Just the Facts

Yale University


Examination of how changing perceptions of national identity are manifested in contemporary Hong Kong art

Rachel F. Natelson

At first glance, my present career as an attorney may well seem a great departure from the undergraduate studies that inspired my Fellowship project. When I returned from Hong Kong in 1997, my professional goal was to engage in the arts within the context of public education. Having pursued my academic studies in art history and my extracurricular commitment to the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project with equal dedication, I regarded museum work as a means of synthesizing my background in the arts with my interest in community service. My experience at a number of New York City cultural organizations, however, alerted me to the growing tendency of museums to aspire to a corporate model, placing fundraising and marketing ahead of education and outreach.

Like many a liberal-arts major in the midst of a crisis of professional identity, I found myself at law school, where I initially considered applying a legal perspective to my background in the arts. My experience with a student-run clinic providing advice and advocacy to the homeless, however, ultimately led me to civil legal services.

Oddly enough, much of what I observed in Hong Kong in the late 1990s has resonated with the issues I encounter in representing low-income clients in housing and family law matters. Like New York City today, Hong Kong in the roaring '90s was a city of vast disparities in wealth and power. During my time in Asia, reactions to the impending government handover split largely along class lines; those with the means to insulate themselves against the dangers of a repressive government remained relatively unfazed, while the more vulnerable artistic community feared the consequences of an erosion in civil liberties. At the same time, an ever-expanding real estate bubble threatened to turn central Hong Kong into a restricted enclave of wealth and privilege.

More than 10 years later, I marvel at the degree to which these issues have been replicated here in New York City. Every day, I encounter clients contending with housing insecurity in a market increasingly hostile to artists, writers and other creative professionals. As a staff attorney at Queens Legal Services, moreover, I assist a wide range of Asian immigrants in asserting their rights within a justice system often insensitive to their cultural background. Even as China emerges as a world superpower and the value of contemporary Chinese art skyrockets, I am reminded daily of the plight of those bypassed by this economic promise.

Although I ultimately opted against a career in the arts, I remain grateful to this day for the opportunities afforded me by the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling  Fellowship. My time in Hong Kong introduced me firsthand to the sacrifices artists must make to pursue their careers in a society that values earning capacity over creative vision. Equally instructive was my experience of being an ethnic minority in a foreign land after having lived my entire life within the majority culture of my native country.

I would advise students to apply to the program if only to gain experience in devising a project and seeking the funding necessary to support it. The Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship application was my introduction to grant writing, a skill that continues to serve me to this day, and has most recently culminated in a grant to launch a new legal services project on behalf of service members and veterans.