Sophie Cheung: Transforming Worlds through Art & Writing

When Sophie was 13, she started hearing voices and received a diagnosis of having “schizophrenia”. This was around the same time that the British handed over Hong Kong to China after 150 years of rule. It was not a moment of celebration. Given the record of brutality by the Chinese state against its citizens, especially the massacre at Tiananmen Square, ‘anticipatory trauma’ developed among the people from Hong Kong as they feared their futures under a Chinese rule. However, as diagnoses of mental conditions go, none of these featured in the understanding of why Sophie had started to hear voices. She was pathologized by a medical system that fails to comprehend the role social factors play in causing distress.

Yet people exist and lead full lives outside of these labels. Sophie’s work shines through her advocacy, art, writing and poetry and is a testimony to her resilience. 

Sophie has been involved with advocacy around mental health in different capacities. She has been a part of delegations to the United Nation Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, representing the situation of persons with disabilities in Hong Kong. She has also penned down her journey and strife under the strict gaze of the medical model in Hong Kong where she talks about the domination of the medical model in determining who is ‘normal’. She has criticised the medical model for taking control over every aspect of a person’s life and completely reducing the autonomy and personhood of anyone who receives a diagnosis of mental illness. 

Her writing, poetry and artwork not only reflect her advocacy but also help her to fill the ‘gaps in her mind’, to stand in for the objects and things around her for which she is not able to find words. Through her creative expressions, she finds a reclaiming of the personhood which society and the medical system of psychiatry deny her.

Art as Advocacy:

What started as a childhood expression of painting on walls, soon became an important channel for Sophie to express herself, as she transformed words into a unique pictorial vocabulary. Her work gained growing recognition and has been featured in the exhibitions including “The World of Mental Illness” in Shanghai; “Museum of Lost Public Notices Posters” in Melbourne University; and recently at the Art Next Expo where she won the ‘2017 Art Next Hong Kong Artists Award — Bronze’ for her work “Soften Stones 2: Sounding the date of HK students suicide and scanning erasers with scores”. She also was awarded the ‘Leap Initiative Hong Kong Emerging Artist Award’ for the same work. At the time we were finalising this piece, Sophie was awarded 1st Runner Up, Hong Kong Human Rights Arts Prize 2018. The accolades continue to come and Sophie keeps forging the path for users and survivors and change makers every day, doing what she loves best, creating new worlds through her art and her writing.

Today, Sophie uses a variety of mediums including Chinese or Indian ink and brushes, graphite and erasers, incense and joss paper. Burning joss paper and incense to worship ancestors is common in Chinese people in Hong Kong and mainland China and she uses this method, creating art by burning holes in the back of paper to create patterns. Joss paper and incense have a strong symbolic meaning of life and death in Chinese traditional culture. Sophie tries to explain life and death in term of appearance and disappearance.

  “Fingerprint in border-crossing, 2018”

 

Lit up erasers, looking like a student jumping, when a button on the phone installation is pressed

Her highly acclaimed project, “Soften Stones, 2017”, captures her phenomenal ability to transform the nuances of mental health crises into a transcendental piece of art. Soften Stones is based on the rising number of student suicides in Hong Kong and the refusal of the education boards to see these suicides interlinked to the educational system. Although the Committee on Prevention of Student Suicide (CPSS), established by the Education Bureau, published their final report in Nov 2016, stating that students committing suicide was not directly related to the education system, in a conference of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong on 7th January 2017, a primary school student said, “every day l go to school, I feel like stones are dropping down and smashing me ……”

Using erasers that she collected from students in primary schools and tuition centres, Sophie created an installation piece. The erasers, shaped as stones, symbolise the suppression of emotions of students in the education system—soft on the inside and yet forced to become stones through suppressing their emotions. Scores made with pencils/rulers/pens represent oppression and venting and the used erasers, shaped like stones, drew further attention to the depression and hopelessness that the grind of the education system was causing students.

Sophie believes this project successfully shed light on the problem of student suicides in Hong Kong and raised awareness on the questions around the mental health of students under the current educational system.

