One misty morning in the foothills of Hong Kong’s tallest peak, an anorak-clad gentleman sits alone with a cigarette and breakfast in one of two village cafés. Patting ash into a chipped tray, he watches with sleepy eyes as the waitress moves from one room to the other. Next door, bamboo steamers pile up alongside bowls of fresh watercress and choi sum, and the hum of a vending machine filled with bottles of soya milk can be heard through the din of clattering plates and breakfast rituals.
This is Chuen Lung, a Hakka village with history stretching back 600 years. Life here takes its own cadence, one rather different to that of the high-strung metropolis a minibus ride away. A few steps away from the café, Hong Kong artist Kingsley Ng smiles quietly as he thinks back to the times he has spent in these lush environs famed for their abundance of watercress. He is standing in front of a building that was once the village school, and which is now the site of his latest public art piece. It’s a work that brings together 13 Hong Kong artists inspired by the old school and surrounding village life.
Organised by the Hong Kong government’s Art Promotion Office (APO), the project is part of a series called Hi! Houses which sets out to rethink old heritage sites. Small and unassuming, Koon Man School opened its doors before World War II, when villagers pooled resources together to have it built. It closed and reopened again in 1958, when the huge influx of mainland refugees to Hong Kong meant more villagers than ever before. But it closed again in 1988 because parents had started sending their children to the schools in nearby Tsuen Wan.
Now it lies empty, a symbol of the changes village life has undergone over the decades, as the younger generation has been inevitably lured to the attractions of the nearby city. And yet, while Chuen Lung’s population has dwindled, it has recently seen the the return of young villagers tired of the toils of city life and its ever-more expensive rent.
Looming above the village, as it has always done, is Tai Mo Shan. Education schemes come and go, people migrate in various patterns, but mountains are forever bound to their place. Today, Tai Mo Shan’s peak remains invisible, shrouded in rain clouds that sputter droplets at intervals well into the afternoon. The air is thick with the scent of damp foliage; birdcall punctuates the eerie quiet. Rusting corrugated iron line walls and fences on the slopes of the mountain, and if one squints one’s eyes upwards, splashes of red from burial ground signs can be seen peeking through leaves.
For Ng, this hulking mountain means many things to many people, and its significance through the ages is something his piece draws on. For him, Tai Mo Shan is attached to a particularly bittersweet memory. “We used to come here a lot as a family,” he says. “The mountain has a lot of connections to my upbringing.” In fact, the family was so fond of the setting, his grandmother asked for her ashes to be released at its peak, a request she made to Ng when he was a child and she was suffering from cancer. Scaling the mountain with her is one of his lasting memories of the time they had together before she passed away. “We all have our stories connected to Tai Mo Shan,” he says.
A gentle architect of space and mood, Ng’s multimedia practice is rooted in exploring and exposing the hidden stories and life of a place, encouraging his audience into states of peaceful reflection. It’s a mission that invites the public to make space for multiple points of views – a worthwhile pursuit In an increasingly polarised world.
Previous projects have involved turning Hong Kong’s beloved tram into a camera obscura, in which monologues from a text by a local writer, read by a young woman, were juxtaposed with the voice of an older man. Another, more recent show involved installing a monumental installation inside the Tai Hang Tung underground stormwater tank, drawing attention to the hidden infrastructure that keeps the city going despite Hong Kong’s annual battery of rainfall.
Through his work, Ng fosters feelings of community and gratitude. He is a force for peaceful coexistence between people of different generations and demographics. Here in Chuen Lung, he brings that energy into a work that examines village life over the years, from the time its founders settled here so many years ago.
Chuen Lung’s story stretches back to the reign of Emperor Yongle (1403-1424) in the Ming dynasty, when the Tsang clan settled on the mountainside, part of a wave of Hakka migrants who eked out a living in hardscrabble areas that hadn’t yet been claimed by Cantonese-speaking settlers, who had arrived several centuries earlier. In Ng’s work, which uses half the space of the abandoned school, light bounces on a pool of water next to a minimalist projection that tracks the journey those early settlers would have undergone to arrive at what is now the New Territories in Hong Kong. Ng postulates that these settlers might have been responsible for giving Tai Mo Shan its name, which literally means “big hat mountain.” He suggests it was an homage to a mountain of a similar name near their hometown in mainland China, which was called Lung Chuen.
“This is a tribute to the people who travelled miles to get here, and about how they made a small home here next to the biggest mountain,” says Ng. With migration as a central theme to this work, which also plays with metaphors around transience and time as reflected in the theme of water, Ng touches on one of the joys that can come with observing history. In the tales of our forebears we can find values, wants and concerns that apply today and thereby touch on the universality of the human experience.
“This relates to human civilisation in general, not just Hong Kong,” says Ng. “Civilisation started with clans living together in a communal place. And that’s very different from the urban metropolitan settings many of us now live in,” he says. “[The old way] is not so close to us anymore. So to be able to be reminded of how relationships used to be at this point in time, that’s a great thing. It was a simpler way of living.”
The simplicity of interconnected village life is something that fellow artist Tang Kwok-hin meditates on in his piece adjacent to that of Ng. Tang hails from the other side of Tai Mo Shan, in Kam Tin, where he continues to live in the house passed down by his father. His works often use his experience of life in these quieter corners of Hong Kong as a starting point. Tang’s name is indicative of his lineage enduring connection to his own village, the Tangs being one of the earliest Chinese clans to settle in Hong Kong.
