Author: Charlene K. Lau
I first met Huang Po-Chih on a research visit to Taipei in April 2019 for the Performa Biennial, my encounter with his installation After After Party (2019) at the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT) in Hong Kong fresh in my mind from earlier in the trip. Based on what I had seen of his work, I knew he aimed to amplify the stories of everyday life and people no matter how modest. I also understood that labour and undercurrents of class, migration and global capital were key intersecting concepts in Po-Chih’s practice, weaving in elements of sculpture, performance, literature and sharing.
When I began working with Po-Chih months later on his Performa 19 commission that was to become Heaven on Fourth (2019), I didn’t foresee aspects of the complexity that lay ahead. The performance was to pay respects to Song Yang, a massage parlour worker in Flushing, Queens who fell to her untimely death during a police raid. Marginalized not only for her race and immigration status, Yang was triply marginalized for her status as a sex worker. I understood the sensitive nature of Yang’s story and the complications with presenting this material in a public way. But I also had what might be considered the “usual” logistical anxieties about around presenting anything public: would everything be built and installed on time? Would we get good performers? Will people buy tickets?
Day one of Performa 19, I was fresh out of a screening at Anthology Film Archives, speaking to a friend who was heading off to a fundraiser for Red Canary Song (RCS), an advocacy group for migrant and Asian sex workers in New York City. “What a coincidence!” I thought, as I told my friend that I was working on a project with Po-Chih and we had tried unsuccessfully to get in contact with RCS in the months before. I invited her to meet Po-Chih later that night at a performance, thinking it was serendipitous as we were also seeking readers for his work. What followed didn’t really go according to plan. Eventually, RCS members caught wind of the project and asked that we be held accountable for the work going ahead without their consultation.
A week before the performance opened, we met with current RCS members over tea at a Chinatown café. They schooled us in sex work decriminalization before presenting a list of demands and proposing changes, interventions and teach-ins. Some points of contention: why were none of the contracted writers sex workers themselves? Were any of the readers sex workers? It was a deeply charged meeting that asked exponentially more questions than it provided answers. It was a point of crisis, throwing the whole performance into question and forcing us to deal with the stark realities of speculative writing and creative licence.
While we could not implement all of RCS’s demands, we did what we could in a short amount of time in concert with the frenzy and unique challenges of a performance biennial. We made small changes: updating language on the Performa 19 website by including a mention of Red Canary Song and directing donations to them; inviting its members to performances; and having them provide a live statement in response post-performance. We also had conversations with RCS co-founder and former member Kate Zen, connecting us with Yang’s brother in China. This doesn’t change the fact that current group members — many of them artists themselves — were hurt by our choices, as Heaven on Fourth re-enacted past traumas of marginalization and opened old wounds. On the other hand, Zen’s response to the performance was affirmative, and she provided constructive ways in which to continue working. And so, in a split from past and present RCS members, there was no consensus on Heaven on Fourth, i.e. whether it was “bad” or “good,” “right” or “wrong.” But then again, no artwork can easily be reduced to these black and white terms.
That said, we can always strive to do better. My own observations of the performance included a moment in which colonial bodies (viewers, voyeurs) enacted their whiteness in ascending the stage’s staircase to receive a massage and a story. In a troubling replication of real life, a white male audience member almost bounded up the stairs, a bit too happy to be getting a massage from the Chinese masseuse. I was shocked. Orientalist realities and the power imbalance between whites and the oppressed were immediately laid bare. Performed before my very eyes in real time, this unscripted movement held up a chilling mirror to the theatre of everyday life. It served as a stark reminder that not all bodies take up space equally and that power relations activated within the audience have the potential to alter a performance. All this was a learning experience: someone will always have something to say; unexpected things may happen, things that you would never have thought of before. But this doesn’t mean “don’t do something because you might be wrong.” Do the things, make the mistakes, be humbled. Projects don’t have to be the finite end points we make them, and it’s better (and more interesting!) that they remain open to change and modulation. Open heart, open mind.
For me, working with Po-Chih on this performance underlined the importance of collaboration, care and time, all of which provide a real education for everyone involved, no matter what happens along the way. Yes, we made errors in judgement, but they represented important and necessary steps in the process to making this and future works. The kinship and community that Heaven on Fourth generated was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in such a compact amount of time. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
 From Red Canary Song’s website: “We began our organizing in a fight for justice and police accountability, after the death of flushing massage worker, Yang Song, who was killed during a police raid in November 2017. We started as a project to provide legal support for her family and help her mother pay for healthcare expenses.”
Performa commission, co-commissioned with Taipei Fine Arts Museum for the Performa 19 Biennial