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Solidarity Above All: Josh Hon and Stephanie Bailey talk about Art, Politics and Football

Stephanie Bailey and Josh Hon in conversation  

Josh Hon is an artist from Hong Kong who trained in the United States before returning to the city in 1982, where he established himself as a central figure in the art and political scenes of what was then a British colony. Hon’s cross-disciplinary practice encapsulated everything from theatre performance to multi-media installation. In this period, he held a critically acclaimed one-man show at the Hong Kong arts centre—one of the final exhibitions the artist staged before leaving Hong Kong following the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, in which a student protest was violently suppressed by the Chinese state. Hon settled in Hope, British Columbia, where he turned his attentions beyond fine art, becoming a therapist specialising in trauma; something Hon views as an extension of his artistic practice.  

This interview concentrates on the artist’s long relationship to football, which included a period of playing in Hong Kong in the 1980s, when Hon became a founding member of a team called Holland Solidarity. In this conversation, Hon discusses the development of a more holistic approach to football, and considers how this relates to his artistic practice. 

Stephanie Bailey: How did the idea to organize a football team based on solidarity in Hong Kong come about?   

Josh Hon: I played football growing up, and my father was also a 1st division player during post-war Hong Kong; he played for Kwong Wah (in Chinese “Bright Chinese” or “China in Radiance”), a team that no longer exists. He also played in “Kit Chi,” still a team in Hong Kong. I became a bit more “serious” about football when I started playing at NCAA university level in the USA. The only time I stopped playing football was the two years I was at Central Washington University studying for my Masters. After that, I played in inter-Mural league games at the University of Illinois, where I did my MFA.  

After returning to Hong Kong during the 1980s, some friends and I formed a football team, and we started making connections with others teams and organizing games. I wouldn’t call it a league, but we did regularly play with local teams that we were compatible with—we were loosely organized at the time. This all happened particularly through my association with David Yick, a buddy from my time at the University of Illinois, where I was in the Fine Arts department, and David was in the Education department working on his PHD. We both ended up teaching at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, though in different departments: I was teaching in the Swire School of Design, and David in the Applied Social Studies Department. Sometimes, we also collaborated in teaching.  

The team that we played in ended up having a lot of early Hong Kong Democratic Party members in it, such as Yeung Sum and Cheung Chi Sing. Later, friends who taught philosophy and design at the Polytechnic like Mok Yeuk Sing and Tsang Tak Ping joined in, and after that, my artist friends got involved—it was around this time that the idea of just randomly recruiting or accepting members into the team didn’t feel like such a good idea. As the team grew, the tension between two camps became an issue. Some team members wanted to play a “beautiful game,” and some members became unhappy that players were yelling at others on the pitch in the name of “getting the job done,” putting winning above all else.  

To counter this, Mok Yeuk Sing and Dennis Ting, a practicing lawyer, and a few others, decided to break away and form a new team that focused on human interaction and solidarity. They decided to draft a manifesto that emphasised these ideas. They insisted that selecting players of good character and who value each other was more important than winning. I was inspired by their insistence and slightly odd aims; I thought winning was important, but having “good” people to play with was also not a bad idea, so I joined them. Together, we worked hard on figuring out how we could play a good game that was targeted and physical, but could also accommodate human relationships. We called that breakaway event “the Spring of Ap Li Chau,” since the manifesto was hammered out at Ap Li Chau by Dennis Ting and Mok Yeuk Sing. Eventually, we named ourselves the Holland Solidarity team, which might have to do with the fact that I picked the Dutch team’s jersey as our team jersey. 

As a team, we worked on creating a support system in the act of football playing that was largely influenced by hermeneutics and philosophical thinking. This idea of contradiction evolved into a training and playing strategy that emphasized teamwork, elimination of central leadership, the development of an offensive play from the defensive zone, and training that included management of fear rather than harnessing energy from fear. (Just as my last 10 years of counselling training informed me that human communication can reduce fear, since fear reduces our ability to track human interaction.)  

So, this is how it went: one team split into two, resulting in Holland Solidarity; and then a third team emerged. This third team became our sister team, which included most of the Democratic Party members and other activist players: they called themselves Sheffield Wednesday because of the black and white jersey they picked. The Holland Solidarity team seemed to attract more artists and philosophers. Between the teams, we did exchange players often, like when a team was short of a player, for example.  

