Why you should care
The intense, striking designer uses fashion to level brave — and risky — critiques at the Chinese government.
Monday was Judgment Day in Hong Kong, with protesters and Chinese officials playing a potentially bloody game of chicken over a deadline to clear out. And there she was, smack in the middle of all of it, a very talented — and very brave — designer trying to make her own statement.
Her mode of protest? A simple T-shirt. With some very charged words: “Democracy Is Nowhere.”
Though not quite a household name yet, Amy Cheung has become a sensation of sorts on the conceptual art scene. In recent years, she’s turned to a more mundane — and more dangerous — form of art and dissent: fashion. Clothes from her Handkerchief collection are sold online and have been shown around the world. Cheung will show this month in New York — if she manages to avoid the glaring eyes of Chinese authorities.
There is no such thing as democratic voting if China preselects candidates.
— Amy Cheung
Cheung’s approach to fashion channels the mood on the Hong Kong streets. Her work can be seen by the Chinese authorities as a subversive weapon, a crime against the state, even a cause for imprisonment. All of which make sales in China difficult. “Asian retailers have been very interested,” she says. “But under this present political climate, everyone is a bit nervous.”
For now, the standoff has found a peaceful hiatus, with protesters dismantling barricades and obeying official demands to clear parts of the city. Tiananmen II averted; negotiations between the protest leaders and the Chinese government are scheduled to start Sunday. But resolution may be difficult. At the peak of the protests, which started Sept. 24, as many as 200,000 people filled the streets, demonstrating against the Chinese premier’s decision that candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive be vetted by a committee. “There is no such thing as democratic voting if China preselects candidates,” Cheung says. “But in China’s eyes, they have given Hong Kong one person, one vote. So both sides have a very different standpoint on what democracy is and what freedom means.”
Cheung watched the protests from her shop in the heart of downtown Hong Kong: Days upon days of students and protesters facing off tear-gas volleys from China’s militia police. Protesters would collect their rubbish and recycling every day, too. “I’m in awe of them,” says Cheung. “This generation is standing up to police violence with only a sense of unity and the power of their words. They do this without fear, but I dread what is to come. China will not forgive nor forget and will never back down. So I don’t know how it will end.”
I met Cheung last year in downtown Hong Kong, at the opening of a conceptual art piece called “Down the Rabbit Hole, Taxi” Says Alice, a Wonderland-warped installation of a car on Hong Kong’s streets. With her striking, waist-length hair and nearly supermodel looks, the 30-something stopped traffic in its tracks, and her installation drew crowds of bemused shoppers. I couldn’t forget her. Most who meet her remember her quiet intensity.
Cheung grew up in a more democratic Hong Kong — she was in her early 20s when control was transferred from Britain to China in 1997. Following in the footsteps enfant terrible Damien Hirst, Cheung studied visual arts at Goldsmith College in London. She returned to Hong Kong in 2003, and a few years later, she and her husband, video artist Erkka Nissinen, formed Handkerchief, their art collective. They turned to fashion in the spring/summer 2011.
DEMOCRACY IS NOWHERE can also be read as DEMOCRACY IS NOW HERE.
Handkerchief’s first collection, she says, “attempted to explore themes of the collapse of the financial banking system, workers and capitalists.” It reused factory waste to make layered dresses and jackets — “adding value to something valueless.” A leading department store in Hong Kong, Lane Crawford, picked it up and, since then, Handkerchief has shown at a variety of exhibitions around the world, mostly artists’ spaces, though the clothes are available online. Its spring/summer 2015 collection, “Boundaries Are of Equal Length,” is no less than a fashion assault on the Chinese authorities. Its shirts and dresses contain hidden messages of dissent. DEMOCRACY IS NOWHERE can also be read as DEMOCRACY IS NOW HERE.
Cheung has become an expert at creative subversion. When Chinese authorities suggested she not mention Hong Kong’s July 1 protests, she responded by creating a top with a fringe of plastic tabs. On each tab, written in Braille, are headlines from the BBC, Reuters, CNN, The Washington Post and other major news organizations about the protests. The garment theoretically allows Chinese to stroll the streets wearing what appears to be simply a top with tiny plastic bubbles but is really a message of dissent. “Of course, my messages are designed to challenge, but not to cause harm,” Cheung says. This combination of pragmatism and creative criticism has kept Cheung and Handkerchief one step ahead of the Chinese authorities: She can’t speak, but her fashion can.
But one little slip and Cheung could pay a high price for her politics. In 1990 the poet Liao Yiwu was imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese government for writing a poem called “Massacre,” about the Tiananmen Square protests. As of December 2013, 32 journalists were in prison, and even lawyers are subject to arrest. A lawyer from Guangzhou was detained for wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “One-party dictatorship is a disaster.”
Cheung is slated to come to New York this month for a show at Chashama studio space. All of Handkerchief’s clothes will displayed as a single image, like a painting. Then models will tear at the collage and wear bits of it on the catwalk, she says.
Past Handkerchief shows in New York have been supported by Chinese authorities, so long as there’s no politics, Cheung says. But that’s not her style. “Everything in Hong Kong is political right now. There’s no way to escape the politics. The world can see what is going on in Hong Kong, so why can’t I talk about it?”