IMAGES, IMMERSIONS, INVESTIGATIONS:
Plurality of Perspectives on Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement
An ‘Occupy’ protest is where the play of power is concomitant with the power of play. In other words, power and play stand on equal ground. Thus, it comes as no surprise when we encounter events that are not only ‘newsworthy’ (journalistic) but also ‘film worthy’ (cinematic). This is exactly what happened in Hong Kong.
It is also in Hong Kong where the ubiquitous Occupy movement is made unique — touted by global media as the ‘Umbrella’ movement, an umbrella term that sought to consolidate the various fronts into one collective action. This is why the question of place forms the crux of the movement: What is being occupied? It is what makes the movement unique to Hong Kong. Thus, in many ways the ubiquitous is made unique, and the unique is made ubiquitous.
Hence, when we observe Hong Kong’s power play, we see a plurality of perspectives.
For instance, we can posit that the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ binary does not hold up when challenged by alternative perspectives. As we have observed, the tension between Hong Kong and Beijing goes beyond mere taking sides. The taking of sides is mere spectacle; the action takes place beneath this spectacle, where real conditions exist.
With these realities in mind, we can then argue the heterogeneity of the movement — as exemplified by the protesters themselves — where not only Hong Kongers but also people of different nationalities identify with the movement. A better understanding of these perspectives thus entails a critical questioning of the media’s representation and reportage of the movement — not to mention the viability of social media in these processes.
After all, the Occupy protest is more than just a numbers game.
NULLAH NO LA
Much of Hong Kong has changed since the Fifties, especially when modernisation made its way to every nook and cranny of Kowloon. Still, much have also remained, especially when we find our way to the Yau Tsim Mong District, where the old and new sit side by side. Thus, while the city is shaped by a tradition of urban transformation, specific places of tradition resist transformation.
The crossing of Nullah Road, Sai Yeung Choi Street, and Tung Choi Street bears witness to this paradoxical scenario. Many would still look for the petrol station that ceased operation a few years ago. Some would remember the theatre showcasing classic Cantonese opera since the Seventies or the old cinema that featured films since the Sixties. And few would recall the nullah or watercourse that was still there in the Fifties or so, when the goldfish market first popped up in the area. For hitherto withstanding the test of time, the District Council awarded it in 2011 a monumental trophy — the infamous Goldfish sculpture most locals and tourists are still raving about.
Amidst the noise of the crowd and the colour of aquatic species that converges in this crossing is a peculiar space of silence out in the open. This space is Nullah No la (魚樂無渠), an empty stage, a blank canvas, a free realm of art. It surreptitiously offers us a window of opportunity to access an imaginary place — an intersection of time and space, memory and territory — by way of art, creativity, and intervention. After all, what better way to defamiliarise our blasé experience of the city’s tradition and transformation than to express ourselves freely?
On 14 November 2015, Saturday, we invited the public, both young and old, to help us transform the Nullah Road Sitting-out Area into an alternative art space together with our six featured artists, who worked on different media from traditional drawing and painting, to sculpture, sound, and performance. Our ‘art day out’ was meant to engage the public, locals and tourists alike, in a meaningful and lively discussion to elicit their understanding of the changeable environment and how they are ultimately responsible for it.
We made this happen by simply recognising Nullah No la (魚樂無渠).
Anyone living in or visiting Hong Kong would take note of the lack of space, among many other things wanting in this ‘world city’ of surplus. For instance, public spaces like parks are seemingly rare, hence people tend to gather and make use of ‘other places’ such as shopping malls, tunnels and walkways, and even MTR passages, which are either private or regulated, hence they are considered as ‘quasi-public spaces’ (Li 2002; Lo 2013, p6).
