‘Law and order collapsed’: Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong on finding freedom in Taiwan

A familiar face at pro-democracy rallies in the city, Wong felt forced to flee after being named in a hit list of cultural undesirables

For much of the last year Kacey Wong was waking up in Hong Kong and checking social media to see if friends had been arrested overnight. On a good morning Wong might see a photo of an oval plane window looking out over clouds or a foreign airport, a pictorial sign they had fled to safety.

On one of the worst mornings it was the arrest of 53 campaigners, politicians and activists, many of them Wong’s friends, for having the gall to hold a pre-election poll.

That was January. Then in March a pro-Beijing newspaper, Ta Kung Pao, published a highly critical list of artists and organisations linked to the Arts Development Council which the paper said was “using government money against the government” by funding what it deemed to be anti-government entities and potential violators of the national security law, introduced in June 2020.

Wong, a 51-year-old Hong Kong political and performance artist, was marked for a Ted Talk given in 2019: so much for the national security law being non-retrospective. He decided to leave for Taiwan.

“The arrest of the legislators was a clear indication for me, telling me that law and order in Hong Kong has collapsed,” he says. “That was a big alarm bell.”

Kacey Wong in Taichung, Taiwan.
Kacey Wong in Taichung, Taiwan. Photograph: Helen Davidson/The Guardian

“It’s not about what you do after the establishment of the national security law, but how the national security law becomes this weapon of cultural mass destruction, in the now, the past, and the future,” he tells the Guardian from his new home city of Taichung.

“It’s like the state newspaper is dictating a hitlist, and the national security bureau will just follow that, to create fear and intimidation against anyone or any organisation.”

Wong was a common sight at Hong Kong’s protests during the Umbrella movement and 2019’s pro-democracy rallies. Since then the crackdown on the movement has seen thousands arrested, including more than 130 under the national security law. It has targeted newspapers and journalists, legal groups, civil society, unions, illustrators, and individuals over any sign of dissent.

Wong is just a couple of weeks out of Taiwan’s strict hotel quarantine. The enforced isolation in a guarded – albeit comfortable and catered – room for 15 days felt like one final test before gaining freedom. He announced his “exile” with a Leonard Cohen-inspired music video, singing Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again to his home town.

We are sitting under the large trees ringing Taichung’s modern art museum, dragonflies darting through the heavy humid air in this CBD oasis. Wong is quietly spoken but airs strong opinions peppered with military metaphors (he is a war games enthusiast). Taiwan is the green zone to Hong Kong’s red; those in exile have not lost the war but are “retreating to another place … to continue to fight”.

Tens of thousands have left Hong Kong. Many like Wong rushed to beat the 1 August implementation of Hong Kong’s version of exit bans. Data released last week revealed the sharpest population decline in six decades, a net lost of 89,000 people or 1.2% of the population. Analysts say Covid is a factor, but so too is Hong Kong’s decline under Beijing’s growing intervention. In 2020 Taiwan issued almost twice as many residence permits to Hongkongers than the previous year – a complicated and sometimes problematic process amid Covid restrictions and no asylum pathway.

Wong had told almost no one he was leaving, but since the Ta Kung Pao article and the recent airport arrests of Apple Daily journalists he assumed authorities were watching.

“But you never know if you’re on the list or not unless you go test it by charging through the border, which brings two possible consequences,” he says.

“I went to the airport with a really gloomy emotion, because I knew I was either going to say farewell to Hong Kong for the last time, or that I might be going to jail for the first time.”

At the immigration e-gate his thumbprint wouldn’t scan, and an automated message told him to call over an officer for assistance. He’d already noticed the officers that day were bigger and burlier and more dressed for action than usual. Furiously he pressed and pressed his thumb until eventually it worked and he walked through to the boarding gate, with relief. But then he laughs, recalling the discovery of other “passengers” in the waiting area.

“I have been to so many rallies I can spot who is undercover police,” he says. “It’s a four-man team: one middle-aged officer leading three younger – two guys and a girl. They’re all in sneakers and T-shirts with no carry-on luggage, and they have their bags across the chest so both their hands are loose to do whatever they want to do.

“When it was time to board they came out and lined up like [they were defending] a penalty goal at a football match, they were staring at everybody presenting their passport and boarding pass.”

Wong felt no calmer at take-off, or even landing in Taipei and checking into the quarantine hotel, where he feared a knock on the door for 15 days. He quickly moved to Taichung, a coastal city midway down the west coast, grungey, industrial and artistic. Once settled he plans to restart his work, telling the story of Hong Kong and preserving its culture.

Wong could have gone back to the UK, where he spent two years and where more than 7,000 other Hongkongers have resettled just this year, but chose Taiwan because he says he can blend in here. He doesn’t have to prove his identity to people, or be a “walking fluorescent light” all the time, and he has full artistic freedom.

Most of Wong’s work is sculptural or performance art, often with a military theme and focusing on the erosion of human rights and freedoms. But he says he wasn’t really politicised until the 2011 arrest of Ai Wei Wei by Chinese authorities.

As we sit Wong often gazes over at the art museum free of political intervention, or to the streets where he says he still forgets he doesn’t need to look over his shoulder. He’s about to go buy a secondhand motorbike, another layer of freedom. Soon he’ll find his new studio.

“One question I got often in Hong Kong is: do you think there’s a responsibility for artists to speak out for political freedoms and democracy? Before I used to answer: no, there’s no responsibility, it’s a personal choice isn’t it?” he says.

“But for those who decided to leave Hong Kong like me, I think there’s a responsibility for those who can advocate for those who cannot speak out.”

Contributor

Helen Davidson in Taichung

The GuardianTramp

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