Hong Kong’s Tiger Balm Garden is etched into the public consciousness in disparate guises. It was originally part of the 1930s estate of Aw Boon Haw, the Burmese-Chinese entrepreneur who introduced the famous Tiger Balm ointment. But it was also one of Hong Kong’s first amusement parks, known in particular for psychedelic dioramas that depicted harrowing scenes of hell.
Artist Adrian Wong knows it intimately, even though he only visited once. Born in Chicago to Hong Kong parents, he first encountered Tiger Balm Garden in 1985, when he visited Hong Kong with his family on holiday. He missed his chance to visit again: when he moved here in 2005, the park had already been demolished. But it lived on in his memory.
“Though my direct experience was limited, in fact, only fragmentary, I feel like I’ve visited many times over,” he said. “It’s like I see echoes of it all around me, not only in Hong Kong, but in simulations of Hong Kong in Chinatowns, banquet halls and cultural centres the world over.”
This year, in collaboration with the K11 Art Foundation, Wong has created an installation inspired by the garden that will be exhibited at chi art space in Central. The multi-disciplinary artist is known for wonky and witty projects that explore and deconstruct cultural icons and signifiers; this one will use the former amusement park as a springboard into Hong Kong’s deeply ambivalent relationship with itself.
Called The Tiger Returns to the Mountain, the installation takes visitors on a multi-sensory journey that draws upon Chinese and Taoist aesthetics and symbolism while injecting modern twists and sensations that play with themes of influence and memory. A controversial song by Screaming Jay Hawks called Hong Kong will blare out of a PA system every ten minutes. But rather than the guitars and moderately racist gobbledygook vocals, listeners will hear classical Chinese instruments in an adaptation by local composer Kung Chi-shing.
Wong is well poised to investigate themes of identity, place, belonging and heritage pertaining to postcolonial Hong Kong. His own parents attempted to assimilate into local American culture by divesting themselves of aspects of their own culture. Both his parents had left their home city as teenagers, and were estranged from their parents. He describes how Cantonese ceased to be spoken at home while he was in primary school and the household diet was adjusted to a more American palette. Even rice was taken off the family shopping list for a time.
“My only real access point to my heritage was through piecemeal construction of anecdotes, family photographs from the 1960s and 1970s, and the idea of Hong Kong as transmitted through film, literature, and cultural artefacts,” says Wong. His 2005 move to the city found him “thrust headlong into a world that had only previously existed as a sort of fantasy sphere,” he says. “I think in a lot of ways, this allowed me a privileged view into the discontinuities and problematics of a city that once self-defined as ‘The Gateway to the Orient.'”
The disparities that exist between the Hong Kong that is and the Hong Kong of the imagination are central to Wong’s work. How Hong Kong views itself and its heritage within this framework is where Wong’s fantastical imagery take on their absurdist twists .These existential tensions around culture and heritage are experienced in Wong’s simulacra worlds where boundaries between fiction and reality are blurred.
Trained in psychology at Harvard, with a background that incorporates linguistics and anthropology, Wong’s art projects contain rich, heavily researched, multi-layered narratives that explore with wit and nuance the characters and symbols of Hong Kong that serve as cultural pillars. Taoist exorcists, triads, choppers and pink dolphins have all served as wellsprings for projects that play with received notions on Hong Kong. Like the surrealists who were heavily influenced by the simulacra of film, Wong’s projects often render flimsy, silly or absurd the cultural icons and received notions imbued with weight by official histories and public perceptions. He often uses theatrics and kitsch to create scenes of hyperreality.
At the heart of the Tiger Balm Garden project are questions of heritage conservation and Hong Kong’s ambivalence towards this vouchsafing its real history. Part of Wong’s research revealed how a level in Super Street Fighter 2 was inspired by the garden – another fictive entry point into a place modern developers see little need to conserve.
“I wanted to get to the bottom of what ineffable energies the garden contained, and thought the most direct way of doing this was to reconstitute it in some way,” he said. With the detachment of an academic, you could say that Wong is trying to recover a lost experience. A question remains, however. Is recreating the fabula of our past enough to protect it from fading from view? Or are the wild myths we attach to our history what take us further and further away from who it is we are and where it is we came from?
The Tiger Returns to the Mountain runs from March 20 to April 29, 2017, at chi art space, 8/F, New World Tower 2, 18 Queen’s Road Central.