Reconstructing the Hong Kong cultural identity by reconnecting with history through art exhibitions and performative rituals (from the construction of the “Lo Ting” myth in 1997 to the revival of ritualistic practices in 2014)
張嘉莉 (Clara CHEUNG)
at 6:01pm on 22nd March 2016
1. Postcard project initiated by Hong Kong artist Lo Lai Lai, with Lion Rock. Photo courtesy of Schindler Leung.
2. – 4. Installation views of the ‘Museum 97: History・Community・Individual Exhibition’, 1997. Photo courtesy of Oscar Ho.
5. During the Umbrella Movement in 2015, a small temple worshipping Guan Yu, a common Taoist god, was set up by occupiers at the Mongkok occupy site. Photo courtesy of Clara Cheung.
(原文以英文發表，題為〈重構香港文化身份 ─ 透過藝術展覽和展演性祭祀與歷史重新連繫 (由1997盧亭神話的再造到2014祭祀風俗的再興)〉。
On 23 October 2014, a month after the beginning of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, a gigantic banner, 6 meters wide by 28 meters long, with a printed slogan in Chinese: “I want true universal suffrage” was hung on Lion Rock (495 meters above sea level), by a group of rock climbers, that were labelled “spider-men.” (image 1) The appearance of this huge banner was a significant and sentimental moment for many Hong Kong occupiers whose demands had been ignored by the authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing, China, since the beginning of the Umbrella occupation. Indeed, “I want true universal suffrage” was the common slogan and demand for all occupiers in the Umbrella Movement. While the subject, “I,” in this slogan reveals the importance of autonomy and democracy within the movement, the slogan suggests a new kind of identity for Hongkongers, an identity different from the “I” being constructed during between the 1970s and 1990s. The current essay attempts to trace the path of the reconstruction of Hongkongers’ cultural identity through reviewing I. the cultural significance of the myth of the “Lion Rock spirit” from 1970s to 1990s, II. the myth construction of “Lo Ting” in art exhibitions around the years of the handover in 1997-1998 and III. the current revival of ancient rituals by cultural practitioners in 2014 - 2015.
I. The New “Lion Rock Spirit”
The “Lion Rock spirit” is known as the mainstream value system of Hong Kong people since the 1980s. The term ‘Lion Rock spirit’ originated from a television series “Under the Lion Rock” produced by Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) beginning in 1972, on and off, until nowadays. Its Cantonese theme song with the same title written in 1979 is also well-known. While the television series mainly portrayed real-life situations of Hong Kong people from the lower class, the ‘spirit under the Lion Rock’, slowly developed alongside the TV series in late 1970s and 1980s when Hong Kong underwent an economic takeoff. It was widely acknowledged as the belief in solidarity for a better Hong Kong in terms of its economic status, and of equal opportunities for hard-working people to achieve socio-economic advancement. With strong emphasis over economic development, this “spirit,” at the same time, diminished the role of a political vision in the formation of Hongkongers’ identity.
There were many factors behind the apolitical characteristic of the “Lion Rock spirit.” One major explanation emphasized Hong Kong being a society with a large percentage of immigrants and refugees in the years of 1970s. Those who fled from the mainland to Hong Kong, because of warfare or suppression by the Chinese Communist Party, intended to stay away from politics and only focused on their livelihood. Public opinion polls in the 1980s also revealed that most Hong Kong people believed in the competitive system under capitalism, and upheld utilitarian values in their understanding of democracy. On the other hand, the Hong Kong education system under the British rule also reinforced the myth behind “Lion Rock spirit.” Within the curriculum of civic education for junior secondary schools before the handover in 1997, the narrative of Hong Kong’s development was mainly about the city’s economic development from a previously unknown fishing village to an international financial center. The laissez-faire policy introduced by the British was also portrayed as a very positive factor for Hong Kong’s success in this narrative. Despite criticisms of the “apolitical immigrant theory,” this theory did dominate the interpretation of Hong Kong’s politics in the last two decades under the British rule.
