Hybrid Nativism and Postcolonial Subjectivity in the Work of Hong Kong Choreographer Helen Lai

Chen Ya-Ping*


The article looks at two dances by Hong Kong choreographer Helen Lai, HerStory and Tales of Two Cities, within the theoretic framework of hybrid nativism and postcolonial subjectivity, which constitute the essence of Hong Kong identity and cultural vitality. Lai’s choreographic strategies, through the tactics of intertexuality, polyphonic narrative lines and fluid subjectivities, vividly echo such postcolonial sensibility and cosmopolitan sophistication. Yet, the harsh political measures exercised by Beijing and the Hong Kong SAR government since the Anti-Extradition Movement in 2019 not only jeopardize the future of this cosmopolis of world finance, but would also mutilate its cultural vitality and artistic freedom.
Keywords: hybrid nativism, postcolonial subjectivity, Hong Kong contemporary dance, Helen Lai, City Contemporary Dance Company

Hybridized Nativism as Hong Kong Identity

Chan Koon Chung (陳冠中), a renowned Hong Kong writer and cultural critic, stated in 2008 that “’Hongkongers’ is [an identity that has been] invented, imagined and constructed; yet it is also a reality that exists with material and historical meanings” (37; my emphasis).[1] He identified a long list of cultural systems and subsystems coexistent in Hong Kong since the 1950s, ranging from Chinese orthodox and traditional cultures, to Western culture filtered through the New Culture Movement of the early-twentieth-century Republican China, to British colonial culture, to cosmopolitan multiculturalism as a result of its status as a world financial hub. He concluded with the system of “hybridized local culture”:

The hybridized local culture has surpassed the pluralistic coexistence of or superficial interaction among all the above cultures. It has become a new species, a new inheritance. Hybridized localization can be understood as an innovative process of production with Hong Kong as the subject, intermeshing all the above […] systems of cultures.

Ch. K. Chan, The Next 40

According to Chan, the most salient characteristic of “Hong Kong culture,” created by Hongkongers since the 1970s, was “hybridized nativism” (101). In other words, he emphasized, “multilayered and multilateral citizenship” was a “reality” rather than a “problem” in this cosmopolis (The Next 47). Chan points out that cultural studies scholars often resort to metaphors of “negativity” to describe Hong Kong, a borderless city whose “nativism” has been defined and informed by its “hybrid cosmopolitanism” (45). In other words, the identity and vitality of the city relies on its polyphonic tolerance. Chan once jokingly stated in 2003 that “[i]f one day all the people started speaking unanimously in one voice . . . then we ought to find ways to get out of Hong Kong” (My Generation 43).

“Hybridized nativism” and “cosmopolitanism” are two sides of one coin in this borderline city between the British and the Chinese empires. “Hybridized nativism” faithfully reflects the historical development of Hong Kong. It has absorbed many waves of Chinese immigrants fleeing wars, poverty, or human catastrophes on the mainland in the past century, as well as tens of thousands of international laborers and professionals magnetized to this cosmopolis for job opportunities.

“Cosmopolitanism,” celebrating differences and tolerance, has been upheld and embraced by many Hongkongers as a way of identifying and distinguishing themselves from mainland Chinese, especially after 1984 when the fate of Hong Kong to be returned to China was sealed by the Sino-British Joint Declaration.[2] The Tiananmen Incident in 1989 further heightened this sense of a distinguished identity. In fact, Hong Kong was the only Sinophone society where the Tiananmen massacre was memorialized annually on 4 June until 2020 while the memory and history of this bloody event have been completely wiped out in mainland China.[3]

“Hong Kong was the only Sinophone society where the Tiananmen massacre was memorialized annually on 4 June until 2020 while the memory and history of this bloody event have been completely wiped out in mainland China.” (Man vs. Chinese tank Tiananmen square, 5 June 1989). Photo (CNN): Web/Wikipedia. Accessed 1 June 2021

Since 1997, the year Hong Kong was handed over to China, its identity of “hybridized nativism” has been increasingly viewed by Beijing as a “problem.” The past two decades have seen a tug of war between autonomous cosmopolitanism valued by local Hongkongers and centralized nationalism upheld by Beijing and its political agent, the Special Administrative Region (SAR) government. The large-scale demonstration in 2003 against the insertion of Article 23 in the Hong Kong Basic Law about national security was the first sign of tension between the two political camps.[4] The Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 created a temporary euphoria among Hongkongers for China becoming not only a great nation but also an open society welcoming all visitors and the whole world.

