Like the city that inspired it, Retainers of Anarchy is impossible to understand at first glance. Spanning 25 metres, this algorithmic animation by Hong Kong-born Canadian artist Howie Tsui references the enormous scroll paintings of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), but with several subversive twists.
At the centre of the work is a cross-section of a huge structure that resembles the Kowloon Walled City, the self-built, self-governing settlement that stood near the Kai Tak Airport until 1993. Inside are scenes of unassuming domesticity: a group of friends playing mahjong, women doing laundry, men cooking. Outside is an otherworldly hellscape of torture and ghosts. The work brings together Chinese folk mythology, wuxia martial arts stories and sly commentary on contemporary Hong Kong. When it was unveiled last year at the Vancouver Art Gallery, viewers sat cross-legged on the floor, enraptured by the bizarre and intricate scene.
“Kids love it,” deadpans Tsui. “Formally and sensorially, it’s just so overwhelming and immersive. And it’s boggling – people have a lot of questions about what’s going on. It’s not a linear sequence, so people get sucked in and want to keep seeing more, to see what else is in there. It’s kind of addictive.”
He is sitting inside his backyard studio on the east side of Vancouver, an airy little cottage blanketed by lush greenery. Inside, there are paints and brushes, a scanner, a laptop attached to an extra monitor, and a vintage pinball machine nestled in a corner, next to a Canada Council for the Arts prize that Tsui won in 2015. Books are tucked into a shelf and piled on top of cabinets, including a catalogue of work by Yun Fei-ji, whose ink and watercolour paintings are often populated by ghosts.
The air smells sweet, like cedar and ferns. “This is my commute,” says Tsui, gesturing towards the yard. “Sometimes it can feel like I’m cut off from the world.”
His childhood was anything but. Born in Hong Kong in 1978, he and his family left in 1984 for Lagos, where his father was the accountant for a Hong Kong textile company. He says his memories of his days in Nigeria are fragmented, but he remembered being chauffeured between his family’s walled neighbourhood and the private school where he studied. “Parents were very anxious to pick up their kids after school for fear of them getting kidnapped,” he recalls. “There was a lot of instability at the time.”
Eventually, his family immigrated to Canada, part of a wave of Hongkongers spooked by the city’s impending handover to China. “Canada was in vogue,” says Tsui, but they didn’t settle in Toronto or Vancouver, like most others. Instead, they ended up in Thunder Bay, a small city in northwestern Ontario, where the cold waters of Lake Superior meet the scrubby woods of the Canadian Shield. Tsui’s father had a friend there.
The new location didn’t make much of a difference to Tsui’s entertainment. “I grew up watching all those TVB 1980s series,” he says, especially The Legend of the Condor Heroes, based on Louis Cha’s 1957 wuxia novel about two brothers during the 12th century war between the Jin and Song dynasties. “These video cassettes were moving around with us. I was watching them in Hong Kong, I was watching them in Africa and I was watching them in Thunder Bay. It was a tethering point to Hong Kong.”
As the years passed, however, Hong Kong became less of a hometown than a landscape of his imagination. He went to art school at the University of Waterloo and later moved to Ottawa, where his career developed through explorations of the supernatural, especially as it is depicted in Chinese ghost stories, Japanese manga and Hong Kong vampire films.
Howie Tsui, video preview of Parallax Chambers (White Camel Mountain), 2018, algorithmic animation sequence, single channel video, stereo sound – Video courtesy of the artist
It wasn’t until 2010 that Tsui returned to Hong Kong for his honeymoon. “I think a lot of repressed feelings came back,” he says. Suddenly, he began to understand the roots of his interests, his aesthetic and his way of working. “It was this lightning bolt that helped explain my artistic language. The landscape, the kinetic energy of the city, the human density – all that stuff was in my work.”
Tsui now visits Hong Kong regularly. “I enjoy speaking Cantonese,” he says, and he is keen to pass it along to his two children, the oldest of whom is five. “We have Hong Kong time at night before bed,” he says. “He watches all these 1980s music videos, Sam Hui videos, and he’s watching Cantonese Doraemon and My Little Pony. It might be part of this paranoia about cultural erasure. I think it’s important even for diasporic Hong Kong communities to do our part in preserving it.”
That’s one reason why Tsui moved from Ottawa to Vancouver in 2012. “Part of my relocation was to be closer to Hong Kong,” he says. By then, he had already been working on the idea behind Retainers of Anarchy for a couple of years, and he began production on the piece in 2014.
