A New Art Space Reflects the Life of a Hong Kong Mountain Village

Chuen Lung is a small village between Tai Mo Shan and Tsuen Wan that can be reached by taking minibus number 80 from near the Tsuen Wan MTR station. Ride the minibus as it climbs its way up Route Twisk, leaving behind the dense mass of buildings as it cruises deep into the subtropical greenery. When you reach the end of the line, you’ll have arrived.

Small as it is, nestled among trees and crossed by a mountain stream that flows down from Hong Kong’s highest peak, Chuen Lung is proof once again that even the smallest village in Hong Kong hides countless stories, and history. And preserving and documenting them is now more urgent than ever. Which is exactly what the Hong Kong International Photo Festival (HKIPF) team, part of the Hong Kong Photography Culture Association (HKPCA), is doing. 

Right at the entrance of the village, just a few steps away from the minibus stop, sits the new Koon Man Space (gun3 man4 hung1 gaan1 貫文空間). It is a former village school that has been in disuse since 1988, and that has now been renovated and adapted to become an exhibition space, where photography and the stories linked to Chuen Lung and its inhabitants are explored and highlighted. 

The space has had other incarnations. It was the filming location of Little Big Master by director Adrian Kwan, a movie about an abandoned school being saved by a soon to retire headmaster. And in 2018, it was the site of Hi! Hill, an exhibition organised by the Arts Promotion Office. The following year, the HKIPF applied for a tenancy and renovation project for the former school space. 

“We decided to keep the name of the school and transform it into a place where the stories of Chuen Lung can be documented,” says Leon Suen Shu-kwan, photographer and a member of the Board of directors of HKPCA. The choice of Chuen Lung was not accidental, as photographer Chak Wai-leung, who had previously lived in the village for almost 30 years, led the way. The tranquillity, and the history of Chuen Lung did the rest.

“The village is said to be about 500 years old,” says Suen. “Its origin is as a Hakka village that had initially been near the coast, in Tsuen Wan. They decided to move up the hill to protect themselves from pirates and settled here because of the stream of pure mountain water.” 

For a long time, the village lived in its own rural isolation, a Hakka community nestled around the Tsang ancestral hall, which is still standing as a Grade III historic building likely built in the 17th century. Eventually, more and more people of Cantonese descent began moving to the village. 

Today, most people have heard about it only for its watercress, which grows abundantly in ponds near the stream. It has long had a reputation as the best watercress in Hong Kong. “The farmers here are very proud of the watercress, and will only sell it to you at its peak,” says Suen. “I wanted to buy some, and they told me not now, you must wait for autumn to get it at its best.

On weekends, visitors arrive to have tea at the local teahouse, which is famed for the purity of the water used to brew the tea with, although climate change and construction works upstream have somewhat disrupted the availability of fresh mountain water.

In order to honour the village’s history, the new Koon Man Space is presenting two exhibitions that showcase some of the many images taken in Cheung Lung by the first two artists in residence, Ki Wong and Pak Chai. Both shows use some photos and drawings made by the villagers themselves, who were given cameras to record whatever they wished. 

Ki Wong has used the main area of the Koon Man Space for the show The Rock and the Gaze, made with photographic material collected from the villagers themselves, which she has re-elaborated through drawing, enlarging certain parts or highlighting the ravages of time and humidity on film and print. A photo of a mother with her two daughters has been enlarged, without altering the red discoloration that has affected the print, giving it a mesmerising look that enhances the feeling of looking at something from a remote past. 

In another of these suggestive salvaged pictures we can see a beautiful villager, her hair curled in a fashionable perm, as she applies lipstick in front of the mirror – a woman finding a moment for self-love and self-care in what we can guess is a life dedicated to work. The photo has been reprinted with a silkscreen, and slightly retouched with a brush, giving it just a few hints of colour, which draws us further in trying to imagine what this woman was thinking about, and feeling, as she sat in front of her mirror, aware of a camera immortalising her. 

Wong spent her two-year residency talking to the villagers, asking to hear their stories and see the photos they still kept, drawing and acquainting herself deeply with the landscape. Rocks feature prominently in this area, and many villagers told Wong about the days they spent playing in the river, stepping on the rocks that emerge from the waters to sit and dry themselves. On sunny days, the rocks were also used as props for portraits, smooth surfaces on which people could pose stretching their legs and turning their faces towards the camera. 

“The enlarged photos are going to be given back to the villagers after the exhibition closes,” says Suen, emphasising the strong connection that the Koon Man Space wants to maintain with the inhabitants of Chuen Lung: “The villagers loved the interest in their lives. It has been a very good beginning.”

The second exhibition, by artist Pak Chai in collaboration with Ki Wong, is titled Photovoice: Bits and Bobs from Chuen Lung Villagers. Some of the photos are taken by three villagers, Heidi Chak, Chan Wai-cheong (also called Cheong Gor) and Tsang Kim-man (or Man Gor).

Cheong Gor is a second generation Cheun Lung villager, from a Teochew family, who felt at home only gradually as his “outsider” identity faded away. Man Gor has been passionate about photography all his life, while taking new photos of Chuen Lung and comparing them with his memories and his older photos, documents how much the local environment has deteriorated – with little animals, insects and plants having disappeared just in a short span of time, victims of climate change, growing pollution and the predatory attitude of some visitors who grab snails or catfish and eels as if the supply was endless. 

Some of the images in this show are old photos from Cheong Gor’s vaults superimposed on contemporary ones taken by Chai in the exact same spot, showing both the changes and the continuity in different parts of Chuen Lung and its surroundings. As Cheong Gor recalls in the booklet that accompanies the inaugural exhibitions, the environment is very different from that of his childhood: “Around 2010, public hydraulic works further uphill in Tai Mo Shan greatly reduced the river flow. Nowadays, the volume of the water in the river has decreased, no one ever comes to swim.” 

Among the villagers’ photos we see nature shots, of birds and trees, fruits and the rooftops of the village – including the old Christian missionaries’ chapel, now closed. They settled here to help alleviate poverty in the 1960s; although they have since departed, the village remains mostly Catholic. 

As Hong Kong celebrates its recent international art spaces, like M+ or Tai Kwun, it’s important to remember that smaller, more local initiatives Koon Man Space are also taking place. “It is an interesting trend,” says Suen. “People are also looking inward, getting more conscious of the danger of forgetting local histories, as things keep changing so fast, and memories risk being lost.” With initiatives like this, the traces of Hong Kong’s history can be honoured and preserved in spite of the constant change in society and the environment. 

All photos are courtesy of Hong Kong International Photo Festival.

Go back to top button