Over the years, one major issue remained—the realization of “true universal suffrage” for the election of the SAR governor promised by Beijing by 2017.[5] In the view of many Hongkongers, it would truly safeguard the “One country, Two systems” policy. But in 2014 Beijing passed a “reform” framework to stipulate universal suffrage on its own terms—only committee-vetted candidates who “love the country” would be allowed to run for the election. The decision triggered large-scale protests and occupation movements in major business districts to stall the city’s economic operation.

The severe clashes between the police and the protestors gave the movement the name of “Umbrella Revolution.” This unfulfilled “revolution” foreshadowed Beijing’s increasingly tightening grip on the city. The conflict reached an even more intense level in the 2019 anti-extradition demonstrations and the brutal countermeasures exercised by the Chinese state machine. The imposition of the National Security Law in June 2020, which violates the rights of free press, political rallies and fair participation in elections written in the Basic Law, further demonstrated the absolutist intolerance on the part of Beijing. The Chinese government would not hesitate to use all possible means to cleanse the hybridized identity and tolerant culture of Hong Kong citizenship by replacing them with monolithic Chinese nationalism and centralized political ideology.

Helen Lai’s Choreographies and Hong Kong Subjectivity

This article is an attempt to bear witness to the hybridized nativism and cosmopolitan vitality defining Hong Kong culture, particularly contemporary dance, through describing and investigating the work of Hong Kong choreographer Helen Lai (1951–). An artist of the baby boomer generation, Lai began her choreographic career in the 1970s and matured in the 1980s and ‘90s. In other words, her artistic development exactly paralleled the formation of the distinct identity of Hong Kong and its culture as the city was transforming into a hub of world finance and an intersection of global cultures. Joining the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) in 1979, she has been recognized as a choreographer whose work resonates strongly with the times and changes of Hong Kong, especially with regard to the city’s colonial and postcolonial identities as well as the vicissitude of its social-cultural fabric.

Helen Lai In the Post 90s by Y Space (2018). Accessed 1 June 2021

A female pioneer in arts in this former British colony, Lai has also been keen to reflect upon the role of women as creators. Moreover, her contemplation on women’s creativity has been enriched by a “postcolonial sensibility” elaborated by many Hong Kong writers since the late 1980s, for instance Chan Koon Chung, Leung Ping-Kwan (梁秉鈞), Wong Pik Wan (黃碧雲), among others. Leung, one of Hong Kong’s most important poets and writers, vividly describes the sophisticatedly hybridized taste and appetite for food among different generations of Hongkongers as a metaphor for the city’s genealogy of colonial acculturation and postcolonial appropriation.[6]

Many of Lai’s works are defined by the intertwined positions of female subjectivity and postcolonial sensibility. They not only provide subject matters and materials for her dance creation but also inform her chorographic strategy, which echoes the extremely mobile and multi-dimensional urban topology of Hong Kong.[7] Australian urban studies scholars Barrie Shelton and others call this mobility and multi-functionality “a state of intencity.” In The Making of Hong Kong: From Vertical to Volumetric (2014), Shelton and others highlight “intensity,” rather than “density,” to define the vibrant nature of the city:

Vitality implies mobility. . . . It implies something that is more than the total sum of all the parts added up together. We will use “intensity” to describe the state. In physics, the term means the total sum of the quality of force or energy (such as heat). In cities, intensity can be used to indicate the inter-actions between human activities. . . . Hence, intensity is much more than the product of density. Having realized this, we need to return to the connecting networks. Networks and nodes allow and encourage the elements of density to implement connections and exchanges.

