Clara Cheung is an artist, and runs the artist space C&G Artpartment together with her partner. In November 2019, she was elected as the district councillor for Happy Valley in Wan Chai District, a role she has taken on since 1 January 2020. I listened to her in the 'Rehearsal for Freedom' panel organised by Para Site and Frieze magazine in April 2020, and requested to do this interview with her. At the time, the National Security Law had just been passed in Hong Kong, therefore the implications were not yet known, and since then the Legislative Council (i.e. Hong Kong's parliament) elections that were supposed to happen in September 2020 were postponed for a year by the chief executive, using her emergency power. In this interview, Clara Cheung talks about moving in different ways, caring for everyone, working bottom up from the less visible layers of the community, not waiting for things to be solved but taking the matter into herown hands, and the continuous push for representation, and participation in production of the lived space.
Merve Bedir: How do you manage being both an artist and a politician? In “Rehearsal for Freedom” Susi Law (curator of Art and Culture Outreach in Hong Kong, and district councilor of Wan Chai) referred to how you convinced her to run for the district council elections as well, and how you told her there was nothing more to lose.
Clara Cheung: Art and politics are not separate from each other! They are both a way of seeing the world as it is, and how we want them to be. In practical terms, I get help from my partner for the C&G Artpartment, and I have colleagues, who help me here, in the district council office. It's not so difficult.
Merve: You are also a member of the Hong Kong Artist Union, which is in the last phase of being registered. The artist union shows there is a certain awareness in the art community already, and since 2019, there have been more registration enquiries of labour unions in Hong Kong, which is another way the social movement has found to channel the energy and demands of the street.
Clara: I'm a member of the artist union, but I’m not involved in its functioning. The artist union doesn't have the final official registration yet, because the union needs to define the profession in order to be registered, and this is not easy for art. But already the union is organised around artist-related issues, for instance some independent artists are not granted the pandemic subsidy, so they are working on why this is the case, and how to solve this.
Merve: I'm asking these questions, because they relate to the larger question of how the social movement in Hong Kong has been evolving. 2019 was a time of democracy demands raising all around the world, but then the coronavirus pandemic happened, stopping people from gathering, heightening borders and confining people even down to their houses. How do you as the district councillor, being an artist and officially a politician, deal with this situation; how do you do politics?
Clara: In Hong Kong, the coronavirus actually resulted in people gathering more, perhaps not physically, but through networks of care. The residents in Happy Valley have come to the District Council office to seek help for resources, to collect information on the pandemic and its implications, and to get the Hong Kong government to respond to their needs faster. We organised sharing stations for the distribution of masks and hand sanitizers. While the Public Library was closed, we set up a book swapping corner in the Art Triangle. In fact, the virus has enabled me to meet more people locally, whom otherwise I would have had to organise a lot of programmes to meet with. It has connected people in different ways, intuitively, consciously, naturally...
Merve: Last November (2019), with the district council elections, many people were concerned about which direction the elections would go, but 17 out of the 18 districts voted for the pro-democracy candidates.
Clara: Also, this weekend is the democrat primaries (11-12 July 2020), and the Hong Kong government is already giving messages that organising it may be unlawful (based on the National Security Law). “May be” is the important thing here, through this uncertainty a message of fear is communicated. For the coming September Legislative Council elections, I expect more people to come out to vote. But I have to emphasise that, without compromising these spaces for freedom and representation, we need to continue to recognise the space we already have on the ground, and make use of it, and see what we can do further. This is what we saw with the District Council elections, and continue working on today.
Merve: Could you tell us a little bit more about the District Council? How did you get elected? What is the power you have?
Clara: Hong Kong has a 7-million-population throughout 18 districts. Each district has subdivisions, consisting of a 20-25000-population. When this system was set up during the colonial period, the District Council was to be a bridge between the people and the governors to channel a more democratic way of governing.
