our artistic and cultural freedoms. Such threats, however, are mostly people’s response to the fear of the authorities, rather than being imposed by a superior force.

Cinema has been among the first victims. Hong Kong has a three-tier film classification system, which allows the authorities to categorise films according to their suitability for different age groups, rather than asking filmmakers to leave potentially sensitive footage on the floor of the editing room. The government, in theory, does not stop anyone from making any films.

Yet, if it wanted to limit political content in films, it would succeed without needing to draft a new law because it could rely on the cooperation of Hong Kong businesses. That is what has happened. Operators of commercial cinemas, many of whom have large-scale business operations in mainland China, quietly dropped the dystopian film Ten Years from their roster after Beijing made clear its displeasure, even though it was named best film at the Hong Kong Film Awards this year and was well-received at the box ­office.

Ten Years can be tedious but its theme about Hong Kong’s paranoia is not far off the mark

Then there was Yellowing, a documentary that captured the experience of a group of young people during the “Umbrella protests”. Directed by young filmmaker Chan Tze-woon, the film failed to get a slot for general release in Hong Kong, despite the fact that it was screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival and was nominated for best documentary at the Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan this year.

Distributor Ying E Chi said cinema operators claimed that no screening slots were available for an alternative documentary film. But KJ: Music and Life, also a documentary, had nearly 100 screenings when it was released in 2009. Is the story of a classical music prodigy more relevant to Hong Kong than a civil disobedience movement in which tens of thousands of Hongkongers took part?

The latest example is the abrupt cancellation last month by the Asia Society in Hong Kong of a screening of Raise the Umbrellas, another documentary about the “Umbrella Movement”. The Asia Society claimed it had decided to remove the film, directed by Evans Chan, because it failed to put together a balanced post-screening discussion panel, and this could clash with the centre’s “non-partisan” profile. But it is not difficult to relate such an unconvincing reason to the fact that the chairman of the Asia Society’s Hong Kong centre is Ronnie Chan Chi-chung, the boss of property developer Hang Lung Group and an avid supporter of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. The irony was that its decision ensured the little-known documentary made headlines worldwide.

Hong Kong cinemas won’t show Occupy documentary, filmmaker fears

The fear of losing our artistic freedoms is beginning to spill over to the arts sector. In May, a light stallation on the facade of the International Commerce Centre, commissioned by the Arts Development Council, was abruptly suspended for its countdown to the end of the promised 50 years of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong. Clearly, no political statement would be tolerated in such commissioned works.

Most recently, the latest recipients of funding from the Home Affairs Bureau, under its Arts Capacity Development Funding Scheme ,were told not to accept “sponsorship, donations or advertisements which ... may jeopardise the image or reputation of the government”. The definition of what may “jeopardise” its image or reputation is open to the government’s interpretation. Judging from today’s political mood and people’s discontent with the government, anything could be interpreted as a means to make the government look bad. Such an ambiguous condition in the funding guidelines simply makes people believe that the government is ready to exercise political censorship of the arts.

Nevertheless, despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, Hong Kong is entering a golden era of creativity. The prolonged occupation of public space during the “Umbrella Movement” liberated young people’s minds, as seen in how they strived to express themselves through street art and applied their creativity to reimagining public space with the use of makeshift objects. The disappearance of the Causeway Bay booksellers might have caused fear as well as anger over mainland rule, but it also helped Hongkongers realise that freedom of expression cannot be taken for granted.

The ongoing cultural and economic conflicts between Hong Kong and the mainland might have contributed to the rise of localism, and even the talk of independence. But such sentiments have directed Hongkongers to look back at the cultural treasures of their hometown, inspiring artists’ desire to tell Hong Kong stories to an audience beyond the city. Hong Kong should expect to see some of its best artworks and cultural productions in the next decade or so.

The cultural sector should now take advantage of the current political situation. With all eyes on how China grows into a world power and how Beijing meddles in the affairs of Hong Kong, now is the time for artists and cultural professionals to show the world what they can offer and make Hong Kong stay relevant to a global audience. Artist Ai Weiwei sets a good example of how to play the political card right. One might not like his art, but one has to admire how he keeps important socio-political agendas on people’s radar.

As long as freedom of expression remains in our Basic Law and helps keep Hong Kong on the world map, the city’s artistic and cultural freedoms still stand a chance of survival – at least until 2047. One can only hope for the best.

Vivienne Chow is a Hong Kong-based journalist and art critic as well as the founding director of non-profit educational initiative Cultural Journalism Campus