The Story of an Outsider

In 1956, a Shanghai boy moved to Hong Kong. He quickly mastered Cantonese and took Hong Kong as his city. Sixty years later, He is still proud of his perfect Cantonese. “I love to be one of those local boys. I will never be discriminated against, because I have spoken perfect Cantonese since I was four.”

But fate has made the little Shanghai boy an outsider all his life. Instead of shying away from this, he has used it as a gift.

It is not easy to define the identity of Chan Koonchung. Born in Shanghai,a Zhejiang descent, Chan has also lived in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States. In 2000, he moved to Beijing and decided to become a novelist writing about China. He sees his own identity as someone who writes broadly in Chinese, “I prefer to call myself a sinophone.”

After fifteen years, he is still considered an outsider and gets asked, “Are you from Singapore? Taiwan? Hong Kong?” People never think Chan is a Beijing native, and probably never will.

Long grey hair, a fitted dark suit, striped socks in black and grey. In all ways, Chan is too refined and elegant to be one of those Beijingers. But there is one thing Chan and Beijingers have in common—they talk about politics, a lot. “I need to be in Beijing. It’s a concentration of people,” Chan says. “Beijing talked about China, about politics more than any place. They are my sources.”

Tired of second-hand information about mainland China, Chan took the chance to go in person for a three-year business trip to Beijing in 1992. This allowed him to unveil China on his own; he ended up realizing how little he knew about this huge country. “Sometimes, it’s out of focus; sometimes, it’s in the focus. China is very interesting to me.”

“Interesting” is not the word. China’s magnetism to Chan is not a want but a need.

Though born in mainland China, Chan found his identity in Hong Kong. For his generation, people born in Hong Kong’s baby boom years after 1949, mainland China is often an isolated strange place, scary and too “red”. In the early 1970s, the Cultural Revolution swept China. Its stated goal was to preserve ‘true’ Communist ideology in the country by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society, and to re-impose Maoist thought as the dominant ideology within the Party. The red wind blew to Hong Kong. A group of left-leaning students interpreted Maoism and justified what was happening in China.

Chan and his fellow Anti-Mao students at the University of Hong Kong chose their battle. “We knew and cared little about china. We want to go west, not north. Even though we wanted to go, we were not allowed anyway, “ he recalls. “To fight with Maoists, we had to learn about China.”

In 1976, the Cultural Revolution was over and the Maoist students were lost. It gave Chan and his fellows an illusion that they knew about China but his first trip to Beijing woke him up. “We’ve been talking about China all the time, until I really came to China, then I realized there was so much I don’t know about China,” he said. To make sense for himself what was happening, Chan began to write.

A political science fiction, The Fat Years, published in 2009, was the first book that made Chan the target of public controversy. In this book, set in the year 2013, a month has gone missing from official records. No one has any memory of it, and no one could care less—except for a small circle of friends, who will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of the sinister cheerfulness and amnesia that has possessed the Chinese nation.

Some critics regard The Far Years as a complex novel of ideas that reveals all too chillingly the machinations of the postmodern totalitarian state, and sets in sharp relief the importance of remembering the past to protect the future. Some do not.

“I had intellectuals in Beijing in mind when I wrote The Fat Years. As long as they read it, I don’t care about others.” Chan says. But the irony is that they were not able to find a copy of it, because the book angered conservatives. It was banned in the mainland. Though, the book was translated into simplified Chinese and published on line, so some of Chan’s intellectual friends did get to read it.

For the first two years, Chan received positive feedback, but some negative views came up later. “They thought I was too negative. I ignored the activists in Weibo, but I am right,” Chan says. From 2009, Weibo has played an increasingly important role in public affairs, yet since 2011 the Chinese government has put more pressure on social networks and has arrested some well-known Weibo activists. Now Weibo has lost its once energetic role in public opinion.