SB: How did the football team create a philosophy that was respectful, inclusive, and open?  

Josh Hon: Those who joined Holland Solidarity felt like they naturally fit in. And those teams we chose to play with were also on similar frequencies as us. I would say that when you respect others, others reciprocate rather well, and quite surprisingly. As Lao Zhi said, and this is my translation: “respect/trust those who are respectful and trustful, respect /trust those who are not respectful/trustful. That is concrete respect/trust.” 

But I must admit, I did think that using a manifesto and claiming solidarity as a platform was a kind of overkill: The team itself never participated in social justice actions, movements, or causes, though individual members certainly did. But the team spirit that it promoted—creating respectful relationships within a group—still carries on to this day. The current team manager, Kari Chiu, has done a good job of keeping that chemistry and momentum, and we have a number of core members who seem to keep the team’s identity intact and true to its intentions, even as it has grown, with older members retiring and new members coming in from different backgrounds.  

SB: Looking back, do you think that what you were doing was a political action, as much as it was an action predicated on teamwork and play?  

Josh Hon: Is this style of football playing based on communicative-action? Just to let you know, David Yick studied Habermas’ notion of communicative-action, as well hermeneutics, which had a great impact on the Applied Social Science department at the Polytechnic, as well as on me and the team.  

To explain, let’s go back to the ground level of football playing and organization. Football manifests itself as a social reality, or puts social ideas into practice: managing a team of players. Encouraging a climate of communication and mutual respect is probably a good way to organize a football team, or for that matter any social group that aims to be, to use that dirty word, democratic. This creates a movement from a “I am better then you” mentality towards an enjoyment of being with and challenging others. As a sociopolitical reading, one can easily place this approach within the wider context of Hong Kong in the 1980s and 90s; this was when Hong Kong was just waking up to the reality of the colonial condition, predicated as it was on everyone looking out for themselves in order to survive. There was a greater sense of self-awareness, identity searching, and an attempt at moving away from a fear-based existence. That larger social context gave space to our little experimental football revolution! 

The use of the word solidarity when it came to our manifesto, for example, is fitting when thinking about how Hong Kong’s social direction was developing at the time towards an enlightened social-understanding, in which people became self-empowered to stand up and fight for a say in political and social change. Even if we never participated in social movements as a football team, we knew that we were all very much “in solidarity” with one another and with the movements around us. We all enacted our solidarity in very different ways, and from very different positions. As I mentioned, sometimes these posts crossed, and it was very natural. We have always had members from across the social spectrum, including those who have worked within the government as top-level economic advisers, political and social professors, lawyers, social activists and artists, and law enforcement workers. 

In terms of playing on the field, my own observation and analysis of the period between the 1960s and the 1980s was that the Dutch team in Europe, and in particular the team in Johan Cruyff’s time—the King of football, as important as Pele—was important; even though the coaches that led to the transformation of the Dutch team were the real unsung heroes. At that time, what distinguished British football style was the use of the length and breadth of the field in terms of movement. The Brazilian team, as I observed then, used the inner spaces of the field by doing a lot of transitional passes which involved a lot tight space shifts. That requires more sensitive body language and somatic sensing, and means that it might take some time to get to the goal post, which points to the enjoyment we see in the Brazilian game, and the famous dance-like moves that have come to characterize some football playing styles.  

During this period, the Dutch team had this idea of combining the Brazilian team’s small group short passes and progression, which emphasized in-group communication and improvisational interactive variation with the British structural approach—that is, the strategic use of the whole field. This was a simplicity I found very inspiring and fitting to some of the ideas I was and am thinking about. At the time, I felt like the Dutch approach combined these two elements beautifully; the legacy of which one can see in the development of the Spanish teams and particularly the Barcelona Football Club.  

However, such interaction of styles and their effectiveness in terms of both team building and scoring potential have, as I see it, become a standard way of playing in Europe and Asia, and this has even affected the South American and African teams, too. In the 30 years since we started our football teams in Hong Kong, inspired as we were by the international teams we were watching at the time, it seems we have seenaconcurrent process in terms of how the world plays football in general: a matter that might also reflect how society has or could be organized differently. In our case, we dug deep and validated how one’s inner need drives us, and yet we worked hard to establish a larger structural parameter to contain, guide and give direction to human action. In this process, we learned that the key is finding how these multi-bi-directional feedback elements work, and transform with/against each other.  