In his piece, he screens seven interviews with residents of Chuen Lung, aged between ten and 97, alongside found objects and a video of his own baby daughter in an installation piece that pays homage to the complexities of Hong Kong village life. Through the different interviews, Tang shows the diversity of life in Chuen Lung, alongside the generational gaps that show how much has changed over time. There are some thorny issues that come up, too, such as intergenerational frictions and gender inequality.
“People here are more connected to the mountain, the birds, the trees, the river,” says Tang. “They can drink the water here and everyone has their own story.” Unlike elsewhere in Hong Kong, villagers here have access to fresh mountain water, meaning they skirt the contentious issue of having to drink imported water from China. Chuen Lung villagers have two taps, one for mountain water, one for government-supplied water.
“Village life is usually quite conservative, with different generations living together under one roof, and sometimes people look down on women,” he says. It’s a cultural attitude that informed Hong Kong’s contentious Small House Policy, which entitles all male descendants of Hong Kong’s indigenous clans to build a three-storey, 2,100-square foot home in their ancestral village. Women don’t enjoy the same privilege. As such, life in the village is subject to conditions that are anomalous to that of the city, creating a legal, cultural and political divide between urban and country life, rife with stereotypes about each group.
“Attitudes outside the village are that villagers are gangsters, that they’re not educated, that they seldom look outside,” says Tang. Village life, as narrated by the characters on the screens, has its ups and downs, and part of what Tang and several of the artists across the project strive to do express that complexity helping bridge the divide of understanding that exists between village and city dwellers, while showing that there is something to be said for a life in a slower lane.
That’s an idea that runs through the work of a third artist at the Koon Man School, Leung Chi-wo, who was drawn to the story of a local amateur photographer, basing his piece on his work documenting village life over the decades, and the obvious joy it brought him. On the day of our visit to the village, he was unable to show us around as he had only just returned from Japan, which he visited in preparation for his work for the Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale. But he was more than willing to share insights over the phone.
“My art doesn’t pass judgement, but what I do want to say is that everyone should be listened to, and that everybody has their own story,” he says. A stalwart in Hong Kong’s art world, having played an integral role founding independent art space Para Site, Leung says that this public art project had been quite a departure from his usual work, which is normally put together with a white cube gallery audience in mind.
One of Leung’s works focuses on a man named Chak Wai-leung, who was a civil servant with the Agricultural and Fisheries Department. His work often took him to Chuen Lung, and he was so enchanted by the village, he decided to move to a village close by when he retired about 20 years ago. “In the weekend he would take pictures in the countryside. He was a walking dictionary about the village,” says Leung. “I like the idea that everyone can do that, everyone has a chance to do that. I was curious about how he found his joy there, and how he witnessed the changes of time.”
That led to Leung’s installation, which incorporates photographs taken by Chak of his surroundings in ways that draw attention to the art of noticing the small things one might easily overlook, a pursuit that so often gets lost in the clamouring and striving of city life.
Leung finished his phone call as lunchtime approaches. That’s when artist Kacey Wong arrives on the scene, though his presence can be already be felt in the 28 sets of desks and chairs he has installed in a makeshift classroom. The furniture is made out of pre-rusted steel, and it is given a surrealist twist – it appears to be sinking towards the back of the classroom. The scene touches on the strange, haunting echoes of memory one experiences when looking back at one’s disorientating childhood years. Some desks have weed-like plants growing at their legs, seeds planted by Wong in a bid to give the site the look of an old ruin being reclaimed by nature, like Angkor Wat. Child-like etchings of explosions, Godzilla and tic-tac-toe are etched on some desks.
Wong seared the doodles into the steel with a plasma cutter. His works often carry hard hitting socio-political commentary, and these seemingly innocent engravings are no different, carrying disturbing undertones of branding and indoctrination, while also evoking the scar tissue children unwittingly carry into adulthood. It’s a thought that is particularly sobering when one considers the degrees of unnecessary stress and anguish Hong Kong’s school system places on its students. “When you’re a kid, you don’t realise that your school is kind of cruel. It’s an innocent time,” says Wong, who was educated in Hong Kong until his family immigrated to the United States when he was in high school.
Wong’s memories from his Hong Kong school years include listening to “God Save the Queen” under a picture of Queen Elizabeth. This was in the late 1970s and early 80s, a time in Hong Kong that is increasingly looked at with nostalgia, the kind of feeling one might have for school years we regard with fondness, even if their reality was far from ideal. “[Schools] don’t teach the important stuff, like how to be a good guy, how not to give up when you’ve been kicked down, what is important, what is not important,” says Wong. “If I had gone to high school here I would have flunked,” he adds, laughing.
Lunchtime beckons. In Chuen Lung’s second café, close to the village’s famed watercress field, Wong helps himself to char sui and sui mei, and clinks beer bottles with café owner Tsang Kwan-fai and Jonathan Tsang, the village’s Indigenous Inhabitants Representative. They report how keen they are too see their village getting such attention, and Wong clearly relishes the rambunctious company, as the air fills with cigarette smoke and stories are thrown around. “This village, their ancestors have been here since the Ming dynasty,” says Wong. “Hongkongers should search for their real identity – not some fake identity or indoctrination.
Hi, Chuen Lung village runs until August 12 and is separated into two parts. Collecting Memories under the Hibiscus Tree – Koon Man School, features the works of artists Kacey Wong, Tang Kwok-hin, Leung Chi-Wo and Kingsley Ng. Across the village are the works of several other artists that makes up Notes In-Situ.
Where: Chuen Lung village, Tsuen Wan. Nearest MTR Tsuen Wan