The (Unfolded) Memory of Wooferten (Hong Kong, 2009-2015)

Pitt Street Riot—Action Theatre of Tiananmen Massacre, May 2014. Photo by Pak Chai.

The (Unfolded) Memory of Wooferten 
(Hong Kong, 2009-2015)

I. Intervention

The physical space of Wooferten started at the end of 2009 and closed in November 2015, which was almost five years ago. On an organizational level, the turnover of members was always quite high during those years, and many of them had actually left before the space closed. What was done as part of this six-year experiment, and how and what would my evaluation of it be? To be honest, if it were not for the invitation from Green Papaya, I would not have actively looked back and discussed it. Although our members and kaifong (a vernacular Hong Kong term for “neighbor”) organized many interesting activities, others wrote serious commentaries and conducted research that offered interesting perspectives on what we did; some even said that they were very much inspired by our work. But the fact is, six years of organizing Wooferten was draining and, at least for me (or maybe some other members), not a particularly successful experience. It seems communication problems are something that many artists' initiatives encounter, but I don't think it's inevitable — if only we would put a little more effort into our goals, ways of working, and communication structure when it comes to “working together,” and learn from our contradictions and mistakes.

 However, in reality, this is easier said than done especially in a place like Hong Kong where time and space are both precious. Therefore, in the later years of Wooferten, some members advocated for more “positive energy” and “self-care” which led to everyone doing their own thing as a means to reduce costs of communication. Yet I have always wondered, is there any conflict between running an art space that was “interventionist” and “organizes the community” and “self-care”? When there is a conflict, should we back down just in time or face it head on in spite of all difficulty? I still do not have a definite answer to this question until today.

Another reason that I don't want to look back, I think, is the problem of “emotions” such as “melancholy.” To borrow Freud's idea, “melancholy” is different from “mourning”; with the former, you don’t really know what you have lost and you drown in emotions that you cannot describe. Some of my activist friends, who were part of self-organized initiatives that disbanded for no apparent reason or went separate ways in the heat of the moment, seldom look back on those days, and any revisiting of those times seem like a conjuring of old trauma. This issue of emotions does not necessarily fade away with the passage of time; sometimes, what it needs is a return to the trauma of “being together.”

Artists and activists “come together” in order to establish a “common,” and if they return from a "common" to the individual, this transition does present some unresolved entanglements that are not so easy to mend. Would it help to talk of knotted emotions? I am not too sure. There are complex registers within emotions that cannot always be explained through words. Besides, who listens, and does the listener understand? Can they empathize with one another? These factors are also important. In short, a “common” is not something that can be solved single-handedly by one person but by a “community" in which we live and its specialized solutions. This is perhaps why I feel that "self-care” is not enough to resolve the tangled conflicts in reality. Emotional narration needs to complement the construction of a “common” so we can find a space for mending its many insufficiencies — provided that this is not the beginning of another traumatic experience.

Fred Ma, residency artist Fontini, and her friends, April 2013. Photo by Elaine W. Ho.

Members of Wooferten's continuing working group and friends in Yau Ma Tei Neighbourhood, 31 December 2013. Courtesy of Wooferten.

Exhibition view of "Yau Ma Tei Self-Rescue Project & Demonstrative Exhibition," April 2012. Courtesy of Wooferten.

Curator tour of "Yau Ma Tei Self-Rescue Project & Demonstrative Exhibition," April 2012. Courtesy of Wooferten.

II. Success, Failure

In the cultural and political context of Hong Kong, “usefulness” and “uselessness” may be an unspoken but also hugely influential issue. In reality, there are too many things that we do not want to do but cannot help but do so. If something is “useful,” even though the effect may only be temporary, even though it may be a spiritual victory, a surface “usefulness” is always more acceptable than an actual “uselessness.”