This time, the old Shanghai boy cannot fit in just by speaking fluent Mandarin. Actually, “fitting in” does not seem to be what he wants anymore. He wrote The Fat Years to intellectuals in Beijing for a reason.

It is a generally accepted fact that there are misunderstandings, prejudice, and a level of estrangement between people from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, largely due to historical and ideological reasons. Chan does not seem to have the ambition to change that, but he does try to contribute his perspective of China, a more passive and less appreciated one, and is not tempted by a seemingly prosperous economy, increasingly powerful international prestige or a ‘fat year’.

The book is all about the new normal after 2008, when Beijing held a successful Olympics and rest of the world got bogged down in the economic crisis. “Many Chinese shifted their mentality in that year. They would argue China is doing well and its repressive system might have merits, while the West was definitely not as attractive as it used to be,” Chan said.

Almost forty years later, Chan still picks the same battles, but this time he is in Beijing, not a student, and alone. Seeing loyalists becoming more assertive, trumpeting the achievements of the Communist Party, and watching others becoming reluctant conformists. Chan told himself he had to write about this new reality.

In The Fat Years, Chan used a classic metaphor originated from Lu Xun, a highly recognized left-wing writer in modern Chinese literature, “a good hell” and “a fake paradise”. When the social activist Xiao Xi asked the Taiwan writer Lao Chan which one he would choose. To win Xiao Xi’s heart, Lao Chen carefully and vaguely said, “If necessary, I may be willing to consider a good hell.”

In reality, Chan has no one to flatter. “I would probably choose the fake paradise. You may not find it’s fake. In good hell, it’s still hell.”


Nara: Life is only one!

By Chen Guang and Claire Li Yingxue

Dressed in a Felix cat shirt, Yoshitomo Nara, one of the most renowned Japanese artists, brought his provocative girls and snow-white puppies to Hong Kong audience in his first major solo at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center.

The title of the exhibition Life is only comes from the painting Life is Only One!, which depicts an innocent-looking girl, holding a human skull. The philosophy of life and death is always a tricky subject for artists. If you have only one life, there will be a kind of reincarnation?

For Nara his sister was still alive. In his imagination she was always affecting his way of work. When Nara was twenty-two years old, he heard from his mother, that she was pregnant with a baby girl, who was unfortunately stillborn two years before his birth.

He realized to be different from other boys. He loved flowers and enchanted to other beautiful objects in his childhood. When his mother told him about his sister, his female side makes more sense to him.

The exhibition reviews his best artworks over twenty years as the essence of his work”, reflected by the range of sketches, photos and mixed media installations. Three new paintings, seventeen new drawings and some puppy sculptures, are made specially for this show.

When the market is dying to know what’s new, Nara indicated how difficult and precious to just be his “old self”. After witnessing the aftermath of the Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011, he took four photos of it. Too shocked by what he has seen, he couldn’t continue his life as an artist. At the same time his father was dying. That pushed him out of life. Strong doubts came over him.

“Maybe I enjoyed too much freedom,” Nara said. “I used to do whatever my emotion drove me to do and I realized that how self-centered I was.”

During the summer of 2011, Nara visited the university he used to study, working with students in the studio. It gave him a new sense of life. “All the sceneries, things I saw were those I’m familiar with. It’s like I did a time travel and went back to the old days. Basically, I didn’t have my current self, I became my old self.”

Now in the age of 55 Nara feels that half of his life was over. On one side he wished to enjoy his days and on the other side he was looking for a more meaningful life, sharing something with others.

Recalling his childhood in the north of Japan, Nara was deeply captured by the pure and complicated white. “During the wintertime everything is covered in snow. Everywhere white, so fare the eye can look. Yet beneath the pure white lied those beautiful, dirty, ugly things.” So his last words.

Art can be a woman’s world, debates hears

By Chen Guang

The growth of Art Basel in Hong Kong is a sign of the art world expanding beyond its traditional European focus. But such paradigm shift might have yet crossed cover the territory of gender in the art world, despite the growing numbers of women representation in all fields of art.