I started in January 2020, and my term as a District Councillor is 4 years. The candidate who wins the most votes becomes the councillor. This is the only election wherein individuals are directly represented in Hong Kong. As councillors, we give opinions on different issues to the Hong Kong government in their decision making. In addition, for instance Wan Chai district council has a 10-million-HKD budget. This budget is allocated to do programmes organised and hosted by local NGOs. We monitor and advise what could/should be done listening to the NGOs and other public actors in the districts.
Merve: How do the NGOs approach you? Can the residents also approach you directly? How do they participate in the decision making?
Clara: This mechanism didn’t seem transparent in the past, when only pro-government organisations would know the channels to communicate with the district council, and how to apply for funding. The councils provided meals, trips, Cantonese opera music nights for the pro-government teams’ target audience. We didn't see the general public joining these. This term, however, a lot of district councillors have been trying to expand their activity spectrum. Via social media and other means, we, district councillors invite more NGOs to provide more thoughts and proposals. Through competition, we try to engage them in that process. In terms of the topics, we want to encourage more projects on the environment, as well as cultural and cross-generational pluralism and exchange. These are the goals of the current councillors in Wan Chai.
In Wan Chai district, I'm the chair of the cultural and leisure services committee. We organised a brainstorming session two months ago, where we sent out invitations to NGOs, cultural organisations, and real estate companies, to join and express their vision of Wan Chai and think all together. For many councils, such processes may be new; in Wan Chai, it was a tradition started by Ada Wong, who was the Wan Chai district councillor in 2004-5. Wan Chai then had a period of liberal council, but afterwards turned conservative and became less engaged with public. This year we invited all art and culture organisations, and we heard a lot from them.
In that session, it was important to see that cultural practitioners and organisations don't necessarily ask for funding or cheap indoor venues, but help with access to public spaces, with opening up more public spaces, and getting the government to loosen the strict regulations of safety and security.
Merve: The lack of public spaces is clearly an issue in Hong Kong, not necessarily because people can't find other ways as we have seen in the last year, but more so because this needs to be addressed, structurally.
Clara: At this point, district councillors can help. Nowadays, things are uncertain, but normally, activities that are co-organised by the district council have easier access and flexibility in the use of the public spaces managed by the Hong Kong government. For example, I have been working with Yanto Yan Space, which serves teenagers from different backgrounds. They told me about the Kabaddi sports, which has become more popular lately. They have a lot of difficulty to get an official venue, entirely run by the government. This is a simple example that shows the strict regulations. At this point, the district council can help negotiate with the government — not to panic on security regulations, to relax and make space.
Merve: Hong Kong is secure, safe, and highly bureaucratic, this combination makes processes slow, and change very difficult. In Rehearsal for Freedom, you explain the things you have done since January, i.e. sharing stations for face masks and hand sanitizers, the rooftop renovation of a building, the Art Triangle and the exhibitions. What other kinds of demands are addressed relating to art, the public space, and the way residents want you to engage with the community? You could also do an update here from April until now (July 2020).
Clara: In “Rehearsal for Freedom”, I talked about the Art Triangle, an arts corner we started with book swapping, exhibitions, and a hangout space. There we showed the paintings people did during the quarantine period with an exhibition called Face on/off. Today we have Man Chan, an artist-in-residence at V54, doing a pet-related project in Happy Valley displaying this work at the Art Triangle. Hopefully we will create more space for the local community to show their works at the Art Triangle.
The rooftop painting is indeed an example to show how the government can be flexible with negotiation. The other thing I'm planning on doing is to change the blank outer wall spaces of the sport centre and other government buildings, to show local artists' works. There is nothing on the walls now, I hope I can make little space to change this, mostly about government venues for better representation of people.
Other organisations and committees in the council bring up aging population, and issues related to different kinds of illnesses. Specifically, for Happy Valley, there is a consideration for the marginalised people and their spaces. A pedestrian tunnel used by the homeless has caused extreme concern from some residents, who want the homeless in a closed, safe place. The thing is that the homeless have unique backgrounds and stories, it's not easy to tell them to go away to an indoor space, and even then, this may not be a solution. How to maintain a balance between the residents and the homeless? St James Settlement published this book, Searching: the way home, to collect and let people know aboutthe individual stories of the homeless. Now my work is to keep them in the area spared for them, to try to keep a balance within their space, without sending them away, but also making sure it doesn’t expand too much, and to protect them, keeping them healthy during this pandemic.