31, 36

To Shelton and others, Hong Kong being “a state of intencity” is indebted to the three-dimensional “volumetric movement economy” of the transit networks constituting the urban fabric of the city—these include the far-reaching and well-connected metros, buses and trams, long escalators connecting different levels of the city’s infrastructures and landscapes, pedestrian flyovers stretching for miles from one building complex to another. If we replace “cities” with “dance stages” in the paragraph quoted above, we would find that the passage explains equally well the multi-dimensional “volumetric choreographic strategies” of Lai. Such strategies include methods like intertextuality, hybrid body languages, juxtaposition of multiple perspectives, shifting and crisscrossing of narrative lines, and so on. The result is choreographies interwoven with corporeal, cultural, literary, musical and material signs and texts, inviting the spectators to read actively across and in between them. Indeed, these “volumetric choreographic strategies” recall what Roland Barthes writes in “From Work to Text” (1977):

The Text is not a co-existence of meanings but a passage, an overcrossing. . . . The plural of the Text depends, that is, not on the ambiguity of its contents but on what might be called the stereographic plurality of its weave of signifiers (etymologically, the text is a tissue, a woven fabric).


Lai’s choreographies, as will be demonstrated in the article, directly correspond to what Barthes defines as “Text,” “the field of the signifier,” which is “always paradoxical” and “radically symbolic” (158). 

HerStory and Tales of Two Cities: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Eileen Chang (2010), choreographed by Lai, demonstrate what Hong Kong writer Wong Pik Wan calls “the third position” in her Writings on Postcoloniality (後殖民誌): “Ambiguity is my third position. The third position belongs to women, to the Third World, to her. The third position is the genesis of ambivalence and indetermination” (280). This positioning of women’s subjectivity echoes Julia Kristeva’s formulation of “chora,” which denotes:

an essentially mobile and extremely provisional articulation…. [N]ot yet unified in an ordered whole, . . . the chora is . . . subject to a regulating process, which is different from that of symbolic law but nevertheless effectuates discontinuities by temporarily articulating them and then starting over, again and again.


Such a mobile and continuously self-regenerating position of subjectivity resonates with both the “volumetric movement economy” of Hong Kong’s city identity and the “volumetric choreographic strategies” of Lai’s dances. Both exemplify the fluid, porous and multi-functional characteristics of Hong Kong as a city shaped by its extremely dense populations and complex histories.


The Chinese title of HerStory is “Nu Shu” (女書), literally meaning the “writings of women,” a secret written language shared between women and passed down from mothers to daughters in Hunan province in Southern China. The existence of the secret language testifies to the denied and prohibited access to literacy and written knowledge for women in China for many centuries. Nu Shu is often written on daily objects used by women such as fans and handkerchiefs, and the contents usually describe the unjust treatments and misfortunes of women in the traditional patriarchal social and familial systems. Inspired by Nu Shu, Lai draws upon and reinterprets the body images and movement patterns of the kerchief dance and fan dance from the female categories of Chinese dance to comment on the roles of women and their representations socially and aesthetically.[8]

HerStory. Photo: Ringo Chan. With permission from CCDC

Lai uses different pronouns—she, I, they, we, alone or in combination—to title the scenes of the dance, resulting in a constant shifting of narrative perspectives. In the scene “They 她們” (the feminine plural), women in traditional white outfits sit quietly with downcast eyes. To the tender voice of Sainkho Namtchylak, the renowned Tuvan female singer, they glide the folded or opened fans over the different parts of their bodies, shoulders, chests, arms, abdomen, thighs and so on. Their limbs extend sensuously under the caressing touch; yet before long they return to the previous conservative posture with limbs drawn back and legs closed. Traditional Chinese fan dance highlights the subdued beauty of women played out with the hiding and revealing gestures of the fan, appealing to spectatorial taste cultured in patriarchally defined feminine charm.

