Don’t let freedom slip through your fingers
INTERVIEW – REFLEX.CZ
Text: Marek Gregor
Photo: Nguyen Phuong Thao
LORETTA LAU (34) will be starting her final year of studies at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in a few weeks. She came to Prague more or less by accident after she was not accepted to the Weimar Bauhaus. At home in Hong Kong, she taught design and art in high school for seven years after graduating from the Hong Kong Education University. In 2018 she decided to go to study in Europe, where she also found her second artistic position – political performance artist. No wonder why, AT THE END OF SPRING 2019 IN HER COUNTRY, THE COMMUNIST GOVERNMENT OF THE PRC PERFORMED PRESSURE ON LOCAL DEMOCRATIC FORCES through the process of approving the so-called extradition law, a legal norm enabling the extradition of persons to criminal prosecution for mainland China, and the streets of Hong Kong are still full of protesters.
HOW DOES A 32-year-old woman from Hong Kong go to study art in the Czech Republic? In Hong Kong, I taught visual arts and design in high school. However, after seven years I gradually stopped having motivation. It is not the teaching that bored me, but the Hong Kong education system imposed huge pressure on my students, which frustrated me. I always dedicated myself to becoming an artist rather than an art teacher, so I decided to study overseas. My application was not accepted under the Public Art and New Architectural Strategies at the Faculty of Art and Design at Bauhaus University in Weimar, so I promptly applied to the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague.
You started your study at the painting studio of Jiří Černický. How did you feel to return to school after seven years and to begin in an opposite position?
It was shocking to me in the beginning. I was not able to understand what exactly they wanted from me. Maybe Jiří did not like me so much, maybe it was because of cultural differences, or maybe the language barrier. It was hard to get adapted. After a while, he kind of helped me when he asked “Loretta, Why do you always paint? Why don’t you try some Thai dancing?” He made a few dancing movements and provoked me. I thought “I have nothing in common with Thai people, shall I try Thai dance merely because of my skin colour?” I was not used to this Central European machismo. Of course, I never had to deal with it in Hong Kong.
I see, but Jiří Černicky is known as a renowned feminist in UMPRUM…
Subsequently, I realized that he was explaining to me to try another technique or different expression when I was painting classically with charcoal and ink. After the first semester, I went to Hong Kong in depression. At the beginning of February 2019, at the time of the lunar new year celebrations, I was charging my energy with my friends and family. When I returned to Europe after two weeks, I could not imagine that something bad might happen there. But as soon as I arrived, I started to see in the media that mainland China is preparing the extradition law. I was watching it all through the internet, people were scared, and a small demonstration erupted, but they weren’t too massive yet. I don’t think the participation in them was more than ten thousand demonstrators. The turning point – over hundreds of thousands of protesters – did not occur until June 9, 2019, before the second reading of the law in the Hong Kong Parliament.
And at the same time, you discovered yourself a political performance artist…
On June 3, 2019, in DOX Center for Contemporary Art, there was an evening memorial commemorating thirty years since the bloody massacre that brutally suppressed protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. And because I knew that only two weeks earlier they put a bust of Liu Xiaobo (a Chinese literary critic, activist, philosopher, and dissident who died in 2017; editor’s note) by Marie Šeborová, who is also the author of the bust of Václav Havel in the Irish Parliament building. I asked them if I could hold a performance there. It was Václav Havel who nominated Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to him in 2010. His wife, poet Liu Xia ( she visited Prague multiple times, in 2018 she was received by Czech minister of foreign affairs Petříček; editor’s note) then shaved her head to protest that her husband could not go to the award in person. It was a huge symbol because in that time tensions were rising in Hong Kong again! Additionally, two busts of Liu Xiaobo were created in Hong Kong anonymously, the artists were afraid to admit to authorship. I mustered the courage and told myself that I would perform in front of that bust, my first one! In his honor I got my hair shaved by an executor (represented by another Hong Kong student at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, Ingrid Wong; editor’s note) Do you know what was incredible from my point of view? After the performance, a lot of people came to me and wanted to talk about the situation in Hong Kong.
When did you first realize that there was something wrong with Hong Kong, or with China’s proclaimed principle of ‘one country, two systems’?
In 2013, when the PRC began to influence the state education system in Hong Kong. Education here has always been built on civic foundations, we have learned about civil society elsewhere in the world, about the separation of power in the state, and they suddenly began to rewrite the curriculum, with the proviso that we have to become patriotic. Many young activists, mostly students and their professors spoke out against this. Professor Benny Tai, one of the leaders of the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement, was fired this year from the university where he lectured for many years. We realized that they wanted to brainwash us and turn us into obedient citizens of China. At the same time, Hong Kong has been a part of Western culture for the last one hundred and fifty years. That is why the first major street protests took place, first students and teachers, then more, an umbrella movement was established. From August to December 2014 there were hundreds of thousands of people on the streets,1.2 million in a day at the peak.
Why did the 2014 protests end?
They manage to calm us with a lot of promises. They promised us and said ‘Don’t worry, we’ll approve everything, but now is not the time.’ We Hong Kongers are frogs in the water who do not notice that the water in the thermal springs is heating up more and more. The frog won’t get it when he’s cooked alive, and we felt quite comfortable in that boiling water.
How people perceived the handover of Hong Kong under Chinese rule from the UK on July 1, 1997 (after 100 years of rule over so-called New Territories, rented from China; ed. note), with a commitment to an agreement that CPR will grant autonomy for Hong Kong for 50 years?
I was young, I was thirteen, but I remember that even though it was raining, people took to the streets, they didn’t know what was going to happen. Many people flew to Canada or Britain, leaving the island with apprehension. At that time, the chief executive Tung Chee-hwa did not take any visible steps to curtail democracy — the free movement of people, civil liberties, was guaranteed, and at the same time there was a sense of clear prosperity — so many of them who left were returned. For at least the first ten years, the transition from British to Chinese administration was perceived positively by many people.