Officially, the Hong Kong SAR’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department lists about 73 spaces for public use on its website1, while the Department of Justice’s Bilingual Laws Information System lists 1,696 spaces for public use (excluding beaches) on its Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Chapter 132)2. When these ‘official’ lists are averaged together with the ‘unofficial’ count of Google Maps and Wikipedia, one can have a rough estimate of nearly 500 ‘public spaces’ all over Hong Kong. In other words, anyone can supposedly find one public place available for every one-mile radius, whether in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, or New Territories.
Using the same spatial logic, curators Kristian Agustin and Vivian Fung explored possible locations for holding a public art exhibition/intervention, Intersection (交界). After mapping the locality within a 1-mile radius from their base — the Hong Kong Baptist University Communication and Visual Arts Building — the curators identified not only one but several open spaces made available for the public. Thus, while there is indeed a lack of space in Hong Kong as many would instantly agree with, ironically, these spaces can be found everywhere — as small, medium, or big patches of land, greenery, or even concrete.
The small park (or as termed by the District Council, ‘sittiing-out area’) located at the intersections of Nathan Road, Nullah Road, and Sai Yeung Choi Street is an example of a public space which is approximately a mile away from our place of study, randomly speaking. However, while this specific park is only a random example, it is particularly interesting because it exemplifies both a lack of space and its palpable existence. Anyone visiting this space would feel this contradiction, especially when one is greeted by the monumental significance of the Goldfish sculpture3 marking the open space a ‘place of interest’, especially for tourists.
To further explore these contradictory insights outside of the classroom, we propose to organize an art intervention/exhibition to be held in an open public space, specifically the Nullah Road Sitting-out Area, which lies somewhere along the perimeter of our estimated 1-mile radius class investigation. While there are other public spaces and similar parks located within this radius of interest, we decidedly chose the Nullah Road Sitting-out Area because it exemplifies the lack of spaces in Hong Kong despite it being an open space available for public use. The location is also strategic because it serves as an intersection not only of busy roads but also of special interests and urban ecosystem — the touristy goldfish market, the old cinema turned shopping mall, the defunct gasoline station, and the refuse collection area, not to mention the ‘nullah’ or stream of water that runs underneath the area.
In choosing this place of interest, we revisit Augé’s theory of ‘non-place’, or ‘a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity’ (1995, p77-78). Perhaps, we can even argue, many people notice the lack of space — especially public spaces — in Hong Kong precisely because they merely exist as ‘non-places’. They are spaces where many moving bodies and intersections occur, yet nothing remains, nobody dwells, especially at the age of ‘supermodernity’ (Augé 1995) when almost all inhabitants of the city are inextricably linked to their mobile devices, walking along busy streets, passing through public and private spaces, and traversing time and memory.
Apart from the theory of ‘non-place’, we also propose to explore other theories of ‘space’, ‘place’, and ‘locality’. These include:
(1) place as ‘open’ (Massey 2005) and ‘unbounded’ (Ingold 2007, 2008)
(2) ‘place’ as a theoretical concept, hence it is a cultural construct, and ‘locality’
or ‘location’ as a more geophysical specificity (Pink 2014: 118)
(3) ‘spatial concepts’ as phenomenological, and multi-sensory (Pink 2014:115)
(4) the ‘two-way linkage’ or ‘co-building’ between cities and bodies (Grosz 1992)
(5) the association of vision (or visuality or visual memory) with a particular
landscape to elicit a ‘sense of place’ (Boellstorff 2008:92-93)
(6) the ‘sense of place’ individuals experience ‘online’ through the Internet
(Boellstorff 2008:91); and
(3) the ‘space of flows’ (Castells 1996)
Thus, through a public art intervention/exhibition specifically catered to the public, we can further explore the many concepts of ‘space’ and ‘place’ and how these are relevant to the public and their lives. Perhaps, it can also help us discover new ways of understanding why a lack of space does not necessarily mean a lack of opportunities to be creative and/or resourceful.
Augé, M. (1995). Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Translated by Howe,
J. London: Verso.
Boellstorff, T. (2008) Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human.Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Castells, M. (1996) The Rise of the Network Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell.
