Reviews / December 2015 (Issue 30)

The Invisible Citizens of Hong Kong

by Austin Long


Sophia Suk-Mun Law, The Invisible Citizens of Hong Kong: Art and Stories of Vietnamese Boatpeople, The Chinese University Press, 2014. 256 pgs.


The refugee must be resilient. Sophia Suk-Mun Law makes this painfully and personally clear in her book, The Invisible Citizens of Hong Kong: Art and Stories of Vietnamese Boatpeople. But simply calling this a collection of art and stories belies the intensity that Law has put into creating a comprehensive historical and academic anthology of the Vietnamese in the city. Although upon arrival these Vietnamese boatpeople had already survived tempest-tossed seas, what kind of existence awaited them upon Hong Kong shores? And in what ways did this newfound safety translate into a loss of agency?

The first half of the book is Law's commitment to presenting a full and substantial contextual backdrop of Vietnamese refugee history and policy, and she demonstrates an impressive ability to delicately balance the extensive narrative of the Vietnamese boatpeople in Hong Kong. Law begins with the unbearable agony of enduring existence in the city's camps. She shows that after arriving in Hong Kong the refugees were not temporarily housed before resettlement, but were instead interned, incarcerated, institutionalised and rendered invisible. The tale is long and heartbreaking (in ways that Law continuously brings to life—almost too vividly), yet she tells it without bias against the boatpeople or exonerating the Hong Kong/British government. Her analysis is incredibly nuanced, intricately weaving threads of newspaper accounts of refugee life with hard statistics of the financial and economic burdens imposed by the massive influx of refugees, creating a tapestry that wraps the reader in this agonisingly irreconcilable dilemma. In fact, she makes both relatable, showing the wretched difficulty of the personal and political of refugee resettlement. In a history marked by such prolonged sadness and suffering—both before and after arrival at Hong Kong—this is no small feat.

If anything, Law makes clear the increasing distaste and apathy that local citizens had towards the Vietnamese boatpeople, almost indicting the Hong Kong public as complicit in the dehumanisation of the refugees through rising inaction. Through a continual lack of engagement with the direct issue of refugee rights, the public were involved in the deprivation of human rights (even if unintentionally). Furthermore, by only consuming the most outrageous of media manipulations and allowing the government totalitarian control of both information and people, the public also helped perpetuate the further degradation of an already destitute and broken Vietnamese. It was this lack of public accountability that ultimately allowed the machinations of bureaucracy to rob the Vietnamese refugees of so much of their agency for so long.

But it is in the latter half of the book where Law shines in her presentation of not only the art of, but the tragedies of Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong. Through the three-year program Art in the Camps (AIC), incarcerated boatpeople were able to express themselves through their artwork. Law draws upon this art to vividly demonstrate the manifestations of destruction experienced by the camps' residents. If the first half of the book draws fire in the reader, the next half draws pained blood. With so much taken from them—land, belongings, family, agency, identity—it is difficult not to let pity overcome respect. But at the end, Law restores and humanises the boatpeople. She returns personal control to them, even if it is only a shallow control of a paper canvas.

Although the book purportedly is on the "Art and Stories of Vietnamese Boatpeople," of the arts, her focus is almost entirely on the visual arts, specifically painting and drawing. This is not a bad thing. She goes through painstaking lengths to detail just how these visual arts act as valves for the release of suffocating and accumulated suffering in ways which written works cannot. Language, she argues, fails the refugee narrative, as its defining mark is pain, a pain which mars memory and scars experience. With such deep and gouging wounds, both mental and physical, words will inevitably fail, as "when repressed emotions are retrieved and controlled, the victim often finds it difficult to translate his or her feelings into words." After all, such memories are psychic in nature, not lingual. Pain, she tells us, is remembered in vivid visuals—and thus it must be in a visual medium that this pain is addressed.

At times, Law's analysis of the pieces can seem reaching. She compares pieces by refugees to Picasso and past art movements, in ways which are not always entirely convincing. But this is overshadowed by the depth in which she delves into the works. She describes them in detail almost greater than that of the paintings themselves, deconstructing each work piece by piece, colour by colour, stroke by stroke until she rebuilds it again into something greater than the sum of its parts, reinserting the pained narrative and damaged soul of the piece again. "Both paintings are filled with colours, but the tones are nothing like the wild and fierce kind normally seen in Fauvism," she details. "Instead the colours are soft and tender, orchestrated coherently like a harmonious melody. The pastel-feel of purple, blue, pink yellow and green in [Look at the Communist, Don't Screen Us More] evokes a dream-like vision; the pale brown, blue, yellow and green in [Mama, I Live in Shatin] induce a melancholic but poetic feel … the harmonious use of colours in these two paintings minimises the sense of distress or restlessness." She ties these breakdowns of each piece together with spongy, thick contextual background, dripping with historical and biographical details, making it implicitly obvious that these works are a far cry from Oscar Wilde's "art for art's sake." Instead, this is art for personal survival and painful resistance. Law shows that this art exists both as a product of and a release from continual and prolonged trauma. She not only shows but recrystallises each painting as not a piece of art but a piece of resilience—these are not refugees but survivors.

Ultimately, Law's refined analysis and contextualisation is just as much art as the paintings themselves, an art which adds background and layered context to the suffering which brought them about. Law's greatest skill is that the book is not a product of only her research but a thorough synthesis of narrative and academic context. She provides scores of academic references to give context to just how the boatpeople were able to use art as a vehicle for freedom when there was little else. Both the historical and artistic is supported by almost overwhelming explication and robust explanation. She draws from a myriad of fields to understand the intertwining of political strife and self-expression. The book is equal parts artistic theory as trauma therapy, historical narration as political deconstruction, narrative concretion as psychological analysis. Along with all of this, Law makes this politically personal. She has written this book not only to explicate the suffering of Vietnamese refugees and boatpeople, but to humanise and restore dignity to citizens rendered "invisible" by oppressive bureaucracy and public aversion. These are people, she tells us, and they should be heard.

Invisible Citizens is in no way a happy book. Its narratives are haunting—these refugees were broken and kept broken by a failed reintegration and resettlement program. The outlets of pain through visual art which Law so thoroughly analyses provides a graphically personal and viscerally upsetting insight into the lives of the Vietnamese boatpeople. She makes this book personal, almost too personal, in a way that none of us ever wish to experience.

However, it is a necessary book. As Law herself says, "[a]ll that most Hong Kong people remember about the Vietnamese boatpeople are the protests, riots and weapon searches that were widely broadcast on television and in news headlines. Voices from inside the camps were rarely heard and attended to … very few people in Hong Kong have a clear idea of this page of history." Justice cannot be done for the Vietnamese boatpeople, it is too late for that. The legacies of damage and pain have already been carved in too deep. But Law allows us at least a chance to learn from history. She gives the invisible a voice, a voice that she makes loud and clear.




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