Saturday, November 27

“Law and Order Collapsed”: Hong Kong Artist Kacey Wong on Finding Freedom in Taiwan | Hong Kong

Fo Much of the past year, Kacey Wong would wake up in Hong Kong and check social media to see if her friends had been arrested overnight. One fine day, Wong might see a photo of the oval window of a plane looking up at the clouds or a foreign airport, a pictorial sign that they had fled to safety.

One of the worst mornings was the arrest of 53 activists, politicians and activists, many of them friends of Wong, for having the gall to hold a pre-election vote.

That was January. Then in March, a pro-Beijing newspaper, Ta Kung Pao, published a very critical list of artists and organizations linked to the Arts Development Council which the newspaper said was “using government money against the government” by funding what it viewed as anti-government entities and potential violators of the national security law, introduced in June 2020.

Wong, a 51-year-old political and performance artist from Hong Kong, was flagged for a Ted Talk given in 2019 – so much by national security law that it’s not retrospective. He decided to go to Taiwan.

“The arrest of the legislators was a clear indication to me, telling me that law and order in Hong Kong has collapsed,” he says. “That was a big alarm.”

Kacey Wong in Taichung, Taiwan.
Kacey Wong in Taichung, Taiwan. Photograph: Helen Davidson / The Guardian

“It is not about what you do after the establishment of the national security law, but about how the national security law becomes this weapon of cultural mass destruction, in the now, the past and the future,” he tells The Guardian from your new home. Taichung city.

“It’s like the state newspaper is dictating a hit list, and the national security office would just follow that, to create fear and intimidation against any person or organization.”

Wong was a common sight in Hong Kong protests during the Umbrella movement and pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019. Since then, the repression of the movement has led to the arrest of thousands, including more than 130 under the law of National security. It has targeted newspapers and journalists, legal groups, civil society, unions, illustrators, and individuals for any sign of dissent.

Wong is only a couple of weeks away from Taiwan’s strict hotel quarantine. Forced isolation in a guarded, yet comfortable and cared for room for 15 days felt like a final test before gaining freedom. He announced his “exile” with a music video inspired by Leonard Cohen, singing We Meet Again by Vera Lynn in his hometown.

We are sitting under the large trees that surround the Taichung Museum of Modern Art, dragonflies flying through the heavy, humid air in this CBD oasis. Wong speaks quietly, but expresses strong opinions peppered with military metaphors (he’s a wargame enthusiast). Taiwan is Hong Kong’s red green zone; those in exile have not lost the war but are “retreating to another place … to continue fighting.”

Tens of thousands have left Hong Kong. Many, like Wong, were quick to beat the August 1 implementation of Hong Kong’s version of the exit bans. Data released last week revealed the steepest population decline in six decades, a net loss of 89,000 people or 1.2% of the population. Analysts say Covid is a factor, but so is Hong Kong’s decline in the face of increasing intervention from Beijing. In 2020, Taiwan issued almost twice as many residence permits for Hong Kong residents as the previous year, a complicated and sometimes problematic process amid Covid restrictions and the absence of an asylum route.

Wong had told almost no one he was leaving, but from the Ta Kung Pao article and the recent arrests of Apple Daily reporters at the airport, he assumed authorities were watching.

“But you never know if it’s on the list or not, unless you test it by loading across the border, which has two possible consequences,” he says.

“I went to the airport with a very sad emotion, because I knew that I was going to say goodbye to Hong Kong for the last time or that I could go to jail for the first time.”

At the electronic immigration gate, his fingerprint was not being scanned and an automated message told him to call an officer for help. He had already noticed that the officers that day were bigger and stronger and more dressed for action than usual. He furiously pressed and pressed his thumb until it finally worked and walked towards the gate, in relief. But then he laughs, remembering the discovery of other “passengers” in the waiting room.

“I’ve been to so many rallies that I can identify who the undercover police are,” he says. “It is a team of four men: a middle-aged officer leading three younger ones, two men and a girl. They all wear sneakers and T-shirts with no carry-on luggage, and have the bags crossed across their chests so both hands are free to do whatever they want.

“When it was time to board, they got out and lined up like [they were defending] a penalty goal in a soccer game, they were watching everyone presenting their passport and boarding pass. “

Wong did not feel any calmer when taking off, not even when landing in Taipei and checking into the quarantine hotel, where he feared someone would knock on the door for 15 days. He quickly moved to Taichung, a coastal city halfway to the west coast, grunge, industrial and artistic. Once established, he plans to restart his work, telling the history of Hong Kong and preserving its culture.

Wong could have returned to the UK, where he spent two years and where more than 7,000 Hong Kong residents have resettled this year, but he chose Taiwan because he says he can integrate here. You don’t have to prove your identity to people, or be a “walking fluorescent light” all the time, and you have complete artistic freedom.

Most of Wong’s work is sculptural or performing art, often with a military theme and focusing on the erosion of human rights and freedoms. But he says he was not really politicized until the arrest of Ai Wei Wei in 2011 by the Chinese authorities.

As we sit, Wong often looks at the art museum without political intervention, or the streets where he says he still forgets that he doesn’t need to look over his shoulder. You are about to go shopping for a second hand motorcycle, another layer of freedom. You will soon find your new studio.

“A question that I am often asked in Hong Kong is: Do you think artists have a responsibility to speak up for political freedom and democracy? Before I used to answer: no, there is no responsibility, it is a personal choice, right? ” he says.

“But for those who decided to leave Hong Kong like me, I think there is a responsibility for those who can defend those who cannot speak.”

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