One of the first people I met during my Shanghai, China, days was a photographer called Phillip Reed, who had just arrived in the city for a long haul stint much like myself (although I had been to Shanghai before, as had he in actual fact). From London, he was in Shanghai for 6 months to well, take photographs, and to see his twin brother Anthony who had lived in China for many, many years…and who is still there. Since those days from 2010 to 2012…I can’t believe it has been that long already…I have kept in touch with them both and they have become two close friends that have helped me keep in touch with the changing city and changing China whilst I have been on a travel hiatus. They recently contributed to my PhD exhibition ‘The Temporary: 01’ that I am still to tell you about on here…and the design work is in its final stages. Currently, Phillip is doing another 6-month stint in Shanghai, this time for the Swatch Art Peace Hotel residency that is one unmissable opportunity for artists. I miss having discussions my China friends, with those guys about the psycho-geographies of space, the drifting in urban city spaces and the architectures of change, the feeling of in-betweenness, the transcultural lifestyle, the expat-foreigner tagline, the not being able to sit still, the want and hunt for life and different perspectives. I think most people or definitely the creatives that live there have that mentality. The unsettled nature and the want to know more. Anyway, I digress (as standard)…whilst eating rice noodles in a chicken broth with chopsticks.
Recently, Anthony and Phillip went to Hong Kong to witness the current unrest – the Hong Kong protests, Umbrella Revolution, Umbrella Movement, Occupy Central – to document it as it was and still is happening, where I asked if I could see what they saw. Well, I had to. Anthony had been talking to me about my current interest and research into what was going on…my partial addiction to collating and sharing information about the events as they unfold through social media…and my developing theory of art as “agitprop” coined specifically in relation to the Transnational Dialogues 2014 journal article that I recently wrote – ‘Hong Kong’s Visual Politics – A city observation or global “agitprop”? – and the AHRC funded project ‘Culture, Capital and Communication: Visualising Chinese Borders (VCB)’ research project that I contributed to last week where I made reference to this article and to Anthony‘s photographic documentation.
I asked him to write a few lines about his experiences and feelings whilst being in Hong Kong that I could share with the CCC-VCB group…but we like to talk and write…so it ended up being more of a critical diary of events that he has shared with you below. Anthony sent me a near 100 photographs taken on the 18 November 2014 that I put on a showreel for the CCC-VCB event, from which a curated selection is shown here. It would be great to hear any thoughts and perspectives on his words and images as it is growing into a much larger area of enquiry for me in terms of multiple ways of seeing (from a distance and in the situation as it happens) from both an outsiders and internal Hong Kong perspective…raising questions as to ultimately, how is this happening going to archived including the art produced? How will it be reflected upon in the future? Perhaps this blog post will become part of that dialogue. The last photograph in the series here is of Anthony in Hong Kong, taken by his twin brother Phillip.
‘My first sight of the barricades was actually underwhelming, it seemed to confirm what I’d seen broadcast on CCTV news for the last 6 weeks: mostly empty roads, a few idle students lounging about and a pretty much abandoned barricade. I thought if this was it then it would be a matter of days before the final students gave up and wandered home. We crossed over the barricade and walked up the ascending highway with the idea that the BBC and other western media had perhaps blown the whole thing out of proportion. As we climbed the highway however the crowds grew larger until eventually we could look ahead over the crescent at an immense organic sprawl of tents, umbrellas, draped banners and temporary shelters. People were milling about their little make shift village as banners blew in the wind from overhead walkways. It was all very theatrical, we were pretty overwhelmed by what we saw.
It turned out to be a large enough crowd, all ages were represented and there was a large number of media personnel. The base of the government headquarters marked the epicenter and focal point of the gathering, the gigantic structure loomed so imposingly overhead evidently stating Beijing’s stance without any real need for words. I doubt if any other building in the island comes close to rivalling this ones monstrous footprint. We walked about the makeshift shelters and rows of tents where there was a study room for students, a mini gym and a media center. The atmosphere and level of coordination was impressive. Everyone we spoke with was polite; a few people asked us where we were from and whether we agreed with the protesters. One guy was in fact arguing against their cause but did so in a considerate tone, we felt part of a real life political discussion and a moment of historical significance.