To give an example of how this works on a societal level, imagine a small clinic system, which addresses local problems and more easily accommodates local needs, and perhaps even folk wisdom and traditions, into their practices. Then you have the large-scale system of the health authority, and the large hospital, which has the advantage of general trend analysis and research. The idea is to accommodate these two practices in one country, or in our case, one team. The challenge is to recognize and explore the other, third reference that guides how these two practices do not only exist side by side, but also interact successfully. 

Putting all of this into a 1980s context, the teams I was involved in kept a sense of cohesiveness across many levels: we played and shared life stories together, we were all very close friends, with some friendships dating back to high school, college, and university years. Some made moves to work in the same department at universities and collaborate on projects. As the social movement in Hong Kong heated up, we walked the streets together as part of the demonstrations. This also fed into the way we played football and how we supported and trusted each other both on and off the field. This closeness meant that we were not afraid to call each other out. As we grew, we became best men at each other’s weddings; we’d have dinners together. After leaving Hong Kong, I still connect with them every time I return and still play games with the team, although most members of my age group no longer play. I even introduced four young players that I trained and coached from Vancouver and a couple of my wife’s nephews to the team. 

SB: How did this all influence your practice as an artist? 

Josh Hon: The understanding of the eternal tension and complementary effect between structure and emotive content from art practices has a definite influence on football practice. Football practices and counselling practices have reminded me that the meaning in making, such as in the process of art making, has to be born out of a practical hermeneutical and collaborative social context. They are the substrate of any ideal form of transcendental experience making. 

SB: Could you talk about your decision to leave Hong Kong, and how your practice as an artist changed once you landed in Hope, Canada?  

Josh Hon: I felt burned out and reacted to the 1989 Tiananmen Square events. I felt that the problems within society had a lot has to do with rationalization, which in turn created alienation. And the solution was more rationalization. So I decided to leave Hong Kong for Hope, British Columbia. I needed to reconnect with nature, and myself. I stopped actively making fine art, and started doing pottery and making nature sketches. I tried to find ways to serve the community—concrete hermeneutic practice!—and ended up being a trauma therapist. Before I became a therapist, I spent time as a lifeguard, a swimming and weight instructor, a football coach, and I practiced yoga. The body kept me grounded. Now that I understand trauma better, I appreciate the missing linkbetween the soma, the mind, and health. 

SB: You have said that becoming a trauma therapist is an extension of your practice. Could you elaborate on that? 

Josh Hon: My project/practice was to explore ways to become a full human being. All work and non-work came under that curiosity and interest. In the old days, my efforts found themselves in a comfortable arena of art practice. Now, I have found art as a part of the space that includes other practices such as football, social responses, trauma healing, among others. I do feel a lot freer these days. 

SB: You recently staged an exhibition at Centre A, the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, titled Dead Water Convulsion–Hong Kong–1980s, which was curated by Leung Chi Wo and focused on your artistic career in Hong Kong before your departure to Canada. How did you feel about showing your work after all this time?  

Josh Hon: The show was important and meaningful for me. It allowed me to feel a new sense of self that is more complete. In my interview with CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corp), I mentioned reopening my paintings that had been sealed for 20 years, untouched, and thinking: “that painting really has a beautiful paint surface.” I reconnected with a sense of acceptance and appreciation for my work and myself, which I might not have had before. I realized beauty is skin deep when skin is both your connection to the outside world and your inner world. Skin is sensitive and deep, that is.  

The paintings selected are some of my earlier works on geometric re/deconstruction and later expressive figurative painting of human spirit re/deconstruction. Both styles look very different and this show put them in dialogue with each other. The interaction unveiled the commonality behind the surface differences: what they share is a challenge to the pre-existing order and an exploration of other possibilities by dissecting the old, strategically.  