The banner hung on the Lion Rock during the Umbrella Movement represents a completely new understanding of the “Lion Rock spirit.” Instead of striving for economic success, a new reading of the “Lion Rock spirit” focuses on the self-awareness of the political situation and redefines self-identity through obtaining more autonomy in governance - in spite of various obstacles, such as Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government, the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing and interference from other international forces. Located on the Kowloon-side of Hong Kong, Lion Rock is not physically associated with the headquarters of the government and international finance businesses in Central’s business district of Hong Kong Island. Indeed, Kowloon has long been considered as more “local,” with a more lower class, local population. If the earlier version of “Lion Rock spirit” represents the desire of those living underneath the Lion Rock on the Kowloon side to cross the harbor and become a member of the international financial hub in Central, then, the new version is completely rejecting such values upheld in Central. The old myth about the path to success has been replaced by the new “Lion Rock spirit” that symbolically suggests that Hongkongers stay on Kowloon side to recognize a new battleground.
This battleground for Hongkongers has multiple dimensions, including the development of a civic society struggling against neo-liberalism, which was part of the myth from the old “Lion Rock spirit,” and striving for autonomy under the rule of a neo-capitalist tyrant, the Chinese Communist Party. In search of the “I”, as stated in the Umbrella Movement’s slogan, a common strategy is to revisit one’s history and to recapture the forgotten pieces from the past. Standing against the old myth about the fishing village’s successful development, another tactic being used in Hong Kong has been to constitute new myths with historical connection. As suggested by Roland Barthes, “The best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce an artificial myth.” The following reviews the use of mythical and ritualistic languages by different local cultural practitioners in Hong Kong to reconnect the contemporaries with the local ancient history.
II. Myth construction in art exhibitions of Lo Ting
Lo Ting is not an unfamiliar name amongst cultural practitioners in Hong Kong, especially those working in the visual art sector nowadays. However, in the years before 1997, it was not quite well known. Ancient histories from Hong Kong being taught in schools in the past usually were about the two narratives concerning the last emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) who fled to Hong Kong, and the Indian Buddhist monk who came to Tuen Mun in Hong Kong between 420 and479 AD.
“Lo Ting was a species, half-human, half-fish, indigenous to Hong Kong and somewhat other-worldly looking. In the past, they populated the area around Tai Hai Shan, which was also called Tai Yu Shan, or Big Fish Mountain - one of the old Cantonese names for Lantau Island,” described by Oscar Ho in the article “The History of Lo Ting.” There existed several ancient Chinese literature references about southern China portraying characters similar to Lo Ting. For example, “New Stories from Canton (Guang Dong Xin Yu)” published in 1662-1722, “Knowledge from Canton (Yu Chung Kin Mun)” from 1777,“Collection of Lingnan Narratives (Ling Nan Cong Shu)” from 1835, “Notes on the South (Nan Yue Bi Ji)” from 1809, “General Records of the Sun On County (Sun On Yu Zin)” from 1819, all contain passages about the half-human and half-fish creatures which were mysterious, able to get in-and-out of the sea quickly, not able to speak human languages, but had tails, red hair and a few other features with different descriptions in different versions. The first three titles listed above all used the term Lo Ting to call this kind of human-fish-creature that lived around Big Fish Mountain in Hong Kong. The“Collection of Lingnan Narratives” also specifically identified Lo Ting as the descendant of Lo Chun who fled to southern China after leading a rebellion/ uprising against an oppressive regime in the year around 400 AD in Jun Dynasty.
Despite these records from the earlier days, there was not much discussion or acknowledgement of Lo Ting in Hong Kong before 1997, until Oscar HO curated the exhibition, titled “Museum 97: History・Community・Individual Exhibition” (“Museum 97”) in the handover year. As part of the series of Hong Kong Arts Center’s cross-disciplinary cultural programs titled, “Hong Kong Incarnated” in response to the handover of Hong Kong, “Museum 97” was a large-scale art exhibition starting on 23 June 1997, consisting of five different sections and involving more than 200 artists and participants. The five sections include “Prelude,” “(I) The Prehistoric Hong Kong Museum,” “(II) The Pre-97 Hong Kong Museum - A Community Project,” “(III) Museum of Personal Histories,” and a special section with videos and installations.
