“The sky has not changed, the earth has not yet changed, but my heart is changing.”
- South HO1
There have been three (very) significant events since Hong Kong’s 1 July 1997 return to the mainland. These events embraced the entire city; events so pivotal that everyone in Hong Kong was touched, involved, angered, concerned.
In late 2002, the Hong Kong government announced proposals to enact national security legislation as required under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. Many of the provisions in the proposed legislation infringed people’s human rights and freedom of expression – rights currently provided under Hong Kong’s current, British inherited legal framework. Article 23 was incredibly divisive: and amidst protests, pro-government and pro-democrat sides argued fiercely about the proposed legislation.
As the Article 23 debate raged, Hong Kong was suddenly hit with SARS, a then unknown and potentially serious, airborne, respiratory infection. Suddenly, Hong Kong became an almost quarantined port and from April to June 2003 was an off-limits destination with few in-bound visitors.
In contrast to the Article 23 debate, the SARS outbreak was a time of incredible apprehension - and camaraderie. No matter your political affiliation: there was the pervasive feeling of “we are all in this together.” Whether strolling in fresh air on The Peak or in a distant country park, walkers greeted each other with a friendly “hi” – code for, “yes, it is a time of plague, but we’re still here!” The same feeling was felt on any chance meeting of stoic eyes on mask-covered faces during peak hour crowded public transportation. Private space was no longer defined by foot room, but by breathing space. It was a traumatic, tense time. After interminable months, Hong Kong was officially declared SARS-free on 23 June 2003.
These two events culminated in an outpouring of public grievance, ostensibly towards the Hong Kong government’s heavy-handed promotion of Article 23 legislation and its initial fidgety response and handling of the SARS outbreak. On 1 July 2003, over 700,000 people marched on a scorching hot day from Victoria Park, through Causeway Bay, Wan Chai, Admiralty and up historic Battery Path in Central Hong Kong to tie, in protest, pieces of cloth, and place effigies of politicians and placards along the picket fences and gates surrounding the former Central Government Offices.
Soon afterwards, and with mainland officials caught unaware that Hong Kong had such strongly felt grievances, three members of the Hong Kong government’s chief advisory group of officials, the Executive Council, resigned; including, Secretary for Security Regina IP Suk-yee. In September 2003, the proposed Article 23 legislation was shelved.
Dissatisfaction with the incumbent TUNG Chi-hwa government continued and in a repeat of a year earlier, 500,000 people marched on 1 July 2004. Protesters expressed further dissatisfaction with the government, which now included a wider and diverse range of grievances, including calls for animal welfare rights, better education, and an improvement in air pollution levels. TUNG resigned as Chief Executive in March 2005.
The Basic Law also provided that legislation be introduced for public elections to directly elect future Chief Executives and to reform the Legislative Council. In 2013, the government (and I am making this simple) released proposals for electoral reform. Vigorous debate about these proposals and universal suffrage ensued throughout 2014.
In late September 2014, students quietly gathered at Tamar Park near Hong Kong’s new government offices and Legislative Council in Admiralty. Here, students and a range of speakers further debated, discussed and protested the government’s proposals. With a day remaining of their officially agreed use of Tamar Park, the park management suddenly closed the park and excluded students, giving “equal time” to a handful of pro-government supporters for their own gathering. On 26 September, the students moved to nearby roads and the Central Government Offices’ (so-called) Civic Square to continue their interrupted lecture schedule and begin – as Hong Kong was soon to experience – a new protest.
On 27 September 2014, South HO stood overlooking Admiralty wondering about his - our - city.
I first saw South’s Into Light photographs at the yearly open studios at the Fotan industrial district, in an exhibition organized by The Photocrafters studio in January 2009. The setting was in a typical “boy’s” studio, particular to Fotan’s shared studios of photographer friends. The studio TV screen was too big and the joking around too private and in-house for us, random visitors.
But, South’s ‘light’ photographs were noticed. They were a little different from the usual depictions of Hong Kong. There was a conceptual intention and, as I saw them, he had successfully played with the idiomatic phrase, “light at the end of the tunnel.” Actually, however, South had added light by manipulating the images inside his dark room. Hong Kong has many, too many, road underpass tunnels. Tunnels like this can be found all around Hong Kong and are emblematic of much that is annoying and wrong with Hong Kong’s urban planning and government decision-making. These tunnels channel pedestrians under busy and, annoyingly, not-so-busy roads. They are an example of Hong Kong’s hard-nosed road infrastructure and planning that cares more for administrative efficiency and the needs of cars rather than people.
Administrative governance is replicated like this in all areas of Hong Kong daily life – and is often the source of public frustration, as seen in continuing public protests. More seriously, Hong Kong has continuing examples of government collusion – often involving property development and urban planning. I see South’s ‘light’ photography as a successful conceptual idea and a reminder, despite his own pessimistic intention that these photographs represent darkness when any light is turned off, of eventual hope and optimism for Hong Kong’s future decision-making and governance.
