Christopher K. Ho in conversation with Dawn Chan
Christopher K. Ho is a speculative artist based in New York and Hong Kong. He is known for multi-component projects that draw from learned material about, and lived encounters with, power and otherness in an unevenly decolonized, increasingly networked world. My ongoing fascination with his practice has only grown in the past several years, when he began making work out of his own move back to Hong Kong: a gradual and unfolding act of “reverse diaspora” that has since been foreclosed by global events. I wanted to hear his thoughts on how recent developments in Hong Kong and the US may be further complicating the challenges of articulating Asian American and transnational identities. This interview was conducted July– August 2020.

Dawn Chan (DC): You’ve been making work about Hong Kong more explicitly these days. But also indirectly in the past: the sort of ambivalence and multiplicity of identity that you’ve often explored seems to reflect Hong Kong’s ambiguous status as a “special administrative region.” When we first met, in 2013, your show in progress —“Privileged White People”—felt like it offered the ultra-precise, wry observations of someone with access to a vantage point far, far away from the northeastern liberal arts college culture being examined. Can you describe that show a bit?

Christopher K. Ho (CKH): President Clinton’s official embassy portrait and a publicity shot of Dawson Leery from Dawson’s Creek bookended the show, both framed in pink and Photoshopped with functions original to version 1.0, like cloning, blending, and saturation adjustment. The scent of multiculturalism—in fact, L’eau d’Issey, the wildly popular fragrance launched in 1992—permeated the gallery; four bottles of it propped up an outsized sheet of paper watermarked with the insignia and motto of Trout College, a fictitious New England liberal arts college. Trout was the setting for an original TV pilot that recounted the political awakenings and personal dalliances of a group of diverse students and young professors. The printed screenplay sat atop a pale green column carved with a gilt heart and “L + A”—references to Liam and Anya, whose unlikely romance propels the narrative. Liam is a poor college jock whose single mother works at the town diner and whose dad, unbeknownst to him, heads the IMF; Anya is a diplobrat from El Salvador. I based them and others on people I first encountered at boarding school in Connecticut and, later, at Cornell.

: The show made a huge impression on me, because I’d never seen anyone else identify a visual aesthetic that went hand in hand with a Clinton-era sense of comfortable liberal “decency” (to use your word) that supplanted more politically challenging art from before it. What was that “decency” and what has happened to it, in 2020? Do we now call it by a different name?

CKH: “Privileged White People” was my attempt to pinpoint the ethos and aesthetic of my RISD students from the early 2000s, who clearly possessed feeling and projected intelligence, but lacked the self-changing, world- charging brio with which I was familiar. Well-meaning and seemingly well-adjusted, they came of age during the period of prolonged prosperity between AIDS and 9/11, and they produced work befitting their times: modest abstract painting. Back then, I sought to argue that what looked apolitical was in fact the work of self-actualized millennials acting decent rather than enacting change.

In recent years the lacunae of the Clinton era and that show have increasingly become apparent. White decency has oxidized into white guilt on the one hand and white supremacy on the other.

DC: It seems like more recently you began to ground yourself less in the US and more in Hong Kong. Elements of your art practice interleaved with your personal life and this idea of “reverse diaspora.” What prompted this pivot?

CKH: Soon after the 2017 presidential inauguration, I gave a job talk at an art school during which I discussed “Privileged White People.” A white tenured faculty member raised his hand. Why, he asked, was I picking on schools like Colgate and Bowdoin? Weren’t such colleges spearheads of progress, beacons of social change? His implication: they opened doors for people like me. It was because of them, and the multiculturalism that they promulgated, that I now stood at the lectern, asking to be hired. Why bite the hand that fed me?

I fumbled. Faintly, I acknowledged the debt I owed Clinton-era multiculturalism. But I should have retorted that it has since been critiqued as a means to maintain the status quo while giving the illusion of inclusion. I could have pointed out that at my questioner’s school under 6 percent of full-time faculty self- identified as Asian, compared with 39 percent of undergraduates and 44 percent of graduate students. I could have insisted it was absurd that I should feel grateful to be a forty-three-year-old applicant for an assistant professorship at an institution where I dutifully adjuncted for nineteen years. And I could have described the email I received the prior month from a senior, Minsoo Thigpen, with the subject line “In-need-of-talking-to- a-non-white-faculty-member-in-Painting-dept.”

