Everyone has a story worth telling (Part 3/3)

A conversation in three parts with Professor Petula Sik Ying Ho, Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong. Next to being an educator, Ho is an author, researcher and videographer specialised in gender and sexuality qualitative research and cross-cultural comparative studies. The interview was broadly based on Ho’s lecture for TC participants titled “Alternative Knowledge Processes for Transcultural Collaboration”. 

Among numerous other activities, you also organised a project for female social activists making use of performance. The result was the display or, to some extent, reenactment of „the most empowered and injured moments in ten women’s public life“. What was your intention behind this project? For me, performative practice is yet another way of reaching out to a different audience. I believe that performance-based work is an important tool to disseminate research findings. It is a way of educating people and sharing the stories of Hong Kong women. The very first theatre performance I ever produced—titled Sex, Love and Hope: Ho Style and using much of the story material from 22 Springs—was a memorable experience and gave me the determination to make more use of performance in my work.

Why? To have a stage is important. Certainly, the camera itself already produces that stage when I video tape my interviews. But I see great value in the „real stage“, the theatre. The lighting, the live presence and the audience—the stage of a theatre creates a very different experience compared to video taping at someone’s home. Moreover, live performance has a considerable impact on the performers themselves. The female activists we worked with for the project Labouring Women Devised Theatre had a lot of stories to share but were never given the opportunity to do it in public. This is why we told ourselves: why not do a performance? In collaboration with two young directors from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, the women told their story around becoming a public person in the course of the democracy movement (and around the social backlash that followed in many cases). We taped and transcribed the stories and this formed the base for our script. Besides, we also did several exercises to train our listening skills. The whole thing took place at HKU’s theatre and was rather small in scale. Still, it allowed these young female activists to share their stories in front of friends and family. Strangely enough though, some of their friends and boyfriends didn’t show up. Some felt that the theatre didn’t have anything to do with the democratic movement per se. That it was a women thing to complain and whine about those experiences. But the aim had actually been to enable the male leaders of the social movement to become more democratic themselves. For them to listen to other people’s voice, to be more self-reflective, to evaluate the consequences of their actions on others and to be more gender sensitive. Some turn out to be quite resistant to changing their views though. 

The female activists had been exposed to social condemnation online… But their male activist counterparts weren’t very sympathetic of this. They would just suggest to ignore them, to not make a big fuss of it and even not to make use of their beauty. In other words, in some cases they too were blaming the women and made it difficult for them to express their views. The female activists are often made to feel that they are not brave or clever enough to counter the attacks. „If I am more tough or more feminist, maybe I could fight back, maybe I wouldn’t have to suffer or have suicidal thoughts… It’s all my fault.“ I try to assure them that they are not alone, that we are in this together, and that we will help their friends and partners to better understand their experiences.

Here too, you wanted to „validate the suffering“? Yes. Although some of the women are sensitive about sharing their experiences in Hong Kong because they are afraid that this will have an impact on their boyfriends’ opinion of them. Some of their partners are movement leaders and they, the women, want to be low-key. This kind of dynamic is hindering them from becoming more engaged in practical politics even though many of them are promising candidates for district board council, legislative council, and the like. I’m afraid none of them want to be in the spotlight anymore. If that is really the case, it indicates a dire situation for Hong Kong because it implies that future politicians will mostly be male. The female politicians are very few—especially in the younger generation. And the ones that are there are often from the pro-establishment side because those parties may have more resources to promote and, maybe, protect these women. The democracy side, however, is less resourceful and the male leaders are given the priority. It’s difficult.

Did you feel like the performance helped the performers and had some sort of cathartic effect on them? I think so. Especially the collaborative writing, sharing and reciting of the stories in advance. One of the women had felt guilty that she was some kind of escapist. But after the 100-day prison experience, she chose another way to express herself while still being part of the democracy movement. Our creative work, our performance, helped her feel that she is still contributing and is only using different means to draw attention to and raise social consciousness around the issue. So I think the theatre stage is a valuable platform. Besides, the female activists have become quite familiar with the concepts of everyday politics and everyday resistance. So, when one of them was invited to give a talk on the future of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, she would keep saying that she cannot talk about the future but about how she carries on her everyday life as a way of resistance. We may only be a small group, but our creative output is shown to a wider audience and highlighting the movement’s impact. That way, we also show the presence and importance of these female stories. They are not invisible, not secondary, not silent. We have a voice and we will keep that voice strong through different creative means.

What do you perceive to be the impact of this creative activism? We have what we call “connective impact”. Our impact happens on the level of the relationships we’ve built and keep on building. Moreover, we are inquiring into participatory impact—also as researchers. Personal growth and change are an important part of the process. Where other areas of research might study impact in terms of numbers, statistics and policy improvements, we are broadening the concept and focus on alternative impact. Of course, it’s difficult to state the impact of creative work. But whoever participates in artistic projects or research projects involving artistic elements, knows that it changes oneself and if we change ourselves, well, then the world will too.

Could you expand a bit on the term “connective impact”? It’s all about relationships and the way people interact. We’re changing the way we relate to each other. Of course we want to have policy reforms and genuine universal suffrage. But these measures aren’t possible without people changing their views and mentalities, changing the way they look at life. So, one could say, what is needed is a certain spiritual rejuvenation or renewal. Both artistic and academic work are about changing one’s way of thinking and feeling—one’s spirit, if you will. I hope to be able to integrate and strengthen this dimension in the democracy movement’s future. There’s a good side to having a marginal position in the movement. The movement leaders know that we are there, that there is this academic and artistic trajectory alongside what they are doing, facing them and waving at them. I think that makes the movement more varied and, in effect, more human. In any case, it is too early to conclude anything. People say they feel helpless but I think it’s too early for that. For all that we have invested in the movement: it is still very little.