Hong Kong’s first nude art festival, the life model behind it and why she wants to walk the city’s streets naked
Siu Ding, model, photographer and advocate for body acceptance, talks about the challenges of putting on Hong Kong Body Fest in a city as conservative as Hong Kong, and how she hopes to break down the taboos about nudity
A freshly bathed Chinese child mischievously galloping nude around the family home might hear their grandparents disapprovingly chide them as tsau gwaai, meaning grotesque, or ugly. The intention is well-meaning: “Put some clothes on, hide yourself, you’ll get cold”, but the choice of words is problematic, Liu Ngan-ling believes.
“Slowly, it shows you that you can never enjoy your body – you have to cover it up and hide it,” says the photographer and life model, who is better known as Siu Ding.
An advocate for body acceptance and freedom in choosing whether to be naked in public, Liu is organiser of the exhibition Body Fest, Hong Kong’s first collection of nude art, which features photography, painting and illustration depicting naked bodies.
The works are on display until Sunday in a room at Wan Chai’s Foo Tak Building – a hub for artists and creators, and home of the non-profit organisation Arts and Culture Outreach (ACO). With pink fabric hanging on the walls and beanbags scattered across the floor, the space feels intimate and cosy, almost womb-like, creating a calming, non-threatening atmosphere.
The theme of the artworks is “body autonomy”, explains Liu, who seeks to dispel the notion that going nude is indecent or offensive.
“It’s about going back to the idea that if you don’t realise what your needs are and understand your body, you can’t talk about anything else – like your sexuality,” she says.
Entering the room you first notice a red fabric vagina hanging from the ceiling. Guests are invited to put their head inside artist Kobe Ko’s sculpture and listen to recordings of people talking about sex.
Next to it is a large pyramid of mirrors containing a GoPro camera projecting video in real time against a blank wall that encourages viewers to study their own bodies from a kaleidoscope of different angles.
Liu’s “experiment” was intended to be much larger, allowing one guest at a time to step into a room and strip off in front of the mirrors. This idea was scrapped due to space constraints and safety concerns over where visitors could get changed.
However, when the exhibition moves to Southmark in Wong Chuk Hang from February 11 to 28, the organisers hope to fully realise the piece.
Elsewhere, life models sit hunched and lie draped in a series of watercolour paintings by Fung Kin-fan, and images of people frolicking nude on a wooded hillside by photographer Simon C are printed onto layers of suspended voile.
An entire wall is covered in intricate cartoons of naked people drawn by Jing Pang, an illustrator and life model who Liu met in 2016. The pair realised a shared affinity for body art, founded their Life Model Club, and began to look for ways to display their work.
Securing a venue was a lengthy challenge for Liu and Pang, who were turned away by galleries, hire rooms and even universities before ACO offered the space.
“When you mention the word ‘naked’, all funding will be cut immediately,” Liu says. “Hong Kong is very conservative, especially when it comes to nudity.” Hong Kong law forced them to wrap the two photography books sold at the exhibition in a red label, warning prospective readers that the content is suitable only for over-18s.
In April, the festival will move to Taiwan, where securing a venue was a comparatively easy feat and printed materials won’t require the same warning.
The exhibition has played host to a series of workshops, the last of which, a photography class with Swiss snapper Marcel Sauder, will take place on Saturday (February 3).
Among the other events have been yoga and meditation sessions (both nude and clothed bodies permitted) and a “touchy movement” workshop, led by dance and theatre producer Kiwi Chan. Visitors were advised to arrive ready to “invite playfulness and curiosity”.
“We talk too much and have started to lose ways of expressing our emotion through our bodies. Touching is based on communication. Some things can’t be solved through words alone,” Liu says.
At a time when debate around sexual consent has opened a dialogue around what constitutes inappropriate contact, elevated by the #MeToo movement, Liu says learning how to communicate when you want to be touched – and in what way – is important.
“The common theme between the exhibition and #MeToo is empowerment,” she says. “For those who don’t accept their body and see it as inferior, #MeToo empowers people to share, speak out, reach out, seek help and begin to accept themselves.
“If you know more about yourself and your desires, you’re less likely to be afraid of that desire and use it to hurt others.”
Liu made headlines in December 2008 after she appeared nude in a music video for Christmas Half-Nude Party, a song by local indie duo Forever Tarkovsky Club, featuring vocalist Lam Ah-P (of My Little Airport fame).
A festive performance for just 16 fans was to be held at the Foo Tak Building until public outcry over promotional posters featuring a video still garnered bad press and a summons to Wan Chai police station.
“The whole thing was so distorted that they made us look like sickos planning an orgy,” an irate Lam said at the time.
Photos of Liu from her blog suddenly appeared on seedy online forums and she garnered a reputation as an exhibitionist and attention seeker. Initially taken aback by the intensity of the outcry, Liu found herself the subject of many articles and interviews, and soon decided she needed to refine her mission statement.
“At the time I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do, but, over the past 10 years, I’ve had to think about who I am … In the beginning, it was innocent and natural; later, it gained more purpose and became more educational.”
“Some people say I want everyone to be nude all the time, but it’s about choice. I want to question why people don’t want to be nude, not dictate that they should be. My goal is being able to walk out on the street either naked or with clothes on, and have no one judging or seeing it as strange.”
Since she was a teen, Liu has been interested in the naked body as an art form. She appeared in her first set of photos as an 18-year-old, when she and her then-boyfriend decided they wanted to make pornography, and posed naked for a photographer friend.
“It was so fun,” she says with a laugh. “But it wasn’t porn: it was just photos of us naked. It’s actually very difficult to make photos seductive.”
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Their friend posted the photos on Facebook, which, at the time, was free of the broad-brush graphic content restrictions that now intercept even breastfeeding pictures. “My friends said I seemed really confident in my body, but I’ve never thought about it that way. For me, it’s always been normal to either be naked or have clothes on. It’s only over time that I’ve realised that people think it’s abnormal.”
With few friends at school and her nose always buried in a book, Liu has long been accustomed to life on the fringes of society and dancing to her own tune. Softly spoken and sporting a pixie crop, the model, now 39, has found her niche, a community of like-minded individuals and fellow artists, in a city where many would rather shield their eyes from her work. Instead of worrying about her detractors, she focuses on those she has inspired.
“Some girls and boys message me saying I give them strength to think more positively about themselves. I’m clear about why I’m doing this: to invite people to have the same experience. People might think I’m strange but I’ve never minded – I do my own thing and don’t care about opinions,” she says, adding, “I guess I never listened to my grandparents much.”
Body Fest will host an acoustic performance by local groups Senseless and After-After-Party on Saturday night (Feb 3). The show is free, but organisers ask for donations. The exhibition will then move to Southmark, Block A, Rm 3310, 11 Yip Hing Street, Wong Chuk Hang from February 11 to 28. Over 18s only.