You’ve been making work about Hong Kong more explicitly these days. But also indirectly in the past: the sort of ambivalence and multiplicity of identity that you’ve often explored seems to reflect Hong Kong’s ambiguous status as a “special administrative region.” When we first met, in 2013, your show in progress—“Privileged White People”—felt like it offered the ultra-precise, wry observations of someone with access to a vantage point far, far away from the northeastern liberal arts college culture being examined. Can you describe that show a bit?
President Clinton’s official embassy portrait and a publicity shot of Dawson Leery from Dawson’s Creek bookended the show, both framed in pink and Photoshopped with functions original to version 1.0, like cloning, blending, and saturation adjustment. The scent of multiculturalism—in fact, L’eau d’Issey, the wildly popular fragrance launched in 1992—permeated the gallery; four bottles of it propped up an outsized sheet of paper watermarked with the insignia and motto of Trout College, a fictitious New England liberal arts college. Trout was the setting for an original TV pilot that recounted the political awakenings and personal dalliances of a group of diverse students and young professors. The printed screenplay sat atop a pale green column carved with a gilt heart and “L + A”—references to Liam and Anya, whose unlikely romance propels the narrative. Liam is a poor college jock whose single mother works at the town diner and whose dad, unbeknownst to him, heads the IMF; Anya is a diplobrat from El Salvador. I based them and others on people I first encountered at boarding school in Connecticut and, later, at Cornell.
The show made a huge impression on me, because I’d never before seen anyone identify a visual aesthetic that went hand in hand with a Clinton-era sense of comfortable liberal “decency” (to use your word) that supplanted more politically challenging art from before it. What was that “decency” and what has happened to it, in 2020? Do we now call it by a different name?
“Privileged White People” was my attempt to pinpoint the ethos and aesthetic of my RISD students from the early 2000s, who clearly possessed feeling and projected intelligence, but lacked the self-changing, world-charging brio with which I was familiar. Well-meaning and seemingly well-adjusted, they came of age during the period of prolonged prosperity between AIDS and 9/11, and they produced work befitting their times: modest abstract painting. Back then, I sought to argue that what looked apolitical was in fact the work of self-actualized millennials acting decent rather than enacting change.
In recent years the lacunae of the Clinton era and that show have increasingly become apparent. White decency has oxidized into white guilt on the one hand and white supremacy on the other.
It seems like more recently you have begun to ground yourself less in the US and more in Hong Kong. Elements of your art practice interleaved with your personal life and this idea of “reverse diaspora.” What prompted this pivot?
Soon after the 2017 presidential inauguration, I gave a job talk at an art school during which I discussed “Privileged White People.” A white tenured faculty member raised his hand. Why, he asked, was I picking on schools like Colgate and Bowdoin? Weren’t such colleges spearheads of progress, beacons of social change? His implication: they opened doors for people like me. It was because of them, and the multiculturalism that they promulgated, that I now stood at the lectern, asking to be hired. Why bite the hand that fed me?
I fumbled. Faintly, I acknowledged the debt I owed Clinton-era multiculturalism. But I should have retorted that it has since been critiqued as a means to maintain the status quo while giving the illusion of inclusion. I could have pointed out that at my questioner’s school under 6 percent of full-time faculty self-identified as Asian, compared with 39 percent of undergraduates and 44 percent of graduate students. I could have insisted it was absurd that I should feel grateful to be a forty-three-year-old applicant for an assistant professorship at an institution where I dutifully adjuncted for nineteen years. And I could have described the email I received the prior month from a senior, Minsoo Thigpen, with the subject line “In-need-of-talking-to-a-non-white-faculty-member-in-Painting-dept.”
A week later, I found myself in more sympathetic company, at Asia Art Archive in America’s annual Leadership Camp. Artist and curator Simon Wu had assigned Sara Ahmed’s “A Phenomenology of Whiteness.” Her account of fielding questions after a lecture, similar to my own, provided relief and proved revelatory. Here is Ahmed: “Someone struggles to ask a question. Basically he asks, ‘but you are a professor now. How does that fit?’ The question can be rephrased: ‘how can what you say about whiteness be true, given that you can become a professor?’”
My job talk and Ahmed’s account touched on my—and many Asian Americans’—half-in, half-out subject position in the US, and how this position informs complicit or subversive actions and alliances. Had I gotten the job and joined ranks with my white male interrogator, would I have excused—made excuses for—him?
