Giraffe Leung has been toying with a concept for his next artwork. The 27-year-old is contemplating an installation consisting of a plaster sculpture of a foot and two electrical sockets – one fits a rectangular three-pin plug commonly used in Hong Kong and the UK, and the other accommodates the pronged pins of Chinese plugs. But the Hong Kong socket is broken, as if crushed by the foot. The Chinese socket lives on.
Leung says the yet-to-be-titled work-in-progress is a reflection of the feelings of many from his generation towards a bleak future in Hong Kong. The two sockets of different standards represent the “two systems” under one country – the constitutional principle introduced when Britain handed governance of Hong Kong back to China in 1997 – which said rights, freedoms and the rule of law in the special administrative region would remain unchanged for 50 years.
In the eyes of these young people that promise has been broken by a draconian national security law, which came into force at the end of June and which introduced life sentences or long jail terms for vaguely defined “national security crimes”. For them, only the Chinese system remains intact, and the Hong Kong one has been shattered by the giant’s foot 27 years earlier than agreed.
“We still have 50, 60 years [of life] ahead of us, but we can’t really see what we can get in the future,” says Leung. “Young people don’t see hope.”
The sweeping new law, which, in the authorities’ words, was devised to prohibit activities related to secession, subversion of the state, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, was passed by the National People’s Congress in Beijing, bypassing the local legislature. Suspects could be extradited to mainland China under certain circumstances, such as “complicated situations” involving foreign interference.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has stressed, multiple times, that the new law only targets “a small group of people” and has promised that people’s freedoms will not be affected. But actions in July, following the implementation of the law, spoke louder than Lam’s words: several protest slogans were banned; books written by pro-democracy activists such as Joshua Wong were purged from public libraries; and the city’s education minister, Kevin Yeung, called for a ban of unofficial protest anthem Glory to Hong Kong in schools.
Meanwhile, ordinary citizens have been rushing to scrub their social media posts, in fear of persecution for their previous political comments.
The law has also cast a pall over Hong Kong’s thriving artistic community, which has played such a vital role in the protests since they began in 2014. Suddenly, the question of what can be said and not said, what might be considered an incitement of hatred against the authorities, where the so-called “red line” is drawn, has become difficult to ignore.
Leung Chi-wo, an associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media, believes it will weigh heavily on the minds of artists as they contemplate new work.
“Although the law does not say that freedom of expression is suppressed, one would set the red line very high in order to protect oneself, in fear of the consequences,” he says.
A well-established artist who has exhibited worldwide and co-founded the Para Site art space in 1996, he says the city’s freedom of expression has always been the cornerstone of the city’s vibrant arts scene.
From films and pop music to visual arts, performing arts, literature, design and even advertising, Hong Kong is known for a daring creativity that sets it apart from the rest of Asia. During its days as a British colony, it also became a safe haven for many Chinese intellectuals and artists who had fled from mainland China.
The freedom in Hong Kong has also produced writers with a strong sense of individualism. This, says author and cultural critic Tang Siu-wa, makes their work more experimental and edgier than their counterparts’ work in mainland China, which is “more direct, patriarchal and inclined to take pride in a nationalistic discourse”.
But, like Leung Chi-wo, she fears for the future. Alongside the purging of activists’ books in Hong Kong last month, education minister Yeung has vowed to remove texts deemed to be inciting subversion, separatism or containing other “illegal content” from schools. Leung Chi-wo fears this will change his relationship with his students. He says he teaches young people to be creative, to be able to think critically and independently, but “during the process of discussion, people might avoid discussing certain topics. When everyone self-censors, how can you express yourself freely?”
He admits, though, that he himself might refrain from showing some of his artworks in the current suffocating atmosphere, because of the trouble it could cause.
“I’m not sure if they would be deemed subversive. They probably wouldn’t breach the law but the suspicions would be enough to cause a great deal of anxiety and trouble that I would hope to avoid,” he says.
However, the pro-democracy protests of the last few years offer a glimmer of hope. Elaborate and colourful, Hong Kong’s “protest art” spread like wildfire online and on the streets and illustrated the creativity of the community.
Even after June’s national security law came into effect, and some protesters were arrested for displaying banners and objects containing a slogan deemed illegal by the government, people found a way to get around the law, swiftly adopting codes in their protest-related communications.
Instead of carrying a protest banner and chanting slogans, people protested in silence holding pieces of blank paper. Others changed the lyrics to the banned protest anthem Glory to Hong Kong, replacing the words with numbers in Cantonese that sound approximately like the lyrics.
Both Leung Chi-wo and Tang believe there is going to be an increasing amount of sophisticated, coded communication in art.
“Artistic expression has always been a form of coded communication, be it personal, emotional or political,” says Leung Chi-wo. “Considering the implication of personal safety brought by political messages, artists will find a way that they are comfortable with in order to express themselves.”
To young artist Giraffe Leung and his peers, the unique culture and history of Hong Kong has provided a rich source of inspiration. His recent work entitled One City Two Coins depicts the historical moment when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed in 1984. It is made of more than 3,000 20-cent Hong Kong coins from the British colonial era and after the handover. He uses coins, he says, to remind Hongkongers of values once held dear and now rendered obsolete by social change. And he says he has no intention of stopping his work, despite the new draconian law.
“There are so many stories to tell here in Hong Kong. Although the passing of the law has a great impact upon us, I don’t want to change the way I work. I don’t want to censor myself. I take this as a new topic for my works in future.”