Play as a foundation of common good

Alex Tam 
Centre for Research and Development in Visual Arts, Hong Kong Baptist University
10.18278/aia.5.1.6

Alex Tam is a Clore Fellow of 2015 who is experienced in working on art projects that engage with issues connected to the notion of history, memory, collective learning and place-making. He is the Centre Executive of the Centre for Research and Development in Visual Arts, Hong Kong Baptist University, which plays an important role in the cultural landscape in Hong Kong for knowledge exchange, as well as being a community hub for the visual culture in Hong Kong. In 2016, he co-founded Play Depot, an open-for-all community playground based in To Kwa Wan, a used-to-be industrial district, in Hong Kong, that encourages social interaction and creative play among local residents; enhance social engagement among themselves and with the public realm at large. 

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Photo 1. The Play Depot connects residents with a supportive community network where various activities are self-organised.

Hong Kong has faced escalating social turmoil and growing hatred towards the government, especially the police force, for abuse of power since June 2019 (Yu and Kuo 2019). Public anger is on-going due to the government’s failure to lead honestly and listen deeply to public concerns (Cheng 2019). Evidence of police brutality and collusion has been circulating in many media reports, both local and international (Amnesty International Hong Kong 2019; Chan 2019; Hernández et al. 2019; Mahtani et al. 2019). This is not merely a political issue, but an ethical flaw that has tremendous social consequences and has reached the critical point of destroying people’s lives and wellness and the social contract. At a time of tremendous divisiveness in society, I have seen friends and families break apart due to different political views, neighbours lose trust in others, and people suffer from mental breakdown and give up their life (Haas 2019; Lai 2019; Time 2019). As an art practitioner working to foster civic awareness and achieve an egalitarian, inclusive, fair, and just society through public practice, I felt disgruntled and resentful towards the Hong Kong government for their inability to uphold universal values and morals. The current conflict affects my work considerably. I am unwilling to be dragged into this awful situation, but no one can be shielded from the negative impact that the current crisis has upon us. It has left me no choice but to postpone or even cancel most planned public activities for the past three months, partly as a precautionary measure to reduce the safety risk for visitors and partly as a way of sending an urgent message to authorities and the outside world that our city is entering into an unprecedented crisis in which the old norms no longer exist and widespread deception is the new norm. In many ways, it has been a dark time, but I realised that despite the endless hurt that people in Hong Kong are experiencing, a healing process could happen at the same time to develop resilience in the face of difficulties and crises. Since October 2019, our project has slowly been picking up the momentum and resuming again.

In fact, this terrible situation is not unfamiliar to me. I can still remember the disappointment and frustration people had five years ago as many consider the Umbrella Movement – a pro-democracy political movement in 2014 that resulted in a seventy-nine-day occupation of the city centre demanding universal suffrage for the 2017 chief executive election (BBC 2019) – to be a complete failure. This generated increasingly widespread apathy and anxiety among students, young people, artists, and society at large towards social and political issues.

This article, written on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, describes the sentiment and state of mind in which I co-founded Play Depot with my artist friends three years ago. Our first impulse in responding to the situation was to use artistic means to produce counter-narratives. We reckoned that it is essential to create a “safe” space that allows us to cope with our vulnerabilities, uncertainties, ambiguities, and strengths.

Located in a century-old animal quarantine depot (a Grade II listed heritage building now transformed into an artist village) in a former industrial district in Hong Kong, Play Depot is a socially engaged art project that aims to promote a sense of place in residents and incite people’s creativity and imagination through creative play. Our long-term ambition is to shift public participation in art and culture away from indifference, passive consuming to active participating and producing. We believe that two key elements can make this transformation possible: creativity and playfulness. A specific question that guides our work therefore is this: how can play be used to create spaces that promote creative thinking and action, communication, interaction, and trust?

As an open-for-all community playground, it was founded upon ideals that encourage social interaction and creative play among local residents, and enhance social engagement among themselves and with the public at large. We embrace openness and generosity, which underpin the values of the project. We explore playful ways that help us step out into uncharted terrain with a long-term view to mediate difference in an increasingly fragmented community.

The site is an open playground that provides playful and creative workshops and activities. The project is popular among children and their parents from different social hierarchies, who play and participate in games with each other (Photo 1).

The neighbouring area of our space faces impeding gentrification and a lack of public space for either adults or children, due to business-driven urban redevelopment. Many new immigrants from mainland China and South Asian countries, such as Nepal, Pakistan, and India, have settled in the area because of the relatively affordable rental rates. Most of them are low-income workers with unstable working status. However, as many new high-rise residential and commercial buildings have displaced the old ones where people used to live, the social fabric of the neighbourhood is changed rapidly by gentrification. Apart from that, lots of parks and playgrounds in the area have been turned into construction sites for the MTR in To Kwa Wan. The lack of playground area and family-friendly facilities is a big concern for the community (Photo 2).

Photo 2. Opposite to our project space is a sixty-year-old neighbourhood of around eighty eight-storey buildings, where low-income families from ethnic minorities and newcomers from Mainland China are located.

