This art exhibition asks, are you so different from Hong Kong’s refugees?

"I am a Refugee" exhibition at Green Wave Art. Rachel Lau.
"Why do I have to look at the Syrian children as refugees, but not looking at myself, my history, or the history of Hong Kong?"

On a Sunday afternoon in September, Green Wave Art in Yau Ma Tei was unexpectedly transformed into a makeshift kitchen, the community space filled with the rich scent of home-cooked Egyptian food prepared by Magda and Emad—two refugees residing in Hong Kong. Hanging on the crisp white walls of the gallery were an array of artworks, from desaturated portraits of refugees to old family photos. 

On view is the “I Am Refugee!” exhibition, which pays tribute to Hong Kong’s 3,000 asylum seekers waiting to be granted refugee status in order to re-settle in another country. They live in a state of limbo: they are not allowed to work, and face continuous resentment from some Chinese locals—fuelled by mainstream media and even politicians eager to brand them as “fake refugees. As I studied the works of the artists and photojournalists, I wondered: what did the exhibition hope to add to the ongoing conversation around asylum seekers here?

The initiator and a key artist in this exhibit is Evelyna Liang, also endearingly known as Yee-Woo Poh Poh. Liang, a seasoned community artist whose practice focuses on collaborating with systemically disempowered communities, told me that the idea for “I Am Refugee!” can be traced back to a similar project she founded in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

At the time, there was an influx of Vietnamese refugees arriving in Hong Kong—then deemed a “port of first asylum.” The refugees were placed in camps shaped by cement and barbed wire fences; their living quarters were “blank, shining” metal boxes lacking in life and colour, she recalled.

Liang consequently founded a project called “Art in Camp” and collaborated with Vietnamese refugees to make the detention camps a more liveable place through art. Together they painted murals, held art workshops, and sang and danced in the camps.

evelyna liang
Evelyna Liang’s work, In that year, on display at Green Wave Art. Courtesy of the artist.

“We tried to make life a little bit more easy… When there’s music, when there’s painting, when there’s activities going on, it’s not hardship, it’s not ‘where is freedom?’—but it’s something like, ‘Yes, we still [have] hope. We can still create. We are [still] a person,’” she said.

Thirty years later, Liang took a trip to Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon in 2017. It was one thing to read about the refugee crisis on the headlines of international papers, and another to see that most families’ possessions totalled to two blankets and a carpet rug—because that was all they could carry. Liang wished to respond to the local and global refugee crisis as an artist, and revived “Art in Camp” with a group of Hong Kong-based artists, travelling to Hamburg, Germany to work with refugees there. The artworks in “I Am Refugee!” was a reflection of the trip.

“The initial title for the exhibition was ‘Art in Camp/Art in Syrian Refugee Camp’ to highlight what we’ve been doing [in Hamburg],” Liang recalled. But she soon realised the people she considered as “refugees” were not so different from her. “[M]y family had also escaped from Mainland China to Hong Kong. And I am a refugee too. Why do I have to look at the Syrian children [as] refugees, but not looking at myself, my history, or the history of Hong Kong? Hong Kong people, most of us are refugees,” Liang said.

The works in the exhibit danced around one central question: Who is a refugee? One artist, Thomas Yuen, turned to his own family history for answers: his family had smuggled from Mainland China to Hong Kong and then into Germany. When people hear the word “refugee,” Yuen said at a sharing on the final night of the exhibition, it is often framed as a societal problem and global crisis rather than people with personal lives. He was determined to subvert this.

My family who is running around, an audio piece combined with vintage photographs from Yuen’s family archives, looks at how his family members sought belonging. Yuen was most interested in exploring the everyday experiences of migrating to an entirely new place without knowing the language or the people. He went through family photos and asked his mother what it was like for her to get a haircut for the first time in Germany: how short did she want it? How did she communicate that with the hairdresser?

thomas yuen
Artist Thomas Yuen’s family photos, on view at Green Wave Art. Courtesy of the artist.

Through this, Yuen reflected on how difficult it must be for asylum seekers who are searching for belonging in a new place—all the seemingly banal, yet integral daily obstacles a refugee may face in a foreign place. Yuen’s work was an honest and vulnerable approach at questioning who belongs and who is deemed a “refugee” in Hong Kong.

In Yuen’s artist statement, he writes: “The past that my family told me; the moment that was captured in the photos; my family who is near; and the collage of my imaginations; after all, how do I see these stowaways, migrants, and refugees? Do I really see them?”

And so, on that Sunday afternoon, the imaginary borders between refugees and Hong Kongers were momentarily erased in the art space. Debates on complex moral and legal questions surrounding refugee issues were left aside for a second as neighbours traded laughter and shared food. That perhaps, was Liang’s intention all along—to illustrate the need to recognise the humanity, capability, and talent of refugees while being open to the commonalities between our personal migration stories. “So that people will look at this group of people as human. As someone just like you and me.”

“I Am Refugee!” “I Am Refugee Too!” was co-organised by Art for All, Green Wave Art, and the Centre for Community Cultural Development. The exhibit was on view from 19 August 2018 to 15 September 2018.