Soften stones 1: Tombstone for 61 HK students suicide since 2016
Erasers shaped like stones are arranged like Lego blocks to represent a tombstone, drawing
attention to the student suicides in Hong Kong

 

Soften stones 2: Sounding the date of HK students suicide and scanning erasers with scores
Each stone is marked with scores to symbolise the students committing suicide. Set up like a phone,
these erasers are set up like the touch-tone numbers of a phone. Dates of the suicides were turned
into a scale which could be heard by pressing a number on the phone. Pressing the button on the
phone made a sound that sounded like a stone dropping down, one by one. This action forces you to
think, as the sound is unlike a touch-tone phone, and perhaps sounds like an invalid connection or
isolation. Sophie believes that in this crowded city, jumping to their death from tall buildings, human
bodies drop like stones. The sound of pressing the buttons also sounded like stones smashing, which
was rather chilling.

 

The Power of Words:

Sophie is also a prolific writer and has been a creative writing tutor which allowed her to create a space for her peers to express themselves. She finds that using fiction for writing has not only provided her a tool for communication but it has also helped her on a path of self-discovery. 

In her words, one finds her struggles with the mental health system, and her advocacy for the rights of persons with disabilities is transformed into poetic verses of critique. Her collection of poems, Disabilities CV: The Stories of the Persons with Psychosocial Disabilities in Hong Kong (《殘疾資歷: 香港 精神障礙者文集》), was published in 2015. In this collection, while reconceptualising disability, Sophie asks the question—can lived experience of disability be treated as just another qualification in a CV when applying for a job; if so, what could be viewed differently, and is change possible? Disabilities CV also is an anthology of work from other authors Sophie invited to contribute to it and has been edited and curated by her.

Issues of Transitional Justice in the process of life experiences transformation examines the interconnectedness of life experiences of people with disabilities.

 

Below are some of her poems in Chinese/ Mandarin with translated excerpts in English. Thank you to Chris Song (宋子江)for helping to translate her poems, with creative inputs from the Mad in Asia Pacific team, which has two poets on board!

《不是詩》


人的加法是未成年

未有完全行為能力卻不殘疾

人的減法是成年

有完全行為能力

人的乘法是青—少—年

stop 跟

stop to 的行為能力不足

人的除法是去殘疾的一身孱

老年時已沒人計較你殘不殘疾

或早已在殘疾的負空間——復元

於復元的紙皮上躺下

看數日子

復元的邏輯是白髮

白髮絲拔與不拔

拔的話,只會長得更多

無法掌握的白髮與一切的流行症都帶有

剝削的耐水性

stop 跟stop to的分別




Not Poem

(a translated excerpt)



when one’s old, nobody cares about the body

or the negative space around it

lying down on a piece of cardboard recovering

counting days

the logic of recovery is a grey hair

once plucked, it multiplies

both ungraspable, grey hair and a disease

resistant to liquid

the difference between stopping and being stopped




***

《致大窩口石頭街》



赤煉石頭

之於牆

時差的凹凸

剩下立方




行為能力

之於人

限制與不足的詞差

在於恢復本貌的可能性

讓你爬但攀不上

頂滅的樹林

烈日方糖跌落石屎的凝固牆

石俎代糖

雨濯水流過後

盡頭的迴旋處

等待來去的綠色小巴

緣分與機會的分——貝

在於執不執著天注定



幼稚園搖身成了選舉的投票站

烈日的墳

票上蓋印

延伸的樹跨出一根氣

鑄袴人的視線



氣根長成了樹幹

出走長成了歸家

一人長成了家庭

一支香長成了路燈



伴著旁邊一條秘道從石頭街踏上葵盛東邨

那個從小天天上學的地方


To Shek Tau Street at Tai Wo Hau

hellish red rocks

for a wall

difference in time zones

leaving only pieces behind



sanity is the difference

between restriction and insufficiency

the possibility of restoring

letting you climb but not letting you reach

the headless trees 

the sun scorches sugar down cement walls

after the rain

at the roundabout at the end of a road

I wait for a green mini-bus

persisting, despite fate



a kindergarten transformed into a polling place

the sun’s grave

a stamp on the ballot

a tree stretches a root into the air

and casts metal legs in sight

air grows into a branch,

like homecoming,

like returning to a family,

an incense stick into a street lamp



from Shek Tau Street to Kwai Shing East Estate

I walk along a secret side path

where I walked every day on my way to school

Often reduced into a label by the medical system, Sophie’s poetry screams of a world where people with psychosocial disabilities are challenging society to reflect and understand people in all their beautiful glory. 

Sophie Cheung or Hing Yee Cheung, aged 34, is an artist, poet, creative writing tutor and a mental health advocate working for change in Hong Kong. She was given the diagnosis of schizophrenia when she was 13 and lives with hearing voices.