Hong Kong’s Art Freedom Further Eroded as Multiple Performances Canceled

“You can cancel my participation. I’m okay with that, but you cannot cancel the entire performance because of one person’s remarks,” said deaf dancer Jason Wong
Hong Kong’s Art Freedom Further Eroded as Multiple Performances Canceled
Protesters walk next to a banner with the words "May Glory return to Hong Kong" in Hong Kong on Oct. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Hong Kong’s art freedom was further eroded as a stage production was canceled simply because the director once taught the sign language interpretation for a protest song.

Jason Wong, a deaf Hong Kong dancer and the founder of Hong Kong’s first deaf dance troupe, Fun Forest, announced on Feb. 15 that the stage production “Pulse of Unity,” for which he was serving as the choreographer and director, could not proceed as scheduled. The three performances initially planned for March 22-23 will be canceled.

According to screenshots shared on Fun Forest’s Instagram Story, the play was abruptly halted by its sponsor, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, due to the producer’s past involvement in teaching sign language interpretation for the song “Glory to Hong Kong.”
“Glory to Hong Kong” is a protest anthem that was widely sung during the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests. Due to its popularity, some call it “the national anthem” of Hong Kong, and the song has been used in several international competitions instead of the Chinese national anthem.

The Hong Kong authorities accuse the song of promoting subversion. In June 2023, the Hong Kong Department of Justice announced plans to ban the song. In July 2023, the High Court rejected the proposed ban on the song; In August 2023, the Department of Justice appealed the rejection.

The “Pulse of Unity” play, originally scheduled for next month, was organized by the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation. Currently, information about the event cannot be found on the foundation’s website.

Mr. Wong stated that this performance involved dancers with different abilities, including the deaf and those with hearing impairments. It was meant to be an inclusive performance, allowing individuals to challenge themselves and showcase their talents on stage.

He expressed his despair and frustration on social media.

“You can cancel my participation. I’m okay with that, but you cannot cancel the entire performance because of one person’s remarks,” he wrote in a social media post on Feb. 14.

“Receiving this bad news has left everyone feeling deeply regretful. Here, I sincerely apologize and express my heartfelt gratitude to all those who have supported and cherished us,” he wrote in another post on Feb. 15.

The Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation replied to media inquiry that the cancelation was due to “changes in production arrangements.”

Mr. Wong founded the Fun Forest deaf dance troupe in 2010. He once received funding from the inaugural “Artists with Disability Development Fund” and went to New York to study dance techniques. Upon returning to Hong Kong, he dedicated himself to promoting silent dance to the community, allowing deaf and hearing individuals to experience the joy of dance together.

During the anti-extradition bill protests, he provided sign language interpretation at the Citizens’ Press Conference, hoping to provide information about the movement to the deaf community, earning him the nickname “sign language brother.” At the time, he did not wear a mask, explaining that covering his face would hinder the understanding of the deaf and saying that he was mentally prepared for potential consequences in the future.

Arts Industry Hit Hard by Authorities

This comes at a time when the Hong Kong authorities are closely scrutinizing the arts industry.
On Jan. 17, the Hong Kong Federation of Drama Societies announced that they had received a letter from the Arts Development Council, the city’s arts funding body, alleging that the 31st Hong Kong Drama Awards presentation ceremony hosted by the Federation in June 2023 damaged the Council’s reputation. As a result, the Council pulled the last installment of HK$441,700 ($56,460) funding to the federation.

The council held that there was a “new theme” for the ceremony. Instead of inviting industry veterans, the federation invited journalist Bao Choy Yuk-ling and political cartoonist Wong Kei-kwan, who goes by the pen name Zunzi, to be the award presenters. The two hosts included puns about “red bridges” and “red lines” in their scripts, which “implied a hidden meaning.” These tactics were alleged to “attract public and media attention” and “create social discourse.”

In response, Luther Fung Luk-Tak, the president of the Federation, said the federation would continue to organize the Drama Awards presentation ceremony, the most prestigious theatrical awards event in Hong Kong.

“It doesn’t matter. We won’t beg,” he said.

Plays Canceled, Theatre Troupe Disbanded

In addition, the Hong Kong Arts Festival announced on Jan. 8 that due to unforeseen reasons, adjustments needed to be made to the production of the play “Crime and Punishment,” which postponed the performance until 2025.

The announcement triggered public speculation about whether it was due to the play reflecting social situations that inadvertently crossed the red line.

“Crime and Punishment” is adapted from the world-famous masterpiece by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky and adapted by the award-winning British playwright Philip Breen. The Hong Kong version of “Crime and Punishment” tells the story of a truant student who faces moral guilt after committing murder, encounters a kind-hearted prostitute who suffers from oppression, and is relentlessly pursued by a prosecutor, resulting in a profound and thought-provoking battle between good and evil.

Similarly, the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts halted a graduation stage play adapted and directed by students based on the famous Italian play “Accidental Death of an Anarchist.” On Feb. 6, the Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism, Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, said he respected the school’s internal decision.

The Academy issued a notice on its website stating that the performance, originally scheduled to run from Feb. 17 to March 2, could not proceed as planned due to changes in the school’s production arrangements, but the cancelation reason was not given.

“Accidental Death of an Anarchist{ depicts the 1969 bombing incident in Milan, which resulted in 17 deaths and 88 injuries. After the incident, the Italian police arrested dozens of extreme left-wing individuals for investigation, including railway worker Giuseppe Pinelli, who died after falling from a police station window following three days of questioning. It was widely believed that Pinelli was thrown out of the window by the police officers, and the officers responsible for interrogating Pinelli were subsequently acquitted.

The play has been performed worldwide, including in Beijing in 1998, Shenzhen in 2010 and 2023.

Members of the production team shared their anger and despair on social media.

“The possibility of a ban had already spread throughout the academy, but when the news entered our ears, at the most shocking moment, people could truly become empty. The efforts and hard work of nearly five months were in vain because of one decision . . . Throughout the entire process, we kept asking ourselves, ‘What did we do wrong?’”

A protester holds his hand against his chest as he sings the Glory to Hong Kong protest "anthem" during a demonstration in Times Square shopping mall in Hong Kong on Sept. 12, 2019. (Carl Court/Getty Images)
A protester holds his hand against his chest as he sings the Glory to Hong Kong protest "anthem" during a demonstration in Times Square shopping mall in Hong Kong on Sept. 12, 2019. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Somewhat similar to the experience of Mr. Wong, the theater group Fire Makes Us Human was formally suspended on Feb. 6 after its lease with the HKICC Lee Shau Kee School Of Creativity was terminated, requested by the Education Bureau, citing that a member of the group was reported for making inappropriate remarks in 2019.

“After pondering for about 120 hours, I still can’t believe it. Everything has already ended. I don’t know what the future holds, but this dreamland filled with ideals is worth recording, commemorating the brief and brilliant fireworks,” Alex Tong, the founder and leader of the group, wrote in a Facebook post announcing the suspension.