Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Annika Yan recalls how a co-production of The Winter’s Tale with Melbourne students earlier this year foreshadowed the repression that was to come
Disclaimer: The article presents only the views of the writer, and by no means reflects those of any institutions that are mentioned.
“Let’s paint a mural!”
The mysterious ZED had messaged me on Telegram privately, after I asked in the student-protester group of our university if anyone would volunteer to help painting a massive, black protest banner. I was scouting around barricades, hands chilled by the wintry air, in which the smell of teargas still lingered. It was the indelible week in mid-November – the peak of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests in 2019 – when even train stations were claimed as fortresses and university campuses transformed into battlefields.
ZED explained in another message, “I’m thinking of painting Lady Liberty on the pillar outside the canteen. She would be holding the protest flag, wearing a gas mask and all. We need to buy yellow paint and brushes from the hardware store.”
Lady Liberty is a familiar figure within the protest community. But painting murals and sourcing supplies from hardware stores were such foreign suggestions that I had to read the text twice. Here in Hong Kong, all the artworks I have seen on walls are either propaganda murals commissioned by the government or graffiti spray-painted by those who are dismissed as rebellious teenagers.
What a strange but creative idea, I thought. Other messages in the group were about collecting more empty glass bottles for Molotov cocktails and urgently calling for more of this and that kind of supplies. Having been born and raised in Hong Kong, I am numb to our society’s general lack of appreciation for artistic self-expression. “Be a doctor, or a lawyer,” uncles and aunts would nag every Lunar New Year. “She is so smart! Can she teach my son English?” Family friends will shower you with praises and requests for tutorials when you score high in exams. Parents enroll their children into piano, painting or ballet classes on top of academic extra-curricular activities only to prove their “all-roundedness” in school applications.
However, due to my unusual fondness for the arts, I felt an odd connection to this stranger called ZED. I shot them a reply, “Let’s do it!” and smiled to myself among the umbrellas, rubbish bins and bamboo sticks prepped ready for combat.
This explains why at 9:30am, the usual time for my earliest lecture (I still measured time like that despite school suspension), my chest heaved as I carried two heavy tins of paint. I crossed the barricades as if they were hurdles, tiptoed on broken escalators scattered with shattered pieces of glass, set the tins down on a recycling bin that had been repurposed as a roadblock, climbed over more piled-up bins, jumped, then grabbed the tins again on the other side.
The other side – where ZED was standing.
I could not make out their face, because it was covered by a black mask, just like mine. A lock of hair had escaped from their black hat, and their eyes gleamed with excitement through a turquoise pair of glasses. They look Chinese, I thought, and chided myself for being surprised.
Hong Kong society rarely expects creativity from a “local-looking” person – it’s considered impractical. And “local-looking” often only refers to Chinese people, despite diverse ethnic groups like Pakistani, Indian, Indonesian, Filipino and others who are just as “local”. Ideas and arguments are more persuasive if you are Caucasian, too. White supremacy is still deeply, though often implicitly, rooted in Hong Kong culture, and I constantly have to undo my own internalisation.
My awareness of the issue grew gradually. Like many other youngsters who grew up in the globalised digital world, I had encountered the issue on the Internet: Black Lives Matter, casting white actors to play Asian characters, lack of Asian representation, to name a few. Three months later, in Australia, I would learn even more about the issue of white supremacy.
ZED introduced themselves, and I immediately noticed their Australian accent. “Oh, you’re from Australia!” I chided myself again for my surprise. ZED, though having lived in Hong Kong for some time, was born and raised in Australia. I later asked them whether they identified as an Australian, which I admittedly would not have asked if they were Caucasian.
They answered in a heartbeat. “Of course!” Their parents had immigrated to Australia decades ago. Does the fact that their parents were immigrants, and that they have Chinese lineage, make them less Australian? It certainly does not. If it does, it certainly should not, I reminded myself. A long list of factors determines social identity, ranging from the immersion in one’s cultures and upbringing to self-identification.