Other than these, NGOs tell us about their programmes, so we see how we can help to endorse their programmes, and help to apply for funding. In the first half of 2020, district councils all worked on re-distributing resources related to health for the communities.
Merve: You talked about community care during the pandemic, the aging and the vulnerable, the cultural and public space and pluralism, as well as trying to act as a bridge between people, NGOs, and the government. You have 4 years, it is a long time; if things continue as they are, you can do a lot. How do you see the challenges coming in front of you? How will you deal with the uncertainties? What methods of participation do you foresee?
Clara: If I can finish my term in 4 years, I can continue to help negotiations between NGOs and government departments. During the British time, we had the “urban councillor” position on the Island, Kowloon, and New territories (district urban councillor). This was important, because the urban council had more (fiscal) power to make decisions within the districts, while the district council was more of a consultancy agent. After the handover, in 1999-2000 the urban councillor position was deleted. All major decision making is now mainly done by the government. Many district councillors want the Hong Kong government to re-set up the urban council position or to extend the power of the district council to influence and make such decisions on the local level.
In addition, within Happy Valley, I want to help the art and culture community more with my budget and position. The V54 artist space isn't very well connected with the community. Being an artist myself and the district councillor, we can help more with programmes directed to the neighbours. We can connect more people with similar interests. Some art projects could be initiated by residents, for instance the forthcoming waste recycling project. I look forward to seeing if we can also have some sort of bigger project, an art festival, based on the rich history of this place.
I think we still need to recognise the basic idea of empowering the community. It's not about me curating a festival, but providing ways for people to get involved. Right now, we are collecting the stories of people in Happy Valley. I hope I can continue with this and have a deliverable to give to the public. Through these stories, we are also encouraging people to speak up, and come forward. As they tell stories, they tell who they are, what they want, etc. Also, the stories are not to be collected by me or my colleagues, but by younger people in the community, in order to create further connections andintergenerational exchange. This way we can build up the community network.
There are many limitations for Hong Kong district councillors. In the current system, we are still consultancy agents, but we don't give up trying to make people's voices heard, and challenge the government departments on what is considered good for society.
Merve: It is amazing how you bring artistic vision/thinking in governance, also the way you talk about curating relates to governing, thinking in terms of alternatives, care and reparations, as well as connections. This attitude could overcome polarisation, the radical and negative emotions among people towards each other. With authoritarianism rising everywhere in the world, we also see trans-local networks being set up among local mayors who imagine different worlds.
Clara: My art background helps me to think more sensitively, and to look into the details. This may be called tediousness, which is also crucial in governance. If you really care, you care about the really fine details, about the invisible (or not immediately visible) layers of each community. Is it possible to build things from these fine details, from the invisible layers up?
Sometimes it feels like I'm expected to uphold a permanent opposition to the government. But we should rather bethinking about how we can learn to negotiate with one another rather than taking a side, permanently; otherwise the polarisation in society will deepen. I'm learning to run things in a way that reaches out to everyone, and not think about opposing the government.
Also, I don’t naively believe that when we discuss things in the council, then we can immediately make them happen — it doesn't work that way. The Hong Kong government's current antagonism actually makes room for us to focus on the grey areas, and the invisible layers of society. We do need to seek for change within the government, and we need to start making changes at every level within the whole system. Ultimately, we can redevelop our own Hong Kong from bottom up.
Lastly, I want to emphasise the international cultural exchange. District councillors in Hong Kong are allowed to travel to other cities once a year, for learning and study purposes. We should make use of this to see how we connect with other similar-minded governments, through cultural exchange. I want to try. It would be great to plan this for the district councillors, to be more in touch with other localities, and to open up a network. Also for others to hear from Hong Kong.