While alluding to the classical female image, Lai’s interpretation draws our attention to the suppression of women’s sensuous feelings toward their own bodies under the morality of patriarchal gender rule. Suddenly, a woman flips open her fan sharply, followed by others. They wave their fans rapidly against their own torsos or open and close them swiftly and repeatedly as if overtaken by bursts of insuppressible emotions or urges. In contrast to the emphasis on displaying formalized movements and postures of femininity in classical Chinese fan dance, Lai’s choreography highlights the sharp attacks and punctuated flow of energy in the women’s bodies, as a way of conveying the awakening of women’s desires, sensuous perceptions and subjectivities. According to Kristeva, the drives of the chora are “‘energy’ charges as well as ‘psychical’ marks,” and are “analogous only to vocal or kinetic rhythm,” which mobilizes the instinctual drives and corporeal agency of the female bodies to challenge the patriarchal representational system (93–94).

In the scene “She/They,” Lai appropriates the image and technique of the Chinese red kerchief dance to narrate important chapters from the life of women defined by traditional Chinese society. A popular folk dance genre performed by women, the red kerchief dance accentuates the charming and buoyant expression of youthful femininity, and often conveys a celebratory ambience of happiness. In addition, red kerchiefs were traditionally used as the head covering for brides in pre-modern China and hence were highly symbolic objects for women. On the one hand, the red covering signaled the auspicious occasion of wedding and the ensuing expectation of offspring to come. On the other hand, it taught women to accept submissively their fates in marriage since the bride’s vision was blocked by the covering throughout the wedding and they had to wait passively for the groom to lift it before consummation, the moment when they were supposed to meet for the first time in traditional Chinese society.

HerStory. Photo: Ringo Chan. With permission from CCD

The episode begins with six women sitting in a line upstage left, each carrying a red kerchief in their hands. Another woman enters downstage right, also holding a red kerchief. She veils it over her own head like a bride. At that moment, the six women cover their faces with their kerchiefs and contract their torsos as if sobbing to the frictional deep-throat singing of Sainkho Namtchylak. As a counterpoint to the group’s synchronized rhythmic sobbing, the “bride” drops to the floor, stands up, and veils herself, again and again. As she rolls and crawls anxiously, the women in the background begin tossing and turning their red kerchiefs, alluding to gestures from traditional kerchief dance. They then throw the red kerchiefs at their own abdomen and drop them between the legs to the floor abruptly and repeatedly. These gestures and images vividly evoke sanguineous associations related to women’s biological-reproductive cycle—including menstruation, virginal blood, the bloody show before giving birth. Through the rhythmic counterpoints between the solo and the group, a physical-psychological displacement, as well as echoing, is effectuated. While the group in the background “embodies” the female corporeal experience of the bride, the bride in turn “enacts” the fate which every woman in the group is due to undergo—anxiety over marriage and its ensuing rites of passage.

The juxtaposition of the celebratory symbolism of a wedding and the oppressive effect of obsessively repetitive rhythm, accentuated by the compulsive voice of Sainkho Namtchylak’s singing, exemplifies Lai’s postcolonial-feminist strategy of choreography. As illustrated by Wong Pik Wan:

Postcolonial language is a hybrid language. She is neither “Western” nor “Chinese.” She rewrites, contrasts, and pirates[… .] She might appear in the form of Chinese language, but what she refers to might be totally alienated from Chineseness.”


If dance movements can be interpreted as a form of language, in the terms outlined by Wong Pik Wan, Lai’s appropriation of Chinese dance vocabulary in HerStory demonstrates such a postcolonial rewriting. It draws on the gendered quality in traditional Chinese dance steps while complicating their meanings by navigating between conforming to and deviating from the norm, so as to comment not only on the social expectation of women in patriarchal China but also the aesthetic representation of images of women in Chinese dance regulated by patriarchal imagination of femininity.  

Tales of Two Cities

Hong Kong, being a postcolonial space, is “very much a mixed space,” according to Ackbar Abbas:

[A mixed space is defined] not only in terms of its historical structures but also in terms of the postcolonial’s own subjective responses to it. It is marked by the simultaneous presence of different historical layers and sensibilities anachronistically jostling one another, and not easy to separate.


I would argue that another of Lai’s dances, Tales of Two Cities: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Eileen Chang (2010), is one of the best examples for such a “mixed space” of postcoloniality, what Chan describes as “hybrid nativism” embracing cosmopolitanism and multicultural identities as the authentic Hong Kong subjectivity.

