© Hazel Lam

“I am the embodiment of what could have been lost”

–  Hazel Lam on the creation of Spring Steps, a video installation on the reclaiming of public space, against the background of the ongoing conflict between China and Hong Kong. 

British artist with Hong Kong roots Hazel Lam can draw from an impressively rich vocabulary of movement. It ranges from classical ballet to contemporary circus, in particular aerial and partner acrobatics. This versatility allows her to thoroughly research the relationship between body and public space, even within highly varying urban landscapes and cultural frameworks. For the Vooruit festival OPENBARE WERKEN, Lam has created Spring Steps. In this video, she draws upon abstract, unconventional movements to explore, physically confront and reclaim the public spaces of Hong Kong, a crowded city in which one can often feel like tiny, canned sardines amid an imposing, strikingly vertical architecture. However, one may not fully grasp what is at stake in Spring Steps, specifically the political implications and existential dimension of the video, if one is unfamiliar with the recent history of Hong Kong. Of pivotal importance to that history, is the complicated and increasingly hostile relation between Hong Kong and China. Coincidentally, this conversation took place just one day after the 100th anniversary celebration of the Chinese Communist Party (the 1st of July 2021).

MV: Hazel, in his speech on Tiananmen Square yesterday, president Xi Jinping warned that any-one who would dare to oppose China “will have their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of Steel, forged by over 1,4 billion Chinese people.” What do you make out of this belligerent language?  

HL: It’s very brutal. You’re either with them or against them. There’s no middle ground. Xi also stated that “special administrative regions” such as Hong Kong and Macau will retain “a high degree of autonomy”, yet in reality, the Chinese government aims to achieve cultural and perhaps even ethnic hegemony. The masses are easier to control when everyone has the same mindset. Allowing a diversity of voices is far more difficult. That’s precisely its critique on liberal democracy: when there are too many opinions, it weakens the government.  

Make no mistake: this repressive Communist Party is very popular at the moment, surprisingly also among young people. There are two main explanations for that. Firstly, everyone is communist educated, indoctrinated with the idea that the government/the collective is more important than their parents. There’s this slogan that says: the party comes before parents. Protecting the party and safeguarding the stability of the state are more important than looking after one’s own family. Secondly, the Chinese citizens worship the CCP, because they personally witnessed that from one or two generations China went from an agricultural society with people dying from famine and disease to an industrial society of middle-class people. They even began to have economic bargaining power with the West, something which they could never have imagined before. 

MV: Concerning the current Chinese policy towards Hong Kong: could you briefly sketch how the conflict exactly arose and how it came to the boiling point of the pre-democracy protests in 2019, which we all witnessed on the news?

HL: It all started in 1984, with the Sino-British Joint Declaration between China and the United Kingdom. The declaration set the conditions in which Hong Kong was transferred to Chinese control. They agreed on the principle “one country, two systems”: Hong Kong would maintain its liberal government and economic system, independent from the communist system of mainland China. However, I think eventually it’s not going to work out this way. The two systems are ultimately going to be blurred and blended into one system, which is to say into some kind of dictatorship. The CCP already changed internal policies such as juridical procedures and economic decision-making fundamentally. Its aim is to integrate Hong Kong into China in such a comprehensive way that any form of autonomy becomes virtually unthinkable. 

“Hong Kong is shedding its entire identity”

MV: Also on a cultural level?

HL: For sure. In Hong Kong, we all speak Cantonese, but because of China’s obsession with cultural hegemony, there are more and more Mandarin speaking people coming to the city. It’s a strategy we’ve also seen in Tibet: injecting vast amounts of communist educated and Mandarin speaking Chinese into the autonomous territories in order to dilute the local population. The population game, the power of the number: that’s where China is very good at. It’s frightening. At the same time, a lot of liberal thinking people are fleeing Hong Kong. It creates a vacuum in work force. Consequently, the CCP can conveniently appoint their own people. They take on all the important governmental roles. So, this tiny town is shedding its entire identity.  

The first major uprising against the tightening grip of China was the umbrella revolution of 2014. It coincided with Occupy Wall Street. In Hong Kong it was called Occupy Central. The strategy was similar to the American movement: by occupying a symbolic public space to regain power, to take back control from the elite. This uprising was violently suppressed by the police and the juridical system. 

The 2019 protests were triggered by the so-called Extradition Bill that Chief Executive Carrie Lam wanted to pass. The law stated that whomever is suspected of committing a crime against China, will be extradited to the mainland. Any nationality, whether you have actually committed a crime or not, whether you are found guilty or not: the Hong Kong authorities can extradite you to China. It’s important to note that prior to this Hong Kong was considered a safe space for asylum seekers and political refugees, in terms of humanitarian support and the rule of law (getting a fair trial), which was still based on the liberal English law. That’s why there were protests on an unprecedented scale and a lot of foreigners joined in as well. 

MV: Thus, the Hong Kong government passed the bill and the political refugees had to flee the city? 

HL: No, the bill was eventually not passed, but during the disruptive period of the COVID crisis they passed another bill, the National Security Law, which is even more evil. It grants the Hong Kong government and police practically unlimited power to arrest and prosecute people. We saw an enormous amount of house searches, because the police doesn’t need a warrant anymore. Moreover, lots of people attempting to take a plane to a Western country were captured at the airport. 