It was a laborious process. Turning on his computer, Tsui demonstrates how each component of the piece is modular, beginning with hand-drawn character or object that is scanned and layered in Photoshop. He opens a scene of a man hunched over in a room filled with typical Hong Kong elements: decorative window grills, mosaic tile floors, fluorescent tube lighting on the ceiling. A monstrous fish threatens to spill out of a large fish tank on the floor. Tsui clicks on a few buttons and the man and fish are replaced by characters inspired by the wuxia novels of Ouyang Feng.
The next step is to animate the scenes with help from animators at Emily Carr University, as well as Remy Siu, a composer and new media artist who designed the soundscapes in Retainers of Anarchy. All told, the project took seven years to complete. It is currently on tour, with a stop in Xi’an next month.
What prompted Tsui to embark on such an ambitious effort was a 120-metre-long digitally animated scroll called River of Wisdom that was commissioned by the government of China for Expo 2010 in Shanghai. Based on Zhang Zeduan’s illustrious 11th century painting Along the River During Qingming Festival, which depicts a bustling scene in China’s then-capital of Kaifeng, the animated scroll was spectacular and impressive, but Tsui noted a kind of triumphalism in the way it was presented.
“When I saw it I wanted to satirise it,” he says. “A lot of my practice previously is somewhat satirising canonised historical genres. Like ghost stories, in which case I’m satirising fear and linking this with this cultural prevalence of exaggeration in my family and a lot of Hong Kong families. There’s a lot of ghost stories and ways of using fear as a form of control.”
The end result is richly populated with references to Hong Kong’s current condition. In one frame of the mountainous landscape, pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong is trapped in a cage, struggling to reach a plate of fish. Lam Wing-kee, the Causeway Bay bookseller who was detained and smuggled across the border by mainland Chinese agents in 2015, is dragged by an archer on horseback with an open book on his head. All around is a phantasmagoria of ghoulish scenes plucked from the Ten Courts of Hell, a Chinese reinterpretation of Buddhist purgatory.
The idea of gong1 wu4 (江湖) was another point of reference. Literally “rivers and lakes,” it metaphorically refers to the criminal underworld. That’s what led Tsui to choose the Kowloon Walled City as a setting for his work. Originally a Chinese 2.6-hectare imperial fort built to manage the salt trade during the Song Dynasty, it was excluded from Britain’s lease of the New Territories in 1898. When the imperial court fell in 1912, however, the military abandoned the fort, leaving it as a kind of no man’s land in the middle of Kowloon.
Squatters moved in and began a cat-and-mouse game with the Hong Kong government, which tried to evict them. After World War II, however, the tide of refugees from the mainland was too strong to fend off, and the government took a hands-off approach to the Walled City. Bit by bit, the settlement grew into a towering structure home to 50,000 people living in makeshift apartments stacked up to 14 storeys high.
With no authority to speak of in the 1950s and 60s, the Walled City became a triad stronghold and a haven for drug traffickers, unlicensed dentists and anyone else looking for shelter from colonial authority. Things began to change in the early 1970s, when police conducted thousands of raids to expel the triads, after which the Walled City became a relatively orderly self-governing community. That unlikely scenario is reflected in Retainers of Anarchy: compared to the hellish chaos outside, the Walled City is an oasis of calm.
Tsui is now working on a follow-up project that will focus on the rooms inside Retainers of Anarchy’s depiction of the Walled City. There are a couple of other projects in the works, too. A new show, Parallax Chambers (White Camel Mountain), opens next month in Shanghai, drawing from the same themes, imagery and animation techniques as Retainers.
Other projects diverge from what Tsui has been working on for the past several years. In his studio, a poster of a new work based on scholar’s rocks hangs on the wall; Tsui describes it as a “palate cleanser” from his recent work. “It’s the only work I’ve done that has no figure in it – no human figure,” he says. Beneath the poster, a few Transformers are lying on top of a cabinet. Tsui is playing with the idea of using them to explore toy production through history, especially the connection between toys and war. He points out that toy factories in Japan switched to making weapons during World War II, after which they went back to making toys that helped spread Japan’s postwar commercial influence around the world.
It’s hard to say yet what will come of that idea. “There’s a long gestation,” says Tsui, glancing over at the Transformers. “I’m still mining parts of Hong Kong from my past.”
Retainers of Anarchy opens at OCAT X’ian on November 3, 2018. Howie Tsui will also participate in the Para Site benefit auction on October 25, and his show Parallax Chambers opens at the Art Labor gallery in Shanghai on November 8.