Within the “prelude” section, 100 artists based in Hong Kong were invited to illustrate their thoughts about the past, present and future, on three same-sized sheets of paper. Secondary students were also invited to contribute two-dimensional works about their perspectives of 1997. The second featured section about community invited the general public in Hong Kong to contribute an object that represented the relationship between him/her and colonial Hong Kong. All objects were exhibited without pre-screening. The third featured section on “personal histories” invited six artists to respond to three local individuals’ stories: a social activist from the 1970s, an old lady who repaired shoes on a street, a janitor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Lo Ting appeared in the first featured section: “The Prehistoric Hong Kong Museum” which was about “Hong Kong’s history before the arrival of the British. Artificial myths [were] involved. The exhibit [was] about a group of forgotten and suppressed Hong Kong indigents: Tanka. Through revealing their history, Hong Kong’s cultural characteristics [was] illustrated.”<16>
It was a casual conversation between Oscar Ho and Leung Man To, who was part of the curatorial team for the prehistoric section in “Museum 97” that sparkled the idea to rewrite Hong Kong’s ancient history and research on Lo Ting, recalled by Oscar in the sharing session of his retrospective exhibition at para/site art space in 2004. Leung told Ho that a small group of ethnic minorities within the mainland were rewriting their own history when facing extinction. While the question of Hongkongers’ cultural identity has been tackled already by many cultural practitioners since the early 1990s, Ho and his teammates wanted to address this very same question in a different way: by re-constituting a local myth with the powerful language of a history museum in the prehistoric section of “Museum 97.” A team of five in the curatorial committee for this section included art curators Oscar Ho and Louis Yu, and cultural critics, Leung Man To, historian, Hung Ho Fung and fiction writer, Tung Kai Cheung. Working initially with one or two references about the Tanka indigents and Lo Ting, they fabricated a more comprehensive “history” for Lo Ting, in collaboration with twenty-two artist units whose role was to create visual artifacts for this fabricated “history.”
In the exhibition catalogue of “Museum 97,” the life of Lo Ting was written with a formal style as in historical writing. Different artists contributed various artworks, sculptures and paintings to help illustrate the “history” in a contemporary art gallery, which was turned into a history museum setting with dimmed lighting and informative captions. Two famous visuals from this exhibit, that can still be easily found online nowadays, include the woodblock print of Lo Ting by Taiwan artist Hou Chun Ming, and the life-size sculpture of Lo Ting. (Image 2 and 3) Both are imaginative representations of Lo Ting. Other parts of the exhibition include artworks and artificial artifacts that revealed the “history” of Lo Ting. For example, an oil painting by Wong Hai in the style of classical history painting depicted the story of the Lo Ting people being massacred by a Song Dynasty army in 1197. Another art group with Phoebe Wong and Lydia Ngai addressed the food culture of Lo Ting by exhibiting a few fish dishes, including fish ball. At the center of the corridor between the 4th and 5th floor of the gallery, a black-and-white fish image approximately 8 feet in length was displayed in a crooked fashion that went along the wall and the horizontal platform on the corridor. The middle portion of the fish image was flattened on this platform and covered by a shiny red cloth, and a few dishes containing printed-out images of the fish dishes specially made for the project. On the side were also captions describing the food culture (Image 4). “There was not much instruction about caption writing in the form of history museum’s style for the participating artists, but we spontaneously understood what and how to present the works in the show, in order to fit in the larger narrative of Lo Ting,” recalled by Phoebe Wong.
As the Lo Ting story was well-received by audiences in 1997, Oscar Ho curated two more related exhibitions in the following years: “Hong Kong Reincarnated New Lo Ting Archeological Find” (“Hong Kong Reincarnated”) in 1998 and “Lo Ting: New Discovery on 1197 Massacre” (“1197 Massacre”) in 1999 at Hong Kong Arts Center. “Hong Kong Reincarnated” was presented as an education corner of a history museum. Besides artificial artifacts shown in a formal style, the participating artists also made different tools and kits based upon imaginary archeological findings about Lo Ting’s everyday life in the past, to assist contemporary visitors to learn about Lo Ting’s culture. For example, Lo Ting costume with a big fish tail was provided in the show for visitors to put on in order to experience walking with a tail. Another artist Luke Ching displayed two teeth of Lo Ting in a six-feet-tall vertical tube filled with water. One tooth floated on top while the other one sank at the bottom of the tube. This set, along with its caption, claimed it was discovered that different teeth of Lo Ting weighed differently as a way for Lo Ting to balance their bodies in water. The “1197 Massacre” exhibition of 1999 focused on the “history” about Lo Ting being massacred. This exhibit’s venue was comparatively smaller, but had a series of programs of on-site research and archeological tours at Lautau Island led by the curatorial team of Oscar Ho and Siu King Chung for the audience to join.
