By Ken Ueno
I have spent the 2018-19 academic year as a Visiting Professor of Sound Art at the City University of Hong Kong. During that time, I regularly passed by the ice skating rink at the upscale Festival Walk mall as I climbed from the MTR station located in the belly of the mall to the Libeskind-designed building housing the School of Creative Media at the top of the hill. Sometimes on breaks I would grab coffee and watch flocks of children learn to skate—some naturally dexterous, many awkward and fragile, like baby birds learning to fly. Other times, the somehow-calligraphic-and-meditative grace of the Zamboni coating the surface of the ice would hold my gaze for a good part of an hour. There were times I would be reminded of the first sentence of A Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
But, mostly, I considered how hot it was outside and how the ice skating rink in Festival Walk superimposes one climate’s condition onto another. It’s hard to escape the upscale capitalist frame of the mall (think Rodeo Drive) and how all the stores are the same ones you find in fancy malls around the world. At what point in the development of Asia will we make things that the rich people of Europe and America will be compelled to purchase to show off their elite status? Until that happens, many affluent Asians will be defined by their attachment to expensive Western items and remain deferential adherents to the cultural dictates of the West. And ice skating is present in Festival Walk for the same reason expensive handbags are there: it represents neocolonial prestige value.
But more than that, the ice skating rink is a freezing of time. A prominent figure in the art scene in Hong Kong once said to me, recounting the “Golden Age of Colonialism,” (the late 70s and 80s) in which she grew up, “oh, we never thought of Hong Kong as part of Asia. We always looked to London, Paris, and New York, as our peers.” The decoupling of local geographic (and climate) realities from metrics of identity and culture is a strange exercise.
Over the course of the last few weeks, I have seen millions of Hong Kongers go out into the streets and come together to protest the proposed extradition bill. Whole families—grandparents, mothers, fathers, and their children—were out in force. Disabled elderly women in electric wheelchairs also braved the crowds and the 32C/87F weather. It was the greatest spectacle of unity I had ever had the privilege to witness live. It was beautiful. The act of being present, together. The thing itself. It made me think of how most art forms are a step or two removed from life. This was an art. And I also came to realize that place is not a place, it’s the people who make the place. The ice skating rink is a part of Hong Kong, but not its entire essence.
Between the two large Sunday protests on June 9 and 16, which involved whole families and dress codes (the first Sunday was white, the second black), there were violent confrontations with police in riot gear. The police wielded rubber bullets and tear gas to try to disperse protesters, the main contingent of whom were high school students. The students were brave and organized, though lacking visible, charismatic leaders as there had been during the Umbrella Movement. In contrast to the Bougie malls and hyper-capitalist values that are ubiquitous in Hong Kong, I saw a spirit of communal sharing. The students gave out hard hats, goggles, food, and water to their compatriots. There were bags with supplies left at strategic stations. They called out onlookers taking photographs of the protesters’ faces, in case those were later used by police to track them down.
It is the young people of Hong Kong who will redeem Hong Kong. They are the ones on the front lines of the protests. The ones with the most at stake. Fighting for the future, instead of the preservation of a past that has failed them. There was no real Golden Era. Only a memory of relative affluence vis-à-vis other Asian peoples. The young people are the ones brave enough to imagine a future brighter than any past that has been. Hope in society must be based on a belief that the most beautiful moments in our collective futures is yet to be written. (I say “our” here, since what I see unfolding in Hong Kong is also relevant to my country, the United States. Another reason to say “our” is that the locals I have met during my year here have been so kind and welcoming that I have been made to feel so at home here that I want to stand beside them.) Hope cannot be staked on a mission to return to a mythical past.
On the night the student protesters barricaded the police inside the Wan Chai Police Headquarters, the barriers were complex expressions made of hybrid materials sourced from the street: metal police barricades, bamboo, traffic cones, ladders, all bound by plastic ties. That the protesters repurposed metal police barricades into a wall that then contained the police struck me as poetic. They achieved a sculpture that was not only physical, but also emotional and aesthetically powerful. This creative act is indicative of the potential of the younger generation: an art that is not bound by the bourgeois tastes of their parents, but a natural actualization of their nature. They are present in this moment, aware of Hong Kong’s place in Asia. Sleeping in the street, occupying the space around the government offices, in the sweltering heat, and no one was dreaming of ice skates.
Rome Prize and Berlin Prize winner Ken Ueno is a composer, vocalist and sound artist. Ueno is currently a Professor in Music at UC Berkeley, where he holds the Jerry and Evelyn Hemmings Chambers Distinguished Professorship in Music. His bio appears in The Grove Dictionary of American Music.