Hong Kong artist in exile in Taiwan uses protest art to resist Beijing's attacks on freedom in the region

Portrait of Kacey Wong. Photo used with permission.

For many Hong-Kong political activists, journalists, and artists, Taiwan remains the last free Chinese-speaking society where they can operate. Global Voices interviewed renowned Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong who moved to Taiwan in 2021.

In Hong Kong, Kacey Wong (Chinese name: 黃國才) was and remains a celebrity as one of the most outspoken contemporary artists. Starting in 2014, the territory started losing the political freedoms that had made it a unique place for decades, he combined his creativity with protest art to push back against the increasing authoritarianism. After studying in the US and Australia, Wong became an architect but decided to study further in the UK to become an artist. Later, he taught art at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and became a high-profile and multi-award-winning artist.

Starting in 2010, he gradually moved towards protest art, as can be seen in this video showcasing his cosplay protest art demonstrated on the streets of Hong Kong in 2014:

As the civic freedom space shrank even further with the implementation of the controversial National Security Law (NSL) in 2020, he moved to Taiwan in 2021. Global Voices interviewed him to understand how art and politics can merge and what it is like to live in exile in a Chinese-speaking society that also has its own threats from ChinaThe interview took place in English over Zoom in Taiwan and has been edited for style and brevity. 

Filip Noubel (FN): How do you define protest art, and how present was it in Hong Kong?  

Kacey Wong (KW): No one wants to be an activist, and that includes me. My art was initially more socially oriented: I explored homelessness in Hong Kong, for example. But as the political pressure from Beijing started to increase, I felt this urge to preserve our rights and to resist.

This led me to an awakening about identity, nationality, relationship to the land we stand on. Slowly I entered political commentary through my art, using satire, cosplay such as in the Warning Squad project. For me it has been a decade of key events: From 2011 when Ai Weiwei was arrested in China, to the Hong Kong  2014 Umbrella Movement, and to the 2019 anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong, finally to 2021 when I moved from Hong Kong to Taiwan. I myself moved from civil to uncivil disobedience movements over that time, and found a new language that can be used everywhere, particularly when you look at the rise of the right in so many countries. 

For more on the 2014 protests, read Global Voices Special Coverage: Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution 

FN: What is it that protest art can achieve, unlike other forms of art or narratives? 

KW: Art works with emotions and can pinpoint any issue no matter how small, and magnify it, whereas traditional propaganda often stays on the surface, it doesn’t explore inner emotions. When I witness the downfall of my hometown Hong Kong, I experience complex emotions, art allows the individual and the viewer to strike a chord when facing the piece of art. For example, the song “Glory to Hong Kong” [Hong Kong's protest song that acts as a symbol of resistance to Beijing's erasure of all political freedoms], becomes therapy. In the end, art wins, we have the last laugh: Delacroix’s painting of “Liberty Leading the People“: hundreds of years later, the painting is still on the wall, while the regime of that time vanished. Art captures the spirit of the time and place. 

In this video, Kacey Wong plays Hong Kong's anthem on the accordion:

FN: Why did you decide to leave Hong Kong? And what is your assessment of the contemporary art scene in Hong Kong, given the present censorship?

KW: In 2021, I did a projection of me staying in Hong Kong as a free artist. With the passing of the National Security Law, I would probably get arrested. Or I would self-censor to survive, and avoid sensitive and critical works. Amnesia kicks in over time. But I didn’t want any of that to happen to me, so I decided to relocate to Taiwan and to continue my advocacy. Two years later, all my projections alas, come true. Galleries and artists are self-censoring in Hong Kong. They also stop talking on social media and in public. 

For more, read Global Voices story: Fearing the National Security Law, Hongkongers change their social media habits

FN: How easy or difficult is it to move to Taiwan? What is the artivism and contemporary art scene here, and can/should TW do more for HK artists, activists, journalists?

KW: Personally, I am really grateful for Taiwan because it gave me a second chance to live [in the region]. I am indeed a political refugee. I came here via Taiwan’s Gold Card scheme, which solved a lot of problems. Other Hongkongers who go through the economic skills scheme, have to open a shop and hire Taiwanese citizens, it is a lot of money burning. 

The fall of Hong Kong is like the fall of Sparta: we are fighting a giant and we cannot win, and we knew it. It is not about winning, it is about how gracefully you fall. I am warning the people of Taiwan: you don’t want to be another Hong Kong. I come to Taiwan because I know the next war will be here, now that the one in Hong Kong is over.  

I found Taiwan was in a dream state before Nancy Pelosi’s visit in 2022, at least. I look at the equipment of the military here, the preparedness, and it worries me a lot. Regarding arts, I find contemporary Taiwanese artists are not like their predecessors in the '90s when they were very politically engaged after many years of oppression under the Kuomintang. 

FN: Do you think Chinese protest art is getting more recognized and visible outside Asia? 

KW: Self-inflicted amnesia is one of the results of authoritarian regimes. But one other aspect is that people who move from such a country to a free society do not always embrace freedom. Because Chinese authorities act as gangsters: they kidnap, threaten families and friends. I have witnessed this in Taiwan among certain Hong Kongers. For me, I realized I would never return home unless “Glory” once again descends upon Hong Kong. I made this decision consciously even before leaving Hong Kong, because it died long ago. 

FN: What is the relationship between art and war?

KW: I think everyone is learning from Russia’s war in Ukraine, including the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). I wished the Taiwanese government learnt more about asymmetrical warfare. My experience in Hong Kong was about urban guerilla warfare, but in a way, my survival depends on global geopolitics. Contemporary warfare is based on missile bombings, not seeing the enemy, and we must prepare for that through civil defense groups teaching emergency rescues — a course I attended, because there is a difference between being anti-war and anti-invasion. The other way to prepare is through the arts, which is what I do, including in my upcoming exhibition called “Battlefield Apocalypse” that will be shown in October Taichung, in Taiwan, where I live. 

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