Decades of change in Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan

Wong Wo Bik, Ceiling, from series Euston Mansion, Euston Mansion, Bonham Road, Hong Kong (Eu's Palace, now demolished) 1984-85, fine art inkjet prints

Coming in and out of political traumas, contemporary art from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China is the child of darkness, seeking for ways of cultural reallocation. While some seek recognition and cash from the West, some seek consolidation of their cultural identities, and some continue their critique of on-going political suppression.

Art in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China during the last two decades has been strongly affected by some of the most dramatic happenings of the time.

Economic reform introduced in 1979 in mainland China lifted the iron curtain that had enclosed the nation for decades. Cultural workers were eager to catch up with the global development of contemporary art, and to engage in all forms of experiment with the vision of revitalising the nation after the devastating rampage of the Cultural Revolution. The zealous call for liberation and reform reached its peak in 1985 at the ‘85 New Waves’, and had its second coming in 1989 at the controversial China Avant-garde exhibition held at Beijing in January that year. The exhibition was a tragic omen to this passionate cry, and a prelude to the Tiananmen Students’ Movement in May and June that ended with a brutal massacre.

The traumatic event at Tiananmen Square marks a turning point in Chinese contemporary art. During the 1980s, many Chinese artists were obsessed with a modernist vision in believing in the power of art for social progression, and carried within them a sacred mission of soothing the wounds of the nation and saving its people from long suffering of poverty and backwardness. All the passion and good wishes crashed overnight. Students were arrested and persecuted, and contemporary art was outlawed. A dark period of loss and dislocation immediately followed, reflected in the fragmented people and objects in self-enclosed space in the works of Zhang Xiaogang of the early 1990s.

Chinese art moved from an era of progressive modernism to a post-modernist landscape of scattered, aimless wandering, frequently with a touch of cynicism. Artists like Wang Guangyi turned to mockery with his ‘Political Pop’, which made fun of the marriage of Capitalism and Communism. Another form of expression that best represented the post-1989 era was the nihilistic sense of helplessness and malaise, characterized by the work of Fang Lijun.[1]

Political persecution also led to the exile of many outstanding artists such as Huang Yong Ping, Xu Bing and Cai Guo-Qiang. The relocation of these Chinese artists helped to consolidate the global positioning of Chinese art.

Since contemporary art was officially banned, it was impossible for any foreign cultural institutions to bring exhibitions to their countries as all cultural exchange in China had to be conducted via official channels. The only means for the new work to leave the country was when it was sent out as merchandise.[2] Because of this unusual situation of exercising political suppression of the arts at the same time as encouraging economic deals, the prime forces dictating the development of Chinese contemporary art became art dealers and collectors outside of China. By the mid-1990s Chinese contemporary art gradually took shape as a major form of exported art to the West, which was hungry for new artistic excitement. A new supply of art that accused Communism and at the same time criticised consumerism successfully satisfied both the conservative Right and the liberal Left. The 1990s mark a transitional period from zealous idealism to an export of political Orientalism through art[3], and the trend continues in the 21st Century.

The Sino-British agreement made in the early 1980s confirming Hong Kong’s return to China generated much anxiety within that community. In 1989, Hong Kong people witnessed the activities of the Tiananmen Students’ Movement and actively supported it. The abrupt and brutal end of the Movement was equally shocking and devastating, and intensified the fear over unifying with China.

The aftermath of the massacre was a collective hysteria which led to a massive migration of the upper and middle classes. Among those who did not want to or could not afford to leave were those laden with a sense of tragic fate and helplessness. It also aroused a desire to identify and preserve the distinctive culture of Hong Kong before its disappearance after the unification in 1997.

Cultural workers in Hong Kong actively sought a Hong Kong identity. However, due to the lack of research or archival collections of local culture made during the colonial days, there were only bits and pieces of scattered information available. So, artists turned to intimate, personal experiences as a way to find their own individual identity. Wong Wo Bik started to photograph old, abandoned mansions of the rich in the 1980s, an act of mourning the dissipating glories of the City. Photography, especially documentary photography, was particularly strong during the 1990s because of the emotionally and politically charged landscape of the City during the transitional period. While photographers like Vincent Yu and Ken Wong captured the conflicts at various social and political arenas, artists like Simon Go and So Hing Keung took on more personal, private approaches to photographic images of a city quietly fading out.