A week later, I found myself in more sympathetic company, at Asia Art Archive in America’s annual Leadership Camp. Artist and curator Simon Wu had assigned Sara Ahmed’s “A Phenomenology of Whiteness.” Her account of fielding questions after a lecture, similar to my own, provided relief and proved revelatory. Here is Ahmed: “Someone struggles to ask a question. Basically he asks, ‘but you are a professor now. How does that fit?’ The question can be rephrased: ‘how can what you say about whiteness be true, given that you can become a professor?’”

My job talk and Ahmed’s account touched on my—and many Asian Americans’—half-in, half-out subject position in the US, and how this position informs complicit or subversive actions and alliances. Had I gotten the job and joined ranks with my white male interrogator, would I have excused—made excuses for—him?

DC: It seems that this art school talk, and your subsequent encounter with Ahmed’s essay, made you (and your practice) pivot toward a more expanded set of geopolitical considerations. You were born in Hong Kong. Do you consider yourself a member of the Overseas Chinese—that diasporic designation that hovers ambiguously between Asian American and Chinese proper?

CKH: In “On the Edge of Empires: Flexible Citizenship among Chinese in Diaspora,” Aihwa Ong describes how modern Asia’s espousal of transnational capitalism complicates traditional notions of belonging and of national fealty. For Ong, a promiscuous, pragmatic relationship to ruling power characterizes diasporic entrepreneurial Chinese. My Hong Kong–based businessman grandfather, for instance, came from poverty in Canton, spent the war in Macau, and eventually was awarded an OBE from Britain, an OST from Japan, and an OE from Thailand. He sent my mother to an English boarding school, an aunt to Tsinghua University in Beijing, and an uncle to Catholic University in Washington, DC, for his MBA. This high-stakes, real-world “social practice”—practical socialization that is iterative—entails constant negotiation, anxious mimicry, and flexibility.

DC: My father has memories of being one of the children waving flags in the streets of Hong Kong during Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. And hearing the accents of my ethnically Chinese cousins who’d been sent off to British boarding schools always jolted me, even though they were no more unlikely than my own American accent.

CKH: Hongkongers’ passports gave the right to travel as British subjects but denied the right of abode: partial citizenship. In this, Hongkongers, like Asian Americans, are in between. Yet stepping back from a Western lens is useful. Over 60 percent of the world resides in Asia, and the Chinese diaspora, one of the largest, dates back at least to 1842 in the West, when China conceded treaty ports to Britain, and to 1567 in Southeast Asia, when the Ming government authorized trade with what are now Malaysia and Indonesia. We are not, or not only, minorities in the US and Britain so much as a global and cacophonous majority. I believe that the ethnic, religious, linguistic, and geographic diversity of Asia can redefine “majority,” and engender ways of being with, in, and part of a majority distinct from whiteness, or proximity to it.

DC: There’s sometimes been the presumption that Hongkongers are less nationalistic than capitalistic; the de facto consulate in New York is the “Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office.” All that, while pro-democracy protests seem to prove that younger generations are politically driven, sometimes intensely so. How do you think capitalism relates to the identity of Hong Kong?

CKH: Just as the format of the nation-state begets a particular definition of belonging and of citizenship based on birth or naturalization, so too do other formats—for instance, of universal empires or, contemporarily, of economic coalitions like APEC or ASEAN—bring their own exigencies to “inside” and “outside.” Caught between hegemons, Hong Kong—neither a nation-state nor a colony, but as you noted, a “special administrative region” led by a chief executive—historically relied on global capitalism as a defense mechanism. Appropriately, the paradigmatic Hongkonger, especially from the generations between 1949 and 1997, is transnational and neoliberal, shuffling between continents and cultures and, depending on class and access, holding a foreign passport. For this subject, global capitalism—the flows of people, money, and ideas between, say, Vancouver and Hong Kong—provides a positive, and sometimes the sole, constant.

DC: At a time when progressives in America seem more united than ever in scrutinizing globalism and capitalism’s limitations, it feels almost jarring to consider global capitalism as a defining and protective aspect of Hong Kong identity. What do you think about that dissonance?

CKH: Can “global” be disjoined from “global capitalism” and become gentler? As a recent CrimethInc. article about the protests notes that “‘free market capitalism’ is taken by many to be a defining trait of the cultural identity of Hong Kong, distinguishing it from the ‘red’ capitalism managed by the Communist Party... . So, just as people are ardent for a government and institutions that we can properly call ‘our own’ ... they desire ... a capitalism free from corruption, political chicanery, and the like.” Capitalism in short reads differently in Hong Kong.

