On the night of 24 November 2019, Hong Kong held its breath as votes in the city’s district council elections were counted. There are 452 district councillors in Hong Kong, appointed through the only election in the territory in which every citizen and permanent resident has one vote. (By contrast, Hong Kong’s law-making body, the Legislative Council, is only partially nominated by the city-wide electorate: 35 of its 70 seats are decided in smaller, closed elections by business constituencies. The chief executive is selected by a 1,200-member election committee and appointed by the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China.) Since June 2019, the people of Hong Kong have waged a fight for freedom from the Beijing-backed government. Beginning as protests against a bill proposed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration that would have allowed the extradition of people to mainland China, the movement has grown to encompass a set of broader democratic demands.
The district council election in November saw record voter turnout (71.2 percent), with pro-democracy candidates winning 388 seats and pro-establishment parties retaining only 59, a loss of around 240 seats. Seventeen of Hong Kong’s 18 districts are now held by democrats. Among the newly minted district councillors are several artists and art workers. frieze contributor Hera Chan sat down with artist and district councillor Clara Cheung, curator and district councillor Susi Law and artist and Hong Kong Artist Union spokesperson KY Wong at C&G Artpartment, the project space founded in 2007 by Cheung and her partner, Cheng Yee-man. They discussed the significance of this election and what moved them to engage in direct electoral politics.
Hera Chan: What inspired you to run for the district council?
Clara Cheung: In 2019, there was not a single person in Hong Kong who was not angry. When I was a student, my cultural studies professor used to say: ‘In all sectors of society, you can use your position to make your voice heard. You do not have to change your profession.’ At C&G Artpartment, we invite artists to respond directly to current issues. Over the 12 years that the space has been running, there have been many changes in direction. During the Umbrella Movement [mass pro-democracy protests that took place from 26 September to 15 December 2014], we were all in the streets and had no time to run the gallery.
Susi Law: I manage Art and Culture Outreach [ACO], a non-profit organization that includes a bookstore, gallery and studios. At the beginning of June last year, our friends in the cultural sphere were going on strike, again and again. We started to wonder whether this was having any impact. We needed a space to sit, to read, to gather – so we decided to open the doors of ACO’s bookstore to the public, but not for business. One day, we had a gathering of writers, artists, designers, curators and others in the creative industries. After talking for some time, we felt we needed to do something at the local governmental level, to explore if this could be a way to effect change. A few socially engaged artists and curators I admire were there. I thought to myself: I can’t reject this call to action.
CC: When you stand to lose everything, even your most basic rights, you might ask yourself: why should I make art? But, actually, it is precisely because we want to continue making art that we have to fight for our values in society.
Ky Wong: During the Umbrella Movement, I didn’t make work, I was in the streets. The Hong Kong Artist Union started in 2016, when the artist Mak Ying Tung and I took a course to get a license to sell [health] insurance. It’s cheaper to buy insurance for a group, and anyone with a group membership card can see a doctor for HK$30. You can have insurance for manual labour: for instance, if you are installing a show and fall, you would be covered. We started out as a way to provide insurance for people working in the arts; then we began to learn more about what a trade union was. At first, we thought it would be just something among friends but, within a day of posting a Google Form to join the union online, we received over 100 applications.
HC: The election in November felt like the first victory we had had in months. The so-called silent majority spoke and we won by a landslide, but even that morning, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Many pro-establishment candidates and councillors don’t talk about politics. In Tin Shui Wai, where my grandmother lives, for example, the pro-establishment councillor makes sure her pipes are fixed and answers her phone calls. Even though district councillors hold little actual authority in Hong Kong’s governmental system, their power lies in the symbolism of the election. How do you see your district councillor positions and what do you think the election results mean?
CC: It’s a question of timing. The last district council elections happened a year after the Umbrella Movement: the momentum was lost. This time, the election was just months after the movement began. It’s a gesture. Voters in my district told me: ‘As long as you are pro-democracy, I will vote for you.’ After winning, it is still difficult. Carrie Lam’s government is finding resources to support the pro-establishment candidates who lost.
SL: Lam admitted in public to having apologized to the defeated pro-establishment candidates. It was repulsive; I am ashamed of this government. We, in the pro-democracy group, have been selected by democratic processes.
HC: Now that you have been elected, Clara and Susi, you represent both pro-democracy and pro-establishment constituents. How do you move forward in your conversations with your neighbourhoods?
CC: When you speak with people about their daily lives, you can speak without the language of politics. It can come from a humanist perspective.
SL: I see my role as that of a mediator. It is not my job to polarize people’s positions: I strongly believe in the connections between people. Inherent in art is a questioning of frameworks. I distinctly remember reading Homi K. Bhabha as a visual art student; his ideas about being in the system but not from the system stuck with me. I am a district councillor, but I don’t have to start from the governmental framework. Possibilities arise from encounters with our neighbours. The street and our community become the materials with which I can make art.
KW: Our starting point is also to use the micro-political to enter the political economy, putting the personal first.
SL: Over Christmas, I went into the local neighbourhood to greet people. Some of them were very emotional. One woman, who asked me to call her ‘pretty sister’, congratulated me excitedly on my win. Then she took my hand and said: ‘Don’t forget about [the protesters facing criminal charges]. I know they cannot celebrate the New Year. They cannot return to their homes.’ And she started to cry. There is a lot of trauma in my district. When I think about what kind of activities I will plan, they include talks about mental health. With this topic, we can discuss the relationship between parents and their children who are protesting. The largest divide between blue [pro-establishment] and yellow [pro-democracy] is at home. This is what is dividing our families, our country. Even my own father did not want me to run as a councillor. There is a clash there, but the issue has to be dealt with slowly. We have to build more solidarity as a society.
CC: Many district councillors are ready to do more, from writing letters to various organizations to sending people to follow up on protest-related court cases. As district councillors, we may have more access to those who have been imprisoned – and we will use it. We may be less able to go to the frontline of the protests, but we can use our positions in different ways.
KW: Foreign art magazines often debate whether a person should be a politician or an artist. Within movements such as Extinction Rebellion, there have also been discussions about whether you should be an activist or an academic. It’s an inner struggle that can last years. In Hong Kong, this kind of question doesn’t exist. When we arrive on the scene, we get to work. Our ability to adapt is very strong.
SL: When you are in the neighbourhood, there is a mutual concern among people. They see you care for them. They may not care about your profession or even your age. You are someone who greets them, wishes them good morning, tells them they may wish to wear an outer layer if it’s cold. Your status doesn’t matter. Your status is as someone who cares for them. In the end, it is about empathy.
HC: Your terms as councillors last four years. What are your plans?
SL: Our campaign slogan was: ‘We engage! We empower!’ We want people to feel that they have agency. It is in that process that we will see the democratic spirit. At the time of [the besieging of] the Chinese University of Hong Kong last November, I desperately thought about giving up. Politics are so rotten. I thought it would be naive of me to try to join the system, to believe that district councils could do something. A few days after the events at the Chinese University, police surrounded the Polytechnic University and protestors were prevented from leaving the campus. Students and protesters could have been killed or imprisoned at any moment. I was thinking: am I still going to campaign for votes? At that moment, a high school teacher with two daughters said to me: ‘I don’t want my daughters to grow up under the educational policies of the establishment party.’ People in the neighbourhood said to me: ‘As long as you continue to believe, we will too. If you don’t believe, we can’t continue either.’
First published in Issue 209