The reason I was able to participate in r:ead#3, which focuses on “nomad people” this year, was one of my works finished in Hong Kong, 2013: “Ambedkar – Sing For Her,” which can be tracked back to my experiences from another residency project of “West Heavens” in Dehli, India. From Beijing to Dehli, then to Hong Kong, when to Tainan, it was truly a wonderful journey that I could never expect.
“Ambedkar” was a collaboration with a group of Philippine housekeepers. Nearly 100 thousand housekeepers, who majorly came from the Philippines and Indonesia, live in Hong Kong, but they could never acquire permanent residency right no matter how long they have lived there. That artwork was combined with a huge phone and a karaoke machine. The program installed on the work required its audience’s participation, or it would remain its initial status with a greeting of “to start the system, shout.” It required its audience to learn to sing a song titled “O Ilaw” (song of light), which was a love song that was widely known in the Philippines in 30s and 40s of last century. Lyrics of the song are listed below:
In a dark and cold night
You are like a star
In the sky
In a silent and lonely night
Your photo, girl
Breaks my heart
From your dream
From your sleep
Open your window
And look at me
Till then you’ll know
The true sorrow in me
It was a love song and codes of independence movements which were against American occupation. The girl lived upstairs was not the only one singers tried to wake up, but people of the Philippines. Concepts of “sleep,” “sorrow” and “wake up” were not new to people of mainland China – they were slogans of revolution that guided us. In the 20th century, revolutions, rebels and ethnic independence movements were shared spirits and actions among people of third world. But today, we (mainland Chinese) do not connect ourselves to people of the Philippines any more. Instead, our goal today is to push China into a superpower like the United States.
In recent years, I have participated in various international events of idea exchanging, and I feel that a new form of cold war is emerging currently in East Asia. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan have developed themselves from industrial to post-industrial societies, and they all have experienced (or been seeking) democratic transitions. There countries are far smaller in terms of people or land size, and have no communist revolution or other practice in their history. Artists and scholars from these countries can share ideas toward similar issues with mutual respect. China, in contrast, is a big country with most time spent in achieving our communist dream in the 20th century. Today, with thirty years of political and economic changes, we are at a peak of industrialization, and China is the second powerful nation in the world. Yet, mainland Chinese people are still living a life that hugely different from people of other countries in East Asia. If all cultural workers in East Asia take Western cultures as the other to us, it seems that we can still exchange our ideas with no problem, because we share common concerns. But if this imaginary enemy is removed, the difference between China and other countries – Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan – hinders us from forming a smooth relationship can be easily noticed.
To better form ties among people (and cultural workers) in East Asia, it seems that the concept of ethnic nationalism needs to be weakened to rebuild an emotional link of “all of us are the oppressed” and rediscover internationalism, which connected the proletariat around the world in the 20th century. This is also the true spirit of the Occupy movement, which once again puts class back into the center of political languages: we are the 99% and you are the 1%. “We” here represents not only people of the United States, but also people of China, Taiwan and Korea. Thomas Pikkety and other scholars also point out that under this tend of neoliberalism, people around the world are facing a shared disaster of worsening economic inequality.
From my own experiences, it is LGBT communities that embody the most spirits of internationalism. No matter from which country, everyone in the team knows we are all homosexuals, and is willing to be more nice and helpful to each other. This, in fact, is a behavior from the concept of “all of us are the oppressed.” it also reminds us that concepts of “the oppressed” or “the proletariat” need new definitions in the modern society. When we are rediscovering social class, we should not forget achievements and requests of identity politics and ecological movements, instead, we should try our best to build an alliance of wide differences. After all, we belong together in that huge 99%.
Besides human beings, the 99% of the oppressed also includes plants, animals, lands and rivers. Last summer, I was invited to participate in “West Bund Biennial” at an old cement factory in Xuhui District, Shanghai. When I visited there first time to check the place, I gladly found that lots of plants had occupied a wide area after the factory moved and the site had been abounded for a long time without any worker or resident. I asked a professional gardener friend to help me to identify plants lived there, and we surprisingly identified over twenty species, including paper mulberry, Chinese fever vine, redstem wormwood, Japanese metaplexis, common verbena and wild soybean, an endangered plant. The host of the exhibition planned to remove these “weeds” and rebuilt it into a broad cement square. Later, Liu Xiao, a curator, helped me in convincing them to keep it as an “urban remnant seminatural habitat,” a term used by ecologists. But workers did not understand our decision, and removed one fourth of plants while we did not pay attention. It was not like other works that can be compensated or recovered from damage with another way magically – nature could not be created even by the best artist. Later, someone we did not know asked workers to dig pits and plant new trees beside there. Old camphor trees there were strong, but new camphor trees from the gardening company died rapidly after few days. Just before the opening ceremony of the exhibition, cleaners removed all Boston ivy in the building, but used paper meal boxes were left on the grass. Plants were mirrors. They reflected outright our ignorance and arrogance.
When in the beginning of autumn, “Canadian goldenrods” were widely spread on the grass. Canadian goldenrod was introduced from Canada to China in the 1930s of last century as an ornamental plant, and later occupied lots of lands in central China as an invasive species – it had no natural enemies here. It was the most notorious weed among Chinese farmers. In fact, invasive species were everywhere. This spring, I was investigating local “weeds” in Shenzhen, and found almost half of these wild species were from central and south America. Today, countries ban various species from crossing boundaries, but at the same time, various plants like foods and fruits are transported around the world under the rule of free trade. Yet, these two things exist because of needs of capitalism: state violence needs to stabilize the mechanism of capitalism, and only more intense trades increase their capital. Is it possible to create a new form of internationalism, with a collaboration between plants and the oppressed?
I will found an organization named “Queer Farmers International” (QFI) to further identify links between queers’ lives, farming practices and internationalism. We will focus on studying, for we can only describe a future we are not certain yet via studying. The queer is not completely equal to homosexual, but a rebel to mainstream life styles. To be a member of QFI, one needs to pass an exam of queers, which will be made via various discussions between different groups. As for farming practices, we will learn methods from local aboriginals with some new technologies like stereoscopic cultivation system. A possible approach to form international links is herbs. Herbs harvested from various areas will be given to people in need in other places as gifts (instead of commodities). Only true emotions can make internationalism have strong roots, and emotions are close with healing and gifts.
In closing, I would like to extend my appreciation to Professor Gong Jow-Jiun, Miss Soma and other participants in this project. Via intensive discussions in Tainan, I have been able to review my recent works and projects. Furthermore, now I can see new possibility and urgency to rediscover internationalism more clearly.
November 16, 2014, in Hong Kong.