When artist Pun Sing Lui poured red paint over a statue of Queen Victoria and bashed in her nose with a hammer, some Hong Kong artists turned up theirs.
"It's not art, it's vandalism," sniffed one art critic of the move.
"It's like an act from the Cultural Revolution," said Johnson Chang, a gallery curator who has fostered avant-garde art in Hong Kong, referring to the period of upheaval in China from 1966-1976 when Red Guards destroyed artworks they called "feudal relics." "Hong Kong artists tend to be more private in their approach--more complex, more subtle."
The police thought Pun was just plain crazy. Covered head to toe in red paint himself, he spent two nights in a psychiatric institution before being sentenced to 28 days in jail.
Extreme, revolutionary or even nuts, Pun managed to focus Hong Kong's spotlight on the arts community, which usually scrapes by on the fringes of this commercial city. And though some of his own colleagues distanced themselves from the radical 27-year-old with his shaved head and stark ideals, he spurred them--and the rest of Hong Kong--to confront their shifting identity in the final months before China reclaims the territory on July 1, 1997.
"People's reactions to his act were, in a sense, answering the question: 'Who are we?' " said Hong Chin Tin, a political commentator.
As Chinese people under British colonial rule for the past 150 years, Hong Kong people's loyalties are decidedly mixed.
Many here, for example, viewed the queen's statue not as a symbol of oppressive rule, as Pun did, but almost fondly, using it as a benign backdrop for family snapshots in Victoria Park. More offensive to participants discussing Pun's "exhibition" at an art symposium were his Cultural Revolution-style tactics that so many onetime Chinese refugees in Hong Kong had fled.
"The absence of outrage means we're not British, and we're not Chinese like the mainland," Hong said. "We're somewhere in an uncharted territory in between."
The impending change in sovereignty--and identity--is a theme that dominates everyday life in Hong Kong and the territory's art as well.
A sample of titles of recent art exhibitions and dance performances tells the tale: "6/30"--referring to the date of the reversion; "Being China, Being Hong Kong"; and "Life in a Schizophrenic City." This month, one gallery will sponsor an exhibit focusing on Hong Kong's past; in December, another will have a show looking at Hong Kong's future.
"It seems we are obsessed," said Wong Shun Kit, an installation artist who came to Hong Kong from China 13 years ago.
"Floating," one of his recent exhibitions, juxtaposed three versions of Hong Kong's map floating on water--one was a barren plot inhabited by snakes--and helium-filled figures drifting above. He observed that "1997 is part of every day's conversation. People speculate about what will happen next; little changes are reported in the newspaper each morning--we can never escape it. So we take it as an inspiration. It forces us to confront the future with urgency."
Long seen as indifferent to their Chinese roots, or even willfully amnesiac, Hong Kong artists are finally delving into the territory's hybrid legacy.
Suddenly they are appropriating their cultural history and throwing it back, transformed, in the face of Beijing.
In his installation for the exhibit, "Being China, Being Hong Kong," Wong, 43, looks at the past to warn about what might come next: A haloed Mao Tse-tung waves a mechanized arm at adoring masses; next to him stands Confucius, whose ideas about unwavering respect for parents were transformed by Mao into a kind of political worship.
As China tries to stir up loyalty to the motherland in Hong Kong, Wong warns of blind nationalism--an easy path in an uncertain time.
"Hong Kong is like China's child, but we must be sure we can mature, progress and not fall backward," he said, switching into staccato English, his fourth language. "We must continue to be able to stand up to the mother and keep our freedom."
The transition to the July 1, 1997, Chinese takeover is shadowed by an earlier date: June 4, 1989, the day that Chinese tanks crushed a pro-democracy protest in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, creating doubt among Hong Kong people that their future rulers would respect the territory's freedoms.
In an attempt to deconstruct the conflicted nationalistic feelings percolating in Hong Kong, Oscar Ho, director of the Hong Kong Arts Center, invited established artists like Wong, as well as schoolchildren, to respond to the theme of "Being China, Being Hong Kong."
"We wanted to show the ambiguities of culture and dismantle the nationalism a bit--to ask, 'What do you mean when you talk about China?' " Ho said. "And in the process of addressing China, a quite distinctive picture of Hong Kong emerged."
Hong Kong, Ho said, is exceedingly adaptive, embracing all kinds of sensibilities. It has an ability to digest, reinterpret and rearrange--a synthesis that some interpret as a lack of viewpoint.
But the notion of conflicted identity in the older artists' work was clear. Their offerings ranged from a series of images from Chinese history that can only be viewed through distorted mirrors to an evening gown fashioned from bandages and Chinese New Year cards to represent the wounds and the joy that come with being Chinese.
The main theme of the children's art was fear. Tanks scribbled in crayon rumbled through Hong Kong households; another painting depicted a grand country with skyscrapers and rocket ships--and a tiny child in the corner with a gagged mouth.
The fear of censorship is a dark backdrop to the frenzied creations in the year before the hand-over.
"Who knows what will come next," said Ban Cheong, 31, an organizer of Hong Kong's Young Artists Assn. "Maybe after next year, there will be no more ironic use of Mao, no parodies of Deng" Xiaoping, China's paramount leader.
Cheong is preparing 97 life-size, human-shaped lanterns, rounded and weighted at the bottom so they will rock in the wind but not fall. They will be illuminated by ultraviolet light. Cheong plans to arrange them close together, so the movement of one will affect the others crowded nearby. They will move the way a rumor ripples through Hong Kong, the way a flock of sheep responds when spooked. The display will stand for more than a month, until 1997. Then the light will go out.
While the unknowns ahead prompt anxiety not only about censorship but also about general support for the arts under the new government, the possible limits are--in themselves--inspiring, Cheong said, arguing: "A mainland artist has said that we squander our freedom. Perhaps it will be good to have limits to push up against. Conflict can be inspiring."