On the cusp of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to the mainland, an influential group of eighteen Hong Kong photographers were invited to show a selection of their work depicting Hong Kong in Dislocation magazine’s ‘On Hong Kong’ issue2. These photographs show Hong Kong from a predominantly street and architectural perspective. Design lecturer Matthew Turner noted in his accompanying essay that a majority of the photographs were of urban places devoid of people. This could be an odd depiction, as Hong Kong is one of the world’s most densely populated places. But, early photography, with long exposure times, also showed crowded places lacking people. People were present, of course, but unless they froze still for a considerable time, their image was not captured on the photographic plate. Photographs, whether taken in the 1860s or 1990s, with this ‘deserted city’ characteristic, have a universal looking-in-the-past, nostalgic, ambience.
Similarly, there are few people appearing in South’s recent Every Daily black and white photographs of Tin Shui Wai, where he lives. But, just as in photography’s long tradition of imagery there is the implication of the presence of people, these large-format photographs conceptually extend that tradition by retaining the remembrance, the presence, of his deceased father in the carefully outlined gridded blocks of colour-painted skies added to each photograph. South poignantly uses the same paint his graphic designer father had used before his death. It is, South explains, as if, “…He might have been wandering around town with me, standing behind me to watch my camera and I at work.”
South’s photography has a disrupting intention. He works hard to have varying outcomes. His photographs invariably include a conceptual idea running alongside any straight image depiction.
Consequently, I don’t think of South as just a photographer. He does work in photographic series, but the intention, idea, subject, format and presentation is always evolving. Increasingly, he has also introduced other materials to complement his photography. In a recent performance, South builds a protective brick wall around himself in his Defense and Resistance installation. This performance reflected on recent tension between Hong Kong people and mainland visitors (often viewed, because of their numbers, as ‘invaders’) to Hong Kong. Photography alone cannot give powerful physicality. Thus, the brick wall complements his photography, and is a metaphor depicting both physical and psychological insulation from this cross-border tension.
Photographers are often depicted as solitary in their work. But, South is a social person and connects into a range of art activities. He is a former member of The Photocrafters photographers group. He is member of Kinggaiwui (‘chitchat’ in Cantonese), whose members have exhibited together and publish occasional issues of their magazine with an experimental and diverse approach to photography. In 2013, South and friends established a small gallery, as reflected in its name – 100ft PARK – to show cross-disciplinary projects of younger artists. This involvement in different groups, each with different friends, is inspiration and impetus for his art.
South spent days and months around, under and on the footbridges overlooking the Umbrella occupation of Admiralty. He was both an observer and involved. Many, many people, inevitably, became involved as they supported ‘proper’ universal suffrage. South and his friends often stayed in Admiralty’s tent city. He knew its daily rhythms and saw it evolve into a vibrant organic community. He saw the outbursts of violence and anguish and humour of those days.
The Umbrella protests in late 2014 are the third significant event since 1997. The occupation of roads in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok and deliberate government inaction, except by proxy through police action and eventual forcible removal of protesters, was an unprecedented time of futile exhilaration and optimistic crisis.
South’s Umbrella photographs join a range of photographic documentation of those Umbrella days by photographers and almost everyone else who visited the occupation sites. In a sense, they are self-explanatory: the occupation has been discussed, studied, analysed, sifted-through and lived by so many. The ephemeral Facebook and other social media communicated the witty memes, the food eaten, celebrity visitors, spontaneous music and daily lectures.
In a deliberate twist of artistic intention, South’s Umbrella photographs are almost the straightest he has ever done. They are pure documentary photography. For an artist that intentionally works around ‘straight’, these Umbrella photographs are unique. And, they depict a euphoric and traumatic moment in Hong Kong’s continuing assertion of itself within China.
So, in South’s photographs you can see: the ‘Lennon Wall’ sticker messages; banners; views into the People’s Liberation Army base at Tamar; the umbrella canopy strung between the two Admiralty pedestrian footbridges; barricades; people-empty overpasses; wreaths for democracy; the infamous “dark corner”, the place of a police bashing; rain; tents and umbrellas; long shadows; protest stand-offs; arrests; the Mong Kok street temple; student study desks; solitary sleepers and late night walkers and talkers. And, then, the final removal by police - of everything.
“…will we still be as tough and strong as on that day? Will our memories remain fresh after repeated washing by the tides of time?”3
1. From South HO’s Impermanence series of photographs (2009) and accompanying text, in Kinggaiwu magazine #2, 2011
2. Dislocation, ‘On Hong Kong’, Volume 8, 1997. The eighteen Hong Kong photographers included: SO Hing Keung, Alfred KO Chi Keung, Ringo TANG, LEUNG Chi Wo, Ducky TSE Chi Tak, Bobby SHAM, LAU Ching Ping, Blues WONG, Karl CHU, WONG Kan Tai, etc.
3. South HO, artist statement, ‘good day good night’, 2015
John Batten is an art critic, commentator and activist on Hong Kong art policy, urban planning and heritage issues.