The war of genders centred Intelligence Squared’s recent debate on the sidelines of Art Basel, which debated the motion the “The art world is a boy’s club”. Arguing for the motion were Frances Morris, head of collection: international arts at London’s Tate Modern and Gregor Muir, executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Historically, the creation of art has largely been the preserve of men, and recent decades have witnessed a growing number of women join the art world.

Frances Morris, head of collection: international arts at London’s Tate Mode, talking at "“The art world is a boy’s club”. Photo: Chen Guang
Frances Morris, head of collection: international arts at London’s Tate Mode, talking at ““The art world is a boy’s club”. Photo: Chen Guang.First Photo: Sabrina Gaisbauer

“Those female artists tend to avoid traditional areas of practice because it’s so owned by men,” Morris said. “You get great female artists in forms of art, like performance and installations, that are difficult to bring to the market.” In other words, female artists find it difficult to monetise their work, Morris said. As a matter of fact, women earn about a third less than their male counterparts.

Arguing against the motion, Charles Guarino, publisher of Artforum International Magazine, said dozens of women took top positions in museums, publications, auction houses and various institutions in the art world. “Since long ago, women have controlled all the show,” Guarino said, adding that men who thought gender alone could get them ahead in art were “delusional”.

 Also arguing against the motion was Elaine Kwok, Asia director of Christie’s Education. While she acknowledged that there were more male than female collectors “their decision are largely influenced by auctioneers, curators, critics and other professionals, most of whom are female”. And Kwok said there were complicated reasons behind the relative lack of female curators – not all of which were directly related to the world of art. “There is a trend that many women choose to give up their work after they have children, which is an issue stands beyond the art world.”

While gender imbalance remains a reality, Kwok argued, things have improved for women in the art world to a greater extent than in business, with its glass ceilings. And it seemed Kwok and Guarino won over the audience. Polled before the debate, 56 per cent of those present were in favour of the motion, 23 per cent against and 21 per cent undecided. After the debate, 49 per cent were in favour and 50 per cent again.

Cao Fei explores art and the city

By Chen Guang and Claire Li Yingxue

If there’s one artwork in Hong Kong that has been literally impossible to miss these last few days it’s Cao Fei’s Same Old, Brand New. The massive video installation takes up the whole 490-metre facade of the city’s tallest building, the International Commerce Centre (ICC) in Kowloon.

The walls of the ICC light up with images from classic 1980s video games such as Pac-Man, taking its inspiration reflecting, Cao said, the classic image of Hong Kong people in that decade “looking down to play video games, looking up to talk business”.

“Video games in the 1980s are the major inspiration in this work”, she said. “For the mainstay of Hong Kong society, their love for video games has a strong sense of nostalgia, which serves as a logo of my work.”

Cao explained some of the thinking behind her first gigantic outdoor project at a panel discussion about new media practices with Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of exhibitions and programmes at Serpentine Gallery in London, at Art Basel.

Born in Guangzhou and living in Beijing, Cao said being a city-dweller makes her conscious of the evolution of urban cultures.  And that urban sensibility was reflected in her giant Hong Kong work, which she hopes will connect with the local popular culture.

Cao Fei talking about his new artwork. Photo:
Cao Fei talking about his new artwork. Photo:

Cao also shared the thinking behind her earlier city-related projects: RMB City (2007-2010), Haze and Fog (2013), and La Town (2014), marking the first time she discussed these works as a complete concept.

The RMB City project – based around a city she planned and “built”in the virtual reality world of Second Life, was an experiment exploring the creative relationship between real and virtual world, while also reflecting China’s urban and cultural development. Before Cao started the project, she registered in the simulation game under the username China Tracy, and played for six months to know all about the simulation city.Haze and Fog was her exploration of the topic of utopia through a zombie film set in modern China.

“I want to show the fear, nerve of people in Beijing living under the horrible haze and fog, ” Cao said. “I want the Zombies to lead the audience to details of their daily life that they miss.”