Therefore, in many so-called evaluations, many people talk about "usefulness" or “uselessness,” "success" or "failure." I actually do not agree with this simplified thinking framework, although it is sometimes unavoidable. Especially in the realm of self-evaluation, it seems easier to talk about failures than successes. Let's start with failure. Many people think that the failure of Wooferten is that we lost the space to continue our operation. But that is in fact a misunderstanding. For six years, this space was positioned as an experiment so it was not set up to be an institution that would continuously run. We had a few options for continuation at that time, but the problem was that everyone was exhausted and did not want to be tied down to a space anymore. So the real failure was, what exhausted us? It was a problem about why desires started to wear out. At the beginning, some people wanted to start something for the neighborhood but did not think in much detail; some lost interest and left; some felt the experiment was over, it was time to shift to another site. Some people had different thoughts, and found it emotionally difficult to detach themselves from the community that was already established, and these legacies became the source of other problems.

Success? I think there is, but it does not seem right for me to talk about it. Wooferten had its own unique developmental trajectory, picking up on the efforts of those who had experimented before, and then created some new things. And what exactly are these things? This may still be a question. For example, in Wooferten’s space, neighbors and artists were both active in organizing, something I rarely see in other spaces. This space was also caught between the wave of social movements and the tightening of the governance system, and artists have been looking for a space to work in this gap; these contexts gave the work a singular and unique meaning. Instead of calling it a success, it might be that the space had its own historical and socio-political dimension, and it could not be replicated elsewhere simply by imitation.

Therefore, is it meaningful to talk within the analytical framework of success/failure? I think what is important is how we examine the complexities of that situation today. It has been said that "working together" is a self-defeating exercise, and I quite agree with it. We were seeking equality and equity among artists with distinctive personalities, while at the same time being innovative and “avant-garde” in the process of inspiring each other; this is immensely difficult to do, and should not be judged in terms of success or failure. Perhaps the point is, did we become more aware and familiar with our own desires through this painful process? Even though such knowledge is often useless, it should be more meaningful than fulfilling the unconscious requests that the ruling ideology created for you.

When Everything Must Go: Archival Exhibition + Kaifong Artwork Exhibition, October 2015. Photo by Pak Chai.

Workshop of "Yau Ma Tei Self-Rescue Project & Demonstrative Exhibition," April 2012. Courtesy of Wooferten.

 Ping Pong Diplomacy, October 2009. Courtesy of Wooferten.

Exhibition view of "This Home Has No Walls—Tales From Downtown," September 2013. Courtesy of Wooferten.

III. Doing something concrete

When it came to the later days, as the community work developed, it was not so easy to ignore some of the struggles. For example, this experimental project created many opportunities for "intervention," but how could "intervention" accumulate energy and agency so we could act and organize when there is a real crisis? How could creative acts subvert and overturn politics of what was deemed “impossible”? In my opinion, this is the dividing line between “artistic intervention" that is speculative and "doing something concrete." In Hong Kong, the dominant discourse encourages the former: "community art projects" are short-term, joyful, one-off, and they exist to create awareness or report on, even to consume, an issue (rather than to comment and critique); in these cases, (heterogeneous) relationships, trust, and issues that take root in the community are less likely to garner attention. The latter is more marginal, not only in terms of resources, but also in terms of activists’ ideas and discourses. Especially when time and space are compressing, there are less resources and fewer opportunities to do things; and even though, sometimes, actions are empty, one loses the ability to imagine other possibilities over time. So how can we maintain this space for "doing concrete things"? Do we know enough? Or do we stay in the realm of intervention and speculation?

Once, there was a robbery incident in Yau Ma Tei. There was an old lady who sold newspapers at a hawker stall on the street. The stall was her home and she stored all of her personal valuables there. She had been on the street for years, and never encountered any danger. But one night, a vicious robber came and snatched the money from her stall and, during the scuffle, the old lady was pulled down to the ground. The incident attracted media attention and some put it on the A1 frontpage. At that moment, some people expressed deep sympathy to the old lady; some brought her gifts or even paid HK$500 for a newspaper as a donation. However, despite these loving acts, we cannot ignore the fact that the hawker stall was the home of this old lady. If people continued to give her money, and if cash was still kept in the stall, her risk of getting robbed again increased. Another issue is, why had nothing happened to the old lady, who lived on the streets for so many years, until now? Why did the robbery happen at that moment in time? There were many possibilities, but one of the key factors was that the Urban Renewal Authority acquired her neighborhood in recent years, and shops nearby started moving out one after another. The empty street exposed the old lady to the robbers. In addition, the neighboring shops helped monitor the situation during the dead of night, but this protective network disappeared after the shops moved out. Therefore, it is important to monitor urban redevelopment and, in that process, preserve the existing network of community life such as these invisible human networks. However, when the redevelopment plan was announced, there was not much public concern, actions of support were limited, and not many people were willing to spend time nor had the patience to participate.

