by Chloe Wong
I am a second-generation Hong Kong-American. Until I came to Hong Kong last year, I identified as Chinese-American. But something changed in the 11 weeks I lived, breathed, experienced, (and protested) Hong Kong. From August to November of 2019, I was an exchange student in the Faculty of Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (otherwise known, I was told, as Stress and Tension). Despite making the decision to do an exchange at a STEM-focused university, I took four humanities courses. While writing this, I must credit Professor Daisy Yan Du’s “Chinese Women on Screen” and, though not more importantly, but more reflectively, Professor May-yi Shaw’s “Who We Are in Global Hong Kong: A Quest of Self, Community, and Identity”. Professor Shaw’s course had an ambitious title and enthralling lessons—bringing me from the depths of Sham Shui Po to the principal’s residence at Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong. I do think it lived up to the boldness of the title—playing an important role in my experience and reflections on the heterogeneity, nuance and solidarity of Hong Kong in 2019.
The first picture I took in Hong Kong was of a Lennon Wall. I was walking to dinner with my father along a footbridge in Sha Tin and there it was. In all its complexity and glory. It was one of the most magnificent, radicalising pieces of art I had ever laid eyes on. Every time I walked past one, I felt compelled to pause and examine each flyer, Post-it, graffiti, Pepe the Frog—every component in an independent installation rivalling any great European art work. The omnipresence of Lennon Walls symbolised the hypervisibility of politics to me: the constant, relentless expression of freedom and yearning for democracy in Hongkongers. I began comparing the pieces that I saw, particularly looking for women or symbols of women. As a cisgender, heterosexual woman, I recognise that my visual perception of women is skewed by a Western male view of femininity. In Hong Kong protest art, this translated primarily to long hair, girls in school uniforms, and feminised bodies. Now, I realise that I was looking for shadows of me on those walls—an alternative Chloe, who would have been a 20-year old Hongkonger on a different timeline or due to a different immigration decision.
I took “Chinese Women on Screen” for a very simple reason: I was curious about how I would look like as a Chinese woman on screen. Of course, I didn’t realise that the course spanned the period from the 1930s to post-1989, but my interest was piqued. The first line of the syllabus read: “This course examines Chinese women as both historical and fictional figures to unravel the convoluted relationship between history and visual representations.” Out of all of the canonical texts and feminist scholars we examined, Laura Mulvey and Donna Haraway are two that I remember to this day. I began almost immediately observing where the male gaze was present in my daily life, namely, the creation and depiction of female images in protest art. Even being unsure of who created the art, I saw idealised females in their politicised roles as female comrades, at the forefront of the protests. Through the movement, women were able to construct themselves in the public sphere to pursue their nationalistic and patriotic ideals. Despite this, I argue that the male gaze remains influential not only in the portrayal of women in protest art but also the self-perception of women in real life.
Laura Mulvey (1975) states that the male gaze is the visual pleasure of men derived from the erotic, secret looking of women. Men gain a source of pleasure from voyeurism of the female body, which is constantly subject to control. Although the male gaze is more commonly applied to cinema, the same logic can be seen in any type of visual medium. The portrayal of women with distinctly feminine characteristics can be traced throughout Chinese cinematic works and more specifically, within Chinese propaganda. Women within protest art are, for the most part, desexualised. They dress in typical protester garb—black clothing, their faces masked. They would be virtually indistinguishable from other protesters if not for their long hair. Long hair, such as ponytails, pigtails, braids and so on, highlight the feminine characteristics of the protester and represent the mobilisation of women in the protests.
Although most Hongkongers are actively engaged in pushing back against the Chinese Communist Party, the politicised female Chinese body can, ironically, find its roots within Communist representations. The depiction of women draws parallels with the presentation of women during the Great Leap Forward. During this industrialising era, female tractor drivers and labourers (e.g. Liang Jun) were considered a valuable part of the workforce. This was part of Mao Zedong’s plan to promote gender equality by uplifting women in the hierarchy. They were given the opportunity to empower themselves through their newfound occupations. However, the long hair of female labourers was still featured in propaganda posters. In this sense, the male gaze translates to the creation of female images, not necessarily as sexual objects per se, but as spectacles.
