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Cultural festival keeps Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement alive

Exhibitions and events exploring identity and nationalism will take place in former factory building

Last year’s Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations received international attention after unarmed students used umbrellas to protect themselves from police pepper spray and tear gas. Now, the organisers of the Umbrella Festival, to be held from 17 to 31 May, aim to create a platform that will not only spotlight those unprecedented protests but also push forward the cultural conversation about Hong Kong’s future.

The main roads of Hong Kong’s business districts have long been cleared of the demonstrators who poured into the streets after the stand-off with police on 28 September, setting up tent villages along major thoroughfares and shutting down parts of the city until early December. Yet images and ideas of the Umbrella Movement remain ever present. At the Venice Biennale, some guests opened yellow umbrellas as a political statement during the 8 May opening, which was attended by Hong Kong’s chief secretary Carrie Lam.

“The Umbrella Movement is a significant historical and cultural event that deserves a festival, a celebration,” says the Hong Kong art critic and educator Oscar Ho, who is one of the curators. Organised under the auspices of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s (CUHK) cultural studies programme, the festival will showcase film screenings, modern dance, theatre performances, exhibitions and discussions. The events take place over two weeks at a factory building that has been turned into an arts-and-crafts compound in the Shek Kip Mei suburb, about 45 minutes from the centre.

“Different points of view”

Ho says that “some people will like it, some will hate it. What is important is that we have platforms for different points of view”. His main concern is how anti-Umbrella forces might try to disrupt the festival.

While the festival is very much a cultural activity, Hong Kong’s evolving politics remain at its heart. As the CUHK academic and event co-organiser Katrien Jacobs wrote in the brochure: “It’s not about art as documentation of past events, nor about a collection of honourable objects, but about a way of life and critical intelligence that needs art to seduce its audiences.”

The festival includes a staging of The Immigration Lottery, a play by Cathy SK Lam that premiered at last year’s Edinburgh fringe festival and explores identity and nationalism. Another highlight is the first public exhibition of Faces of Representatives, an installation by the artist Otto Li that was removed from a University of Hong Kong museum show at the end of 2014. Created with 3D printing, Li’s project—which started in early 2014—translates votes received by politicians into individual polygons to render busts of leaders from China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Mandates with more votes result in clearer figures. While many believe that the museum succumbed to pressure from unidentified authorities who deemed the work inappropriate for the politically charged protest period, an HKU press statement claimed that the removal was due to a disagreement with Li over the installation’s location.

“There is still the basic issue of election methods,” says Li. “I don’t think the Umbrella Movement is finished; it keeps changing into different forms.”