I was stunned by the ease with which ZED sketched the silhouette of Lady Liberty from scratch. We spent the entire afternoon painting, with much laughter about our mistakes and cover-ups. When the mural was completed, her aura of resilience rendered us speechless. Who would have known that a friendship budded between me and ZED, the unexpected Australian artist who created not just art but myriad moments of joy, in some of the grimmest months of my life?
As the movement progressed, more and more artist-activists designed and distributed protest-related stickers and postcards. Artistic posters were commonly seen on Lennon Walls across the city. There were even exhibitions dedicated to Lady Liberty and all sorts of artworks in the movement. My heart would brim every time I was given a sticker, a postcard or saw a brilliant poster on a Lennon Wall. Art and artists somehow blossomed in a wintry, barren city where political freedoms are fast fading.
The reason I recognised ZED’s Australian accent was my acquired familiarity with it, days before our first encounter. As part of the only English student-run theatre group in Hong Kong, I had jumped at the chance to perform The Winter’s Tale at Melbourne’s Asia TOPA, a triennial performance arts festival with a focus on Asia. It was a collaboration between creatives and students from Hong Kong and La Trobe University in Melbourne. There would have been performances in both cities.
The Australian director and producer arrived during that unforgettable week in November to meet the Hong Kong team members and inspect performing venues. It was an untimely visit. The campus where a venue was located could not be accessed due to tightened security checks and the barricades. Not only that, the entire city was in such turbulence that a theatre production like ours seemed trivial, although at the same time all the more important.
The Australian director was a middle-aged man with angular features and a genial smile which seemed at odds, yet complementary with each other. His kindness often seeped through a seeming sternness.
“First off, please know that we fully support what you are fighting for in Hong Kong, and I in fact feel privileged to be able to witness such a historical time here,” he said. I had not expected those to be the first words I heard from the director who flew all the way from Australia for a theatre production. I do not remember explicitly introducing myself as a student-activist, but perhaps it showed through my words, or my eyes, sunken from sleep deprivation. I blinked back tears as he turned around – those words meant a lot.
The Australian collaborators also attended the regular political discussion that I had organised for international and local students at pro-democracy eateries. The cast members from Australia did too, two months later, when they travelled to Hong Kong to rehearse with us. Engrossed in conversation, they did not see my amazement at how well they were connecting with my other friends from around the world.
I distinctly remember my surprise when one of the blonde-haired, green-eyed actors told me his family immigrated to Australia from Holland generations ago. I again reprimanded myself for my internalised preconception that Caucasians, somehow, could not be immigrants.
Another cast member, brilliantly humorous and considerate, was of Indian descent, but she felt out of place among her Indian family members who were born and raised in India. “I am too Australian around them, I feel,” she remarked. Lastly, I befriended another actor, a playful, outgoing Aboriginal woman who rightfully takes pride in her Aboriginal descent. From her, I learnt the tip of the iceberg of Aboriginal history and culture in the stolen land of Australia. There is still so much for me to know. I never ceased to appreciate the Acknowledgements of Country that she confidently led at every event.
Our Hong Kong producer and one of our cast members are of Indian descent. At late night, the entire cast would lie foot to foot on the dormitory sofa and enjoy aromatic chai tea that they had patiently brewed. Other members from Hong Kong were ethnically Filipino and Chinese. Our diverse backgrounds do not make any of us less of an Australian or a Hongkonger.
Fast forward to February. Coronavirus arrived in Hong Kong around the same time our Australian cast members did. We could not pick them up in the terminal, because the government had restricted access after a series of protests there last summer. Outside the airport, fidgeting with our bags as we waited to meet the Australian actors for the first time, I was reminded of the Australian traveller who earnestly implored the protesters to re-open the departure gates in August 2019, which had been blocked to garner international attention for the protests.
The traveller climbed onto a luggage cart and shouted to the protesters on the other side of the barricade of luggage. “I support your fight, whole-heartedly, so I hope you’ll understand that what I am proposing is for the good of the movement,” he said. “This is already the third day of blockade. The government is not picking up the phone while travellers see that the gates are blocked by you all. They have started pointing their fingers at you instead of the right enemy – that’s counter-effective to what you want to achieve, no?