“Something I’ve never experienced before, it all felt so rare and suddenly so fragile and I couldn’t help but feel a deep desire to voice a passionate defence of democracy and the freedom for people to be able to express themselves as they were here.” – Anthony Reed
I felt for all England’s faults we were so lucky to have been born in a country where we didn’t have to fight for these apparently universal human rights. No one was shouting slogans or yelling, the tone was restrained with a sense of purpose tinged slightly by a feeling of helplessness. The people we spoke to felt that if push came to shove there would be little anyone could do to stop the full weight of Beijing. With that in mind we left the sight a little unsettled, I mean at the end of the day no one knows how this will end and the possibility of violent suppression is still very real and worrying.
On returning to the mainland, I felt a little unsure of what I’d just witnessed. I’ve spent long enough in China to know that no one wants to see anyone get hurt. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have grown up experiencing to the instabilities and injustices of the Cultural Revolution or even to be brought up in a system like todays society with all its relative hardships and pressures. China is radically transforming and has certainly changed since Mao’s time and yet that time is still in living memory, I find that hard to grasp. The pace of change is continuing to increase and it’s hard to see how the politics wont grow to accept the changing social values that come with these times however, in spite of all the changes political stability seems to matter to most people (adults) that I talk to. At times and I’m sure you’ll agree I’ve felt nothing but frustration for the authorities and their seemingly single-minded outlook and I feel when talking with Chinese friends that they deserve better than what they have. In this most recent example I feel if they only knew what the people in Hong Kong were really standing for and if the media was willing to report these issues and actively encourage debate and reform it could only be a good thing.
I mean it’s so hard to imagine how censorship of information and a dogged refusal to discuss issues could ever be good in any situation, doesn’t it? But then I guess we are the product of the values that have been instilled in us. The reason the Hong Kong students are out on the streets and the Beijing and Shanghai students aren’t runs deeper than a political ideology. Three of my younger students (16-19 years old) today asked me about Hong Kong and whether I’d seen the protesters while I was there, they were curious but at the same time indifferent to the Hong Kong students cause. They couldn’t seem to grasp the real implications of the protesters demands or what they could likely achieve. It frustrated me but then in a strange way it reminded me of when I was younger and my mum dragged me, my brother and two sisters in front of the TV to watch the hand over of a far-flung colonial island to its previous owner. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on, the whole idea of empire seemed so antiquated and backward. Seeing the pageantry and the descending Union Jack made me feel a confused mix of shame and pride but I had no idea what the real life implications of this bizarre episode in history would have. I suppose in an odd way it makes no difference to the vast majority of the Chinese people whether or not the little island off the coast decides who their leader is. It seemingly has very little implication on their lives and the idea that they might actively go out on the streets and directly risk the very precious stability afforded to them now for an obscure chance at a potentially better future seems hard to imagine. I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture I suppose but then that’s how I feel most of the people here view it, not that they are happy with the way things are. I just hope that sense will prevail and that one day the rights that the protesters fight for now are available for everyone in China and beyond. How we get there is an altogether different issue! I mean of course what I’d like to see is a China where the young grow up learning about universal human rights and how those rights apply to them, it seems a far way off but I think that the motivation and enthusiasm I saw in the Hong Kong students was far more compelling (and contagious) than the empathy and indifference I felt in this mornings’ classroom. If positive change comes from this movement than in China these protesters will rightly be remembered as heroes, on the other hand it looks sadly more likely that they will be silenced, misrepresented in the media and then forgotten. Either way, they have led by example and I feel inspired to have seen their courage first hand. I have nothing but admiration for them and, I guess I hope ultimately that their dreams are realized.’