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  • Writer's pictureAlysa Leung

"DAWN 4.0: Beyond the SHORE" Artistic Research Notes

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

Who will remember the memories of the sea? I believe their Stories would continue to captivate and inspire us as we explore the intersections of gender, historical and mythical narratives...

Who writes history and how it is written depends entirely on the perspective of the writer. When we examine the legend of Lo Ting, (a Canton mermaid legend) we discover that much of it revolves around the authenticity of history and identity. In 1997, there was an exhibition by Ho Hing Kay Oscar titled "Hong Kong Reincarnated: New Lo Ting Archeological Find" It showcased a series of reenactments and mixed historical records with mythological storytelling, leaving visitors unsure of what is true or false. In 2014, KK Wong Kwok-kei used Lo Ting as a vehicle to create a trilogy of theatrical works called "Century-Old Dreams of a Fishing Harbour," depicting the transformation of Hong Kong over a hundred years. In 2022, the pseudo-documentary film "Dialogue with Lo Ting" further explored the authenticity of Lo Ting and the interpretation behind the myth, providing spiritual solace to the audience. The well-known movie "Three Husbands" by Fruit Chan also metaphorically represents Hong Kong through the character of a whore. And Countless literary works have extended and imagined this legend, incorporating it as part of contemporary literary materials.

Lo Ting

"Lo Ting" is indeed a local mermaid legend, representing the hybrid nature of identity. In the realm between being half-human and half-fish, this group of people strives to live silently. This “silent” is both metaphorical and literal, since they are being described as “not civilised” and “speaking no human language”. Some previous culturalist says that we are all Lo Ting, seeking survival amidst numerous transcendence and transactions alongside history. Is it about striving for survival or being exploited? Is it about longing for peace, tranquillity, and kindness, or is it about being voiceless? Whenever Lo Ting is mentioned, it is often associated with an identity crisis.

The legend is a historical narrative originating from a rebellion in the south: Lo Chun, a general of the Eastern Jin dynasty, dissatisfied with the corruption of the court, took up the cause of Sun En's "Five Bushels of Rice” and launched an attack on the capital. However, the rebellion ultimately failed, and Lo Chun fled south, eventually choosing to end his life by throwing himself into the sea. According to legend, his descendants desired a peaceful life by the sea, so they transformed into mermaids and established their homes on a free and uninhibited island (known as "Da Xi Shan" in ancient times and now as Lantau Island). What attracts me the most about this tale is not its chaotic or magical elements but rather how subsequent generations have depicted it.

"Unable to speak, only able to smile." (Qu, Dajun, "Guangdong Xin Yu", Qing Dynasty)
"Resembling a human but not quite, with a monster's beak and a naked body." (Deng Chun, "Lingnan Cong Shu," , Qing Dynasty )
"Sea mermaids... Their skin is as white as jade and devoid of scales... In appearance, they are no different from men and women. Many widows and widowers by the sea have obtained them and raised them in ponds. When they engage in intercourse, it is no different from humans, and they do not harm people." ( Li Fang, "Tai Ping Guang Ji," Song Dynasty)

These excerpts provide different perspectives on Lo Ting, describing her inability to speak, her physical characteristics, and her interactions with humans. In recent years, Fruit Chen novel "Three Husbands" portrays Lo Ting as a woman addicted to sex. Literary works such as "The Chronicles of Wu He You: Volumes One to Three" depict people keeping Lo Ting captive and reducing her to a sexual slave…

Hold on... Tracing back the legend, Lo Chun was a general. However, in the subsequent portrayal of Lo Ting and their descendants, they have been depicted as increasingly marginalized, and eventually being associated with prostitutes. The image of Lo Ting as someone who does not harm others and provides (sexual) services is far removed from the initial idea of a leader rebelling the capital. This transformation from male to female, from strength to weakness, and using sexuality as a metaphor for politics is not unfamiliar in artistic works.

As a creator, I have been immersing myself in this narrative and repeatedly engaging with it to make it a part of myself. In this process of embodiment, I feel an inevitability sense of helplessness. This helplessness is beyond words - falling, transforming and renewing. It lies among all ineluctable external forces and within the currents of the times.

It has been argued that the transformation of the legendary Lo Ting into a mermaid was a way to rationalize discrimination. In the historical accounts written by the inland culture, there was a lack of understanding towards the maritime civilization, their trade, and governance, which led to a communication gap between them and the mainlanders. According to some accounts, Lo Ting is believed to be the ancestor of the Tanka. The Tanka lived on the water, with boats as their homes, and they were long subjected to discrimination by the mainland residents, even being referred to as "inferior people." They were neglected and prohibited from studying and engaging in official or commercial activities. There were even prohibitions alongside the sea area. They lived in poverty and lacked education, and it was common for men to turn to theft and women to engage in prostitution.


Zheng Yi Sao

Zheng Yi Sao, was a prominent female pirate during the Qing Dynasty. She was born as Tanka and was a flower boat girl at an early age. Her life took a dramatic turn when she was kidnapped by Zheng Yi, a powerful pirate leader in the South China Sea. He made her his wife, granting her significant authority within his pirate fleet, "Red Flag Fleet", which later became a formidable force, rivaling the Qing Dynasty's navy. The Zhengs united six pirate fleets and formed a federation.

