Trailblazers 2021: Theatre artist Derek Chan keeps memories of Hong Kong alive in new show called yellow objects

The title of the multimedia show was derived from a police superintendent's description of a videotaped attack on a protester

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      Like many Vancouverites who trace their roots back to Hong Kong, Vancouver playwright and theatre artist Derek Chan is heartbroken and angry about what’s occurred in the former British colony.

      Ever since freedom-loving students launched the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests in 2014, he’s witnessed how the city of his birth has slid into a deep decline.

      Chan, like millions of other current and former Hong Kong residents, has been appalled by the People’s Republic of China clampdown on freedom through its notorious National Security Law. It’s resulted in high-profile Hong Kong democracy advocates—such as Martin Lee, Agnes Chow Ting, and Joshua Wong—and media tycoon Jimmy Lai being sent to prison.

      “I think a lot of us are still grieving because Hong Kong now is not the Hong Kong that we know, that we remember, and that we love,” Chan told the Straight by phone. “It’s been completely decimated by a totalitarian regime.”

      While others have held rallies and signed petitions, Chan chose a different route to express his opposition to what’s going on. Spurred on by a mentor whom he won’t identify, Chan decided to use his expertise and his training as a theatre artist to raise awareness abroad.

      That led him to write and direct yellow objects, a multimedia exhibition featuring voice recordings and projections, which premieres at the Firehall Arts Centre on May 11 and continues until May 22.

      “It came from love and almost guilt for not being back in Hong Kong,” Chan said.

      He left Hong Kong at the age of 17 to complete high school in Norway, before arriving in Vancouver in 2005 to study theatre at Simon Fraser University.

      Many in the Vancouver arts community are familiar with Chan as the writer and director of the whimiscal and multilingual Chicken Girl, which was nominated for a Jessie Richardson Award for outstanding original script. He’s also cofounder of rice & beans theatre, which produced the Dora Award–nominated touring production Sik Zeon Tin Haa/A Taste of Empire.

      His latest project, yellow objects, is unlike anything he’s done before. It was created with the help of an anonymous composer, who was among several participating artists who refused to disclose their identity for fear of repercussions against their families back in Hong Kong.

      The Firehall Courtyard Radius Mural was coordinated by Richard Teatrault and Eshter Rausenberg.

      Title inspired by police brutality

      The exhibition looks at Hong Kong in 2019 and 2050 through the shoes of two characters named Sandra Wong and Uncle Chan.

      “When people enter the Firehall in their small groups—small, small, small distanced groups—they will see an array of mostly found objects that symbolize people who have been disappeared or worse,” Chan explained. “They’ll hear dialogues, memories, and thoughts from different characters coming from speakers that are placed in areas in the space and in the courtyard of the Firehall.”

      The title originated from a notorious comment made in 2019 by Hong Kong acting police superintendent Vasco Williams.

      After videotaped images were shown of cops attacking a protester, Williams told reporters that what he saw “appears to be an officer kicking a yellow object on the ground”.

      “Not only was he dehumanizing a Hong Kong citizen—a protester, an activist—while protecting his own fellow officers being accountable for violence they are using on protests,” Chan said, “[but] also as a Caucasian person in power in Hong Kong, it’s impossible for him to not be aware of the racist and colonial connotations by calling anybody—anybody who is of East Asian descent—yellow anything.”

      Video: Acting police superintendent describes in 2019 how a protester being attacked by Hong Kong officers resembled a "yellow object" on the ground.
      Hong Kong Free Press

      It's led to other works of art entitled yellow objects in Hong Kong and other cities, Chan added, as part of an international effort to reclaim the term.

      In his show, spirits and ghosts keep the memories of what's happened in Hong Kong alive.

      "Even though I can’t be home [in Hong Kong] right now physically, it is my responsibility to raise awareness, to keep the story going, keep the memory going so that some day, some day, maybe, however many generations later, maybe, finally, we’ll get what we want, which is freedom and democracy," Chan said.