Jun 18 2013

Hong Kong Takes a Sick Day

by Ming Lin

Participants of International Sick Leave Day. Courtesy C&G Artpartment. Photo by Green Kiny Fung and Hui Hin. 

International Sick Leave Day comes once a year, serving as a reminder that, along with physical health, equal attention should be paid to mental well-being. On a May afternoon in Hong Kong, children, artists and creatives ditched their respective obligations to play truant at the West Kowloon Promenade. The weathered boardwalk near the future museum for visual culture M+, a favorite picnic spot among locals, served as the impromptu site for participants to sketch the ever-expanding landscape of Hong Kong Island across the harbor.  

Organized by the proprietors of C&G Artpartment (an art school and exhibition space in Prince Edward), the 6th International Sick Leave Day was the most successful iteration to date, with dozens of participants sprawled out contentedly across the waterfront. Believing art-making can act as a healing agent, the event’s spirit feels especially needed in Hong Kong, where there’s “time to die, but no time to get sick,” as the Chinese proverb goes. Long hours are the norm, overtime frequently goes uncompensated, and, while sick leave permits employees time to recover without losing pay, it is a rare benefit for blue-collar workers. A day home can mean sacrificing an income. 

“Hong Kong people have long embraced and shared the myth that ‘working hard enough will give you a secure and successful life,’” Sick Leave Day initiator Clara Cheung commented to AAP. Appropriating sick leave in the name of art allowed participants to step back from the daily grind. And although the leisurely activities—aside from sketching there was also fishing in Victoria Harbour—were not aggressively critical, the day raised issues about land development, labor laws and the role of art in the frenetically paced society. In a place like Hong Kong, where rapid development facilitates the perpetual encroachment of commercial enterprises into public space, Sick Leave Day highlights the sorts of jarring juxtapositions that define the city’s physical and cultural landscape. Bracketed by the Elements Mall on one end and the skyline of logos on the other, the vantage point offered a rare glimpse of water and sky without concrete obstructions.

“We tend to think the general public in Hong Kong lacks art,” said Cheung, “but in fact, what is lacking is the time for art.” Perhaps the integration of art into everyday life is realized not by building numerous museums and creative spaces across the city, but by making more free hours in our daily schedules.