After Zheng Yi's death, Zheng Yi Sao remarried their adoptive son, Cheung Po Tsai and took rule of the pirate federation. She implemented various reforms, a system of laws and regulations. One notable measure was the introduction of "passports". Merchants were required to obtain these passports from the pirate fleet in order to sail safely. Therefore, politically and commercially, Zheng Yi Sao took the rule of coastal regions, engaging in both plundering and trade activities. Her influence and power were so significant that the Qing Dynasty's attempts to suppress the pirates were often met with resistance.

Apparently, Zheng Yi Sao was indeed establishing a different system and a separate entity on the sea. The pirate activities of the Red Flag Fleet posed challenges for the Qing Dynasty and foreign traders alike. Records such as the "History of the Pirates who infested the China Sea" and the "Pacifying the South China Sea" document the battle of Lantau Island (also known as the Battle of Chek Lap Kok), where Zheng Yi Sao and Cheung Po Tsai were besieged by combined Chinese and Portuguese forces in the vicinity of Lantau Island. They managed to stage a daring counterattack and break free. After the Qing Dynasty failed to defeat them, they eventually offered Zheng Yi Sao and her followers amnesty.

Eventually, Zheng Yi Sao accepted the offer and retired from piracy. She became a lady with an honorary title conferred by imperial mandate. she lived a relatively peaceful life as a wealthy merchant until her death in Macau.

As time progressed, empires transitioned into colonial eras, marking the beginning of modernisation. For me, the story of Zheng Yi Sao has been always living. From a life of drifting to establishing another sea civilization as an anchor, to her graceful retirement on land... she had been redefining her position and refusing to be settled by external forces. When people thought she was a prostitute, she could be a wife. They thought she was someone's lady, but she could be a pirate leader. They thought she would prioritize her reputation and refuse to compromise, but she could negotiate with the imperial government with eight children... Regarding the legend of Lo Ting, when the imperial court offered him amnesty, he chose death over "compromising." If Zheng Yi Sao had an inexplicable connection to this general, how would she rewrite history in terms of her woman identity and the contemporary imagination? Her Story would continue to captivate and inspire us as we explore the intersections of gender and power narratives.


Ocean as Civilisation

When it comes to pirates, it cannot be understood from a single location—they were active across a maritime region. Their presence could be seen along the coast of the Pearl River Delta and extended as far as Vietnam. Additionally, given the frequent international maritime trade at the time, pirate activities were not just a local security issue but also posed a "common challenge" to the international maritime economic system. To explore the topic of piracy beyond South China, I read "Pacific Worlds: A History of Seas, Peoples, and Cultures," by Matt K. Matsuda. The Chinese translation is published in Taiwan, and encompasses the histories of Southeast Asia, the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific island nations. It also delves into the interactions between Eastern and Western powers, such as the Netherlands, Portugal, and Britain, portraying the landscape of maritime trade and the colonial era.

The book discusses the activities of South China pirates during the Ming and Qing dynasties, highlighting their establishment of an alternative civilization at sea. It also explores the interactions and exchanges between different cultures in the Pacific region, shaping its history and creating a dynamic and interconnected tapestry. There are two specific points that caught my attention in the book:

Colonial-era girls were often portrayed as vibrant and exotic, contrasting with the more sombre European women of the time. Intermarriage between white men and colonial girls was common, but the reverse was rare. Today, are the perceptions of girls under the lens of "Oriental mystique" very different?

The book "On the Freedom of the Seas" by Hugo Grotius in 1609 opened up global maritime trade and sparked debates over ownership and power. Apart from the crisis on land, what’s behind the maritime routes and bridges?

No work can stand alone in its contemporary context.

One day, I had a whimsical idea and followed the clues provided in Larry Feign's "The Flower Boat Girl", a book illustrating the legend of Zheng Yi Sao, to take a trip to Tai O. I started from Tuen Mun Pier, then took a ferry to Tai O, and then travelled by land to Pui O, passing through Tung Chung and Sha Lo Wan. Along the way, I noticed a constant stream of land reclamation and construction for roads and bridges at the border of Hong Kong, rather than the Sousa chinensis that used to be Hong Kong’s icon. Undoubtedly, dolphins have been affected by land reclamation, noise pollution, and contamination, leading them to seek other habitats, which is also what humans desire. Meanwhile, I also wondered why there were boats travelling between Tung Chung and Tuen Mun. It turns out that Tung Chung used to have a thriving fishing industry, and fishermen found it more profitable to sell their catch in Tuen Mun than in Mui Wo. Today, the recent efforts to establish the Tuen Mun West West Rail station have made transportation between Tuen Mun and Tung Chung more convenient.

Back on the trip, I wandered around the small village of Tai O, had many conversations with the locals, and explored the records and scenery. I visited the Pui O Beach and spent an afternoon by the shore, feeling as if my thoughts were purified in the process. Then, after a twenty-minute bus ride, I returned to the city center. In the vast shopping mall. My head suddenly started to ache. Sitting in the restaurant, looking at the plate of clam spaghetti in front of me, it felt surreal. Clams seemed to have been a product of this fishing port for a long time, but where did the spaghetti come from? When did they start putting them together like this? And why did they appear in a Japanese-style coffee shop? Of course, the first thought that came to mind was, "Seriously! A few dried clams with a little sake cooked and served for over a hundred dollars?" Welcome back to 2023.

The writing of grand history certainly hasn't stopped; it's just that our history has been written down earlier.

If we are all Lo Ting today, should we also leave? Can Lo Ting, which flows into the sea, choose for itself?

After Zheng Yi Sao comes ashore, would she miss the ocean?

Who will remember the memories of the sea?

My favourite materials throughout the process:

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