“I have a funeral to attend tomorrow back in Melbourne, but I know my deceased friend would not mind that I will not be able to attend it. If he was still alive, he would have fully supported you guys too. For the good of the protests, I humbly propose alternately opening and blocking the departure gates every two days, so that travellers, getting the message of the protests, will be able to go home and spread it to their families and friends. Thanks so much for listening.” Then he stepped back onto the ground.
Protesters on the other side stared at him: some bewildered, some enraged by his suggestion. As our leaderless movement has always done, protesters gathered in small circles to discuss their tactics.
“He is just selfish – he wants to go home for his own sake,” spat one.
“But he has a point. The travellers are really starting to criticise us instead of the government,” countered another.
I climbed over the luggage carts and joined the discussion. After a heated debate, the protesters heeded his suggestion. They re-opened the gates.
While some might say that white supremacy was at play here, what mattered was the traveller’s sincerity and passionate reasoning. There was a genuine understanding, or even a connection, between the protesters and the traveller, just as with me and ZED and the members of the theatre group.
A few weeks after the Australian actors arrived, the virus outbreak swept over Hong Kong, and all planned performances had to be cancelled. The Australian group members also had to leave Hong Kong much sooner than expected due to uncertainties about flights and the outbreak. Fortunately, after urgent re-arrangements, both the Australian and Hong Kong cast members flew to Melbourne to continue our work.
In our rendition, the two Acts of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale are set in the surrealistically contrasting locations Hong Kong and Australia, the former sombre while the latter fairy-tale, in times more than half a century apart. The Hong Kong tyrant accuses his queen of adultery with their long-time family friend, who is the king of Australia. To protect the daughter of the tyrant and the queen, Perdita (played by me) is sent to Australia as an infant, eventually growing into a beautiful and intelligent woman.
The play begins in 2020 Hong Kong, where a daughter (also portrayed by me) is idling at home and scrolling through Twitter, when her mother returns after a failed attempt to source surgical masks during the coronavirus outbreak. The daughter laughs at a tweet that quotes a Hong Kong child’s random question, “Do you love Wuhan or do you hate Wuhan?”, innocently referring to the virus. The Australian director overheard it when we were exploring Lamma Island in Hong Kong, and we decided to include it in the play. Hoping to distract themselves from boredom and helplessness, the daughter tells The Winter’s Tale to her mother.
Perdita’s exile to Australia now feels eerily familiar after the enactment of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, for several pro-democracy activists are wanted by the government for “colluding with foreign forces” and have gone into exile. At least 145 protesters have sought asylum in Australia. In a scene set in a school, the children are all wearing surgical masks, again connoting the setting of the coronavirus outbreak. Apart from elements drawn from the social context, a review in Peril Magazine also offered a political interpretation of our play, particularly in the context of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. The Australian director had in fact wanted to incorporate elements from real life: our production had overcome such socio-political turbulences that the devising process was almost as dramatic as the play itself.
“You two are more suited to write the opening dialogue between the mother and the daughter. It is your real experience of the outbreak,” the director suggested to me and the actress who played my mother. We had just settled in Australia for rehearsals and performances. Despite being the director – a white, veteran director – he did not value his creative opinions over his cast members. When it came to scenes set in Hong Kong, he would let our imaginations run wild, since we were those most familiar with the city. For example, whether there should be physical touching between the wife and the king’s friend in the cultural context of 1920s’ Hong Kong, and the activities that the characters would be engaging in their free time, like tea brewing, were decisions left to us.
The devising process was an opportunity for me to cope with my emotions, accumulated over the turbulent year of protests and the virus outbreak in Hong Kong. There would be times during rehearsals when tears suddenly rolled down my cheeks. The trigger might not even be a specific scene or line, but simply the atmosphere of intimate support from other team members that cocooned me in a rare feeling of safety. The past year has seen immense helplessness, uncertainty and anxiety. Portraying Perdita, however, required me to first disentangle my own emotions to step into her shoes. Over the course of rehearsals, I found myself increasingly at ease with my heavy emotions: I practiced mindful identification of emotions that got in the way between me and Perdita before connecting the emotions that we shared. It reminded me how therapeutic theatre can be, something that I had forgotten in months dominated by political turmoil.
