As China tightens its controlling grip on the democratic freedoms of the citizens of Hong Kong there are groups of activists and artists who are fighting back against the oppressive One China policy.
20 years ago Democracy was all the rage in Hong Kong but today it is slowly drowning in a current that is flowing backwards towards mainland China.
In 1997 the areas of Hong Kong island, Kowloon Peninsular and the New Territories were handed back to China after some 156 years of British Imperial control.
Since then the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China has been encroaching their influence on the city which has largely lived in a democratic system until recently.
Source: Keegan Thomson
In March a group of activists based in HK, the Add Oil Team, announced that only 1,200 people would be allowed to elect in the new Chief Executive of Hong Kong. This means only 0.03 percent of the electorate would be voting in the incoming leader.
To coincide with this limited version of democracy the Add Oil Team encouraged Hong Kongers to post videos of what they were doing instead of voting.
With the rise of the Add Oil Team comes the prominence of many other Hong Kong based protest artists, who are all using their creative skills to stand up against increasing displays of Chinese authority.
Anita Lai is a Hong Kong citizen, born and raised in the city, and an artist who at the age of 50 is showing the government that the citizens of Hong Kong wont go quietly into the red night.
Acknowledging the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, Lai has displayed a number of her new artworks at the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre and the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre.
Lai’s work is critical of the handover, something she says has brought “bad habits” and “uncivilised practices” to Hong Kong traditions and cultures.
“With the inflow of new immigrants from Mainland [China], they also brought in the bad habits as well as uncivilised practices to our culture which we hardly can accept,” Lai said.
Her most recent artwork, a protest piece on the changes brought in by Communist China’s regime entitled Mirage, contains a video piece and a simple yet dramatic photograph of the famous ICC building.
“Mirage is talking about how Hong Kong has now changed a lot compared to 20 years ago,” Lai said.
“Amid the gradual deterioration of personal quality accompanied with the rising number of social conflicts in this city, the so-called ‘paradise’ by Hong Kongers has already vanished and become a sole memory to us,” she said.
Lai is critical of the dramatically inflated property prices in Hong Kong. With more and more people migrating from China to Hong Kong the property prices have increased ten-fold.
“The rocketing property price in Hong Kong is also a huge social problem to the society as it is already far out of reach of our affordability,” Lai said.
“The inflows of substantial capital from the Mainland are part of the main reasons to blame for today’s distorted property market in HK.”
She says property in the suburbs near the current Chinese boarder city of Shenzhen are way out of the price range of any middle income Hong Konger.
“Take for an instance, a new 2-room flat in Sha Tau Kok near Shenzhen/HK border asks for a price tag of HKD10 million [AUD $1.6 million] which most of us could not imagine,” she says.
Her passion for withholding and documenting local culture and local sustainable housing is reflected in her chosen mode of protest: photography and visual arts.
“I was born and grew up in Hong Kong, I have a special passion for my home town city,” Lai said.
“However, with the fast development of this metropolitan city in the past several decades, we have already lost a lot of valuable things and memories.
“I think only photography can capture all the precious moments we once had before.”
Hong Kong is a city of some 7.3 million people yet across a year millions of people come and go visiting for both tourism and for business reasons. Market research company Euromonitor International found that 27.77 million people visited Hong Kong in 2016, making it the most visited city in the world.
This increasing movement of people and the constant concentration on business, Lai says, has impacted art scenes within Hong Kong, creating what she calls “a desert” void of culture.
“There is a saying that Hong Kong is a desert for culture. People here are largely pragmatic and only focus on stimulating the economy,” Lai said.
“People don't spend enough time focused on art and culture in Hong Kong.
“Nevertheless, being a metropolitan city, we have seen in recent years that there is a growing trend of foreigners visiting and they are interested to learn more about the art culture of China and South East Asia.
“Consequently, we have seen there is increased numbers of various large scale art fairs like Art Basel as well as international galleries set up in Hong Kong in order to satisfy the demand,” she said.
Source: Keegan Thomson
She said the art scene in Hong Kong is making the locals change their mind about what art is and how it can be used to give citizens a voice.
“Gradually, Hong Kongers are given opportunities to get in touch and learn about the different art cultures of different countries and that of Hong Kong. Subconsciously, they also start to re-think the real meaning of life as well as the issues of the society,” Lai said.
The citizens of Hong Kong are very proud people who value their unique heritage as Hong Kongers.
Ever since the British took over the region there have been differences between Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese people.
One major difference is the language barrier, Hong Kongers speak Cantonese where as Mainlanders speak Mandarin. These two language are as foreign to one and other as English is to Russian.
Hong Kongers have embraced the westernised capitalistic world that the British Empire ushered in and have become one of the leading trading floors of the economic world. The Chinese live in a controlled communist economy which resists western influence on all fronts.
The road rules in Hong Kong even follow the British style, with cars driving on the left hand side of the road, but in Mainland China you drive on the right.
Source: Keegan Thomson
One similarity between Mainlanders and Hong Kongers is the work ethic, Lai says. The plight of the hard working Hong Kongers and their connection to living is something that inspires Lai’s most recent art particularly her piece Have/Haven’t Got A Living?.
“I have witnessed that people in HK mostly work like robots every day and hardly have time to think over the real value of living,” she said.
“In order to sustain a living in this metropolitan city, people work for long hours per day and have little time to enjoy the living. Every day the same rapid pace of life.
“All these had cumulated the idea to me to do something in order to let people re-think the value of living,” Lai said.
Lai didn't become a protest artist until later in life after working for many years as an administrator in the commercial sector. She found a calling for art and has since become a strong advocate for it regardless of age.
“There is no age barrier in this career field,” Lai said.
“I remembered when I attended the first lesson which was related to art stories about Greek Mythology. I was already impressed by the stories and gradually I found out I have strong passion towards art.”
The future of Hong Kong is uncertain but it is clear that people like Anita Lai and other protest artists will keep fighting for their democratic freedoms and civil liberties in this incredibly dynamic city.