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COVID-19 19: Stanley Wong

Hong Kong did really lose a lot of lives, and even for those who were able to survive, they would also have to deal with the terrible aftermaths of the disease.

– STANLEY WONG

Interview and Illustration by Tara Tang 

Right in the middle of the third coronavirus wave, most of us were either mindlessly commuting to and from work or stuck at home. For artist Stanley Wong, also known as Anothermountainman/又一山人 it was the last few weeks of his retrospective exhibition TIME WILL TELL at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. Retrospectives always seem so bittersweet, as the viewer and the artist both realize the journey they have been on all these years. And Stanley had a lot to look back on, from his iconic Red White Blue series to works with close collaborators such as Yohji Yamamoto.

I had the chance to host my first online interview with Stanley through the internet, as we chatted about the process leading up to his retrospective, as well as the complications that arose during the exhibition. The COVID-19 19 interview series aims to collate the perspectives of professionals in Hong Kong from all walks of life, to memorialise the experiences of people during these trying times. Everyone in Hong Kong has their own memories of SARS and now COVID-19, and this is Stanley Wong’s.

T: What was your experience and understanding of SARS in 2003? 

S: Thinking back, 2003 was scary because it felt like it was a Hong Kong problem. The fear was incomparable because it just seemed like Hong Kong was the only place experiencing the worst of SARS. It was also terrifying because we did not know what to really do. If you were infected, you had a high chance of losing your life. The infection to death ratio was extremely high. Whereas this time the uncertainty is shared across the world. Perhaps the word shared seems insensitive but this time round, it is not the same kind of helplessness that was felt in Hong Kong during SARS.

T: Do you have any specific memories during SARS? 

S: I still went to work. No one really stopped working. Of course we would all wear masks and people were all a bit scared but the city never really stopped. I still went outside and went to work. The duration of the epidemic did not seem that long – maybe a few months. To me, the collective memory of SARS did not even last for a whole year for the general public. For the patients and medical staff, they will definitely have a different memory especially with the long recovery periods and hours spent in the hospitals. But for those who did not contract SARS, it passed by super quickly. But even for those who were never directly diagnosed with the disease, the epidemic still greatly affected them. Hong Kong did really lose a lot of lives, and even for those who were able to survive, they would also have to deal with the terrible aftermaths of the disease. One thing I remember was Hong Kong’s flexibility. Everyone had to wear a mask, so hawkers started selling masks with all sorts of cute cartoon prints on them, like Hello Kitty and Ultraman. They weren’t designers, just merely people who knew what other people wanted to buy at the time. This was something that I spotted back in the day. It wasn’t something that big corporations cared to make the time, so you could really see the adaptable nature of the average Hong Konger who was selling these masks. 

There was a lot that happened in the past year, but everything revolved around this exhibition.

STANLEY WONG

T: How has it changed this time round in 2020? Do you remember what it was like in the earlier months of the year? 

S: From last year’s November to this July, my life has been pretty much devoted to preparing my ‘retrospective’ show at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. For the whole year, I was taking care of one project – to make sure that the exhibition was going smoothly. My work and private life became secondary, because this show was so important to me. Nothing else could make me sidetracked because my exhibition would either stay open or shut down. So I feel like my response to this question, is not a very common answer. When my exhibition shut down, people from abroad could not visit. And when the museum reopened the ‘retrospective’, they was concerned over an increase of infected cases. There was a lot that happened in the past year, but everything revolved around this exhibition. During my guided tours, we also discussed with visitors about the implications and response to COVID-19. 

A Week A Poster (2018-2019)
Image from: Campaign Brief Asia

In my exhibition, near the entrance is one of my artworks A Week A Poster (2018 – 2019). That poster series in itself was a reflection of my work in the past 40 years. So each week whenever I worked on the poster series, I would recall all the collaboration efforts I encountered in the past or even just something small that I noticed on the street. When I completed the series, it was extremely freeing. You know how people say when one is about to die, you get flashbacks of your entire life? When I was creating this poster, that’s exactly how I felt. It almost felt like after I made this piece, I could start again entirely new. From execution to up to the exhibition opening, this 40 years of work in my exhibition has taken over three years. I had this feeling that after this show, everything is recapped and done. I can finally move on. It was a feeling of rebirth. It feels as if everyone is also going through something similar. For the past year, the whole world has slowed down. Perhaps some people are reconsidering the way they have been living, thinking “Is city life right for me?” “Have I been working too much?”. There is a quote I have been thinking about, “The world needs to be reset”. Now is the time for us to re-evaluate the way we have been living. Now that I think about it, reset and rebirth are basically the same. And honestly you can reset your life at any point in time. But I just think it is a beautiful coincidence that my rebirth was also at the same time as the world’s.

And even if we pass the third infection wave, that just means that there will be a fourth or even fifth wave. 

STANLEY WONG

T: Now that we have reached the third wave of coronavirus cases, what are your thoughts on the pandemic right now? 

S: It is extremely heartbreaking. We thought that we were good at managing the situation in Hong Kong. But now it seems like we are not under control. Of course there are many factors to why the third wave happened – border customs procedures, the lifestyle of Hong Kongers and others. The majority have been quite diligent with precautions but there is a minority who underestimate the severity of the situation or believe that the current policies set in place are ineffective. I believe that there is a sense of frustration from the general public. And even if we pass the third infection wave, that just means that there will be a fourth or even fifth wave. 