Apart from being an emotional outlet, the production allowed us to bond deeply with the cast members. Theatre requires individuals to be vulnerable and open with each other so that a genuine connection can be forged, making it more likely to touch audiences. The Hong Kong and Australian members warmed to each other due to our intriguingly different yet similar cultural and ethnic backgrounds, as well as the myriad of challenges that we had conquered together. I still remember our tears and goodbyes the day most of the Hong Kong cast members left Melbourne. This is the power of theatre, that it can bring together people from two cities, where they lead very different yet similar lives.
Melbourne first struck me as a free city of the arts where artists are supported by the government, in terms of finances, venues and opportunities. At the National Gallery of Victoria, I was delighted to see a rich assortment of Hong Kong protests-related zines, including one by ZED, who was also in Australia at the time. They invited me to visit the Can’t Do Tomorrow exhibition with them, where we conversed with Badiucao, a Chinese-Australian cartoonist who is known for his political art and wanted by the Chinese government. An expansive wall of his portraits of Chinese coronavirus whistleblowers stood behind us.
I was most amused by the installation artwork, a modified version of the interrogation chair used in courts in China. “I ordered it from Taobao at a cheap price [a popular online shopping platform in China known for many things but most prevalently, the bad quality of their cheap products], then changed it into a rocking chair, because why not?” he explained.
At the same exhibition, another artist eagerly asked me about the political situation in Hong Kong once she learnt that it was where I’m from. “I’m so sorry that the media, as well as myself, focused more on the wildfires than the protests in Hong Kong after November!” I was taken aback but touched by her apology, although, as I told her, climate change is just as important of an issue as human rights. On the way out, ZED and I laughed at a satirical sticker of Scott Morrison holding a lump of coal in his hand in the Australian Parliament, framed by a garish red heart.
In Melbourne, there was an air of artistic freedom that I rarely savoured in Hong Kong – artists could create political art and discuss art in the context of politics without fear, without self-censorship and without consequences. Half a year later, I feel with much anguish that this won’t be the case again in Hong Kong for a long time. I implore the Australian government, and its people, to cherish such precious freedom.
That said, I know that the Australian arts industry is struggling due to funding cuts by the government and the virus outbreak, which certainly shrinks the free space of artistic expression. Less than a month after we performed at La Mama Courthouse as part of Asia TOPA, the Australia Council of the Arts rejected funding for the Courthouse alongside other theatres which are vital to new Australian performance arts and artists. Last month, the annual funding of La Trobe Student Theatre and Film, the collaborator for our theatre production, was cut by half. Participating in the campaigns launched by the two institutions, #VivaLaMama and #BecauseofStudentTheatre, I recall the time when we still enjoyed the freedom to fight for important causes in Hong Kong.
Besides, Melbourne still has a problem in combating racism. From April to June this year, the Asian Australian Alliance received nearly 400 reports of racism. When I was in Melbourne, some young white girls shouted “go back to China” at us completely out of the blue – the Hong Kong cast members were just shopping for groceries at Coles. Instances like this underline the undeniable truth that xenophobia exists, white supremacy persists, and racism is still a serious issue that we need to tackle, in Melbourne, in Hong Kong and in the world as a whole.
Months later, I am still in touch with ZED through calls and messages on Signal (Telegram is now deemed unsafe due to its lack of encryption). During the waves of Covid-19 in both cities, they paint while I write. The namesake of the collaborative theatre production has somehow foreshadowed the difficult and chilling times that both Hong Kong and Melbourne are going through – the tale of the two cities is still being told, months after it ended. Despite being 7000 kilometres apart from each other, Melbourne and Hong Kong are tied together by their colonial past and aftermath, artistic expressions in greater socio-political contexts, and their beautiful diversity, that should be held even closer to our hearts.
Annika Yan can be found on Twitter at @annikaypf
The Winter’s Tale, a co-production between student theatre groups from Melbourne’s La Trobe University and Hong Kong, was presented at La Mama Theatre in March this year as part of Asia TOPA.