Hong Kong’s history can be told through its plague years. The bubonic plague epidemic of 1894 reshaped the city’s built form and led to groundbreaking new research. The Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968 underlined the city’s role as a global crossroads – and as the city emerged relatively unscathed, unlike many other countries, it showed how much investment in public healthcare pays off. Then came 2003, when SARS brought the city to its knees.
As Para Site’s remarkable exhibition A Journal of the Plague Year made clear, the experience of living through SARS led to a cultural awakening in a city still trying to understand itself. A long fuse of political discontent was ignited that year. Many Hongkongers embraced the outdoors for the first time, thronging hiking trails that had previously been quiet. Something about the experience of collective fear, suffering and confinement in 2003 helped the seeds of civil society sprout and grow, as a succession of social and political movements—from the Star Ferry protests to the rise of the land justice movement—made clear in the years that followed.
Now we are in the midst of another epidemic whose true impact remains yet to be understood. SARS-Cov-2—similar to the original SARS, but even more contagious—first arrived in Hong Kong a year ago. Today, it holds the entire world in its grip. Compared to most other parts of the world, Hong Kong has escaped the worst of the pandemic, and yet its sheer relentlessness—already four waves of infection—has taken an incalculable toll.
It’s impossible to say how this will play out. But we can try to understand it. Last summer, with financial support from Design Trust, we ask young Hongkongers to reflect on the pandemic’s impact in prose, poetry, video and photography. It was an opportunity to nurture talent while reflecting on how Covid-19 has changed Hong Kong and its society. We called the project After_ because, in reflecting on what happened in 2020, we also need to keep an eye on what will happen in the years to come. After all, the future can only be illuminated by the past.
Hundreds of people responded to our call for submissions. By the end of July, we had received 68 full applications. Of those, a group of 11 fresh graduates, university students and secondary school students—as young as 16—were selected to work with our group of mentors, who have guided the young creatives through the process of creating artworks, stories, poems and other reflections on the pandemic. Those works will be exhibited this month at ACO in the Foo Tak Building as well as online.
The list of mentors includes some of Hong Kong’s leading creative figures. Poet-scholars Tammy Ho Lai-ming and Jason Polley mentored aspiring poets. Videotage co-founder Ellen Pau worked with young videographers, while photojournalist May James lent her expertise to up-and-coming photographers. Zolima CityMag managing editor Christopher DeWolf worked with fiction and nonfiction writers. Artist Kingsley Ng, ACO founder May Fung and Zolima CityMag founder and editor in chief Nicole Andrianka de Surville, also helped with the vetting process.
You’ll soon have a chance to see the fruits of their labour. In the meantime, here’s a preview – and an introduction to the projects created by each of our stellar mentees.
Mandy Lee Nip-man, architecture student at the University of Hong Kong
These works reimagine the dramatic reshaping to accommodate a new way of urban living post-Covid. The pieces attempt to explore the “new normal” through a change in behaviour, reconfiguration of public space and neglected parts of society. Society is experiencing a range of emotions and carrying out safety measurements as a response to Covid-19. However, the pandemic has exposed a range of underlying issues in society that we saw as normal pre-pandemic. Through the curation of a new perspective, this exhibit attempts to reveal how the rescripting of the city tends to repetitively neglect, alienate and thicken the level of injustices towards the underprivileged in society.
Tiffany Lau Yin-yu, recent Polytechnic University communications graduate
A liminal space is where we will all be right after Covid – a confusing situation belonging neither here nor there. Liminality refers to a stage during which a person has detached from their past identity and events, but has not yet formed a new identity. Covid has broken down our daily lives, habits, relationships and opportunities; we have lost the old normal but we still need some time to figure out what comes next. It is believed that we will fall into a liminal space with a blurry condition requiring some time to accept and recover from feelings of stress and loss, in order to rediscover the possibilities of the future. Liminality may be a tough period to go through, but it will soon reveal a beginning where it ignites new thoughts and cultures.
In the Right Frame of Mind
Cherie Chun, fashion design student at Central Saint Martins
In uncertain times, we look towards our pasts for clarity and understanding. Inspired by the bold dynamism of graphic novels, this series of portraits is an exploration of communication based on the narratives of several real individuals who look back to their roots in Hong Kong after a year of change. From the good to the bad, this series of studies portrays an “everyday” illusory past that never quite happened, and yet which we all reminisce and long for. In order to approach life after the pandemic, these narratives may have helped us to solidify, gain, or lose past perspectives on our individual histories and influence our way of living in the future.
