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Queen Victoria’s Vandal-Artist is the Talk of the Town

September 26, 1996

HONG KONG (AP) _ Drenched from head to foot in bright red paint, the shaven-headed artist from China sat cross-legged in a Hong Kong park. Pan Xinglei, 27, had just poured a pot of paint over a statue of Queen Victoria, then over himself, and had bashed in her nose.

His gesture has the salons of Hong Kong tingling _ not only with outrage but also with perplexity. Was it an attack on British colonialism? A blow for true-red communism? Art for art’s sake? Vandalism? Or as police initially implied, plain lunacy?

The bronze statue commemorates the queen who reigned when Britain set up the colony in 1841. Now, with nine months left before Hong Kong returns to Chinese rule, Her Majesty sits on her throne shrouded in tarpaulins, looking even less amused than usual.

Caught, well, red-handed, Pan was charged with criminal damage and ordered to undergo psychiatric tests. He is now free on bail, having made headlines and, if nothing else, forced a society preoccupied with money to reflect on what is and isn’t art.

At first his act was treated as pure insanity. Next, there was speculation that it was political. Then news spread that Pan had left a statement at the scene.

It was ``creative art,″ he wrote. He was ``tired of the low taste and boring art in Hong Kong,″ and wanted to ``give citizens a taste of something new.″

It also emerged that Pan, a sculptor, had just won a ``most promising artist″ award from a private foundation.

But few artists rushed to his defense.

Oscar Ho, exhibition organizer at the Hong Kong Arts Center, said many artists from China carry the psychological scars of Chinese totalitarianism.

``They do typical Cultural Revolution things, like painting things red and destroying something,″ said Ho, referring to the upheaval of 1966-76 when Mao Tse-tung exhorted young people to smash symbols of traditional authority.

In an interview, Ho said the deed revealed the huge cultural gap between Hong Kong and China, and the contempt mainland Chinese often show for their colonial brethren.

The Chinese believe that ``Beijing is the center of Chinese high culture,″ he said. ``Everything along the coast is subordinate to this main culture.″

``He is very aggressive, very extreme,″ said Gretchen So, an artist who knows Pan.

She said she wasn’t surprised by his action and didn’t approve. She had already vowed not to exhibit with him again after he killed a chicken with a blunt knife during a recent exhibition.

``He has so much anger inside him, maybe because of past restrictions in China on freedom of speech, or arts,″ she said.

A more benign view came from William Wadsworth, a British journalist writing in the Hong Kong Standard newspaper.

``When I heard artist Pan had bashed the old dear’s nose in with a hammer, I was a little upset,″ he wrote.

But on second thought, he wrote, ``her new look represents a lot of good about Hong Kong, of the spontaneity that built this place, the benign rule of law that preserved it, and the opportunity it has given to millions who have come here to do good or bad.

``Let us enjoy what’s left of the freedoms we take for granted now, but will miss so very much, so soon.″

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