Art History: Lee Kai-chung and the Underbelly of Hong Kong History

When he was in school, the artist Lee Kai-chung had no interest in history. He preferred to practise basketball with his friends or play video games on his Sega Saturn than to think about the past. “I was never into anything academic,” says Lee. “I wasn’t into history even when I went to university.” 

Now, Lee thinks about little else. Over the past few years, Lee has captured the attention of international curators, collectors and critics with his art inspired by historical events, which he thoroughly researches in libraries and archives, as well as through conducting interviews with people connected to the incidents he studies. His art has taken many forms — including sculpture, installation and photographs — but Lee increasingly works in video, making what he describes as “essay films” about historical events that blur fact and fiction by combining documentary-style footage with fabricated elements, such as re-enactments featuring imagined conversations or even invented characters. The unreliability of his work doesn’t bother Lee. In fact, the murkiness is the point. In his art, Lee is not interested in establishing historical facts, but in exploring how all history is composed of a patchwork of competing narratives, which can either complement or contradict each other. 

Lee’s artistic interpretations of history are being exhibited around Asia over the next few months. On February 21, he opened a solo show at Floor_ Gallery in Seoul. Two days later, a group exhibition featuring one of Lee’s videos opened at Ox Warehouse in Macau. Then, at the end of March, Lee is presenting a new video installation in a solo show hosted by Tabula Rasa Gallery at Art Basel in Hong Kong. These three exhibitions are the latest in a string of international projects for Lee. In 2023, his work was featured in the Sharjah Biennial and he was a finalist in the Taoyuan International Art Award exhibition. The year before, Lee was awarded the Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography from Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology of Harvard University, which included a US$50,000 stipend.

At Floor_ Gallery, Lee is exhibiting a seven-channel video installation from his series The Infinite Train, which traces Russian, Chinese and Japanese attempts to build a train across China in the early 20th century. That work is based in Manchuria, an area that’s also of interest to the Sigg Prize-winning artist Wang Tuo, who like Lee makes speculative video art inspired by the past. Lee’s exhibition at Floor_ Gallery will also feature four video works from his eight-part series The Narrow Road to the Deep Sea. These same four videos will also be exhibited at Ox Warehouse in Macau. 

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep Sea investigates the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II, in particular the Japanese army’s mass deportation of people from the city to mainland China. When war broke out, Hong Kong’s population stood at roughly 1.5 million people. It was impossible to import enough food to feed that number of people during wartime. So when the Japanese army quickly instituted a policy to reduce the population, more than 500,000 residents fled of their own accord across the border to mainland China in 1942, although many were too weak to survive the journey. After that exodus failed to solve the food crisis, the Japanese began to forcibly expel people in 1943. 

In his autobiography Hong Kong Surgeon, doctor Li Shu-fan, who lived through the occupation, describes how “hordes of Hong Kong’s common people were rounded up, packed aboard trains, taken across to the border at Shenzhen on the mainland, and driven inland like cattle. Other thousands were crowded into junks and driven ashore on arrival at the China coast, to trek for hundreds of miles on foot to reach safety in the interior.” By the end of the war, there were only 500,000 people left in Hong Kong.

In The Narrow Road to the Deep Sea, Lee explores what happened to refugees from Hong Kong who ended up in Nanshitou Refugee Camp on the edge of Guangzhou, which was also occupied by the Japanese. Survivors of the refugee camp — and their descendants — claim that the Japanese army conducted medical experiments on refugees in Nanshitou without their consent, as the Japanese army did at multiple prisoner-of-war camps around China. These human experiments were orchestrated by a secretive department known as Unit 731, whose medical investigations may have led to the deaths of up to 300,000 people in mainland China during the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Second World War. 

“I managed to interview one person who lived in the camp, she was a 90-something-year-old lady who’s still living in the area. She says she remembers people being dragged to a laboratory for experiments,” says Lee. Some relatives of survivors tell more gruesome stories. “They say that refugees were injected with bacteria and viruses, and the Japanese would see how long it took them to develop symptoms. Sometimes they would cut them open, see how wounds heal, things like that.”  

These stories are woven into the eight artworks that comprise The Narrow Road to the Deep Sea, which include five video works, a sculpture, photographs and drawings. The videos are vignettes, giving glimpses into the experiences of different people connected to the Nanshitou Refugee Camp. At Floor_ Gallery and Ox Warehouse, Lee is exhibiting the videos titled Part II through to Part V. Three of these videos are re-enactments: Part II: The Smoking Lady follows a young woman’s preparations to flee Hong Kong for mainland China. Part III: The Enka Singer features the testimony of a Japanese veteran who was tasked with disposing the corpses of refugees. Finally, Part V: The Remains of the Night features characters in Nanshitou Refugee Camp who are suffering hallucinations due to the deprivation in the camp. 