In a newspaper exhibition review of “Museum 97”, local art critic Man Kit Wah compared the Lo Ting section with the other parts of the show in 1997: “the pre-historic section [was] the richest part amongst the three major sections in the exhibit... The tale was started with the pre-historical mythologies of the human-animal species, the ancestors of the Tanka tribe who were the first residents of Hong Kong. Then the story went on to exhibit how Tanka were suppressed before and after the colonial period… The exhibition was a critical discourse about the suppressed subgroup of Tanka… under the urban development of Hong Kong throughout history… After all, no history is neutral… but the second and third sections of the whole exhibition seemed to be less suspicious, and did not involve too much of a pre-dominant discourse.”<20> While Man was sceptical about the historical content presented in “Museum 97,” another pair of visitors’ experience was the opposite. Oscar Ho remembered encountering a pair of father and child in “Museum 97.” The father treated all the materials very seriously and taught his child the history of Lo Ting and Tanka according to the information and artifacts from the exhibition. Oscar Ho also mentioned in a previous communication that he, at one point, felt uncomfortable and was in a dilemma about whether to reveal the myth to be true or not.
“To believe in myths is to believe in an imaginary real, and that is the same with history. A constitutive imagination determines what we can or cannot see in history,” stated by Leung Man To in the exhibition catalogue of “Museum 97.” On one hand, the myth construction project of Lo Ting made use of the language from a history museum that plays the role as the authority of history writing in contemporary society. On the other hand, the on-site archeological research and tours at Lautau Island invited the audience members to get out of white cube galleries to develop an even closer connection with the place’s history, the historical myths and the imaginary “real.” While a museum visit is a modern kind of ritual, the practice of archeology is also the belief in modern science about finding physical proof. Relying on codes and languages from modern society’s ritual practices, the Lo Ting project nevertheless was constituted in the safe zone of a contemporary art framework. The gallery space made sure all exhibited items could always be just “art” but not necessary part of the “real life.” Once the 'serious' father realized “Museum 97” was actually a contemporary art exhibition, he should have also realized that it was the presentation of an alternative history. Ho’s concern should then be alleviated.
III. The current revival of ancient rituals by cultural practitioners
The question then becomes: upon pulling himself out of the Lo Ting story, how well is this serious father still connected with the imaginary real and the historical myths? One does not need to completely fall for certain myths, but it is necessary for him/her to recognize the mythologies from his/her region, in order to construct his/her own cultural identity which is not completely dissected from his/her community in the past. The intimate connection with the past, indeed, is quite difficult to survive in Hong Kong, due to the rapid speed of urban development and re-development, due to the dominant ideology of neo-liberalism and the lack of recognition of cultural heritage amongst the governing authorities.
Barthes once pointed out, since “myth is experienced as innocent speech…it is very resistant to resistance.” In the hand of a tyranny authority, mythical speech may become a tool to facilitate its facist policies. However, the mythical language can also be a tactical tool for resistance by a suppressed group in society, since mythical speech is difficult to be dealt with by the authority as well. Myth-construction, along with traditional rituals, has been strongly adapted by some local activists, including ethnology scholar Wan Chin, in Hong Kong recently.
A mythical character of the fire phoenix has been portrayed to be the divine creature protecting Hong Kong. Such character has its origins from the Buddhist religion. When the shape and colors of clouds in the sky appear to look like a fire phoenix, photographs would be uploaded to social media as a form of fortune-telling for Hong Kong. Wan Chin and his teammates also started an organization called “Hong Kong Resurgence Order” in May 2014. On the day of the organization’s establishment, they went to break the curse by a feng shui master hired by a former leader from the Chinese Communist Party, at the “Wisdom Path” which is a tourist site with calligraphy of a Buddhist classic engraved on wooden columns, on Lantau Island. A video of this journey was also uploaded online, although part of the curse-breaking spells was not included for security reasons. Wan Chin has also lead seasonal ancestral worshipping, in which he reintroduced traditional Chinese customs and ancient Han costumes from his research study of the ancient ritual practices in China. Other than Wan Chin’s group, increasing numbers of young Hong Kong people have recently engaged with local religious folk cultures. During the Umbrella Movement in 2015, a small temple worshipping Guan Yu, a common Taoist god, was set up by occupiers at the Mongkok occupy site (image 5). Opposite of the Guan Yu temple was a small Catholic chapel. Besides worshipping activities, some occupiers also had group meditation sessions around the temple.
