Hong Kong Outlanders (HKO) is a Hong Kong diaspora activist group formed in Taiwan. With the mission to raise awareness for the on-going social movement in Hong Kong, their work ranges from mass rallies, media presence, to cultural and artistic programs. In this interview, Hong Kong Outlanders share details on their first exhibition Surmount (穿石——香港騷動年代抗志) in Taipei, and further reflect on self-censorship, anonymity, and the role of diaspora after the National Security Law,. This interview by Yihsuan Chiu, editor of Haze Publication, took place on 18 February 2021 via phone call.
Click here to access the exhibition Surmount online.
YC: Tell us about Hong Kong Outlanders and the work you’ve done in the past two years.
HKO: We mainly organize campaigns to support Hong Kong as well as bridge information between Hong Kong and Taiwan. Our work includes hosting rallies, seminars, and a subsidy program, through which we subsidize flight costs for Hong Kong students to return to Hong Kong from Taiwan to vote. We also produce a Hong Kong weekly that provides news regarding the protests on our social media.
In June 2020, we had our first exhibition Surmount, which was on view in Taipei for three weeks and in Tainan for three months. In January this year , Surmount and two other exhibitions on the Hong Kong protests came together as one exhibition Be Water, Be Fire, Be a Voice in Kaohsiung. Meanwhile we also had our second exhibition in Taipei for ten days, on PTSD art therapy work for Hong Kong protestors.
YC: It seems that you are developing a cultural and artistic dimension to political organizing. What do you see as the relationship between protests and exhibitions?
HKO: We are not artists, and we are hardly activists. We're just Hong Kong people who are trying to raise awareness for Hong Kong but in a different place. The real street protests are happening in Hong Kong. We see those as the hard approach. The images we see and news we read are serious, they're bloody. Before 2020, we shared such news and images to show what was happening in Hong Kong. But we found this had a narrower audience. It was harder to get through to people with this approach. Therefore in 2020, we decided to broaden our audience through culture and art. We call this a softer approach.
Through art we can talk more about abstract ideas, such as the beliefs and messages behind the protests. For example, democracy and freedom. We find this approach provides a better conversation starter. Of course this soft approach is more family friendly as well. So even though none of us are artists, we invested a lot of time to make artistic events happen.
YC: Can you talk more about this exhibition Surmount?
HKO: Surmount in Taipei was actually a trial for us. We had three galleries in Bopiliao (剝皮寮) historical district, which is a Taiwanese government-run cultural venue. The media exposure was great. A lot of media came through over a period of three weeks. We also hosted a press conference with some important cultural and political figures on the first day of that exhibition. Many Hong Kongers in Taiwan came. Many cried. I remember [name redacted], a Taiwanese politician came to the exhibition, and ended up crying. He said that it was completely different seeing real objects from the streets of Hong Kong that have been tear-gassed, in relation to learning about the movement from the news. There were also a few high school school visits to the exhibition. These were a chance for teachers to take their students outside of the classroom and textbook.
Surmount later traveled to Tainan, a city in southern Taiwan. The exhibition there spanned three months and took over an entire building. Our team is based in Taipei, so we worked with Hong Kongers in Tainan. The reception was similar to the one in Taipei. However, since we gave the venue to local Hong Kongers, they ended up forming a new group and were able to explore further organizing afterwards. I would say the exhibition became more than just an exhibition. It was a place for Hong Kongers in Taiwan to connect.
YC: What works did you display in Surmount?
HKO: You can see all the works on the website we created. I'm going to talk about one in particular, which was a giant textile banner that came from the streets of Hong Kong. The banner weighed 23 kilograms and was 40 meters long. This banner was brought to the street protests and people signed around “Hong Kongers”, which was written in the middle. A timeline that recorded the movement since 2019 was also hand-drawn on it; every date and incident such as the Siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the first million people rally. Text such as “fighting,” “march on,” and “revenge” were also hand-written by protestors.
YC: How would you describe the censorship in Hong Kong after the National Security Law came in effect in June 2020? Have you felt its effects when living in Taiwan?
HKO: The censorship in Hong Kong right now is really broad. Freedom of the press has definitely been oppressed. I think the scary part of censorship in Hong Kong right now is that people have started to self-censor. Since the National Security Law does not have a clear framework that tells people what lines not to cross, there are no standards nor transparency. Basically the police are using the law to create fear. After National Security Laws were passed, people started to self-censor because of this fear. I would say this is scarier than the official censorship from the Hong Kong government.
Does censorship reach beyond the border? I think censorship itself does not, but I think that fear is carried by a lot of Hong Kong people as well. We try to stay anonymous even though we're not in Hong Kong, but our family and friends are. We try to stay as low key as possible in order to not put the people around us in danger.
YC: I’ve been thinking about the impact of anonymity on a personal level. It must be difficult to not be able to tell someone your name.
HKO: It definitely bothers a lot of people. If we had a choice, I don't think anyone would hide their names or change their Facebook profile to some pseudonyms. Anonymity is mistrust of the government, and to an extent, a mistrust of the people around you. It does get in the way of people’s lives. For example, I can’t show you my full name, or I need to hide all of my Facebook pictures. I'm a social person, though now I’m afraid to tell others my name. I'm also scared of people taking photos of me, even when we’re just going out for dinners. I’ve become paranoid. A lot of Hong Kongers are experiencing this. There is a consensus to maintain safety and security against tyranny. It’s tough. This also gets in the way of how we meet new people.
YC: Do you see changes in the role of diaspora in times of protest?
HKO: After the National Security Law, we received messages from people in Hong Kong saying that since they weren’t able to take anymore action in Hong Kong, they looked to overseas Hong Kongers to do what they couldn’t do. In a place where there is still freedom of speech, we feel even more of a sense of responsibility to speak out for Hong Kong. In an exhibition such as Surmount, it wasn’t just for local Taiwanese audiences. We're also telling Hong Kong and Hong Kongers across the world that we have not forgotten. We have not forgotten Hong Kong. There are still people in other places such as here in Taiwan that are marching on. So, please, 堅持！
We Have not Forgotten Hong Kong
Interview with Hong Kong Outlanders By Yihsuan Chiu