That art districts emerge out of industrial corners of a city is not an unusual phenomenon. Drawn to the large spaces, low rents and high ceilings of disused factories and manufacturing high rises, galleries and artists pile in and, over time, make an otherwise culturally-barren locality their own.
That is as much the story of New York’s SoHo district and Berlin’s Kreuzberg, as it is Beijing’s 798 district and Shanghai’s M50. Hong Kong’s Wong Chuk Hang might be a bit late to the party, but its story is starting to unfold in a similar fashion.
“What’s unique about Wong Chuk Hang is that it’s so hostile from the outside,” says gallerist Dominique Perregaux, who founded the South Island Cultural District, which represents a group of contemporary art galleries based in Wong Chuk Hang and neighbouring Aberdeen. “The lifts are a bit rusty, the buildings are quite industrial.”
It is true that a visit to the district can be a disorientating, urban adventure. Government regulations mean galleries are not allowed to put up signs, so as you wander along roads and up and down the 40-year-old buildings you are just as likely to find yourself accidentally walking into someone’s business as you are to discover the art space you were looking for.
“It’s a very exciting place – and what’s happening here is not gentrification, it’s not like Kennedy Town or Sheung Wan – there was no identity to take over,” he says. “But it’s starting to feel like a community, and one with a mission,” he says. “That’s what we’re bringing”.
This week, on Thursday, March 23, 2017, Perregaux and the art district will be hosting a tour of the district that will include a series of talks and performances as one of its twice-yearly art days.
“We want to bring the space to life,” he says, adding that high quality performance art and pieces will help highlight the stringent standards set by the district. “We only show contemporary art – and this isn’t an ‘anything goes’ situation. It has to be good”. He is particularly excited about a contemporary dance piece called Cocoon that will add to the dynamism of the day.
Timed to draw in overseas Art Basel tourists, Perregaux hopes to impress on visitors the diversity and vibrancy of the district’s community. It will feature 18 galleries, among which a mix of Hong Kong, Chinese and international artworks will be on show. “We want it to be a bit of a hunt – but not one that’s too difficult,” he said. “We’ll provide a map and a program.”
Among thee works of participating galleries are pieces such as Emmanuel Monzon’s Enter the Void series at Charbon Art Space, alongside a series of immersive, cross-disciplinary artworks by Takeshi Murata at Empty Gallery – an experimental, evocative space. Artists will throw open the doors of their studios – among them up-and-coming ink artist Chloe Ho.
Street art stalwarts HK Walls will also make a prominent appearance, with their nine-day festival arriving in Wong Chuk Hang as part of a creative collaboration with the district to promote public art. Last year’s event in Sham Shui Po saw several buildings in the gritty but buzzing district undergo transformation with new murals sparking debate about whether the gesture was a gentrifying one. This year round, the team has planned a Wong Chuk Hang program that includes live mural painting, a print exhibit and other events between March 18 and 26.
Perregaux moved his gallery Art Statements from Hollywood Road to Wong Chuk Hang in 2012, joining several other galleries that made the move that year. Now over twenty galleries have made a home for themselves on the south side of the island, a process that Perregaux says happened organically. The arrival of Art Basel has really put Hong Kong on the global art map, has been good timing for the blossoming district that is now home to international gallery outposts wanting in on Hong Kong’s cultural rise.
Since then, the MTR’s extended South Island Line spells a new chapter in its fast-evolving history. What will ensue are further transformative developments. Between 10 to 15 hotels are in the pipeline, along with new coffee shops and restaurants. A nightlife scene should be expected to follow.
As Hong Kong’s art world develops, and as global art trading trends become increasingly fixated on this tax haven and gateway to China, one hopes that the increasing availability of strong art trickles down to those to whom gallery hopping is not necessarily the norm. “Hong Kong is lacking in museums – there’s not that culture or environment like in Europe. It’s just not that normal to go to galleries [here],” says Perregaux. He wants to change that.