A paradoxical problem arises here: although the enthusiasm for helping the poor lady was strong with mass media coverage, it actually had nothing to do with the real operation of the community. On the other hand, the low-profile efforts to preserve the community networks did not receive much attention and support. This is also a question I often encounter in the Yau Ma Tei, which is also about the objectives of "community art." Is our action aimed at generating the public's compassion only (while things may not change any further)? Or do we want to open up the space that was rooted in the community, even though change may not always be immediate?

Visiting a gallery opening in Soho Area with Kaifong, March 2012. Courtesy of Wooferten.

Canton Road Chinese New Year's parade & Leftover Flower Cart Competition, February 2012. Courtesy of Wooferten.

Art Action: Cycling to the Square, 4 June 2013. Courtesy of Wooferten.

Exhibition view of "Entropy—The Photography of Chen Quang," 5 June 2012. Courtesy of Wooferten.

Art Action: Moving Bar Battle, April 2012. Courtesy of Wooferten.

IV. Each one does their small part?

The phrase "Each one does their small part!" is the slogan of our neighbor Fred Ma (Mother of Fred). It all started when an artist friend asked me in an interview, "How does art change things?” I said, artists should not take art as too important and should follow what Fred Ma said: "Each one does their small part!” and think about how we could all do our best in our respective fields. This phrase became trendy in Yau Ma Tei, and the guiding principle of the Wooferten afterwards — even though reality often brings setbacks, and each of us may have our own revolutionary agenda, change has to start at the micro level, with each of us doing a little bit more where we can.

It was not a coincidence that Fred Ma's slogan became more and more popular among different activist communities. It struck a chord with Hong Kong’s society where there is a "scarcity of hope." Apart from the individual level, there is not much room for control or change. This is why "Each one does their small part!” is appealing like a revolutionary slogan, a “messianic summon” that connects individuals into collective action.

However, I am sometimes quite skeptical of this slogan (although I could understand why we say it). “Everyone does their small part!” is full of positive energy, but its focus is relatively microscopic. From an ideological point of view, the slogan has no target to challenge and no specific goal for change. As a result, the object of politics is blurred and the attention is focused on the (micro) action itself. It implies that as long as everyone makes changes in his or her own life, things will change and so will society. However, the problem is this inference flattens complex social relationships. If everyone changes on a personal level, it is true that some things will change, but not everything will. Take the case mentioned above: donating money to the old lady or participating long term in affirmative action on urban redevelopment are both "Each one does their small part!" but what can be changed are very different.

Secondly, how can one stay motivated? Does it really have nothing to do with objective, structural social conditions? A neighbor who owns a flat and lives by collecting rent will have more leisure time to "do more" for the community than a low-income worker who works more than 12 hours a day. If an action’s potential impact is big, it is also easier to attract participants who are more intended to speculate. Although it is true that the vast majority of our neighbors and artists in Yau Ma Tei are selflessly active and do not care much about what is at stake, ideology does not operate from this surface layer. It is important for our drive to go deep into each layer of our action. If activists do not understand or try to understand the complexities of social conditions, such as the significance of maintaining the physical community space, and only talk about fragmented, meticulous, and mending "interventions,” we could only “do each of our part” in a limited area.

Therefore, this slogan is moving and appealing, but as an agenda for action, a lot of concrete details are to be filled in by everyone. If activists only focus on the enthusiasm and positivity of the individual and neglect essential factors that make up collective action, this slogan may not function in critical moments. This is especially so if a situation in reality arises such that an individual’s action is suppressed (such as intervention from the state or capital). We could only do so much, and even that would get compressed; we may be talking to ourselves and not be able to do much about it, and stay perpetually in the romanticism of “Each one does their small part!”

Art Action: Re-questioning June Fourth and Our City, 28 May 2011. Courtesy of Wooferten.

