Hong Kong on Instagram: @SurrealHK, Our Own Doctor Strange

Hong Kong’s Instagrammers depict the city through their own distinctive and arresting perspectives. In a bid to help show the city through their eyes, Zolima CityMag is kicking off a new series of features on the best and brightest of the crop, starting with Tommy Fung – @SurrealHK.Tommy Fung released his first doctored Instagram image in January 2017, when he returned to his native Hong Kong from Venezuela. That’s where he and his family had lived since he was nine years old, and where he had worked as a graphic designer. Of the qualities picked up in South America and brought with him to Hong Kong, his solemnity-busting sense of humour is his most cherished cultural import.     

“Sometimes people tell me that when they see my pictures, it’s the only time in the day when they laugh,” says Fung, in a coffee shop in Ap Lei Chau, not far from where he lives with his aunt and grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s and who he helps care for. “I think Hongkongers need to take life less seriously,” he says.

Fung’s first image has accrued over 500 likes since it was posted last January. His account has garnered a following of more than 26,500, a success he attributes to his willingness to tease out the issues that affect everyone here. That first post depicted a view of Victoria Harbour with his now trademark playful, perception-bending vision of the city. He superimposed an enlarged image of himself sat crossed-legged on the Star Ferry, a scene that is equal parts silly as it is awesome, and which turns upside down the idea of what is iconic to a city while also adding drop of playful ego into that mix.

The image speaks to questions that might be shared among many recent transplants when contemplating the life they have in a city as complex, visually-spectacular, dynamic and monumental as Hong Kong. Who am I in this storied, intimidating place of millions; where do I fit in, and in which contexts do I belong, if any?

Tommy FungIt’s a question of identity exemplified in Fung, who identifies as much as Venezuelan as he does Chinese. As with many who straddle worlds, he feels slightly aloof from both cultures. Born in Hong Kong, Fung returned from Venezuela in 2016 as his host country endured a staggering economic meltdown.

“During my first year [back] in Hong Kong, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I had to start again from zero,” he says. Instagramming, something that began as a way for Fung to explore Hong Kong and his feelings towards it, is starting to turn into a job. “It’s all about observation, and being a bit different. When I see other people’s work, I don’t want to copy them, I want to do my own thing,” he says, denying influences besides the world of fantasy cinema.

Fung describes how he wanders the streets looking for curious spectacles to snap, or else imagines wild scenes in his mind that he puts together. He uses Photoshop to doctor his images, working from his own photographs. The process takes between five to fifteen hours per image, and is often completed at night time, when there are fewer distractions.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m alone in my own surreal world,” he says. “What if this is actually a dream within a dream?” he quips, in a hat tip to one of his favourite films, Inception, which was co-produced and directed by Christopher Nolan, an auteur who often draws on themes of morality, time, memory and identity – and as such influence Fung’s perception-bending works.

Tommy Fung

This idea of belonging, of failing to fit in, of being at odds with the assigned proportions that make up the world we live in, often finds expression in Fung’s works. Images of himself and symbols of Hong Kong culture — especially its food — are given an Alice in Wonderland effect, made to look madly, comically, uncomfortably large in the context of everyday Hong Kong.         

“A lot about Hong Kong is very surreal, Hong Kong life is very surreal,” he says. “The flats are so small, the land problems, the gap between the rich and poor – it’s not right.” His pieces aren’t always socio-political in tone, but many are very rooted in the concerns of Hong Kong residents, with the issue of affordable rent (and lack thereof) coming up time and again.

In one piece, he manipulates a block of flats of Choi Hung Estate, a popular spot for Instagram photos owing to its bright colours. Using visual tricks redolent of an Escher monograph, Fung creates a disorientating state of affairs that makes one question when one apartment ends and another begins. It’s a play on perceptions that draws attention to Hong Kong’s housing problem, where flats seem to shrink day by day while their affordability diminishes. It also nods the visual trickery of Fung’s favourite films, among them, the Matrix franchise and Doctor Strange, the 2016 superhero film.

Part of the magic of the Doctor Strange franchise comes from its elegant but playful perception-bending visages of iconic cityscapes, with Hong Kong featured among them. In its final scene, the city serves as a mind-twisting backdrop. Fung sees in his city all the ingredients that make it so fantastically cinematic; a mesmerising, multi-layered metropolis that, from some angles, never seems to end. “I still often get lost here,” he says.

In the film, Doctor Strange’s superpower is his ability to manipulate the dimensions of reality — of space and time — in his favour. (The same is true of Matrix hero Neo.) It’s a clever skill that us mere mortals have yet to harness, except when it comes to altering the simulacra of reality we make on screens, via software like Photoshop.

So does Fung identify with the character of Doctor Strange? Is he Hong Kong’s own perception-bending superhero? When asked this question he turns somewhat bashful, and shakes his head. That wasn’t his aim, it seems. But, much like the chilled out larger-than-life version of himself he superimposes atop the Star Ferry, he’s certainly enjoying the ride.   

For more surreal images visit SurrealHK on Instagram


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