Furthermore, the government exploited the COVID crisis to make public gatherings illegal. Facial recognition machines were installed in the streets. The chip of the current ID cards is a super strong chip, so that the long-range scanners of the machines can detect people even from thirty or forty meters distance. It’s truly a society of control.   

“In subway stations,

you see adverts of why you should adore the government

instead of shampoo adverts”

MV: What is the impact of this surveillance society on the use of public space, which is also a civil space, the space par excellence for citizens to express political dissent and take political action? Is it depoliticized? 

HL: On the contrary, it is hyperpoliticized. The government uses the entire public space for its propaganda. In the subway stations, you see adverts of why you should adore the government instead of shampoo adverts. In Europe, you would see street art. In Hong Kong, they have washed away everything and put posters everywhere to advocate certain policies. 

MV: How does this whole situation affect you personally, your family and friends? You have roots in Hong Kong but you were raised in London. So, you are closely linked to them, yet at the same time you aren’t there, you have little impact, I suppose?  

HL: People are either saving money to move elsewhere or, for the people who have decided to stay, they have to accept what is happening. They have no impact whatsoever on the whole decision process. Democracy has been forcefully taken away from them. If they want to have a decent life and look after their family, they have to become conformist. It’s incredibly sad. I feel sorry for them, especially for the young generation, because they are going to receive nationalist education. As for my impact: there is actually a huge Hong Kong diaspora, particularly in the English speaking world. 

I feel that, although the Hong Kong spirit is being crushed in the city itself, we still exist outside Hong Kong. 

“I have another, wider perspective than the European one,

which I see as an enrichment of my artistic expression”

MV: What is the impact on your work as an artist? Did you also become somehow conformist? 

HL: Living in Belgium, self-censorship is definitely not an option. I am given a voice in the West, which is so precious to me. I feel privileged in comparison to the censored artists in Hong Kong. I think that my development as an artist certainly benefits from this freedom that I don’t take for granted. It’s my utmost responsibility to say what I have to say. I have a mission now. I am the embodiment of what could have been lost. I witnessed the suffering of another world. I have another, wider perspective than the European one, which I see as an enrichment of my artistic expression. 

I do miss Hong Kong though. I still feel the pain of watching something slowly slipping away, of witnessing that its essence of beauty has been taken away. A novelist once wrote – I paraphrase: “To destroy a city, you don’t need to kill its people, you don’t need to destroy its buildings, you only need to take away what makes it beautiful.”

MV: How would you describe this essence of beauty of Hong Kong?

HL: Adaptability, a tolerance of diversity and a unique mixture of East and West. As Hong Kong is the center of Asia, we have residents of diverse background as well as expats from Western countries. The surveillance society made this city which used to be so vibrant and crowded, into a place of fake tranquility. 

“In Hong Kong, you have two options:

either you live in a very crowded space,

or you extend your space vertically.”

MV: In your choreography, I perceive a translation of this urban decay in how you deal with public space and relate to the impressive architecture full of skyscrapers.  

HL: Yes, I think people naturally adapt to their environment. In Hong Kong, you have two options: either you live in a very crowded space, or you extend your space vertically. That’s how people were born and raised to navigate their personal space through this society. They are used to intimacy, living together with so many in such a tiny area and sharing lots of facilities. You develop a different relationship with the urban landscape. You can tell by the size of the sidewalks and by how people give way for each other. As I work with my body, I’ve noticed that I navigate the space differently when I’m in a different society. If I have more space, I will take that space, like cycling in the middle of the road when there are no cars. I take into consideration the society, culture and architecture that is given to me though. What is given to me in Hong Kong, is verticality. Besides being a dancer, I’m also an acrobat. That’s why I’m able to navigate the space vertically as well. 

“I seek to regain my autonomy

by interacting with people and spaces in a non-conformist, unconventional way”

MV: Is your choreography also a political statement: regaining the autonomy to navigate this hyper-politicized and surveilled space in your own way, under your own conditions?

HL: There’s a subtle political voice in the video. It’s true that I seek to regain my autonomy by interacting with people and spaces in a non-conformist, unconventional way. I see it as breaking away from what is considered politically correct and allowed in Hong Kong. 

MV: Last question. What do you think Hong Kong will look like in ten years?  

HL: I think realistically it will be completely integrated into China. Yet the people are waiting to see whether the Chinese government is as powerful as it thinks it is, or that China is rather piling up national debt and will implode without its trading relationship with the West. Economic isolation from the West is crucial to stop its imperialist expansionism. The West is hesitant though: they still want China’s cheap labour and plastic rubbish as Christmas gifts. Alongside the trading relationship with the West, the genocide claim of the Uyghurs is the most pressing issue. Actually, lots of people disappeared during the pro-democracy protests after they were arrested. They were always found floating in the sea: so-called suicides. It’s also a pressing issue and a common strategy of the regime, but an issue the West doesn’t report about. 

- interview by Matthias Velle

Check out 'Spring Steps' by Hazel Lam during Expeditie ZUID - 24 & 25.09 within OPENBARE WERKEN.