Unlike the Lo Ting project, the above cultural practices were all conducted outside of the contemporary art framework. Originating from religious and folk-populist culture, these performative rituals are not merely attempts to constitute the revival of certain religions, but are conscious acts to re-connect the contemporaries in Hong Kong with its invisible ancient past. The unwritten but desired laws for the current social and political system are being presented through the tales of mythological figures and ritualistic actions. If rituals performed within an art framework can be easily separated from life and, therefore, easily lose its mythical and intimate essence, then ritualistic practice within everyday life helps preserve such essential features. It is not an easy task though. Since history is not neutral, a clear judgment must be made about the selection of which historical path to follow. How to make sure the mythical path re-incarnated with the chosen past can help develop a group’s cultural identity, but at the same time, not be extremely exclusive? It is not only a moral question, but also a political question.
At a public forum in August 2014 involving Leung Man To and Oscar Ho, Leung commented on Hong Kong cultural practitioners’ political attitudes and actions around the years of the handover: “Why were us so apolitical back then? We had a lot of discussions about very big ideas, like history, culture, identity, but we did not talk about politics.”<24> One example of not being “political” in Leung’s speech was the absence of more direct actions by cultural practitioners to critically address the policies by the first Chief Executive of Hong Kong after the handover. It, of course, is not easy to come up with an explanation in response. The artist from “Hong Kong Reincarnated”, Luke Ching remembered, unlike 2015’s Hongkongers, everyone in the late1990s were trained under the British rule to be very well behaved. Perhaps, there simply was not much imagination for another kind of order for society, and not much imagination for possible actions to make changes. More importantly, there was no particular political theory or agenda that coincided with Hong Kong people’s unique cultural identity in the years right after 1997. Related political agendas, such as “Chinese confederation” or “Hong Kong independency,” are being widely debated among the public nowadays in Hong Kong, whereas the revival of the ritualistic practices also takes place during the reconstruction of Hongkongers’ cultural identity. Besides the political and cultural dimensions, morality, which has its own roots within the traditional culture and philosophy, also must play a significant role within this new battlefield for Hongkongers.
(1) From September 26 to December 15, 2014, a large-scale occupy movement took place at three different key districts in the urban centers of Hong Kong: Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok, to demand universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive in Hong Kong, without interference by the Beijing government in the mainland. This 79-day-long occupy movement was known as the ‘Umbrella Movement,’ since a large number of umbrellas were used by protesters to protect themselves against police tear gas at the beginning of the occupation.
(2) Yau (2014 : 2)
(3) Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) is the public broadcaster of Hong Kong, funded by the government, but operated independently under the Communications Authority.
(4) The brief background of this TV series can be found online at RTHK’s website: http://programme.rthk.hk/rthk/tv/programme.php?name=tv/belowthelionrock2015&p=7009, http://podcast.rthk.hk/podcast/item_all.php?pid=568&lang=zh-CN
(5) Ma (2011: 2)
(6) Law (2006: 63)
(7) Ma (2011: 5)
(8) Barthes (1957: 134)
(9) Chin (2009)
(10) Ho (2012: 171-172)
(11) Chin (2009)
(12) The term ‘mermaid’ is not preferred for this creature described here, as a way to distinguish this mythological creature from southern China from a similar one in Western myths.
(13) Ho (2012: 171-172)
(14) Museum (1997: 2)
(15) Tanka refers to people who lived on boats or junks in southern China.
(16) Anonymous (1997)
(17) The video documentation of “Discussion and Talk: Mapping Identities: The Art and Curating of Oscar Ho” is available at Asia Art Archive’s library in Hong Kong, with location code: CDAAA.000343.
(18) Wong (2015)
(19) Ching (2015)
(20) Man (1997)
(21) Museum (1997: 8)
(22) Barthes (1957: 130)
(23) Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jArZsTAACqk
(24) Law (2014)
(25) Ching (2015)
Anonymous, “ ’Hong Kong Incarnated’ to allow Hong Kong People to perform and interpret Hong Kong History,” Ming Pao Daily, 6 June 1997.
Chin, Wan. “Lo Ting.” in Hong Kong Economic Journal, 12 November 2009.
Hong Kong Reincarnated New Lo Ting Archeological Find, Oscar Ho (ed.), exhibition catalogue, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong, 1998.
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