Our mission is to inspire and motivate people to be creative and imaginative by sharing new ways of play, and to explore the potential for socially engaged art practice as a vehicle to generate new collaborations and social cohesion. A rolling artist-in-residence programme is held at our space, each taking a different theme and artistic approach. Every season, a resident artist is invited to work for three months in collaboration with the community to transform the space into a new playground.

Through different open-ended arts programmes, we encourage young people, parents, and children to invent their own creative playthings from waste materials collected from the area, such as wooden plywood pallets, abandoned tyres, used clothing, and recycled paper. We bring together artists, artisans, children, parents, and youth to exchange their skills, knowledge, and experiences with each other (Photo 3).

Photo 3. Play Depot works to transform underutilized public spaces into community playgrounds where people can create something on their own and unleash their creativity and aspires to create a socially inclusive space through co-creation approaches.

When children and their families come to the space, they can direct their own imaginative play by experimenting with different materials and play objects, discovering new creative processes in a socially mediated learning environment. Interactions across generations, through the passing on of art and craft-making skills from artists and artisans to youngsters, are encouraged. Youngsters can apply the skills that they learned to create new toys for children. Partnerships are also a key element of the project. We have developed strong relationships with local community groups, schools, youth centres, and social organizations. Together, we create a caring, creative and convivial environment for all people regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, income, or educational background to share the joy of creativity and socialise without a set agenda. The type of people who come to our space generally include:

Families:

Parents in Hong Kong are very concerned with the physical and emotional wellbeing of their children in an increasingly pressurized education system. Many of them find existing children activities too expensive and not well suited to their individual needs. They always look for different games and activities that are intellectually and physically rewarding to play with their children, and have loads of ideas to make toys from scrap materials for sharing with others.

Children:

Lots of neighbouring children from different backgrounds come to our space. Some are from ethnic minorities, e.g., Muhsan is a kid from the Pakistani community in Hong Kong whose parents are from working class backgrounds living in the neighbouring area. He comes with his younger sister and friends almost every other day (Photo 4).

Photo 4. An everyday scene at Play Depot, where artists join the children from the neighbourhood to play and have fun together.

Retirees:

Mr Leung is a retiree who has been living in the neighbouring area for over thirty years. He used to work in a small factory nearby operating hydraulic press machines to press metal and stainless steel into tools. He regards craft as a form of play. He enjoys using scrap wood to design and make chairs that he then gives away.

Photo 5. Mr Leung, a retired factory technician living in the area for over thirty years, generously brings love and care to the community by giving people a place to rest with his handmade wooden lounge chairs, thanks to his great craftwork skills.

We believe that play is for everybody. It involves tactile connections among materials, people, and ideas. It inherently has a social dimension, as play increases people’s engagements with their social and physical environments. The activities at Play Depot are free flowing, participative, and ever changing in order to counter with the problem of societal consumerist attitudes. Our approach, unlike those of other organisations engaging public audiences with arts and culture, is not from a consumption point of view. As Barnard (2004) states, “people have become divorced from authentic experience, are passive spectators of their own lives and no longer communicate or participate in the society of spectacle. The dominant form of spectacular commodity production and consumption ensures that people do not engage in self-directed or autonomous activity, but answer the needs of the spectacle.” The focus of our activities is to offer different forms of authentic experiences and proactive behaviours.

Huizinga (1955) reminds us at the beginning of his book Homo Ludens that “all play is a voluntary activity” and so “play to order is no longer play.” He then emphasizes the idea of play as an act of freedom that is bounded. It entails a set of rules and responsibilities underpinned by an ethic of fair play. This is evident from a quote from him:

Civilization will, in a sense, always be played according to certain rules, and true civilization will always demand fair play. Fair play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms. Hence the cheat or the spoil-sport shatters civilization itself. To be a sound culture-creating force this play-element must be pure. It must not consist in the darkening or debasing of standards set up by reason, faith or humanity. It must not be a false seeming, a masking of political purposes behind the illusion of genuine play-forms. True play knows no propaganda; its aim is in itself, and its familiar spirit is happy inspiration. (Huizinga 1955)

His book not only lucidly unfolds the meanings of play, but also sheds new light on its pivotal roles and functions in shaping various aspects of our cultures and thus civilization of society. It articulates the virtues and criteria that need to be cultivated deep in the hearts of everyone in order for a just and civilized society to be sustained.

At the heart of play is the high degree of freedom that we have to shape our own lives and the world around us. Flanagan (2009) gives us the best description of play in this context. In her book Critical Play: Radical Game Design, she defines play “as a process of signification, play traverses ordinary life and allows players to take on difficult issues from an insulated position.” It is known that play is essential to children’s growth, cognitive development, and socialisation. It is also commonly agreed that play is progressive, engaging, and communal. But in addition to that, through this project, we would like to contribute towards building resilience and common good with the community that we serve, particularly with those who do not have easy access to play or traditionally not been considered to be involved in creative endeavours. A key aspect of this project is to employ an inclusive approach so as to expand the target group to include participants, making the group as diverse as possible.