The Hong Kong schoolgirl stands out to me because my mother always said that she emigrated so I could receive a better education. The students in Hong Kong were an inspiration to me—brave beyond their years despite daunting consequences. They wore their uniforms as symbols of their youthful rebellion. After arriving in Hong Kong, I made the decision to take part in protests as much as I could. It was not premeditated, and I knew how dangerous it could be, but I felt compelled to join the crowds in the streets as much as I could. The propaganda worked on me, but I also felt that I had something to prove to myself, that I had roots in Hong Kong and I could lay claim to my heritage as much as other Asian-Americans could. This was the first time in over a decade I had set foot in Hong Kong, but it mattered. I joined human chains on campus and attended rallies, but I was (oddly) most comfortable at protests. The fluidity of the crowds through streets provided an odd sense of security; I was only one person and I hadn’t even lived in Hong Kong for very long, but I believed what everyone else believed. We marched on.
In some protest art, female figures are the sole main spectacle in the image, emerging from the background or a group of humans. Since these images theoretically embody the male gaze of the female figure, other women who view the images may begin to internalise the gaze and make themselves valuable in accordance with male expectations within the social setting. Is this scenario, this means embodying the strong and loyal protester and being an active participant within the urban environment. I do think there is something to be said about women, even me, being influenced by propaganda, which parallels the past history of China. Women in Hong Kong were colloquially referred to as 港女 (Hong Kong girl), the epitome of narcissistic, materialistic wealth-seeking. Female protesters now, however, were considered to be the best and bravest of Hong Kong. However, the male gaze remains at play since their social position directly relates to their role in the movement. In propaganda, they may be less sexualised, but they remain the model Hongkonger. Their labour in the movement is equated with their value.
Nira Yuval-Davis (2011) theorises that political womanhood is inextricably linked to the constructions of nationhood. The role of women is often relegated to the periphery, yet women “reproduce nations biologically, culturally, and symbolically”. Although women are leaving behind the typical roles of motherhood or girlhood, they remain part of the greater good by adhering to the larger model of protest. They are fulfilling their roles and responsibilities—chained to their acceptable codes of behaviour under the guise of freedom. Their virtues symbolise the virtue of their city: justice-seeking Hongkongers.
The day before I left Hong Kong, I attended a rally in memory of Alex Chow Tsz-lok a 22-year old student at HKUST. It had been a week since he died of injuries sustained from falling from a multi-storey car park. At this point, the protests had escalated beyond anything I (or my study abroad office) could have imagined. In the comparatively short time of September to November, in addition to the innumerable protests and rallies, the extradition bill was formally withdrawn, the 70th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China saw widespread protests, the Emergency Regulations Ordinance was invoked to ban face masks in public gatherings, and the death of Chow Tsz-lok led to the siege of the universities—campuses erupting in clouds of chaos, fire and tear gas.
When leaving, I was filled with bittersweet emotions, troubled by my duality as a Hong Kong permanent resident and an American exchange student. My university, along with others, had suspended courses for the rest of the semester. My fellow exchange students had been moved to hotel accommodation in Aberdeen, a suburb on southwest Hong Kong Island in the shadow of Victoria Peak, shielded from protests, left in peace to think about where else they might travel in Asia. As protesters put their lives and futures on the line, I struggled with my decision. The saturation of discomfort and instability had been takingan increasing toll on me throughout the semester. I chose to leave and return to Evanston and New York City, to the safety and company of my family and friends. That said, I had the privilege of leaving and returning to my daily life while Hongkongers continued to put their lives and futures on the line to have their voices heard by the government. I felt guilty. After all, my roots were in Hong Kong, where my parents and grandparents had grown up, lived, and which they had eventually left. This is a decision that I constantly think about – should I have stayed and watched how events would play out? Should I have become a hermit in my relatives’ apartment rather than leaving so quickly? I’m not sure. However, travelling anywhere demands our constant engagement and reflection before, during, and after these experiences, though many choose to neglect the “after”. I consider my time in Hong Kong to have been a pilgrimage, in search of what it means to be a Hong Kong-American. I hope that the next time I go, I will find out more about being a Hongkonger.
Chloe Wong (she/her) is a student at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois studying anthropology, global health and Asian-American studies. Born and raised in New York City, she is a Hong Kong-American and the proud daughter of an immigrant. Chloe is passionate about the intersection of global women’s health and identity empowerment.