Grosz, E. (1992) ‘Bodies-Cities’ In Sexuality and Space, Eds. Colomina, B. and Bloomer, J. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, pp241-253.
Li, L. (2002) Indoor city and Quasi-public Space: A study of the shopping mall systems in Hong Kong.China Perspective. Vol.39.
Lo, K. M. (2013) ‘A Critical Study of the Public Space in Hong Kong’. MCS Symposium, February 2013.
Massey, D. (2005) For Space. London: Sage.
Ingold, T. and Lee, J. (2008), Eds. Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Pink, S. (2007) Doing Visual Ethnography (2nd ed.). London: Sage.
Pink, S. (2014) ‘Visual Ethnography and the Internet: Visuality, Virtuality and the Spatial Turn’ InAdvances in Visual Methodology. London: Sage, pp112-130.
1 List of Facilities & Venues (Parks, Zoos, Gardens), available from:http://www.lcsd.gov.hk/en/facilities/facilitieslist/parks.html (accessed 9 October 2015)
2 pages 89-120 of Chapter 132: Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance, available from:http://www.legislation.gov.hk/blis_pdf.nsf/6799165D2FEE3FA94825755E0033E532/
40DC34E06542CFE1482575EE003FE971/$FILE/CAP_132_e_b5.pdf(accessed 9 October 2015)
3 a street landmark funded by the Yau Tsim Mong District Council’s Facilities Management Committee (unveiled on 17 June 2011), photographs available from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Goldfish_Sculpture_(Nullah_Road_Sitting-Out_Area) (accessed 9 October 2015)
TWELVE HUNDRED MILES APART
The movement of bodies is contingent on infrastructure. Urbanity rests on this classic assumption; without architecture, bridges, flyovers, motorways, subways, and skyscrapers, urban space is indefinite, haphazard, and limitless. The metropolis is, in other words, laden with contingencies. Hence, there is no guarantee of security, much less permanence, when urban space is merely designed to channel and control bodies whose ‘wayward forces of desire’ shape the metropolis itself (Tadiar 2004: 111). And what better way to picture the contingent metropolis than to lay eyes on Beijing, the mother (Gk. mētr-; mi̱téra) state, 1,228 miles away from Hong Kong, the city (Gk. póli̱; póli̱s) state? Or perhaps the other way around.
Twelve Hundred Miles Apart (千里之遙 似曾相識) imagines the reciprocity between the body-space analytic/aesthetic, including its concomitant body-to-body and space-to-space exchanges, whether neutral or political. Through experimental film, archival video, sound bites and transcription, these reciprocities are reconstructed in a makeshift exhibition space — a virtual environment made perceptible via transmedia storytelling, on digital devices and displays, as well as projections and installations. Hence, the experience is not only immersive but also conscious. Here the body bears witness to a historic urban space, only that space no longer exists in situ. Its existence is contingent on the return of bodies reclaiming the city and transforming it into a place of potential: We Will Be Back, in bold. Therefore, the contingent is also emergent, when ‘the sayable’ is tantamount to ‘the visible’ (Rancière 2007, p7).
Thematically linked together by the ‘Umbrella Movement’, the works offer witnesses a return to the hitherto imagined utopia of urban space, a temporal and spatial logic that is never unfamiliar. Each work, however, does not only acknowledge the existence of the idealistic urban imaginary but also testify to the enforced disappearance of independent bodies and free spaces. If the movement of bodies is contingent on the spaces they occupy, and if the transformation of spaces occupied is determined by the movement of bodies, is it not possible that the metropolis acknowledges this reciprocity? What reciprocity does the metropolis want twelve hundred miles apart from its citizens?
Rancière, J., (2007). The Future of the Image. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London: Verso.
Tadiar, N. X., (2004). Fantasy-Production: Sexual Economies and Other Philippine Consequences for the New World Order. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.