Inspired by the life and literary work of the modern Chinese writer Eileen Chang (張愛玲), Tales of Two Cities was a Hong Kong SAR Government Programme for Expo 2010 Shanghai to commemorate the historical connections between the two cities. As one of the most influential Chinese writers of the twentieth century, Chang based the stories of many of her fictions in Shanghai and Hong Kong, the two cosmopolitan cities where she lived for more than thirty years before moving permanently to the U.S. in 1955.   

Tales of Two Cities is an exceptionally complex choreographic “Text,” in the terms defined by Barthes. It is structured with polyphonic narrative lines composed of pre-recorded and live narration of passages from Chang’s writings, layering of diametrically different styles of music, collages of diverse genres of dance ranging from Chinese opera gestures, social dance steps and modern dance movements, among others. Woven in between all these are characters whose identities are multiple and often interchangeable. The result is a “multi-dimensional volumetric choreography” described at the beginning of this article, where connections between different elements and layers of narratives need to be actively pursued in the process of reading the dance. Familiarity with Chang’s literary oeuvres, as well as basic knowledge about the expressive norms of different dance styles and Chinese operas, would greatly enhance the audience’s pleasure, or “jouissance,” to borrow the term from Barthes (164).

Tales of Two Cities. Photo: Ringo Chan. With Permission from CCDC

The choreography begins with the dancer Qiao Yang (喬楊) sitting on the couch upper center stage embodying the aged writer living in seclusion in the last years of her life. Throughout the dance, she rarely ventures away from it as characters from her stories enter, interact and depart. The pre-recorded voice of Qiao reads from Chang: “In the future wasteland, amidst the ruins, only the buoyant female characters (huadan) from the rustic folk operas can survive. In any times and any societies, everywhere can be her home.” This is a sarcastic self-portrait of the writer herself, who survived negligence from parents in childhood and betrayed love in adulthood amidst turmoil brought by wars.

A young dancer, wearing a long green gown that will be put on by different dancers later, enters and performs gestures of the “dan” (female characters) from Chinese operas, alluding to the “huadan” character in the previously recited passage. At the same time, a female voice reads a long string of American addresses, where Chang only briefly lived, each time moving on obsessively like a nomad in her old age. Another young woman in a white dress appears, walking slowly and solitarily along the edge of the white rectangular floor. Later, the audience would realize that she could be the young Chang portrayed in the writer’s many autobiographic writings. Throughout the dance, the white dress becomes, in my view, an important signifier connoting simultaneously the writer in her young age and an archetypal image of young women awaiting to be transformed into different characters in her fictions.

Tales of Two Cities. Photo: Ringo Chan. With Permission from CCDC

Growing up in war-torn China, Chang lived an unstable childhood and young adulthood because of wars and her parents’ divorce. A strong sense of insecurity and the accompanied yearning for love and attachment characterize many of her heroines and often were the reasons for their doomed fates. In the scene just described, a key example of intertextuality, the three female characters each stand for a certain aspect or life stage of the writer. The overlapping or mirroring between different roles and characters in the choreography often result in the intersecting of different narrative lines on a same dancer; or conversely the emotional content of a single character may be manifested in the performance of different dancers on stage. 

One of the best examples is the scene “‘Leave, don’t leave, leave, don’t leave,’” a passage taken from the short story “Ashes of Agarwood—the First Incense Burt.” A female dancer playing the young heroine from that story dances with three men under the scrutinizing gaze of Qiao, who wraps herself in the previously seen green gown. An informed spectator would recognize that she is not only playing the mature writer from the previous scenes but also impersonating simultaneously the heroine’s materialistic aunt, who pimps for her in the upper society of Hong Kong. At the end of the episode, the young heroine’s burgundy blouse is taken away to reveal the white dress underneath. In the following scene, she picks up the role of the young Chang, who is joined by two other similarly dressed young women to enact the estranged relationship between the writer and her mother as remembered in her writings. To the emotional aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Händel’s Rinaldo, Qiao, still wrapped in the green gown, lies motionlessly with her stubborn back to the audience while the three young dancers perform solitary gestures of reaching out as if to embrace someone invisible and unreachable.

