SCMP | From memes to breaking news: Hong Kong journalist’s career captured in artist’s exhibition highlighting changing political landscape | 20231010

10 October, 2023

  • Sharon Cheung was famously berated by the late former Chinese president Jiang Zemin for being ‘too simple, sometimes naive’ after a question she asked him
  • That moment and others throughout her career have been captured in ‘Interview the Interviewer’, a collaborative art exhibition with artist Chow Chun-Fai

Mabel Lui

Published: 7:15am, 10 Oct, 2023

Veteran journalist Sharon Cheung has collaborated with Hong Kong artist Chow Chun-Fai to present the exhibition “Interview the Interviewer”, which walks through major historical moments to tell the story of Hong Kong. Photo: SC Gallery

In 2000, the late former Chinese president Jiang Zemin famously lost his temper on camera after a Hong Kong journalist asked him a question that prompted him to say that she and her peers were, in English, “too simple, sometimes naive”.

That footage has lived on online, prompting an array of spoofs and parodies to this day.

Sharon Cheung Po-wah was the journalist on the receiving end of Jiang’s rant. Today, as owner of SC Gallery in Wong Chuk Hang, she has found a way to reclaim that most memorable moment of her career.

“Interview the Interviewer” is a collaboration between Cheung and artist Chow Chun-Fai, who has painted a new series based on the biggest stories that Cheung reported on, including that infamous encounter with Jiang.

It was Chow, best known for his paintings about Hong Kong popular culture and sociopolitical issues, who came up with the idea to tell “the stories behind the stories”.

He began collecting an array of memorabilia from Cheung’s career, including photos, books, press cards and more, which he used to arrange the mise-en-scène for his recreation of historic moments.

“Leaders” (2023) by Chow is based on an early 2000s photo that Cheung took during a meeting between former US president George W. Bush and former Chinese president Hu Jintao. Photo: SC Gallery

One of these is seen in Leaders (2023) and its miniature counterparts Leader I and Leader II (both 2023), which were all based on an early 2000s photo Cheung took during a meeting between former US president George W Bush and former Chinese president Hu Jintao. Here, Chow purposely leaves out the politicians’ heads, focusing instead on their pose and the decorative furnishings of the White House.

Cropping out the faces means that this could be any meeting between a Chinese and an American president, Chow says, alluding to the seemingly futile rounds of talks before the two countries that have yet to defuse Sino-US tensions.

He says it is also important for him to create art that can remain relevant in the future, which means adapting the specificity of Cheung’s news materials quite drastically by applying different storytelling techniques.

“House of Cards” (2023) by Chow features Cheung’s past press cards for leaders’ summits and international conferences. Photo: SC Gallery

He is also trying to avoid making political art that is shallow and obvious. “We can have an umbrella in the painting and [that’d be called political art]. But I’m trying to avoid that,” he says.

Painting umbrellas – which became symbolic of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement – may now be deemed risky given the introduction in 2020 of the national security law, which aims to prevent, stop and punish secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and foreign interference.

For an artist who has always been politically informed, this exhibition is also part of Chow’s search for new ways of expression under Hong Kong’s new restrictions.

“Taiwan Election” (2023) by Chow depicts journalist Cheung reporting from Taiwan’s Liberty Square on the day that Chen Shui-bian won the Taiwan presidential election in 2000. Photo: SC Gallery

“We shouldn’t be too passive,” he says. “I used to have a studio in Beijing for three years during the Olympics, so I have witnessed how the artists express themselves … The situation [in Hong Kong] is quite similar, in that artists try to have some new way to express themselves, but not cross the so-called red line.”

Journalists Association 37th Dinner (2023) and Journalists Association 41st Dinner (2023), both reimagined depictions of the Hong Kong Journalist Association’s annual gala dinner, are two prime examples of how Chow has learned to skirt the limitations.

Though the original images of past dinners attended by Cheung were filled with journalists and people performing, celebrating and drinking champagne, Chow’s paintings show stages that are completely empty.

“Journalists Association 37th Dinner” (2023) by Chow. Photo: SC Gallery

“That is what is happening today – people are erased,” he says. He also points to the recent news regarding Ronson Chan, the chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, who was sentenced to five days of jail on September 25 for obstructing police while reporting on a homeowners’ committee meeting.

The two poignant paintings further point to this suffocation of freedom of speech with its visual, aesthetic elements.

“The light on the stage also implies that there should be something happening on the stage – the audience have their expectation of what is happening on the stage, but we can’t see anything,” he says.

“Beijing Olympics” (2023) by Chow captures a scene from July 13, 2001, the day it was announced that Beijing’s bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games was successful. Photo: SC Gallery

Meanwhile, Beijing Olympics (2023) captures a scene from July 13, 2001, the day it was announced that Beijing’s bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games was successful. Cheung reported from Tiananmen Square, where it suddenly became flooded with people celebrating.

“For me, it’s so strange, because we have been reporting in Tiananmen Square for many years. We know you always have to secretly film, and you never put up your camera,” she says.

But that night, journalists were allowed to film openly, and Cheung – then working for Hong Kong Cable Television – was the first broadcaster to report on the celebration in Beijing, at 4.34am.

And of course, there is the Jiang painting – Leave It (2023), which is an animated, derivative interpretation of Jiang’s rant.

Cheung believes that Chow is the only artist in Hong Kong who can, and is willing to, deliver this type of exhibition – one that is overtly political but still has layers of depth. “He can skillfully restructure and re-edit the image, but bring out a new story,” she says.

While the veteran journalist acknowledges that the political landscape of Hong Kong has completely changed in recent years, both she and Chow believe that finding new ways to record our time and express ourselves is paramount in moving forward.

“Hong Kong Under One Country Two Systems International Conference” (2023) by Chow is a depiction of Cheung’s press card for the conference, which was held in Taipei shortly after the 2003 Hong Kong demonstrations against the legislation of Article 23. Photo: SC Gallery

“People became very timid. They say, ‘I don’t want to say anything,’ or ‘I don’t want to paint,’ or ‘I’ll move out of Hong Kong,’” she says.

“But I think that is not the way to positively face the present situation. We have to find another new way to express, rather than [say], ‘No, I’m not going to say anything’.

“I think that we should have this courage, we should have this wisdom, to find a way to still express ourselves.”

“Interview the Interviewer”, SC Gallery, 1902, Sungib Industrial Centre, 53 Wong Chuk Hang Road, Wong Chuk Hang. Tue-Sat 11.30am-6.30pm. Until November 11.