Art Action: Cycling to the Square, 4 June 2011. Photo by Tai Ngai Lung.

V. Experiments

In fact, as a community/art experiment, the singularity of Wooferten is in the tension between individuality and the pursuit of a “common”; although it generated a considerable amount of momentum in the (virtual or physical) network, what kind of politics was it constructing in relation to action? How did energy accumulate, etc.? We often missed out on discussing more macro questions such as “orientation.” In this case, self-realization and the pursuit of a “common” (by both artists and neighbors) were two directions that supported the space’s operation. At the same time, they were contradictions that tugged at each other, however, that was also where the aesthetic tension was. For example, should “being together” start from “self-care”? Or should we talk about our commitment to the “community” first? Does "intervention" mean a collision of ideas or an attempt towards "inter-subjectivity"? Is “Each one does their small part!” just an issue of being more active? How does (art) action lead to radically creative acts? How does it construct possible conditions from impossible circumstances?

I think the complexities of creating (art) spaces are in how we deal with these things, which are ideologically conflicting, but at the same time can create new dialogues and acts. If the operative logic of an institutional system is to make relationships rigid, then the practice of self-organization maintains boundaries of a "common" as dynamic. However, this does not simply mean infinite openness, since this sometimes leads us into the trap of neoliberalism and evades the commitment to a "common."

Perhaps this is why I am often suspicious of the increasingly popular slogans of "being together" or the so-called "interventions" that do not attempt to address or change problems at its roots.  The “inflation” of action often blurs the complexity of a problem, and it does not open up space for us to transform deeply. As mentioned above, “creating space,” for me, is really a self-defeating process, because only through the process of building a “common” that brings forth contradictions and trauma can we traverse illusion and directly face reality, as well as the reality of our desires.

The sharing above cannot be described as useful or useless, a success or failure. What I would like to say may be more about an aesthetic experiment’s difficulties and the various ethical conflicts that came about. At the behest of those who invited me to write and self-evaluate, my sharing stops here more or less.

Lee Chun Fung
September 21, 2020

This text was translated from Traditional Chinese by Lee Chun Fung and Michelle Wong.


Lee Chun Fung is one of the founding members of Wooferten (2009-2015). He took up the role of convener [1] in mid-2011, and helped with the daily operation of Wooferten’s physical space. In 2013, when the Hong Kong Art Development Council stopped supporting Wooferten, Fung and a few other members occupied the space with neighbors under the name of “Continuing Working Group,” running the space until the end of 2015.

[1] According to Michelle Wong: “The role of convener (廳長) also means the person who stays/lives/sleeps in the living room. Wooferten’s Chinese name also means a fossilized living room coming to life so the title of convener is very nuanced.”

All images courtesy of Wooferten.

More info:
Wooferten blog
Jasper Lau. “Introduction of ‘Woofer Ten’” in Creating Spaces: Post-Alternative Spaces in Asia (2011)
活化廳 駐場計劃 Wooferten's AAiR 2011-12 (2014)
活化廳駐場計劃 II : 社區-藝術-行動 Woofer Ten’s AAiR II: Community-Art-Activism (2016)
Andre Chan. “Woofer Ten Tenancy Dispute.” (6 Nov 2012)
Sampson Yu-hin Wong. “From the Wooferten Debate to the Coming of the Community Art Era.” (10 Mar 2014)
Lee Chun Fung. “Imagine If It Weren't All For Nothing - A Few Musings On Communities, Art, and Activism” in Woofer Ten’s AAiR II: Community - Art - Activism (2016)
Olivier Krischer. “Thinking of Art as Informal Life Politics in Hong Kong” in New Worlds from Below: Informal Life Politics and Grassroots Action in Twenty-first Century Northeast Asia (2017)
司徒笑薇 The Rose’s Smile (Fred Ma的圍裙)(2015/20)

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Right People, Wrong Timing (RPWT) is a series of texts on defunct or inactive independent Asian arts initiatives that had crossed paths or ran parallel to Papaya's own 20-year history. With new posts every Friday from August to December 2020, RPWT is kindly supported through a local grant by the Japan Foundation Manila.