The central character played by Qiao bears the multiple identities of the writer, her aloof mother, as well as the many dominating senior women from her fictions. A particular feature of Chang’s narrative strategy is a sense of role-playing observable in the depiction of many of her heroines when they are faced with important moments of their lives, as if they were simultaneously within and without their own actions, being the player and the spectator at the same time. Correspondingly, the reader also finds herself in a double position of empathizing with and maintaining a critical distance from the heroines. Lai’s “volumetric choreographic strategies” draw the audience’s attention to these intriguing aspects of Chang’s writing.

Tales of Two Cities. Photo: Ringo Chan. With Permission from CCDC

A climactic episode of intertextuality occurs near the end of the dance. In the scene “Life is a luxurious evening gown infested with fleas,” a frequently cited sentence from Chang in the Sinophone world, Qiao and a male dancer perform one of the most memorable duets in Lai’s choreography. To the dual melodies of Erik Satie’s Je Te Veux and the folk opera “Er Ren Zhuan” (二人轉) from north-eastern China, Qiao was forced by the man to put on and take off alternately or simultaneously two sets of long gown for the “dan” character. When the French love song triumphs, her body appears full of emotions. As the folk opera gains upper hand, her gestures become as dramatic as the tragic heroines in Chinese traditional theatres. The interweaving of and combatting between the two diametrically opposite styles of music force Qiao to switch swiftly and drastically between polarized dramatic as well as cultural expressions.        

The conflict and tension between old and new, East and West, as well as the interwoven and inlaid nature of the hybridized subjectivities, not only portray the heroines in Chang’s fictions, who often struggle between conservative pragmatism and romantic love, but also depict the characteristics of Hong Kong through the eyes of Lai, a city shaped by its complex layering of historical circumstances and multicultural intersecting. These are exactly the postcolonial sensibilities observed by Abbas:

Given the very complex historical conditions of Hong Kong . . . the postcolonial does not imply the decisive leaving behind of the colonial heritage like a style of clothing that can be simply put on or discarded.


Abbas’s observation echoes Chan Koon Chung’s theory about “roots and wings” (My Generation 54), which argues that the Hong Kong subjectivity has flourished on the multiple roots in its precolonial, colonial and postcolonial heritages, which has long served as the wings that carry the city upward and flying.

Hong Kong with Broken Wings

Many of us in Taiwan watch the events unfolding in Hong Kong since 2019 with a strong sense of déjà vu. In 1947, just two years after Taiwan was liberated from Japanese colonial rule (1895–1945) and returned to China (then the Republic of China ruled by the Chinese Nationalist Party), the bloody “28 February Incident” occurred in Taipei and soon engulfed the whole island.[9] It foreshadowed the imposition of martial law in 1949, the year the R.O.C. was ousted by the P.R.C. to Taiwan, and ushered in decades of autocratic control and censorship in all spheres of Taiwan society until around 1990.[10] One of the key measures was to cleanse the “toxic” traces of Japanese colonialism so as to re-Sinicize the Taiwanese, in addition to harsh persecution of political dissidents in the name of national security. The policy of cultural genetic inversion with political imperatives caused much pain in the Taiwanese, including the use of language, cultural expressions, as well as the legitimacy of certain knowledges and not others. Instead of decolonization, for many Taiwanese the postwar decades were in fact a process of re-colonization by a regime that called itself the “Mother Nation.” This historical memory, as well as its parallel similarity to the recent events in Hong Kong, makes many Taiwanese empathize with Hongkongers and fear for repetition of history.

For a long time until the 1990s, Hong Kong was the most open and free society in the Sinophone world in spite of its status as colony, taking in dissidents from both China and Taiwan and serving as the safe haven for free expressions censored in the other two places. Yet, this status was increasingly eroded in the new century as Beijing became eagerly ambitious in annexing Hong Kong into its economic and political systems despite the “One country, Two systems” promise. The Umbrella Revolution in 2014 was an alarm call that turned Hong Kong into a political hotspot in the world’s geopolitical topography. In many respects, the once politically apathetic majority of Hongkongers became anxiously aware of the collective fate they were faced with. From 2014 to the outbreak of the Anti-Extradition Movement in 2019, the yearning to tell the stories of Hong Kong and to reaffirm its distinct history and cultural identity arose to unprecedented height.