Perhaps the most complex work is, Part IV: The Digger, in which Lee illustrates how the past continues to reverberate in the present by personally re-enacting some of the physical labour prisoners of war would have been made to do. Lee visited the site of Toyama Military School in Shinjuku, Tokyo, which is now Toyama Park, where the skeletons of more than 100 people have been exhumed since the school closed. These bodies are believed to be of people who were studied at the school, then unceremoniously discarded afterwards. 

In this video, Lee records himself digging a hole in the park, as if he’s recovering a body, although he says that was not his intention. “My instinct told me to dig a hole, not with an intention to excavate anything,” he says. “Through hours of physical labour, I felt the buried consciousness of the living, the dead and the evil, as if [I was one of] the refugees in Nanshitou Camp who dug their own grave.” Lee believes that including himself in his videos can emphasise just how strongly the past affects the present. “I try to incorporate my personal experiences because the main reason I work with history is not about looking back into the past, but about how history shapes my own personal experiences – and the whole of society today,” he explains. 

At Art Basel Hong Kong, Lee is showcasing a new work, Trees of Malevolence, which is inspired by Hong Kong’s history as a centre of espionage during the Cold War. “In 2018, I was able to interview an old lady in Hong Kong. I believe she was born in the 1930s, so she’d lived through so many events: the Second World War, the Cultural Revolution, the 1967 riots in Hong Kong. She believed both her parents had been undercover agents for the Chinese Communist Party,” says Lee. This woman’s mother travelled regularly to mainland China throughout her childhood. One day in the 1960s, she was told that her mother had died while on one of these trips. As cross-border travel was restricted at the time, the woman could not go to her mother’s funeral. The woman showed Lee evidence that backed up her story.

“I’ve had the story in my mind for ages, but I couldn’t translate it into an artwork. It was so personal,” says Lee. “Last year, I decided to not just use material from the old lady, but to broaden out my research about the position of Hong Kong and China during the Cold War: what were the underground activities during that time?” Through his research, Lee discovered that Hong Kong was a hotbed for espionage throughout the Cold War. There were agents from mainland China, like the woman’s mother, but there were also spies from Britain’s MI6, the USA’s CIA and from the Kuomintang government in Taiwan, among others. “Some spies were very dedicated to one ideology, but some worked for multiple governments – they were double agents or triple agents,” says Lee.


Trees of Malevolence follows a fictional character, based on the mother of the woman he’d interviewed, through six real-life events. At the time of writing, Lee was still finalising the work, but reveals that one of the events is the inaugural Canton Fair in 1957. This trade fair provided a rare opportunity at the time for foreigners to do business in mainland China – and a chance for spies posing as businesspeople to enter the country. Another video includes the story of John Tsang Siu-fo, who was the highest-ranking Chinese member of the police force in British-occupied Hong Kong at the start of the 1960s, until he was discovered to be a spy for the Chinese Communist Party in 1961. As a whole, Lee says, the work explores people’s devotion to ideologies. “People devote a lot of time, sometimes their whole life, to ideologies. But what do people get back? That was my main interest when developing this project,” says Lee.

At Art Basel Hong Kong, Trees of Malevolence will be shown as a multi-channel video installation, with each of the six videos screened on its own vintage, boxy TV. “The whole film was also filmed in Super8 film, so it’s grainy, there’s a lot of textures, it’s faded, it’s not like a digital film. I wanted to recreate that feeling of footage that the spies might have filmed,” explains Lee. 

Like all of his projects, Trees of Malevolence has been a collaborative effort, involving academics who have deepened Lee’s understanding of history and actors who have helped him bring these events back to life, among others. “When I work with other people, I have to put my perspective away, at least for a moment, and listen to theirs,” he says – and sometimes those perspectives surprise him. The elderly lady who first gave him the inspiration for Trees of Malevolence is a perfect example. “She lived through very difficult things, but she felt like she had had a really good life, which contrasts with our perception today of what those times were like,” says Lee. 

Ultimately, this is also why Lee chooses to turn his research into art, rather than conventional essays, documentaries or books about history. Art allows Lee to explore history from a variety of viewpoints and to present complicated, non-linear stories, rather than neat timelines. While Lee finds himself surprised by the twists and turns of history while making his work, he hopes that his art opens rabbit holes into the past for gallery-goers to fall into. “People have their own agency when they look at art, rather than just being told something,” says Lee. “Art gives people different ways to discover history.”  

Our New World: Lee Kai Chung is open at Floor_ Gallery, Seoul from February 21 to March 31, 2024; The Old People’s Restaurant and the Sea is open at Ox Warehouse, Macau from February 24 to March 24, 2024; and Art Basel Hong Kong runs from March 26-30, 2024. 

 

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