It seems that this art school talk, and your subsequent encounter with Ahmed’s essay, made you (and your practice) pivot toward a more expanded set of geopolitical considerations. You were born in Hong Kong. Do you consider yourself a member of the Overseas Chinese—that diasporic designation that hovers ambiguously between Asian American and Chinese proper?
In “On the Edge of Empires: Flexible Citizenship among Chinese in Diaspora,” Aihwa Ong describes how modern Asia’s espousal of transnational capitalism complicates traditional notions of belonging and of national fealty. For Ong, a promiscuous, pragmatic relationship to ruling power characterizes diasporic entrepreneurial Chinese. My Hong Kong–based businessman grandfather, for instance, came from poverty in Canton, spent the war in Macau, and eventually was awarded an OBE from Britain, an OST from Japan, and an OE from Thailand. He sent my mother to an English boarding school, an aunt to Tsinghua University in Beijing, and an uncle to Catholic University in Washington, DC, for his MBA. This high-stakes, real-world “social practice”—practical socialization that is iterative—entails constant negotiation, anxious mimicry, and flexibility.
My father has memories of being one of the children waving flags in the streets of Hong Kong during Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. And hearing the accents of my (ethnically Chinese) cousins who’d been sent off to British boarding schools always jolted me, even though they were no more unlikely than my own American accent.
Hongkongers’ passports gave the right to travel as British subjects but denied the right of abode: partial citizenship. In this, Hongkongers, like Asian Americans, are in between. Yet stepping back from a Western lens is useful. Over 60 percent of the world resides in Asia, and the Chinese diaspora, one of the largest, dates back at least to 1842 in the West, when China conceded treaty ports to Britain, and to 1567 in Southeast Asia, when the Ming government authorized trade with what are now Malaysia and Indonesia. We are not, or not only, minorities in the US and Britain so much as a global and cacophonous majority. I believe that the ethnic, religious, linguistic, and geographic diversity of Asia can redefine “majority,” and engender ways of being with, in, and part of a majority distinct from whiteness, or proximity to it.
There’s sometimes been the presumption that Hongkongers are less nationalistic than capitalistic; the de facto consulate in New York is the “Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office.” All that, while pro-democracy protests seem to prove that younger generations can be politically driven, sometimes intensely so. How do you think capitalism relates to the identity of Hong Kong?
Just as the format of the nation-state begets a particular definition of belonging and of citizenship based on birth or naturalization, so too do other formats—for instance, of universal empires or, contemporarily, of economic coalitions like APEC or ASEAN—bring their own exigencies to “inside” and “outside.” Caught between hegemons, Hong Kong—neither a nation-state nor a colony, but as you noted, a “special administrative region” led by a chief executive—historically relied on global capitalism as a defense mechanism. Appropriately, the paradigmatic Hongkonger, especially from the generations between 1949 and 1997, is transnational and neoliberal, shuffling between continents and cultures and, depending on class and access, holding a foreign passport. For this subject, global capitalism—the flows of people, money, and ideas between, say, Vancouver and Hong Kong—provides a positive, and sometimes the sole, constant.
At a time when progressives in America seem more united than ever in scrutinizing globalism and capitalism’s limitations, it feels almost jarring to consider global capitalism as a defining and protective aspect of Hong Kong identity. What do you think about that dissonance?
Can “global” be disjoined from “global capitalism” and become gentler? As a recent CrimethInc. article about the protests notes, “‘[F]ree market capitalism’ is taken by many to be a defining trait of the cultural identity of Hong Kong, distinguishing it from the ‘red’ capitalism managed by the Communist Party… . So, just as people are ardent for a government and institutions that we can properly call ‘our own’ … they desire … a capitalism free from corruption, political chicanery, and the like.” Capitalism in short reads differently in Hong Kong.
When the nineteenth-century British introduced free trade to Hong Kong, they tempered liberty of exchange with restrictions on (colonized) bodies. As Lisa Lowe remarks in “The Ruses of Liberty,” new government measures in the nascent crown colony included “improvised emergency powers, compulsory registration… and military and police regulations to suppress social unrest and riots.” Then, as now, the rule of law capped dissent.