The 1990s witnessed the rise of a new generation of contemporary artists who were born in the 1980s. Unlike their predecessors, they had little cultural linkage with China. Warren Leung’s nostalgic preservation of his neighbourhood with pin-hole cameras and So Yan Kai’s installation that sought for cultural memories through old Hong Kong movies were also typical of this trend. One could witness an increased turn toward home or something internal, seeking peace of mind within one’s private space and intimate personal encounters, as in the works of Fiona Wong and Lee Kit.

Since 1997, Hong Kong art has entered another stage of loss and dislocation. The feared brutal suppression did not happen, but one could easily sense the surrounding warm water that has been slowly boiling the frog. The dichotomy between ‘us and them’ became blurred and the artists were in a state of limbo still trying hard to seek an identity of their own while facing an increasingly powerful China.

In Taiwan dramatic change happened in 1987, when the Nationalist Government lifted Martial Law. Since its retreat to Taiwan in 1949, the Nationalist Government had been exercising notorious social control, including over artistic and intellectual expression. The lifting of Martial Law provoked aspirations among the cultural workers for a new era of artistic expression, with a critique of the past and construction for the future. The quick formation of independent art spaces such as IT Park and No.2 Apartment in 1988 reflected artists’ hunger for artistic liberation and autonomy. However, it was not until 1992 when all the suppressive legislatures were abolished that Taiwan enjoyed truly the freedom the Taiwanese artists had been wanting.

As in Hong Kong, the 1980s saw an increased number of overseas trained artists returning to Taiwan. Artists such as Dean E-Mei and Mali Wu brought in new energies and a global language that, when joining with a new generation of locally trained artists such as Wu Tien-Chang and Hou Chun-Ming, became a significant force in enriching the cultural scene of the Post-Martial Law era.

Liberation from decades of suppression released long accumulated hatred and the recollection of suffering nurtured a Taiwanese cultural movement against the grand Chinese culture that was traditionally associated with the Nationalist Government. Hardliners such as Wu Tien-Chang, who was making critiques on political suppression before and after 1987, expanded his critique to questioning people’s submissiveness to authority, and investigated the continuous tension between authority and the people within Taiwanese society.

Since 1987, Taiwanese arts have blossomed at all levels, not just at the area of visual arts. In terms of artistic content, it was only natural that some artists made a harsh critique of the political past, while others sought to address the issues of Taiwanese identity, sometimes not without a sense of self-reflection and critique. Having been ruled by the Japanese, the Nationalist Party from mainland China, and facing increased globalisation, the Taiwanese inherited a complex mixture of culture that burst into a diversified landscape of cultural richness once it was released from decades of concealment. A diversified cultural landscape ranged from the literati ink landscapes of Yu Peng, to the funky pop images of Yang Mao-Lin, to the violent expression of Chen Chieh-Jen, to the installations addressing environmental issues of Mali Wu. It is unfortunate that, unlike artists from mainland China, the talents of the Taiwanese artists did not get the recognition they deserved outside Taiwan due to the hindrance of international politics.

Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have all gone through a period of complex political and psychological turmoil in recent times, a period loaded with hopes, passion, critique and disappointment, and they all found their own ways of expressing these traumatic experiences. Mainland China continues to celebrate its artistic and economic achievements, although it has started to experience a sudden slowdown in recent years. The rise of mainland China, on the other hand, put Hong Kong and Taiwan in a difficult position locating themselves. While some artists might jump onto the bandwagon and catch the fast ride to the global cultural scene, some persist in pursuing their own cultural identities and artistic languages. Interaction among the three regions will increase, but it is doubtful that they will ever come together, despite the fact they all share the same cultural root.


  1. ^ During the 1980s Fang had already been working on art with the sense of malaise. This trend rapidly developed during the 1990s, reflecting an intensification of the sense of cynicism and mockery.
  2. ^ Jointly curated by Li Xianting, Johnson Chang and Oscar Ho, the China’s New Art, Post-1989 exhibition held at the Hong Kong Arts Centre in 1993 was the first exhibition presenting a comprehensive picture of the art scene after 1989. As most of the nearly 200 works were sent out from China and could not be returned, they had to be purchased , with the artists only getting the cash instead of the artworks back.
  3. ^ It is, however, important to note that there are always artists who insist on upholding their own artistic integrity. To generalize the artistic development of a large nation like China is unfair and too simplistic. In addition, there is also art such as calligraphy or social realist work that is equally contemporary and continues to speak a language that is more in tune with the general public of China.

Oscar Ho was the Exhibition Director of Hong Kong Arts Centre, founding Director of MOCA Shanghai, and is currently Program Director of the MA Program in Cultural Management at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.