You see, this sounds strange to me – after all, it was handed over to Chinese administration only eight years after the aforementioned massacre in Tiananmen Square.
You know, people in Hong Kong think more about money than anything else. It is probably given historically – it has always been primarily a financial center. And in the name of money, they simply forget. It is reminiscent of amnesia, somewhere historically encoded.
Just a short distance from Hong Kong lies the former Portuguese colony of Macao – another territory administered by the PRC since the end of the century, according to one country, two systems. It is only fifty kilometers between the two islands. Why are there no more visible civil protests like in Hong Kong? Is it because Macao is a gambling paradise?
It’s about the mentality, it’s hard to say, I don’t like to express uncompromising judgments, but I think the basis is access to education. Just compare the number of universities in Hong Kong and there. Besides, Hong Kong is the world’s financial center, we have a historically reliable system, people from other countries trust us as partners, they are not afraid to invest with us. When it comes to money, Hong Kong is at the top of the pyramid of financial metropolises.
What about Taiwan?
From our perspective, Taiwan is a completely different story. It is a successful independent country. We as Hong Kongers started to have a sense of local consciousness not so long ago. But we did not ask for independence, we just wanted to continue original British Hong Kong. I can hardly compare Taiwan to Hong Kong, but, how to say it, we have always been comparable in some ways.
I guess you knew about the recent visit of the chairman of the Czech senate Miloš Vystrčil to Taiwan.
It was incredible! I read his entire speech and then the reaction of the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, as he threatened to cancel diplomatic relations. You know, personally, after the National Security Law, it almost seems like a declaration of war to me. Even if Czechia is a small country, it is part of the European Union. When someone says something like that, it seems very strange to me. Of course, I also noticed support from the foreign ministers of Germany and France.
Speaking like this, aren’t you afraid you won’t be able to return to Hong Kong?
I guess so. I still communicate with my friends and family over the Internet, but as you probably know, mainland China restricts the use of Google, YouTube, and similar applications. Once the Internet network in Hong Kong becomes part of mainland China’s network, we will have to download Chinese version applications, to chat with my parents and friends.
Will you be back?
I think I would risk it if my parents had a problem, but I certainly don’t see a reason to go back now.
Do you think that passing the National Security Law brings a definite end of Hong Kong democracy?
On June 30, 2020, after passing the National Security Law, we can see that communist laws will surpass the Hong Kong basic laws and yes, I do fear the end of freedom in Hong Kong is near. That law completely denies the self-government of Hong Kong. We have always done everything in our power, we have tried to let the international community know what is happening in our country, and many of those cases have received worldwide acclaim. For example Nathan Law (an activist, student leader who left Hong Kong on July 2, 2020, for his safety; ed. Note) He arrived in Berlin three weeks ago during a meeting between Foreign Minister (PRC) Wang Yi and representatives of the German government, to show what was happening in Hong Kong. Individually we are successful, but how to give strength to others? Someone is working on politics, someone is advertising, someone is doing art…. It seems like separate entities, however, I hope this is not the definitive end of our democracy, even though many people went abroad, we are protesting in another dimension. For example two of the most prominent figures for me today – Director Jevons Au who, in his 2015 film Ten Years, predicted the near future of Hong Kong, which is unfortunately already being fulfilled, moved to Canada. Second, Lau Kwong Shing emigrated to Taiwan in the summer to devote himself to comics that denounced political practices of mainland China and the Hong Kong government. It is hard to say whether it is better to protest in Hong Kong, knowing all the possible consequences, or to go elsewhere and draw attention from the overseas community.
After 30 June 2020, the United Kingdom offered asylum to all citizens born in Hong Kong until 1997. Do you have any acquaintances who took advantage of this offer?
In Hong Kong, there are yellow and blue groups of people. Yellow are democrats and blue are Beijing supporters and opportunistic populists, who do not mind marrying the regime in the name of benefit. When there is money, they do not perceive brutality. For example, I know a lady who claims that due to her family values, Chinese tradition, and her idea of prosperity that she has to take care of her closest ones, for those reasons her ideas are much closer to mainland China. But now in July, she was in the first seat on the plane to the UK. On the contrary, I admire the attitude of many yellow ones, who still have the strength, ability, and needs to stay in Hong Kong and sacrifice themselves for freedom and democracy. They love their country.
In 2016, Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Czechia invited by president Miloš Zeman, hundreds even thousands of people celebrated his arrival. I know a few people, who were in protest against him being exposed to physical attacks. Do you meet blue people in Czechia?
It is interesting since I was here I did not meet many people from mainland China, but mostly tourists. It’s probably because I live among artists. However, what I see regularly is hatred on social networks. This June I was performing on Wenceslas Square to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre, then I started to receive hateful comments. They said I looked like practicing Falun Gong (spiritual movement, sometimes described as a cultivation method of Buddhist school), which is depicted in mainland china as an infectious new age movement. I got messages like “Which side are you on? Witch!” but I don’t care about online threats.
Do you feel support from Czech People?
I feel a lot of support here. For example Milan Mikulaštik, curator of my exhibition in the Gallery of National Technical Library. I also put my actions in a local context, like the Prague Spring and Velvet Revolution. People in the Czech Republic have a stabilized life today, I try to bring them closer to what we are experiencing on the other side of the globe, and that it is very similar to what you experienced here thirty or more years ago. That is why in my current exhibition I contrast Václav Havel’s speech from 1990 with the speech of the current president of China, Xi Jinping from 2020. If you were born with freedom, remember some people fought for you, so please take care of it and not let it slip through your fingers.