T: What do you think is the main difference between SARS and coronavirus this year? 

S: SARS felt like an exclusively Hong Kong situation, whereas COVID-19 is at a much larger scale. It is especially terrifying this time round, because there are a lot of countries that are unable to get it under control. I think not a lot of countries were prepared for it, nor were they able to predict the repercussions of the pandemic afterwards. Since this pandemic has not officially ended, there is no proper way to really compare it with SARS. I don’t think there is anyone in the world that was able to fully imagine and prepare for the intensity of COVID-19. 

With all these mountain analogies, we often forget that in order to climb on another mountaintop, you need to be able to get down from the top of the mountain.

STANLEY WONG

T: After your retrospective, you stated that you are now rethinking new projects that you would like to pursuit. How has it inspired new directions or goals for your work?

S: For the next stage of my work, I want to focus on technology. Specifically, the ways in which it has damaged human relationships. The way social media and the internet advances at such a quick pace, it will really test the need for real life interactions. For the past ten years, many of my works looked at the relationship between technology and time. And now I think is the right time for me to start exploring the negative sides of technology through my work. As for my current state of mind, a lot of people excitedly ask me, “So what’s the next big thing you’re creating?”. And I guess also because of my name 山人 (Mountain Man), it almost seems like I have to conquer one mountain after another. With all these mountain analogies, we often forget that in order to climb on another mountaintop, you need to be able to get down from the top of the mountain. So I think right this moment, is a good time for me to be taking a nice hike down that hill. It is nice to take things slowly and to be able to connect with reality. Out of the many negative situations to come out of this pandemic, I think if there is at least one positive some people were able to take a step back and reset their lives. 

T: How has your personal circle been coping with the pandemic? 

S: For Hong Kong, we have been dealing with coronavirus relatively well. And for many other countries, they have chosen just to live with it. As a result, many people are suffering – from the restaurant industries to your ordinary office worker. Of course there is no way to assess each individual’s material and mental burden because of the pandemic. But I can see that each Hong Konger is managing with this in their own way. We have all come together in one way or another to combat the spread. Unlike other countries who are still arguing over the effectiveness of masks.  At least most Hong Konger’s have the same mindset, everyone has been very cordial and cooperative. So my friends and family have been all okay. The worldwide damage that we have seen already, there is no way of predicting what will happen if this continues. And if people can survive a pandemic for that long. 

T: Do you think there are generational differences to how people react to the pandemic?

S: Definitely! During the second wave, many young students flew back to Hong Kong from other foreign countries. This influx of students returning caused an increase of coronavirus cases, even if they weren’t all young people. So when all these students from abroad came back, the precautions of the local population were heightened. And for the elderly in Hong Kong, their daily routine was disrupted as well. Because of the pandemic, many of the restaurants that they would frequent would have gathering limits and new health precautions set in place. I think it is more difficult for them to adapt to this situation, than my generation’s daily routine. 

T: How can Hong Kong people as a community learn from this situation?

S: Hong Kong is a city with a lot of experience, we were one of the few cities that had to deal with the SARS epidemic. So for these few months, other than disagreements on government pandemic policies, people have been pretty cordial about it. All I really have to say about how the community can learn is just through seeing how the people are reacting to the government. This way of learning may not be easy to say the least. 

T: The nature of the face mask has become increasingly politicised, what is your opinion on Hong Kong’s culture of wearing masks? 

S: All this practice of mask wearing is because of what Hong Kong experienced in 2003. The masks we used during SARS was even more heavy duty, because the fatality rate of the virus was so high. So with that experience in mind, we all started wearing masks – it was a common understanding amongst the city. Another hiccup we experienced during the start of pandemic was the lack of masks. Most Hong Kongers are fine with wearing face masks on a daily basis, unlike the United States or United Kingdom. But I also think it’s important to talk about cultural differences. It is hard to say whether other people not wanting to wear masks is right or wrong. The nature of their daily lives is vastly different, so they are not used to everyone wearing masks. But in an urgent situation like this, it is the government’s responsibility to inform and protect its citizens. For me to put in context of the societal differences in Hong Kong, back in the day dog meat consumption was still legal. Nowadays, dog meat consumption is illegal and most Hong Kong people would not be able to even think about wanting to eat dog meat. But if I were to compare this practice with a rural village in China, they might eat cat meat and not think much about it. You cannot flat out say what they are doing is wrong and immoral. This debate is all about readjusting our perception. The conversation we are having about wearing face masks is pretty much the same argument. 

T: Do you think the stakes change when this pandemic is about life or death? 

S: I think that many people in the West were quick to give their opinion on face masks. Rather than the pre-conceived perception of face masks from the public, I think what is the most important is that medical experts and the governments come out with a unified set of precautions and policies. So that this indicates and suggests to the public that this is something to take seriously. Another lesson that has come out from COVID-19, is that we all need to find a consensus. This pandemic has been about survival, as simple as that.

To find out more about Stanley Wong and his artwork throughout the years please click here.

His exhibition ” 40 Years of Work” can be visited digitally through a 3D tour here.

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