HK Exile pokes into Chinese finger-trap

Outsourced work ethic in "Foxconn Frequency #3" -- how far can you PuSh a keyboardist?

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And each letter-perfect keyboard riff earns them one more foursquare lamination on the little yellow plastic cube that’s gradually accruing on the 3-D printer in front of them, while every misstrike translates into a layer that’s slightly askew.

Webcams periodically project their furrowed, sweat-spangled faces onto the background screen. Now and then we zoom in on the increasingly wonky cubes. The soundtrack grows ever more growly and ominous, in line with the keyboardists’ increasingly frantic prestidigitations.

The pace picks up into a brisk tempo, which then accelerates into a series of Foxconn Frequencies – hums, at first, then moans, then whines, then squeals. Each pitch unfurls onscreen as a red oscilloscope waveform.

Remy Siu's layout sketch for Foxconn Frequency #3. Image: Hong Kong Exile

And, overlaid upon the screen images are quick, sporadic bursts of Chinese characters interspersed with occasional snatches of English: 車間, 流水線, 機臺, 山崗證, 加班, 薪水; workshop, assembly line, machine, work card, overtime, wages.

The text flies by too fast to register, except perhaps a few odd words subliminally. Which is exactly what Remy Siu had in mind when he randomly intercut the verbiage from the collected opus of Foxconn worker Xu Lizhi (許立志), uncrowned poet laureate of the hi-tech sweatshop.

All at once the screen goes blank, as though a fuse has blown. The spotlights blink out; the amps fall silent.  Only the keyboardists carry on clattering away at their soundless Midi’s, unfazed.

Then, slowly, white-on-black, the cyclorama unfurls the first intelligible text of the evening – a Xu Lizhi vignette:


A screw fell to the ground


In this dark night of overtime


Plunging vertically, lightly clinking


It won’t attract anyone’s attention


Just like last time


On a night like this


When someone plunged to the ground

In the blackout, young Andrei Koo slips off into the wings, so that when the glare and clangour abruptly resume, there are only the two women left onstage. Still, the computer read-outs go on blandly recording stats for all three “workstations,” and Andrei’s vacant chair somehow scores about the same “Success” to “Failure” ratio as the others.

And it’s only at the very end, when the din at last subsides for good, that we learn how, just months after composing the foregoing lines, Xu Lizhi (aged 24) plunged to his death from a “campus” roof, joining a series of worker suicides that have plagued Foxconn pretty much ever since Y2K.

“And for what?” Natalie Gan muses among a congratulatory knot of well-wishers after the show. “All that stress, all that sorrow, all that suppression for a set of such meaningless tasks and rewards.”

But, then again, what’s allowed Gan and Siu to even conceive and execute such a project is decades of rigorous piano drills from early childhood. Concert diva Vicky Chow has been playing since age 5, and even young Andrei has already logged in 4½ years at VAM.

“We do it because our parents just expect it of us,” Gan explains with a Confucian shrug of filial piety.

Visibly Chinese, but universally human, too.


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