“The Umbrella Revolution in 2014 was an alarm call that turned Hong Kong into a political hotspot in the world’s geopolitical topography.” Photo: Web/Wikipedia

This article has been written with the aim to join these efforts of telling the stories of Hong Kong by narrating and describing the creative vitality and artistic sophistication that until recently was able to openly flourish in the free society of Hong Kong, a fertile land for artists like Lai and many others. As exemplified by the two choreographies discussed, hybrid nativism and cosmopolitan pluralism were the essence of Hong Kong culture and identity. The death sentence of the “One country, Two systems” doctrine pronounced by the National Security Law in 2020 not only jeopardizes the future of this cosmopolis as a world financial center, but would certainly mutilate its cultural vitality and artistic freedom.

NOTE: An earlier version of the article was presented at the Dance Studies Association conference “Contra: Dance and Conflict” in Malta in 2018. Part of its content has been published in the Chinese anthology Six Hong Kong Contemporary Dance Choreographers (1980–2010).


[1] All the translations of the Chinese texts are by the author unless otherwise indicated. The Chinese names are spelled family names first and given names next according to the convention of Chinese language.

[2] See Chan Koon Chung, 2005 & 2008; Chan Ji-Dak; Chui Sing-Yan.

[3] As of 6 May 2021, Hong Kong political activists Joshua Wong Chi-Fung (黃之鋒) and three others were sentenced to 4 to 10 months for “illegally” gathering in Victoria Park on 4 June 2020 to memorialize the Tiananmen Incident. 

[4] The number of demonstrators was estimated around half a million, which forced the SAR government to back down.

[5] “True universal suffrage” means “one person, one vote” for the election of the SAR governor and all the legislative seats. It calls for direct democracy without the screening of candidates by any committees.

[6] See Leung.

[7] SanSan Kwan also draws upon the urban features of Hong Kong’s cityscape to study Lai’s dance, particularly Revolutionary Pekinese Opera (1997). However, her interpretation of the flow and mobility characterizing this global city is different from mine. For a comparison of different readings on Revolutionary Pekinese Opera, see SanSan Kwan and Chen Ya-Ping.

[8] The “Chinese dance” referred to here is the collective term for dance genres that originated from common folks or traditional Chinese operas and were categorized and systemized by dance academies after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It enjoys vast audiences in China and has been adopted and practiced in Hong Kong since the 1950s.

[9] The so-called “28 February Incident” was triggered by discontent of the Taiwanese about the mishandling of economic and social problems by the Chinese Nationalist Government (the K.M.T.). In reaction to the uprisings, the K.M.T. sent troops from mainland China to clamp down the revolts and started arresting local elites to gain complete control of Taiwan. It laid the seed of tension between the Taiwanese and mainlanders, who came to Taiwan between 1945 to the 1950s, for many decades and was a political taboo until the 1990s.

[10] The R.O.C. relocated to Taiwan in 1949 due to the loss of civil war to the P.R.C. The imposition of martial law inaugurated the “White Terror” era, during which many Taiwanese elites as well as mainlanders were persecuted for alleged charges of treason and spying for the communists.



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*Chen Ya-Ping, Associate Professor and director of graduate programs, School of Dance, Taipei National University of the Arts, Taiwan, authored the Chinese monograph Enquiry into Subjectivity: Modernity, History, Taiwan Contemporary Dance (TNUA ARTS Publication Series, 2011). Articles have been published in English and Chinese in various academic journals and dance studies related anthologies. Current research interests include modernity and dance history, contemporary dance in Taiwan and Hong Kong, theories of corporeality, and philosophy of Zhuangzi. She is currently the president of the Taiwan Dance Research Society and serves on the Board of Supervisors of the IATC Taiwan chapter.

Copyright © 2021 Chen Ya-Ping
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