If the state of Hong Kong inspires gloom — drastic pandemic restrictions, repressive laws imposed by China, a new and uncompromising leader on the horizon — Billy Tang refuses to give in to the mood. Tang, the incoming director of one of Hong Kong’s oldest independent art spaces, Para Site, thinks we are at risk of overlooking the many acts of “defiance” emanating from Hong Kong’s art world.

“What no one talks about is that there are more exhibitions in Hong Kong now than ever,” he says over lunch in London. “Somehow the situation has also energised a new kind of creativity for people to tell their stories through different mediums, or self-organise to create safe spaces to share their ideas in another way.”

Three school girls with backpacks stand in front of a small building made of bright-yellow corrugated metal
The entrance to Para Site gallery, 1997
A narrow corridor is lit in a red hue with two glowing figures projected against the wall
‘Ghosts of Ghost’ by Leung Chi Wo for the 1997 exhibition ‘Ghost Encounter’ at Para Site

Para Site has been fundamental to the fostering of artistic expression in Hong Kong. Founded in 1996 by a group of seven Hong Kong artists in the lead-up to the city’s handover by the UK to China, its mission was to give direction and hope to artists. “There really wasn’t much there to support artists, and Para Site shouldered that,” Tang, 35, says.

In the quarter-century since, it has established itself as a guide and beacon for Hong Kong’s artistic community, not only promoting their work and offering professional workshops, but also cultivating a committed audience through its exhibitions and commission programme. One highlight has been An Opera for Animals, a 2019 exhibition that brought together 49 artists including Beatriz González, Lawrence Lek and Samson Young to examine the colonial roots of the western musical tradition. Tang says that now as the city’s relationship with China is changing, “we have to think creatively to channel these kinds of anxieties: arguably we are at a similar crossroads” to 1996.

The interior of an art gallery exhibition showing large paintings of animals and sea creatures covering the walls
‘An Opera for Animals’ exhibition at Para Site, 2019 © eddiecylam@imageartstudio

Born in London to Chinese-Vietnamese parents who moved there from Hong Kong as refugees, he studied for a degree in fine art at Chelsea College of Art before coming to Beijing in 2008 during an exchange programme. Compared to London, Tang felt “a stronger sense of purpose in China, where [an art] ecosystem was emerging, and to be partaking in that had meaning”. After a stint in an artists’ collective, he traded making art for creating exhibitions instead. He jokes that his career choices were the result of “graduating during the economic crisis with an art degree”.

Tang’s obsession with independent galleries led him to Magician Space, Beijing’s best-known artist-led small gallery, where he became curatorial director. “I never imagined myself working in a gallery,” he says, but says the experience was a “revelation” that taught him how to survive without government funding. As private museums blossomed in China’s rising economy, Tang joined Shanghai’s non-profit Rockbund Art Museum in 2018. But he yearned for Hong Kong. “I was very envious sometimes,” he says. “The infrastructure [in Hong Kong] is much more comprehensive, and there’s a fluency between having a conversation with the outside world and the Chinese-speaking world.”

Three panoramic images of the intersection of two busy shopping streets in Hong Kong
‘Sai Yeung Choi Street/Nelson Street (since 2004)’ by Chow Chun Fai for the current exhibition ‘Minding the G(r)a(s)p’ © Courtesy the artist

Hong Kong’s art world continues to boom, with the recent opening of the Herzog & de Meuron-designed M+ museum in the West Kowloon cultural quarter and a gallery district replete with outposts of international behemoths. But Para Site has retained its relevance, Tang argues. “You can see it in its name,” he says. “There’s [an] immediacy! It’s flexible, reflexive and able to adapt.” During the pandemic, Para Site reorganised around the needs of artists, spearheading a coalition with 17 other non-profit groups to fundraise. It even offered dental and healthcare coverage to artists it had commissioned — a luxury unimaginable to most artists dealing with beleaguered institutions. “We have to do extra and anticipate what is missing,” says Tang.

In his new role, he wants to be sensitive to the effect on artists of Hong Kong’s heightened political unrest. The national security law has bred anxiety, with some institutions censoring “critical” works. “Issues of care, collectivity and resilience are very important qualities that I am looking to focus more on in the programme, so we can extend the institution to support progressive practices.”

In an art world built on hierarchy, Tang is keen to depart from this system of authority and deepen Para Site’s collective traditions. “Rather than to say, ‘This is going to be authored by a single curator,’ it will be a curator project,” he explains — the research will be led by a group and open to debate. “That unpredictability is really important.”

A woman in a black vest top giving a performance to a small crowd of people wearing face masks
Artist Florence Lam during a live performance of her Voice Work as part of the ‘Noble Rot’ exhibition at Para Site this year

Has he learnt anything from his predecessor Cosmin Costinas, who, during his 11-year term, introduced a pioneering annual series of exhibitions by young curators? “[To] seize this moment and really make it my own thing. There was this kind of openness and generosity that Para Site can be reinvented.”

Sharing Costinas’s open ethos, Tang wishes to continue discarding the “tradition that sees the institution as a singular stage within the city” with exhibitions confined to its physical space.

His immediate aim is to find “new stages for collaboration”. In the first instance, Para Site is linking up with London’s Studio Voltaire, which will host an artist from Hong Kong (chosen by Para Site and a consortium of other local institutions) for a residency equipped with a stipend supported by the luxury brand Loewe. One objective of the residency, Tang says, “is to keep the visibility of the local art scene [alive] in the face of policies of the moment that can be very isolating”.

With his diasporic mobility, Tang rejects the “local versus international” binary and says that Para Site can help challenge the idea that the art world is just a series of centres: “I’m partly international and partly local, and to survive on this ambiguity is interesting.”


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