Loretta Lau: Raising a Voice for Hong Kong and Others in Prague 7
For a short period of time, a quiet, unassuming block in Prague 7 became a vibrant hub of art and multiculturalism. Part art gallery, part café and part community space, NGO DEI is closing this July. However, this won't dampen director Loretta Lau's spirit to continue building a platform for voices from all over the world, writes RPI's expat contributor Kevin Loo.
The self-proclaimed arts district of Prague 7 is filled with trendy cafés and hipster bars crammed next to family-owned businesses and traditional hospody (pubs). Residents spread across the neighbourhoods of Holešovice and Letná are a diverse mix of international students, young professionals, generational households, freelancers, and aspiring artists or designers. It’s never a dull moment in what The Guardian newspaper has listed as one of Europe’s coolest neighbourhoods.
Within an interior house block not far from Letná Park, a former metalworking workshop/factory has been converted into an unlikely art gallery and café. However, in one short year, NGO DEI has become much more than a gallery. It has become a multicultural space for intersectionality and community - a vibrant hub for meeting people, political activism and educational workshops, a live music venue, and even a refugee shelter.
Founded by two artists from Hong Kong in cooperation with a Czech colleague, the name, NGO DEI, is taken from the Cantonese meaning “Us” or “Our Land”. It also serves as a bilingual pun, with emphasis being placed on the Ngo (the Cantonese word for singular “I” or “me”), as in Non-Governmental Organisation.
For the growing Hong Kong diaspora, times are looking dire. Youngsters are leaving Hong Kong in droves, in fear of the Chinese takeover that looms over their future. Stories of friends getting arrested, or even worse, “disappeared”, for expressing dissent are commonplace. Building networks abroad and sharing their stories of life in Hong Kong are the least they can do to stay connected and build solidarity.
It’s in that context that Loretta Lau found herself as director of NGO DEI. As an art and education student, she’d always heard about the romantic city of Prague, but never thought she would study in the Czech capital, let alone live here. Yet here she is, building a legacy that carries the spirit of Hong Kong into the unlikeliest of corners in Prague 7.
Radio Prague International’s expat contributor Kevin Loo spoke with Loretta during a busy afternoon at NGO DEI about her experience as an artist in Europe, what it means to be a Hong Konger in the 21st century, and about the surprising spiritual affinity that Václav Havel represents for her homeland.
“First of all, I'm a performance artist in Czechia, I am based here and I'm a Hong Konger. I am also the director of NGO DEI.
“I have lived in Prague for four years now. I was originally studying my Master’s degree here at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague (UMPRUM). I was also active in NGO DEI and that's where I started to work with a lot of people. I learned quite a lot of things about the Prague art scene. I found out that it's very dynamic. People are used to taking part in cultural and art events. So being here in the Czech Republic turned out to be quite a miracle, I would say.”
And what had you heard about Prague before moving here?
“That’s an interesting story. Back when I was a student, I was working as a student helper in an arts library of the Education University of Hong Kong. It was very nice. The librarian there once told me: ‘Hey, Loretta, have you ever heard of a place called Prague in the Czech Republic?’ He said that it is the most beautiful place and that I have to make sure to visit it.
“Then, I think it was about five or six years ago, I visited Prague for the first time with my ex-boyfriend. We were here looking for a wedding ring! It was a very funny story. Then, of course we broke up.
“I worked as an art teacher in a Hong Kong high school for seven years, but, because of the education system, I didn’t really feel that my students actually wanted to become artists. They were just losing their creativity. They didn’t really seem to enjoy, you know, the atmosphere of being an artist in Hong Kong, because it’s considered a loser [career]. It was at this time that I started to look for a new place to restart my career as an artist.
“When I was still very young, I always fancied becoming an artist one day. And so, I thought to myself that I would quit my job as a teacher in Hong Kong and come here to Prague, to find my dream.”
You have this space now, NGO DEI. Can you explain it? What's the mission here?
“That’s also an interesting story, because since the [Hong Kong student] movement started, actually more like five days before the movement started, I [had already] devoted myself to working on political performances.
“The first performance that I did was in DOX where I shaved my hair in front of 70 people. In another art performance in the National Theatre, on Václav Havel Square, I locked myself into a little jail – a two square metre cube. After doing several performances, I started to get to know quite a lot of people who were interested in the Hong Kong movement.
“One time I went to the Tibet Open House, which was funded by the Linhart Foundation. I was there watching a documentary about the first meeting between the Dalai Lama and Václav Havel, which took place nearly 33 years ago. It was there that I got to know the founder of the Linhart Foundation, Jan Meyer.
“We started to work together, because he saw my solo show in the National Library of Technology and understood what I was doing. He also found out that I had some experience working as a curator.
“We ended up working together on one show. It was called Genocida – ‘genocide’ in English. We collected different artists from Tibet, Ecuador, Hong Kong, China, the UK, and South Africa. After that show about the international history of genocide, Jan Meyer said, ‘Hey Loretta, you know I have a space in Letohradská 10, and there are workshops there and they’re also working on social issues like climate change.’
“But then, what is also amazing is that this space was a factory for 124 years already and they have tried to preserve it. So a lot of workers were still working there. It only stopped running six years ago.
“So, in the middle of this, they tried to get some workshops running and they tried to make it into a café. So eventually, during the pandemic in December 2020, I started to brainstorm this idea of having this Hong Kongers’ cultural and art centre, because my team are all artists – all kinds of artists – sculptors, painters, performers, photographers…
“And so we started to think, ‘Hey, maybe we can do a café and gallery together and bring some Hong Kong style food and drinks, to let people know how Hong Kongers actually live, because that's very important for people to understand our culture, by really tasting it, by really drinking it and really talking to the people.’