When the nineteenth-century British introduced free trade to Hong Kong, they tempered liberty of exchange with restrictions on (colonized) bodies. As Lisa Lowe remarks in “The Ruses of Liberty,” new government measures in the nascent crown colony included “improvised emergency powers, compulsory registration... and military and police regulations to suppress social unrest and riots.” Then, as now, the rule of law capped dissent.

From the start, the “free” part of “freedom” involved the unfettered circulation of goods rather than the free will of the populace, political self-determination, and individual sovereignty. Recourse to the former is necessary when discussing Hong Kong. The motto “Be water” guided protesters. Is it coincidental, if rarely noted, that water in Cantonese culture symbolizes money?


DC: However we feel about Hong Kong’s protesters, it struck me that they created a visual language around the “five demands” that was for the first time really specifically linked to Hong Kong and nowhere else. I’m thinking of the yellow umbrellas, the all-black protest outfits, the masked masses, and so forth. The iconography that evoked being in Hong Kong, before that, never quite felt locally sourced, whether it was colonial British architecture, or Gucci ads, or Hello Kitty slippers, or Chinese apothecaries, or imports from Shenzhen, and so forth. What’s your sense of this?

CKH: The tactics, and not just the demands, of protesters intrigue, as they give insight into forms of resistance, dissent, and empowerment that may inject some vivacity into parallel phenomena in the US, where political and activist art has only, with Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, slowly awakened from an enervated, ossified stupor.

Direct actions by diverse individuals absent a single, clear leader characterized protests until June 30. These ranged from lighting candles to withdrawing bank deposits, and from patronizing designated dining establishments to wearing black. On July 1, after the new national security law passed, replacing the withdrawn extradition bill, a young woman, unclear about what could be said, held up a blank sheet of paper. Ten days later, at a mall on Kwun Tong Road, around seventy people silently held blank paper in front of their faces. Police in full riot gear arrested eight.

DC: All that blank paper was something else.

CKH: That a readymade—A4 paper—became a primary symbol of suppressed speech in a city famed for bureaucratic panache is fitting and ironic. The woman who first held up a blank sheet later told Stand News that she had in mind a joke in which a Soviet officer arrests a person handing out blank fliers on Moscow’s Red Square. The officer proclaims, “You don’t think I know what you wanted to write?” For her, the blank sheet recalled “white terror” and referenced white papers by secretive governments.

Yet this A4 paper, this monochrome, might augur a Hong Kong that is less efficient than imaginative. In Western art, the monochrome equivocates between modernist abstraction and the plural, postminimal practices that followed. Spatially, it reads as an obdurate object and opens to infinite pictorial depth. And temporally, like a horizon line that retreats at the same pace as it is approached, the monochrome stands simultaneously for pure potential in the future and utter exhaustion in the present.

DC: Endless deferment also describes Hong Kong which has lived on borrowed time since Margaret Thatcher and Zhao Ziyang signed their 1984 agreement promising Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule.

CKH: I think of Thierry de Duve’s proposal, based on his own investigation of the monochrome, that ethical art should function in anticipation, that it should act as if society had already transformed, as if the city was already emancipated, as if the political order was generous and compassionate. In Hong Kong, the A4 sheet of paper says: “Even though you may be here to arrest me, to suppress what I have to say, to restrict my movement and undercut my suffrage, I give you back freedom of speech. I trust that you, like we, have the imagination and inclination to make good use of freedom.”


DC: Where does China’s strong stance leave art in Hong Kong, and elsewhere? How does Chinese nationalism compare to Trump’s nationalism?

CKH: In his 2011 book On China, Henry Kissinger reflects on brokering the historic 1972 meeting between Nixon and Mao: “American exceptionalism is missionary. It holds that the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world. China’s exceptionalism is cultural.” Kissinger wryly observes that the Song had the world’s most advanced navy, before disbanding it for lack of desire to accumulate overseas colonies. Instead, belief in Chinese cultural superiority was so resolute that other nations were viewed as tributaries, and other peoples graded by how well they incorporated that culture into their own.

The Hong Kong “problem” emerged because modern China is applying the Westphalian format of nation- states to it, rather than developing its own tradition of internally disheveled, barely tamed empire (帝国; diguo). In this, it mimes rather than provides an alternative to Trump’s embrace of homogeneity.....

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