FM Theatre Power vs. Hong Kong Netizens
This is the biggest Internet campaign of the year in Hong Kong, but it is not getting reported in the English-language press. Sai Yeung Choi Street is the 'pedestrian-only street' in the Mongkok district of Kowloon. Many different groups set up on this street, including telecommunication companies seeking new customers, political parties soliciting donations and street performance artists. At issue is the live art group known as FM Theatre Power that has been present there for years. There is a Hong Kong netizen campaign to oust this group from this location for being a public nuisance. The relevant Facebook group has more than 10,000 people signing on already. The following is an InMediaHK report on a forum held on Sunday afternoon.
(InMediaHK.net) The Beginnings of a Civic Society: The 8/24 Forum On Sai Yeung Choi Street About FM Theatre Power. August 25, 2008. By Gerchoi.
I received news from the Facebook group that the netizens have a campaign to ask FM Theatre Power to cease and desist their street performance and get out of Mongkok. So FM Theater Power held a forum about street performance on Sai Yeung Choi Street to let the netizens express their demands. The netizens also issued a notice for supporters of their cause to show up wearing black clothes. The forum began from 2pm (note: some people said it started earlier than that but I was late in arriving), and ended about 7:30pm. There was no break during the 5-1/2 hours. It is estimated that more than 100 people spoke out during the forum discussion.
Although FM Theatre Power organized a forum, they did not have any sound equipment out of legal concerns (note: a permit would be required). Therefore, it was somewhat chaotic at first when more than 40 men in black surrounded the director Banky Yeung Ping-kei. It was like a criticism session straight out of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. There were too many spectators, and it was impossible to hear what they were talking about from afar. Finally, someone suggested that we sat around a circle in the middle of the road, and then the discussions began. Due to volume problems, the speakers often had to repeat what they said in raised volumes. Finally, a sound system was borrowed from a community group and the discussion ran smoothly.
This was a first time that there was such a discussion with so many people at this scale. It is an extraordinary feeling to hold such a forum in the middle of the street. When a site can hold a discussion that interests so many citizens, it is a true public space. Credit goes to the netizens who initiated the campaign, FM Theatre which created the issue and the good folks who lent the sound system.
There were three types of participants. (1) The netizens in black and other critical passersby. (2) FM Theatre Power (from which only Banky Yeung Ping-kei spoke). (3) Community activists, scholars and street performance artists who wanted to talk about issues such as public space, performance art and civic responsibility. According to the netizens, the latter group was digressing from the issue, but they demurred and said that the matter is not a simple case of public nuisance as there are many issues about public space and power that need to be addressed.
The netizens in black first presented a female pedestrian to testify that the FM Theatre Power show <Sincerely recruiting a girlfriend> forced her to participate. When the woman reacted negatively, the troupe members made fun of her to say that she was trying to use 'laughter to cover up her embarrassment'. So Banky Yeung apologized to this woman, "because it would be highly problematic not to believe such a directly expressed opinion." During a series of related questions, he said that they might have misunderstood that the woman wanted to participate and therefore forced her to come out. The netizens in black were not satisfied with the response. They said that in magic shows, the magicians can effectively and politely invite the audience to participate. They demanded FM Theatre Power to apologize to all offended passersby (including those who claimed to be so on the Internet). But another discussant said that this was unreasonable, because these other people have not made such demands and no one can speak for them. The netizens in black also accused the FM Theatre Power performance of frightening an old man on bicycle. Banky Yeung denied that this ever happened and said that they are acquainted with this old man. At the end of the discussion, he even invited the old man to say a few words.
Concerning the accusation that FM Theatre Power was a public nuisance (since people continued to join in the forum, this issue was repeated again and again during the forum). The netizens in black made the statement that they do not want to kick FM Theatre Power out of Mongkok. Instead, they only "want to ask FM Theatre Power to improve the conditions about blocking traffic." They asked FM Theatre Power to come up with an plan, and they called for the spectators and shops in the neighborhood to sign a petition. Banky Yeung responded that they cannot control the number of spectators, which the netizens in black said only reflects the troupe's lack of ability. Community activists pointed out that no foreign street performances have restrictions on the number of spectators, who are responsible for their own actions. The netizens in black said that the performance should not be taking place in the middle of the street. Instead, it should be in a more appropriate location as the street is meant to be used for walking. A performance artist said that the art is performed in streets not for lack of other space but because the performers want to interact with citizens, draw experience and bring attention to certain issues. People should think about whether a street is only used for walking and shopping, but it can also be used for other purposes (such as sitting down and holding a forum such as this one right now. "Certain fixed concepts should be reconsidered, such as vendors must be chased away because they are obstructing traffic."
The netizens in black also pointed out that the banners of FM Theatre Power were tripping people up. Banky Yeung asked if they will only be satisfied if all banners are removed. He said that he will listen to all the opinions and consider them, but the troupe cannot make decisions right there and then. The netizens in black were dissatisfied with Yeung's inability to give a direct response to their questions. They demanded answers again and again. Banky Yeung said that since the netizens have some opinions about the location of their show, the troupe will run a show immediately after the forum and everybody can participate to make corrections. The netizens in black thought that it was evasive and irresponsible for FM Theatre Power to refuse to provide direct answers and ask them for solutions instead. "There is no reason why we should have to solve your problems." The community activists and scholars thought that people have equal rights about power and responsibility with respect to public space. Everybody can express their own ideas and nobody can make others promise how to use the public space. "I don't like your blue shirt, but that doesn't mean I can make you not wear a blue shirt the next time that you come down to Mongkok." "I also think that they take up too much public space, but we should at least discuss and converge, as opposed to pressuring and forcing them."