La Town was actually filmed on a 2.2-metre by 1.2-metre table in Cao’s studio, where she built the whole city almost single-handed. She used models in a ratio of 1:87 to set the post-apocalyptic scenes.

“I built a night-art museum with bar which was only open from 8pm to 5am, where people can drink beer and watch films,” Cao said. “I believe every city should have an art museum. Artwork needs to be collected.”

But Cao has a question for her audience to address, namely: “Whether the city really exists or belongs to another parallel world.” She wants the whole society to comment, as they did on her ICC piece, using Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

A delicious comment on matters political

By Chen Guang

Cake-cutting and a slice of polemical, interactive artwork were on the menu as  the Institute of Contemporary Arts opened its first regional exhibition, Hong Kongese, at Duddell’s restaurant in Central.

Curated by the institute’s executive director, Gregor Muir, Alia Al-Senussi and Abdullah AlTurki, Hong Kongese sets out to identify with the evolving nature of Hong Kong as it enters a phase of rapid development. “This is an exhibition of local and international contemporary artists whose work is inspired by our ever-changing world and cosmopolitan centers in which they live,” Muir said. The various artists offer distinct viewpoints on social, economic and political transformation.

The exhibition opens at a time of political discord, and the impact of last year’s 79-day street blockade for democracy – known as Occupy Central or the “umbrella movement” is keenly felt. Local artist Phoebe Man uses her edible sculptures Birthday Cakes as a playful way to comment on the protests and the government’s response to them. The sculpture consists of delicious cotton candy birthday cakes, on which are written statements made during last year’s protests that attracted the ire of the protesters and sparked debate among citizens. They include “Police are frank and openhearted”, “The Sino-British Joint Declaration is void”, “Hong Kong is China’s directly-controlled municipality” and “1,200 people represent us to nominate chief executive candidates”.

The novel idea came from a tactic adopted by the protesters when confronted with abusive government supporters. The young protesters would break into a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday in an attempt to confuse their opponents and blunt their harsh comments. “People can choose to eat it, which in one way means to destroy it and in another way also means to internalise it,” Man said. “One of the audience told me that she didn’t want to eat it at first, but later she was attracted by the adorable look of the cake and as she was hungry, she ate it.” Such contradictions made Man think of the choices people made in everyday life.

“Sometimes you don’t want something, but your needs and real life made you accept it.”  Is the cake a blessing or a curse? Delicious or hard to eat? “When real cakes are served as a form of performance, the puzzle is left to the observer to solve.

Hong Kong can pay off for the art world

By Jacqueline Leung and Chen Guang

Is a city built on trade, where making a fast buck or a perfect deal come before spiritual enrichment really a place where art can thrive? The question is often asked as Hong Kong pours billions of dollars into  becoming one of Asia’s leading arts hubs. But for Korean artist Do-ho Suh, the answer is simple and clear: it’s a great place for the art business.

“I think Hong Kong has a friendly system for business,” says Suh, who is making his third visit of the year. “I don’t think we can simply say that being commercial is a bad thing. The market is very important – not just for artists, but for everyone.” Suh, named Innovator of the Year in Art by the Wall Street Journal in 2013, was vising for the Asia Society’s third annual Art Gala, which took place on Wednesday. He was honoured for his significant contribution to contemporary art along with fellow artists Shahzia Sikander, Wucius Wong and Xu Bing.

Cash raised by the gala will support the society’s work promoting Asian culture worldwide, and Suh is in no doubt of the importance of money in the cultural world. Suh says business sustains venues art appreciation. Many museums support themselves through entrance fees and government subsidies, but also rely on donations and fundraising, with sponsorship largely from art collectors and corporations.
“[The] money goes to museums in the end,” Suh explains. “It’s the general public who benefit from it.” But how does one put a monetary value on art? The difference between what a work costs to produce and its market price can be huge, and Suh thinks the process through which it happens can be absurd. “There’s a structure and a complex system to do it,” he says with a wry smile. “That’s a mystery for me.”

