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Squatting for your rights in Hong Kong
Korean and Japanese artists want us to occupy abandoned spaces as artistic and political expression
Two Korean artists want Hong Kong people to take up squatting as an artistic and political activity. That’s squatting as in occupying an abandoned space, not doing exercises to strengthen your butt.
Hong Kong community arts group Woofer Ten hosted Korean husband-and-wife artist-activists Kim Youn Hoan and Kim Kang in July. While in Hong Kong, the Kims explored the potential for squatting in our city's vacant spaces.
Squatting gives artists, activists, as well as vagrants, a chance to reappropriate unused space. That's a nice way of saying "illegally occupying" someone else's property.
For anyone seeking an alternative lifestyle, squatting is a way to create a home on the fat of Hong Kong's real estate hegemony. For artists, squatting offers an opportunity to work free from regulation and propriety.
Some European countries have granted legal protection to squatting communities, but in Hong Kong, squatting remains illegal.
Hong Kong has a rich history of squatter settlements, but the use of squatting for artistic or political aims remains relatively new.
“Hong Kong has a big problem with housing and the artists don’t have enough space, but every metropolitan area has this kind of problem,” says Kim Kang. “The most important thing for squatting is to make a new lifestyle and make a new art style in our space.”
This August, Woofer Ten is hosting another well-known artist-squatter -- Japanese artist Misako Ichimura, known for her work with the homeless community in Tokyo.
After living in a squat in Amsterdam, Ichimura returned to Japan in 2003 and has been living as a homeless artist in a park. She participated in the anti-Nike movement in 2010 when the sportswear giant wanted to fund the redevelopment of Miyashita Park. See details of her visit here.
Also on CNNGo: How the homeless are fighting Nike in Shibuya's Miyashita Park.
Rich squatting history
Kim Kang first joined squatting activities in Paris while studying and has been researching squatting for the last decade. In 2004, she and her husband occupied the Korean Artist Center along with 20 artists and members of the media as a squatting project while several hundred artists held an arts festival outside the center. The squat lasted for 14 hours and afterwards Kim and two other participants had to pay a fine of about HK$3,000.
Woofer Ten’s founder and director, Fung Lee-chun, says he was impressed by the Kim's squatting project at the Korean Artist Center, which was vacant at the time of the project. He saw similarities between the Korean facility and Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, which has endured years of stagnation and planning revisions.
Squatting wasn’t so uncommon in Hong Kong during the 20th century. A massive influx of mainland immigrants fleeing civil war and chaos in China meant Hong Kong lacked adequate housing, so large squatter villages grew in various districts.
Disastrous fires ravaged a Shek Kip Mei squatter village in 1953, leaving 53,000 people homeless, and prompted the development of low-income housing estates. As the public housing program developed, rooftop squatter villages remained common atop factory buildings.
Fung grew up on such a rooftop in Kwun Tong.
“In the 1990s, the government wanted to remove rooftop housing and at that time there were strong protests -- there were residents who thought there is still value to rooftop villages,” he says.
The Kims held workshops on squatting during their visit to Hong Kong. Their research is well-planned and workshop participants gather around maps and a laptop to compile possible squatting locations.
One of the potential sites was a rooftop shantytown in Kwun Tong. Other sites included a vacant mansion inaccessible behind a locked fence, and a rural village in Ma Shi Po where local community organizers hoped artist squatters might occupy land to prevent real estate development.
At the former Oil Street Artist Community in North Point, some of the workshop participants climbed over the locked gates to explore. The Community closed in 1999 after just one year of operation and the artists relocated to the current site on Ma Tau Kok Road. The Oil Street site has been vacant ever since.
Security guards eventually discovered the workshop participant-trespassers and asked them to leave.
Tse Chun Sing, a local sound artist, said he would like to participate in a squatting event, if someone organized it.
“I record local sounds and do some mixing to create my artwork," says Tse. "I’m interested in the significance of sounds and the space where I do the recording. Squatting would sound interesting.”
Also on CNNGo: Waste of space? Hong Kong's best and worst public art.
Misako Ichimura Artist Talk, August 13, 3 - 6 p.m. at Woofer Ten, 404 Shanghai St., Yau Ma Tei. The talk will be conducted in Japanese, with Cantonese Translation. A opening party for Ichimura's exhibition will be held after the talk at 6 p.m. Feel free to bring your own food and instruments.
Misako Ichimura Exhibition, August 21 - September 11 (closed Mondays), 1 p.m.-8 p.m. at Woofer Ten.