A performance artist said that the netizens are being rash in seeking an instant solution. Rather, the matter should be discussed in a way that makes it a good learning experience. "In the matter of the GOD 14K t-shirt affair, if you have a problem, you should ask the designer to withdraw the product because you find it disturbing as opposed to going to the police."
A community activist said that the netizens should not complain only about the present issue, because there is concern that the Yau-tsim-mong district council is considering a proposal to take away the pedestrian street altogether. If that were the case, the whole street would be gone. Therefore, "the netizens should protect this street in that eventuality, just as they are doing so right now."
The netizens in black also objected to the t-shirt sales by FM Theatre Power. "What kind of art is that?" Banky Yeung said that FM Theatre Power is a registered charity organization that can engage in commercial solicitations. Another performance artist asked: "Why can't art be commercial? Artists have to eat as well." It was pointed out that Sai Yeung Choi Street is filled with other kinds of commercial activities, and that particular space is dominated by the sound from the advertisements shown on the large-screen television.
The netizens in black said that FM Theatre Power has been running the same show for five years without any improvement. Someone said, "I've put up with it for five years until I can't stand it anymore." More than 10,000 people have signed up with the Facebook group. So if FM Theatre Power wants to hang on, it is just acting like a fool.
Performance artists and scholars replied that the netizens in black are dividing things into black-and-white without any room for negotiation. "If I don't like your face, can I ask you to leave? If everything that you dislike is made to disappear, anything that obstructs the street is ousted, poor people have to live in Tian Shui Wei, Gillian Chung lied about her fellatio skills and must leave Hong Kong ... as a result, Hong Kong will be a sorry place to be in." They also emphasized that Hong Kong is a civic society. If you don't like something, you will have to put up with it although you have the right to ask the other party to make corrections. It does not mean that you always get what you want when you have the numbers. The netizens in black said that this is the way the people have always acted against totalitarian regimes and this was how civil rebellions work. Some community activists said that they could have spoken out in the beginning instead of putting up with it.
Banky Yang said that he and his troupe are deliberately acting this way, because they want to advance the live arts in the streets of Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong do not have to wait for the West Kowloon Cultural District or the government, because they can do it themselves. The netizens in black said that it is his problem to pursue his ideals but that does not mean that he should interfere with other people.
Towards the end, the street performance artist Mr. Funny suggested that FM Theatre Power can reduce the length of its performance to just a few minutes. By this time, too many people were gathered around and so the forum was stopped. When people accommodate each together to experiment with different kinds of street performances, that is the way to establish a cultural/art metropolis.
The Mongkok pedestrian street is almost 500 meters in length, and it is filled with movable stands for various groups. It is alleged that almost one-third of the area had been taken over by the FM Theatre Power over the past five years. As such, the troupe is suspected of obstructing the street. Recently, netizens organized a group to oppose this theatre troupe and obtained more than 10,000 supporters. Yesterday, about 60 netizens dressed in black showed up to argue with the representative of FM Theatre Power. There was a quarrel between the groups. FM Theatre Power agreed to examine the situation. Meanwhile, nearby sales people said that they complained to the group who told them: "We are going to call the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to chase you away." When the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department workers came, they only chased away the mobile stand salespeople and ignored the complaints against FM Theatre Power. The rationale offered by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department workers was that the mobile stands were fixed objects that could interfere with street hygiene, but the performers were persons who walk around and therefore do not constitute obstruction.
About 60 netizens who claimed to be unhappy with FM Theatre Power taking over the pedestrian street showed up yesterday at 2pm dressed in black and carrying black umbrellas. They argued with Banky Yeung who is the chief executive of the FM Theatre Power. At first, the debate was tense and some netizens used foul language to hurl invectives. Some people even wave fists at each other. About two hours later, the atmosphere became more relaxed. But more than 100 netizens, pedestrians and troupe members gathered around the area and caused a huge traffic jam on this Sunday. Seven police officers showed up to monitor the situation.
Netizen Mr. Lee enumerated four sins of FM Theatre Power: (1) the performance area interfered with pedestrian traffic; (2) the performers forced female passersby to participate against their will and this constitutes harassment, even molestation; (3) the performers evicted another elderly street performer by using cheap tactics; (4) the troupe was illegally selling merchandise. He emphasized that they don't want to stop the performances, but they want the troupe to decrease its stage area. Banky Yeung said that they have agreed with a police request to delineate a stage area to prevent obstruction. He pointed out that the area should allow different types of performances to take place and he promised to examine themselves.
A Ms. Ma came forward to testify that she had declined to participate, but the performers still dragged her into the stage area. Yeung said that "if female pedestrians feel that they have been harassed, they ought to call the police and so far the police had never taken action." But he apologized to Ms. Ma. He denied driving other performers away. He has not received any direct complaints from any passersby.
As to whether the theatrical performances affect local business, the assistant manager at Giordano Mr. Su said that the store loses about 10% of its business during the performances. In the past, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department has occasionally fined other vendors on the street.