The show also presented documentation from two of my very early theatre works, Dead Water Convulsion and As:If, His/Story. The first addressed my reaction to Hong Kong’s abrasiveness as a society: an overall feeling of discomfort, a sense of limitedness, and an aggression towards reflective space and exploration of agency. In response, I used cold and damp environments with water and ice, dissecting how the Chinese address the identification of “Self” through theatrical and expressive gestures. The second was experimentation with open structures in theatre collaborations in which the directorial role was removed, and in place was a structure of various layers that enabled performers and audience members to mix. The inner layer was lined with clear plastic, within which I was stationed with a collaborating musician, while a self-proclaimed anarchist theatre group inhabited the outer layer. We did not know what the other would do exactly—although I knew the anarchist theatre group would address the colonial history of Taiwan. It was all very improvised; we interacted on the fly. A choreographer was also involved, working with video interaction, and the audience joined in by tearing the stage down, creating an ambience of chaos and destruction. The next day, we would regroup and go from there. In all, that collaboration incorporated essences of the Dada happenings and Grotowski’s “poor theatre.” Boy, did I have a lot to digest and learn from that.  

As part of the Centre A exhibition, I also restaged an art installation that was first presented in the 1980’s as part of my Out of Context show, in which I used my Hong Kong studio as an exhibition space and invited twenty to thirty artists to join in creating the exhibition. My contribution was a confrontation/dialogue between an ice block and a refrigerator with white lettering placed on the floor in front of the ice and fridge that read: AS, IF, IS.  

As a result of the exhibition, a couple of art projects have sprung out, and I feel like I am ready for this now, after twenty years of working outside the art world system. I hope this time I can find a balance between a social project and an appropriate private space that enables contemplation: a balance neither the Brazilian nor the British achieved in football back in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, though there were certainly glimpses of brilliance with the Dutch and Spanish teams during that time. 

SB: Have you continued playing football in Canada? 

Josh Hon: 10 years ago, I trained a group of youngsters in Vancouver from the ground up based on my rudimentary mis/understanding of the Dutch idea, and I am still trying to influence the two teams that I currently play with in Vancouver with some of the ideas I learned in Hong Kong, although I am not as active. 

I did recently join a new team, and we played a friendly game with another team that has quite a few former 1st division players from Hong Kong and China. The same conflicting problem as I experienced in Hong Kong arose: a few players from this new team wanted to win badly, which cut short any chance of collaborating and resulted in a lot of blaming when we lost. I felt in order for the team to be better, it needed to have a long-term and formalized training plan. Of course, I had some ideas in mind based on my own experiences with football teams and the solidarity we created among ourselves. But I also knew that this could not be realized haphazardly. 

Let me pause here. I feel that this is the same story for any other recreational sports team anywhere. We all face these questions about whether we should stay competitive and eliminate the weaker players, or stay “fun” and eliminate the aggressive players. So there is really nothing new to this except the desire to find a way to excel without resorting to a cutthroat practice. Departing from organizing football, I find playing football and doing art have a lot in common. 

SB: This brings me to my last question: what relationship do you see between football and making art?

Josh Hon: The question is very interesting, so I’ll try to offer some concise points: 

1. Football, painting and theatre are very physical and emotional. They both are confined in a square and in a specific time- and space-sensitive manner.

2. They all require a lot of cornering before arriving at a “finishing moment” that is sublime, beautiful but absolutely should not be contrived.

3. All require a high degree of training, a subsequent letting go of said training, and being in the Zone, particularly when approaching the finishing stage, which is to score a goal, or complete an artwork. 

4. I still treasure the painting process, but it is special because it is a solitary process. Theatre and football thrives on interpersonal interaction that are here, now, and relational. They are based on trust. Painting is basically the same, except it is more heavily focused on the intra-personal, or on the transcendental. Maybe that is the reason why in the post-modern climate, painting did not thrive. In the post-modern era, the self is dug open and the reference as a subject is deleted. We have ended up with what Deleuze and Guattarri pushed for: a horizontal rhizome-outreach on a smooth surface. I appreciate what they addressed, which was the problem of fascism, but in doing so, we threw away both the inner self and third party references—god, enlightenment, psyche, and so on. In that way, the usual strength a painting holds has no place in such environment.

5. Arts in general have a thematic intention but football’s goal is pre-set and clear and gives space for stylistic flare: for example, style becomes the content. Art tends toward the idea that the message is the content. (Except for Marshall McLuhan and the post-modern.)

6. To manage emotion and physical engagement and to accomplish a rather abstract ending is the common beauty between art making and football playing.

7. In fact, these two experiences inform each other, just like cross training. But one doesn’t and couldn’t replace the other because of the differences in their intrinsic meaning, methods of production, and the motivations that drive the practice.

Illustration by Zoe Taylor

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