HONG KONG — Unlike the Berlin Wall, which began with the division of post-World War II spoils, or the Israeli West Bank barrier, which divides parts of Israel and Palestine, the Shenzhen/Hong Kong fence, or “Frontier Closed Area,” has as much security power as wet tissue paper. It’s extremely permeable, with gaping chain link fence holes and apathetic, inattentive border guards. And it is, by and large, off most people’s radar. This situation of consciously lapsed border crossing defenses is due to a 2012 Hong Kong government directive mandating the gradual reduction of the boundaries between the two Chinas.
Samson Young, an experimental musician and performer, set out to explore Hong Kong identity politics by recording the subtle vibration of the wire fences and adjacent Shenzhen River along that border using simple contact microphones and hydrophones. He then mixed the recordings into sound compositions and transcribed those sounds into graphical musical notations. This forms the basis of this current exhibition, a culmination of a two-year inquiry into Hong Kong’s “Liquid Borders.”
Inside the exhibition, I donned a headset with a portable playback device. The sounds I heard felt like wisps of colliding planets in the stratosphere. When the wind was involved it sounded like approaching trains. I realized I was, in effect, listening to an interpretation of the sound of cracks in ideology, both Hong Kong’s and the Mainland’s. A visual equivalent would be watching the nanoseconds tick by, logged by an electronic geospatial clock.
Young describes his reaction to the shifting landscape in Hong Kong as “confused and angry” and “feels a sense of urgency in trying to leave a trace” of the border as it gradually and imperceptibly fades into a massive, apathetic appropriation. This raises the question about the boundaries of ideological and political appropriation. Mainland China’s encroachment into Hong Kong is fulminating; someone is machete-whacking its investigative journalists, the cost of housing is skyrocketing, and special economic zones are sprouting like weeds.
Most Westerners are not that aware that Hong Kong has its own language (Cantonese, with complex Chinese script), traditions, and customs. It has uncensored internet, and a robust and thriving culture of political dissent. The mainland is slowly injecting a change of standardized language (Mandarin and simplified Chinese script), and buses in its cohorts to stage counter-demonstrations against vital issues such as ‘one person, one vote.’ This is a critically important point, as Hong Kong is set to elect a chief executive in 2017 in a process that is continually being hobbled by the mainland. For instance the public and various political parties are not allowed to submit candidates names, only the party bosses in Beijing are privy to the nomination process. That would be akin to Washington, D.C. submitting names for the mayoral race of New York City, with no input from the local population.
Young’s gesture to sonically archive the remnants of the border before it dissolves will be remembered as a mysterious yet important moment as China draws more of its outlying territorial satellites into the orbit of its mothership.
Liquid Borders runs at am space (Flat 1C, Kingearn Building, 24-26 Aberdeen Street, Hong Kong) through May 8.