From the start, the “free” part of “freedom” involved the unfettered circulation of goods rather than the free will of the populace, political self-determination, and individual sovereignty. Recourse to the former is necessary when discussing Hong Kong. The motto “Be water” guided protesters. Is it coincidental, if rarely noted, that water in Cantonese culture symbolizes money?
That contrast—between how American history might be received now in America itself, versus in Hong Kong—seems at play in your recent sculpture at Asia Society Hong Kong. Can you talk about it?
It is hard to describe the split-screen oddity of watching protests from alternate sides of the Pacific. During the impeachment trial, images of President Trump and MAGA hats—symbols of cronyism and despotism to many in the US—connoted democracy and liberation to Hongkongers chafing at Carrie Lam’s extradition bill.
Always Stop Eating While You’re Still a Little Hungry, a brass model based on the theater in which President Lincoln was assassinated, turns on this disjunction. The title is a physician’s recommendation to John D. Rockefeller, who lived until age ninety-seven and whose fortune seeded Asia Society. Magic Eye images—those optical tricks where an image is hidden in a patterned field—decorate the model, and draw from US spectacles like Fourth of July parades, Colonial Williamsburg, and Balanchine’s ballet Stars and Stripes. In the windows of another structure at Asia Society—across a ravine from where the model is situated—hangs a 432-foot banner of Mary Lou Retton, who received the all-around gymnastics gold medal in Los Angeles at the 1984 Olympics, which the USSR boycotted, and in which, for the first time since 1952, both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China competed. As Retton sticks her vault landing, her left palm opens and five fingers stretch out.
However people might feel about Hong Kong’s protesters, it struck me that they created a visual language around the “five demands” that was for the first time really specifically linked to Hong Kong and nowhere else. I’m thinking of the yellow umbrellas, the all-black protest outfits, the masked masses, and so forth. Whether colonial British architecture, or Gucci ads, or the storefronts of Chinese apothecaries, or the packaging of imports from Shenzhen, the iconography that evoked being in Hong Kong previously often felt like it had roots in other places. What’s your sense of this?
The tactics, and not just the demands, of protesters intrigue, as they give insight into forms of resistance, dissent, and empowerment that may inject some vivacity into parallel phenomena in the US, where political and activist art has only, with Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, slowly awakened from an enervated, ossified stupor.
Direct actions by diverse individuals absent a single, clear leader characterized protests until June 30. These ranged from lighting candles to withdrawing bank deposits, and from patronizing designated dining establishments to wearing black. On July 1, after the new national security law passed, replacing the withdrawn extradition bill, a young woman, unclear about what could be said, held up a blank sheet of paper. Ten days later, at a mall on Kwun Tong Road, around seventy people silently held blank paper in front of their faces. Police in full riot gear arrested eight.
All that blank paper was something else.
That a readymade—A4 paper—became a primary symbol of suppressed speech in a city famed for bureaucratic panache is fitting and ironic. The woman who first held up a blank sheet later told Stand News that she had in mind a joke in which a Soviet officer arrests a person handing out blank fliers on Moscow’s Red Square. The officer proclaims, “You don’t think I know what you wanted to write?” For her, the blank sheet recalled “white terror” and referenced white papers by secretive governments.
Yet this A4 paper, this monochrome, might augur a Hong Kong that is less efficient and more speculative. In Western art, the monochrome equivocates between modernist abstraction and the plural, postminimal practices that followed. Spatially, it reads as an obdurate object and opens to infinite pictorial depth. And temporally, like a horizon line that retreats at the same pace as it is approached, the monochrome stands simultaneously for pure potential in the future and utter exhaustion in the present.
Endless deferment also describes Hong Kong which has lived on borrowed time since Margaret Thatcher and Zhao Ziyang signed their 1984 agreement promising Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule.
I think of Thierry de Duve’s proposal, based on his own investigation of the monochrome, that ethical art should function in anticipation, that it should act as if society had already transformed, as if the city was already emancipated, as if the political order was generous and compassionate. In Hong Kong, the A4 sheet of paper says: “Even though you may be here to arrest me, to suppress what I have to say, to restrict my movement and undercut my suffrage, I give you back freedom of speech. I trust that you, like we, have the imagination and inclination to make good use of freedom.”
Have recent events in Hong Kong changed your desire to return, to partake in “reverse diaspora”?
