JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Soft D Press (here). Softcover, 13×16 cm, 136 pages, with 115 black and white reproductions. Includes song lyrics (in Chinese/English) from various bands/songwriters. In handmade editions of 15, 50, 50, and 50. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Over the last half dozen years, Hong Kong has existed in an intermittent state of protest. As China’s efforts to exert further legal and political control over the former British colony have expanded, the forces supporting democracy, the “one country two systems” construct, and the autonomous rights of Hong Kong people have risen up to voice their opposition. In 2014, proposed changes to electoral procedures led to the Umbrella Revolution, and last year, proposed changes to the extradition laws (which would have allowed Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to the mainland and charged under Chinese law) brought the people into the streets once again.
As the Anti-extradition Law Movement protests escalated in November of 2019, many of Hong Kong’s universities were occupied, and then surrounded by police, creating protracted and in some cases violent standoffs. Siu Ding’s photobook Not for a Second Did I Think of Backing Down brings us inside those events, providing first-hand witness evidence of the aftermath. Her images document the scene at four of Hong Kong’s most prominent universities (Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Baptist University, University of Hong Kong, and Hong Kong Polytechnic University), offering a compelling visual record of the specific flash point locations. The title of the photobook comes from a song by the Hong Kong band RubberBand, which was sung by the protesters at PolyU (and is reprinted at the beginning of the book).
Ding’s black and white photographs don’t capture the fervent action of the rallies, speeches, sieges, and confrontations, but instead memorialize what came immediately after. There are almost no people in her pictures, aside from a few stragglers and curious onlookers – her scenes are eerily quiet, documenting the zones of previous violence like a war photographer exploring scarred battlefields, which is exactly what these once mundane educational places have become. By day, a sense of crisp brightness exposes the once urgent but now subdued textures of the conflict; by night, the mood darkens and the ghosts emerge, the emptiness echoing through the pock marked streets.
Moving from campus to campus, Ding retraces the steps of the protests. Many of her images document improvised gathering spaces, like tennis courts, dry swimming pools, plazas, parking lots, walkways, and smaller connecting roads. It is here that hundreds of people once huddled together and built barricades and temporary walls out of whatever was at hand to protect themselves. The day after remnants scattered all over tell compelling stories: petrol bombs, empty gas canisters, plastic projectiles, piles of clothing, umbrellas, and countless bricks and uprooted paving stones, many splashed across the ground with obvious force. Overturned desks, chairs, and dorm furniture have been piled into defensive heaps, blocking access to entry areas or feeder roads. Brick walls and screens of bamboo scaffolding have been built, debris and netting have been used to block passageways and escalators, and junk has been thrown onto the nearby subway tracks. Inside the schools, cafeterias and lounges have been commandeered as staging grounds and improvised meeting places, the walls covered with signs and posters. The once tidy halls of academia have been transformed into an impromptu war zone.
Some of Ding’s most haunting photographs show us wide open spaces filled with small piles of bricks. Like Eleanor Antin’s black boots, they seem to represent hundreds of disembodied people, the bricks used as places to sit or stand for crowded protests (and ready as potential projectiles). In the aftermath, they remain, like totems or tombstones in the expansive plazas, scattered across the streets and into the distance, providing a sense of the scale of the crowds.
Ding is also fascinated by graffiti, her pictures documenting words sprayed on walls, sidewalks, poles, stairways, overpasses, and countless other locations, including the barricades themselves. For those who don’t read Chinese, the message of most of the inscriptions and tags will be lost, but the sporadic English language contributions certainly provide a sense for the emotions of the moment: “All day all night we are gonna fight”, “freedom isn’t free”, “you can’t keep me quiet”, “Be aware or be next!”. Several have an endearingly academic tone: “Ideas are bulletproof”, “please treasure the book” (sprayed outside the library), and even an Albert Camus quote in French “Je me révolte, donc je suis”. As photographs, these marks (in whatever language) feel resolutely human, the urgent need to communicate covering nearly every available surface.
The success in Ding’s photographs lies in their emotional immediacy – we feel like we can see what the schools looked like at that time, and also feel the heightened tension, determination, and even anguish that filled the air in the aftermath. Not for a Second Did I Think of Backing Down is a powerful protest photobook, and the images resonate with that charged energy. While Lele Saveri’s photobook Barricades from 2017 (reviewed here) highlighted the abstract patterns found in some of the barriers built during the Umbrella Revolution, Ding’s photographs offer a more intimately melancholy and quietly resolute mood. Especially at night, her pictures of lone chairs, shadowy passageways, candle lit flower memorials, liberty statues, and empty battlegrounds echo with the sounds (and commitments) of passionate engagement. Ding stands a step back to thoughtfully (and artistically) frame the situation, but her heart is in full solidarity with the will of the people of Hong Kong.
In the end, the protesters were successful in creating enough pressure to have the extradition bill withdrawn, and so, in a sense, Ding’s photobook stands as both a memorial to that collective action, and as encouragement for those who will take on the next challenge. With a new national security law recently imposed by China, the legal and political situation in Hong Kong has gotten even more fraught in recent months, with protests and resistance continuing, even amid the virus pandemic. Ding’s empathetic photobook shows us one specific moment in the ongoing struggle, and offers hope for those that continue to fight.
Collector’s POV: Siu Ding does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).
I have had an update from the artist on the piles of bricks found in many of the photographs. The small piles of bricks represent the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong, which has come to be seen as a place blocking the path of democracy. “The protesters built them with the bricks found on the streets, reminding the people who wanted to pass the way was blocked by the HKLCO.”