Many people tend to think themselves too small to make a difference to the society, let alone collectively to enact a shared common goal. Of course, the complexity of the problems that our societies and humanity face is beyond our comprehension. China’s authoritarianism, US right-wing populism, UK’s Brexit, and Europe’s refugee crisis … all over the world, most societies have become more polarized. Looking at history of the world, we know that civilization can easily come to a halt in a blink.

But the notion of play makes us think in another way about what we can do. It changes people from being aloof and withdrawn to being proactive and engaged in genuine dialogue. Most people seem to think human beings are an advanced creation. But most do not see that we are still affected by our primal nature.

Despite the fact that we are still primal beings, a brighter side of our innate nature exists – the ability of play that is rooted in human nature and that is not something we need to learn to do. We should exercise more this positive side of our innate ability in order to redefine our limitations and replace negativity with positivity. This innate nature enables us to open up our eyes to possibilities, look for new ways of doing things, and recognise needs in others. Through this innate nature, we cultivate our virtues and train ourselves to be better citizens.

Soon after we embarked on this project, we were successful in enhancing people’s access to public spaces through our socially engaged arts practice. We brought together a lot of local residents and neighbours who might not have met each other otherwise. Over the last three years, we have gone further to be a catalyst that empowers the local community regardless of age and background to incite creativity and a spirit of communal support, sharing, and generosity through playfulness activities.

Yet still, in spite of all these efforts, we know that we cannot solve all problems with this tiny project. There seems to be no end in sight to the political and social crisis in Hong Kong. The current situation forces us to acknowledge the fact that our society has become even more polarised. I think it is fair to say that there is a tremendous friction that feeds into further polarisation and the danger of indifference associated with it, as oppose to the counter-narrative that we are bringing about.

I believe in the creative power of arts. It can help people recognise that they can take control of their life and make changes to society. The arts are a precious asset to be shared with all people regardless of their background, which enables us to work more collaboratively. There is still much to do in order to unlock people’s desire for the arts and to reach a wider public. All in all, at a critical and uncertain time, play is even more important.

References

Amnesty International Hong Kong. 2019. “Verified: Hong Kong Police Violence Against Peaceful Protesters.” June 21, https://www.amnesty.org.hk/en/verified-hong-kong-police-violence-against-peaceful-protesters/.

Barnard, Adam. 2004. “The Legacy of the Situationist International: The Production of Situationists of Creative Resistance.” Capital & Class: 107

BBC. 2019. “Hong Kong protests: What is the ‘Umbrella Movement?’” September 28, https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/49862757.

Chan, Holmes. 2019. “‘Servants of Triads’: Hong Kong democrats Claim Police Condoned Mob Attacks in Yuen Long.” Hong Kong Free Press, July 22, https://www.hongkongfp.com/2019/07/22/servants-triads-hong-kong-democrats-claim-police-condoned-mob-attacks-yuen-long/.

Cheng, Gary. 2019. “Extradition Bill Crisis: How the Hong Kong Government had the ‘Perfect’ Listening Mechanisms, but Turned a Deaf Ear to Public Sentiment.” South China Morning Post, August 14, https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3022657/extradition-bill-crisis-case-study-how-hong-kong-government.

Flanagan, Mary. 2009. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. MIT Press.

Haas, Benjamin. 2019. “A Polarized City, Mirrored in Its Diaspora.” The Atlantic, October 20, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/10/hong-kong-politics-diaspora/600250/

Hernández, Javier, Barbara Marcolini, Haley Willis, Drew Jordan, Meg Felling, Tiffany May, and Elsie Chen. 2009. “Did Hong Kong Police Abuse Protesters? What Videos Show.” New York Times, June 30, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/30/world/asia/did-hong-kong-police-abuse-protesters-what-videos-show.html.

Huizinga, Johan. 1955. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Beacon Press.

Lai, Catherine. 2019. “‘Cruel to Both Sides’: Hong Kong Protests Divide Neighbourhood With Police Families.” Hong Kong Free Press, August 12, https://www.hongkongfp.com/2019/08/12/cruel-sides-hong-kong-protests-divide-neighbourhood-police-families/.

Mahtani, Shibani, Timothy McLaughlin, Tiffany Liang, and Ryan Ho Kilpatrick. 2019. “In Hong Kong Crackdown, Police Repeatedly Broke their Own Rules — And Faced No Consequences.” The Washington Post, December 24, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/world/hong-kong-protests-excessive-force/?fbclid=IwAR1xJ8dFxJaNYiLk81cve94qXvGseDLQx9Pj3QUp9nYAsTf7OGYDwbN_hwI.

Time. 2019. “A Hong Kong Extradition Protester Who Fell to His Death Is Being Hailed as a ‘Martyr.” June 15, https://time.com/5607742/hong-kong-protester-dies-anti-extradition/?fbclid=IwAR1UdwA8Sw4cHie9FmSHIyYeVBqUIjsYYXvBmD9puCpyHoOVY6g6NLNwl6g.

Yu, Verna, and Lily Kuo. 2019. “Hong Kong: 1.7m People Defy Police to March in Pouring Rain.” The Guardian, August 18, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/18/hong-kong-huge-rally-china-condemns-us-gross-interference