“There aren’t many of us Hong Kongers here. The whole Czech Republic has around 30 to 40 people, and so for me it's like a dream to start a space to bring people together. That's very important.
“It's very different from saying, ‘Hey, we have a Facebook page or a website’, and just trying to do this advocacy work online. Because that's not intimate enough and people don't see you as a real person. They still see you as someone from the newspaper.
“So that's why we started this place, to work on a lot of different kinds of events, because we don't want to exclude ourselves as Hong Kongers. We don't want to just talk about our culture and only focus on what we want to preserve from our ideas or our values, but we also treasure the universal values of love, democracy and human rights.
“So that's why we open our arms to all people. Especially right now we have the Ukrainian shelter, we're trying to raise some funding to support them and to actually hold a lot of different events to support different groups.
“Big groups, small groups, for example, Taiwanese people, Japanese, Korean, Ecuadoreans – everyone! Some of the groups are [minority] groups like LGBT and all different people…We love to bring different cultures [together] to really showcase [them], not just through arts but also through communities. So that's what we're doing.”
Was it hard to meet these people, or did they naturally find their space here?
“At the beginning it was tough. It was really tough to actually build up this community, and we are only just seeing our success now, but unfortunately, we can’t sustain it by ourselves because the rent and the utilities are increasing. And the Linhart Foundation, they are brilliant people. They supported us for one whole year. They didn't ask us for any budget but eventually, because of the war starting, it became too difficult to maintain this big space.
“But let’s talk about the people. I think our strategy of finding people is to have a good heart. To accept different kinds of ideas, to be very creative, because we try to do things differently.
“For example, we have a Czech class every Thursday, and this Czech class is very different from most other Czech classes because we try to find out what difficulties the students are having.
“We invited Czech volunteers to have one-on-one chats with expats learning Czech. They actually had a lot of knowledge of Czech, but they just didn't dare to talk. So that's why eventually we had A1 and B1 conversation classes.
“And so people started to get used to speaking in Czech and they were more confident later on to make conversation. So I think it's about creativity, because a lot of the time when people think about learning a language they think you have to pass some exam. But for us, learning a language is to practise.
“So that's one creative strategy that we are using to gather people and to get them used to this space. Not just thinking in a box.”
You mentioned the Czech community – obviously this space is in the middle of a residential area. Has there been much opportunity to connect with the locals of Prague 7, who are quite open and progressive, I think?
“I would say that the residents are very supportive, even though sometimes we have conflict because we bring a lot of people into this space although it's supposed to be a residential area.
“When we have some kind of bigger gathering like a food festival or a party, then we always have some kind of negotiation like, ‘Hey by 10 o'clock, you have to stop everything,’ or we agree what time the refugees have to come back by and not leave the door open because of the security situation. We make sure we are always in agreement.
“Prague 7 has been really supportive. Recently we had an article in their magazine, Hobulet. It’s amazing that they are supporting us. Recently we had this massive event in cooperation with the contemporary arts centre DOX and Book World Prague 2022. It's in Výstaviště Holešovice until the 12th of June. And we connected with Sinopsis and also some other associations, such as, the Václav Havel Library.
“I’m lucky enough to have gotten to know all these organisations who support the idea of democracy, like the Václav Havel Library Foundation. I think the legacy of Václav Havel is interconnected with lots of things, even DOX has a big poster of Václav Havel inside.
“This community has not just been built up by ourselves of course, but by the whole atmosphere of Prague 7 and the people who are active in arts and culture. There are also lots of useful little things here. For example, on the high street of Prague 7 there is a municipal information centre. We're very lucky to be in this community.”
You mentioned that NGO DEI will have to leave this space. What does the future hold for the team? Will there be a temporary setup or a hiatus?
“This is a very interesting question, because we have had such a fruitful experience here in NGO. We have a café, and then we have a gallery, we have a shelter, we have classes. However, these multiple functions mean that our staff is also quite exhausted. People are collapsing, honestly.
“We need some time to think about which direction we want to take in the future. We were thinking about just doing a café, or a gallery, or perhaps just focusing on classes.
“That said, I always think to myself that I don’t just want to do the easy thing.
“NGO DEI is so attractive to the community precisely because we are helping a lot of different people who are just getting started. Up-and-coming artists can display their new works here, because, as an NGO, we rent out our spaces for different people with different prices. We are not looking for big money. So for students it's free, or, if they have support from school, they can contribute that way. Different people come with different fair offers. I would say that we need to take a break for about three or four months to figure out what kind of support we need exactly.
“This is also why we need to plan the budget. To decide how much we need for classes, what kind of space do we need to sustain and whether we can also have a café or not. We also need to keep in mind what is best for our community, because we already have over a hundred people that come here and enjoy this space. We would like to bring these people together again.
“Maybe next year we will be able to have a similar space and do things more efficiently, so that people can enjoy themselves but also not feel exhausted. During this intermission, I'm going to travel to different places and try to connect with more people that are working in the Hong Kong movement or let's say, on Hong Kong’s art and culture. I also want to learn something from others.
“We are already a team of Hong Kong artists, but, in the future, perhaps we can put some Ukrainian artists together, or even Tibetan artists. We will work, even if we don’t yet have a space.
“So let's say this is our future goal. If we still don't have a space then then this may be a way for us to work on.”