On June 3, I sat on my windowsill in New York’s not-unpleasant summer heat with choppers overhead surveilling protesters. In Hong Kong, it was already June 4. Never could I have imagined, in both my “home” cities, that tear gas would be used against the young; mothers would form human cordons against police; security camera footage would be appropriated for identification; lawyers would parse appellations “protesters” and “demonstrators” versus “rioters” and “anarchists”; luxury storefronts would be boarded up in downtown districts; plain-clothed agents in unmarked vans would make arrests; encampments would spring up in streets; campuses and parks would become battlegrounds; incumbents would delay democratic elections, or threaten to; and crowds would march, all against the backdrop of a pandemic.
At age seventeen, and again at twenty-two, I was struck with prolonged, debilitating depression. Those episodes shook my confidence in the safety and stability of my world, and by extension, the world at large. An individual’s depression is not the same as a city’s upheaval, but the effects—and affects—are similar. From my windowsill perch, I considered the possibility of making a future in Singapore, another city heaved from colonialism and leavened by diasporic communities. Would the benign authoritarianism of this “Switzerland of the East” be preferable to Beijing’s and Washington’s comparative capriciousness, or would its stability prove fleeting and hollow, too?
Where does China’s strong stance leave art in Hong Kong, and elsewhere? How does Chinese nationalism compare to Trump’s nationalism?
In his 2011 book On China, Henry Kissinger reflects on brokering the historic 1972 meeting between Nixon and Mao: “American exceptionalism is missionary. It holds that the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world. China’s exceptionalism is cultural.” Kissinger wryly observes that the Song had the world’s most advanced navy, before disbanding it for lack of desire to accumulate overseas colonies. Instead, belief in Chinese cultural superiority was so resolute that other nations were viewed as tributaries, and other peoples graded by how well they incorporated that culture into their own.
The Hong Kong “problem” emerged because modern China is applying the Westphalian format of nation-states to it, rather than developing its own tradition of internally disheveled, barely tamed empire (帝国; diguo). In this, it mimes rather than provides an alternative to Trump’s embrace of homogeneity. But, as Wang Hui remarks in China from Empire to Nation-State, China traditionally banked on “assimilation through culture and ritual.” Though hierarchies remain, and assimilation enacts its own violence, difference in this model is considered diverse rather than dissenting, and (self-confident) virtue rather than (projected) power persuades and coheres. In this it approximates the white ruling-class “decency” with which we started.
I am not advocating reverting to ancient empire (nor to New England elitism). Rather, I want to revisit and revitalize its extant residues and its future possibilities. The term “culture” tantalizes, especially for cultural producers. It recalls Said’s thesis in Culture and Imperialism that culture precedes (Western) imperialism—that academic departments and novelists-cum-adventurers lay the groundwork for empire. Yet this does not entirely fit Kissinger’s or Wang’s usage of “culture.” How might China’s cultural exceptionalism differ from Said’s critique of Western imperialism, and reflect and emerge from a unique world- and self-view? And how does contemporary cultural production fit into cultural exceptionalism? These and other questions guide my ongoing work.
Can you share with us what some of this ongoing work might be?
I’m composing a mea culpa to my former students who identify as Asian. Over the course of nineteen years of teaching, I repeatedly failed them. I misspent nearly two decades dutifully hewing to a curriculum of Western art and art history. I sat idly and complicitly by as other faculty made quasi-racist comments (“plagiarism is normal in their culture,” “they pay full tuition to support our students”). It will take the form of a letter and be part of an anthology that curator Daisy Nam and I are putting together for Paper Monument titled Best! Letters from Asian Americans (which you know about, as one of the book’s sixty-five contributors!)
Contributing to your anthology has been a somewhat bewildering yet helpful exercise in thinking about what one might even possibly want to say right now about being Asian American—at a moment when the US seems, thankfully, to be paying at least somewhat more attention to calls for equality and justice for Black lives.
How can Asians build real and lasting solidarity with black communities? And how can we illuminate emergent, ingrained, and invisible hierarchies between Asia and the world, and between South, East, and Southeast Asians? These and other questions will guide Asia Art Archive in America’s 2020–21 Leadership Camp, “Other Racisms,” which I’ll be moderating with artist Furen Dai. Decades ago, Deng Xiaoping touted “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Today, we can ask: What is “racism with Han characteristics”? What are our racisms—against each other and against non-Asian ethnicities alike? What aspects are imported from the West, and which are endemic? What if the “other” in “Other Racisms” is replaced with “our”?