Nevertheless, the meaning of an artwork is about more than mere economic value. Having spent much of his life outside his homeland, Suh explored the nuances of identity and one’s sense of belonging. The two themes recur in many of his site-specific installations and meticulously crafted sculptures. The great size of his work means Suh, more than most artists, faces a dilemma when deciding whether to exhibit in a public space or a museum. Apart from the obvious logistical consideration, Suh points out that using a public space adds different layers of meaning to the work exhibited.“Museums are more protective [of artwork] in a way; in public, you have to deal with so many practical issues,” says Suh. But his experience with public installations is generally positive. “When it works, it’s quite rewarding.”

He uses the example of his installation Net-Work, which resembles a fishing net made up of interconnected human figures and was first installed on the beach of a traditional Japanese seaside village. Net-Work explores individual experience and displacement in a large community, the concept of which is apt for Hong Kong’s metropolitan environment. Yet, the public’s early interaction with the work introduces a warm, communal element to the piece. “I worked with many volunteers from the local village. They call themselves ‘small shrimps’, because it’s an island and a fishing village,” Suh recalls. “There’s a beautiful sort of human interaction. We have completely different cultural backgrounds, but we just get together and have fun.”


Charlene Choi’s performance in Sara has put many A-list Chinese actresses to shame. The once Miss Sunshine Ah Sa, the name Choi used as a single of Cantopop group Twins, has successfully presented how a fallen girl can grow into a respectful person.

Sara, a journalist, has spent four months writing a report about dirty trades between businessmen and officials, but her boss retracts it for the benefit of the magazine. Tired and disappointed, Sara goes to Thailand and somehow saves a teen sex worker Dok-My, who reminds her of her own past.

Fifteen years ago, Sara was raped by her step-father. After she ran away from home, she started an eight-year long unethical trade with Gan Hao Xian (played by Yam Tat Wah), an education officer thirty years older than her, to continue her studies. However, it’s more than just a money-sex trade for both of them. For reasons of love, Gan ended their relationship when Sara graduated. Before she went to Thailand, Gan passed away for cancer.

The director Herman Yau cares a lot about serious social issues like sex workers. As early as 2007, he shot his first film on this theme, Sex Worker-A 10 Day Discourse, depicting daily lives of sex workers in Hong Long in a documentary way. The following year, he made a second related film, True Women For Sale, telling stories of two women, a middle-age prostitute and a young mainland woman who delivers babies for others to earn a living in Hong Kong. Sara, though not a sequel to the previous two films, explores the same themes – how women fight for existence, independence and dignity in society.

It’s deeper, for it does not stop at just showing a story about a woman growing up. The audience really witnesses the process. For example, the most powerful scene in the film is when Gan goes to Sara when she is busy writing her final. She is upset about his increasingly bureaucrat style following his promotion. When Gan suspects Sara of having affairs with her classmate and forces her to shut down her computer, Sara bursts out. She throws her underwear into Gan’s face, lifts up her dress and shouts, “You want to fuck? OK! Fuck me now! Come on, quick!” Gan walks away as Sara cries, picks up her underwear and puts them back on.

This scene is not only important for the plot, but it is the defining moment for Choi to win her best actress award. The scene reveals that the relationship between the two is becoming complicated and genuine. Gan wants to be with her when he’s tired of playing his politician game and Sara gets mad with him and even begins to take the upper hand. They are in fact in love with each other. There is no client in this relationship; Sara and Gan are equal. When she was lifting up her dress, she’s actually despising Gan, a client and herself, a seller. When she picks up her underwear, she’s trying to pick up her dignity as a person.

Though sometimes the film tries too hard to make adult Sara look like a heroine, an idealist who’s full of sense of justice, it is undeniable that the story is well-told and that the performance of the whole cast is genuine and surprisingly good.