Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Vietnamese Refugee Art Expected to Return to Shatin, Hong Kong from Refuge Abroad

Art from Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong's detention camps in the aftermath of the "boatpeople" crisis will likely return to Hong Kong soon. The route is circuitous, from Shatin and likely back to Shatin with a detour to Europe. It went from Whitehead detention camp in Shatin to a major archive in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and is likely to come back to Hong Kong, to Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shatin.

Samson Wong interviewed 6 November 2017 in Ma On Shan, Hong Kong
Photo collage copyright © Daniel C. Tsang 2017
We talk with Samson Wong (left), an Education University community arts guest lecturer (Ph.D, Lingnan University, 2016) about the history of this artwork and why it is the "right time" to return it to Hong Kong.  To listen to the interview, aired as a podcast on the KUCI Subversity Show Online, click here.

Roundtable discussion “permanent in-transit”
at Spring Workshop 5 November 2017
Despite the uncertainty about the future of Hong Kong under the One Country Two Systems formula under the Peoples Republic of China, Wong believes in the last five or so years, there has been renewed interest in Hong Kong history and in documenting the experiences of the people here.  Indeed, the day before I interviewed him, Spring Workshop, an arts center in Wong Chuk Hang, Aberdeen, held a forum with former Vietnamese refugees that have settled in Hong Kong, and attorneys associated with the late Pam Baker, a former Hong Kong civil servant turned human rights lawyer who boldly pushed for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees in colonial Hong Kong and later in post-1997 Hong Kong.  The forum, organized by Tiffany Chung, was meant to be a tribute to Baker, who died in the UK in 2002.  The workshop also is hosting an exhibit on Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong.

Wong, working with Garden Streams' Evelyna Liang Yee-woo, was instrumental in the shipping to Amsterdam of the 800 pieces of artwork that had been collected by Garden Streams, a Hong Kong-based Christian Artists Fellowship, that went into the detention camps and helped children and youth with art lessons etc.  At the time, it was thought that the Amsterdam-based International Institute of Social History (IISH) was the best place to keep the artwork temporarily (for up to 10 years according to a signed contract) for "safekeeping".  It is the largest archive of contemporary social and political movement materials. Wong a few years ago, in fact took me to the warehouse where the artwork, some framed, was stored, awaiting shipment abroad.

Umbrellas featured in Whitehead Detention Centre, Shatin.
Predating Umbrella Movement! Artist: Tang Nga Son.
Refugees in Whitehead retrieving basketball amid barbed wire.
Artist: Tang Nga Son
According to the entry in the catalogue (typos corrected), "This collection is about artworks by Vietnamese refugees and asylum-seekers made during their detention in Hong Kong; in the late 1980s as many as 50.000 Vietnamese asylum seekers lived in detention camps in Hong Kong; these camps were a prison-like environment with a bleak sense of hope, bearing various fears and tragic memories; between 1989 and 1993, funded by UN, a 3-year art project was conducted in these detention camps; the local artist group Garden Streams Hong Kong Fellowship of Christian Artists entered several detention camps to hold various visual and performance arts activities, supported the Freedom Magazine (Tu Do) and also a women craft income generation project; the programme, entitled 'Art in the Camps', bordered on social service, activism, therapeutic art and art education; it was one of Hong Kong's earliest organized services initiated by artists, which in turn inspired future local community art programmes; the last detention camp closed in 2001; afterwards Garden Streams co-hosted the 'C.A.R.E. Local Vietnamese Community Art Re-encountered' exhibition and seminar series with the Lingnan University in Hong Kong, and subsequently provided the collection for research by Sophia Law, assistant professor at Lingnan's Visual Studies Department, from 2009 to 2010; the collection was shipped to the IISH in 2011."  A content note adds: "About 800 artworks from Vietnamese boatrefugees and documentation, photo's and interviews on life in the Hong Kong refugee camps 1989-1993 (-2010)."

Women refugees wash their hair in Whitehead.
Artist:  Nguyen Thi Vien
Refugees stage protests over asylum process at Whitehead.
Artist: Le Khac Dat
According to Wong, the local group had trouble initially exhibiting items from the collection in Hong Kong, with the Central Public Library, saying it could not be fit into its schedule.  Wong says the group also had a mixed reaction from artists from Vietnam it wanted to include in the exhibit, with one artists enthusiastic, another much more cautious.  Also skeptical was Vietnam's Consulate, which suggested that the group include other artwork from Vietnam, rather than those of the refugees from the camps, who after all, had escaped from socialist Vietnam.  In the end a "successful" exhibit of some 200 items of artwork, photographs and documents was held at Lingnan University. A later exhibit of 40 items was also shown at the Hong Kong (then) Institute of Education. (It recently became a University.)

Coming from University of California, Irvine, which currently hosts the most accessible collection of artwork from the detention camps in Hong Kong, although with much fewer pieces of artwork, I was interested in how Wong, who has visited UCI's Southeast Asian Archive and compared selected artists paintings with the several hundred archived in California, collected as a result of UCI students in Project Ngoc who visited Hong Kong to help refugee kids in the camp.  Some of the UCI collection is featured in a chapter I wrote (described in this earlier blog entry, where the artwork is shown in color).  I also interviewed Sophia Law when she visited UCI and Little Saigon.

Refugees seek human rights at Whitehead.
Artist: Le Khac Dat
Wong believes the UCI collection has more "polished" art, given he noticed that there were fundraising efforts where some artwork initially sent abroad were auctioned off to raise money for asylum cases in Hong Kong and elsewhere.  The Garden Streams collection could well contain earlier versions of the same artists' work that ended up in Irvine.  Wong believes that is fine given that scholars would use the collection to trace the development of the artwork over time. Indeed, at 800-plus items of artwork, the Garden Streams collection dwarfs the UCI collection.

Given that the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Fine Arts Department and scholars there have expressed interest in using the collection, Wong is hopeful it will soon be returned and find a home at CUHK.  He notes that a CUHK post-graduate student had visited Amsterdam to attempt to use the collection there.  -- Daniel C. Tsang

Thanks to Samson Wong for providing copies of the Garden Streams artwork to illustrate this blog.

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