Neryhs Wo Yui-chi, recent fine arts graduate of the Chelsea College of Arts
I have been thinking a lot lately. Perhaps I was forced to do so due to the situation. I have been feeling a lot more recently, too. Feelings that were inspired by little moments, things, and people that I would have neglected if it wasn’t for the spare time that the pandemic has bought me. They made me re-learn about myself from my past, asked me to gaze into the future. They showed me possibilities. It was an impulse; I knew I had to write to them. And so, I did.
Eating at the Same Table
Harmony Yuen Hey-wen, student in comparative literature and translation at the University of Hong Kong
How has the pandemic changed the way we eat and relate to our families? In Chinese, tung4 toi4 sik6 faan6 (同檯食飯) means eating at the same table, yet the second part of the saying goes: to mind your own business (gok3 zi6 sau1 hang4 各自修行). This installation is a collection of essays about food, family, and the pandemic. Each is based on interviews with people in Hong Kong about their experiences of consuming food, from complimentary food provided by the Social Welfare Department to a homemade tofu-fish dish passed down from mother to daughter.
Aftermath of the In-Between
Karina La’O, visual studies student at Lingnan University
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced people into situations that heavily affect their relationships, both with others and with themselves. Some relationships mend, some break, and some are newly made in between the sudden start and the uncertain end of this virus. These three short stories dive into the lives of different people and expose the specific changes they went through that they will carry with them for years to come; even after all this is over. All these stories are loosely based on real people that have been interviewed and accompanied by paintings from artist Rose Lam.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Rose Cheung Chi-yu, student in English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Isabel Cheung Chi-kwan, accounting student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong
The job of a domestic helper is hard – and it is made harder by Covid-19. As employers start to work from home and children attend school online, domestic helpers, who are required by law to live with the family they work for, find themselves constantly ordered around to work 24/7, sometimes even during their days off. We interviewed four helpers about their own stories. Each reflects some of the challenges faced by the 390,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong. How have their lives changed – and how will they change when the pandemic is over? Visitors can read and listen to the four stories, as well as an analysis of the broader situation, by scanning the QR code.
Arhan Chhabra, secondary school student
We are prisoners of the fourth dimension – time. The laws of physics dictate that we can’t travel across it or influence it any way. And yet we experience it every day. So what happens when time comes to a standstill during a pandemic? As quarantine has made time more surreal every day, will humanity stand the test of time? What does this ever-present reality tell us about our future? Timeless is a short film that tackles these questions in a cinematographically expressed manner using abstract surrealism to evoke the magical and inexplicable phenomenon that is time.
A System That Constantly Disinfects Itself
Kelly Chu Wing-lam and Echo Hui Gi-wai, recent graduates of the Academy of Visual Arts at Hong Kong Baptist University
The measures against Covid-19 show a common cultural pattern: they concern the management of boundaries. Boundaries that divide the self and other, the outside and inside, the non-human and human, the clean and unclean, the exposed and unexposed, and the at-risk and the not at-risk. In this work, hand sanitiser is fixed as a boundary-crossing material and semiotic object representing a whole host of fears, relations, norms and vulnerability.
Ning-Ning, recent graduate in art history and comparative literature at the University of Hong Kong
I video call my family and friends.
Together, We Play Online Games! Together, We Watch a Movie! Together, We Are 300 Pixels Per Inch Rendered Through Each Other’s Screens! Together, We Are Two-Dimensional Representations of Ourselves Flattened Within the Borders of a Video Call Window! Together, We Engage With Representations of Each Other to Simulate a Reality Where We Are Together! Together, We Become the Pixels That Represent Us And Our Virtual Relationships, Though Two-Dimensional in Form, Become As Real As The Tangible!
This is a reflection on togetherness and Baudrillard’s hyperreality, where simulations of reality replace reality itself.
Shirley Au Sheung-hing, recent graduate in comparative literature at the University of Hong Kong
Does a new norm mark the end of the pandemic even if it has not ended yet? During a 14-day quarantine in a hotel in China on a business trip, Yu has a series of dreams about her home. Her neighbourhood, which she only visits when everything is closed, becomes her happiest memory. Lok, a friend with whom she stays in contact on FaceTime every day and every second, tries to bring her back to the experience of being at home during the pandemic. Can Yu stay connected to her home after leaving Hong Kong?
Meet the artists, mentors and committee members on Saturday, January 23 from 2 to 5 pm
The After_ exhibition will take place from 22 January to 10 February 2021. ACO, 6/F, Foo Tak Building, 365-367 Hennessy Road, Wan Chai. Opening hours: 1-7 pm (Tuesday to Sunday)