Lumieres Hong Kong: Shedding New Light on Hong Kong’s History

Courtesy George WanDisappearing Neons A luminiscent biodiversityE-motion - The City Hall turned into an illumination

Just as Christmas lights start to take over the cityscape, an entirely new celebration is shining a light on Hong Kong’s heritage. For three days this month, a dozen of historic buildings across the city will be lit up as part of a new festival, Lumieres Hong Kong, which is modelled after a festival originally from Lyon.

That’s the hometown of Julien-Loïc Garin, who is also responsible for Le French May, the springtime festival that has become one of Hong Kong’s cultural juggernauts. He hopes Lumieres will promote local history while creating a platform for artists to riff on new technology. “I hope the festival helps Hong Kong consider aspects of local culture we must protect,” says Garin.

The festival has been a long time in the making. “[We have been] discussing with the government and tourism board about how to identify the buildings, and also how to make sure everything runs smoothly, so that there are no traffic jams or anything like that,” says Garin. “We also wanted to make sure that it’s completely free and accessible – while bringing together different elements, including art, history and local culture.”

Garin is a breath of fresh air in Hong Kong’s glitzy, multinational events organisation scene. Though he certainly isn’t lacking in poise, there’s a warmth he exudes that prevents him from seeming haughty or overly motivated by the prestige his position offers him. That passion runs throughout the Lumieres project, in which light installations, video projections and art pieces will be peppered across the city, alongside a number of guided tours that draw attention to the city’s rich history of culture and night-time illumination.

Garin admits the city is already “oversaturated with light,” but he says out that Lumieres’ installations add cultural value to the city without contributing to its light pollution. In Sheung Wan, local artist Hung Keung illuminates the Man Mo Temple with two symbols, sword and brush pen, that represent cutting and ink marks – metaphors for history’s cross-section of time and space. Built between 1847 and 1862 by wealthy Chinese merchants, and now wedged between mammoth high rises, the temple is a beautiful example of Chinese vernacular architecture, and the light project celebrates this history in a sensitive way.

In Tsim Sha Tsui, artist South Ho lights up the Peninsula Hotel with neon lighting that draws on the theme of travel and aviation by evoking the spectre of a seaplane called the Kowloon Clipper, a reference to the plane that arrived here from San Francisco in 1937. It plays on Kowloon’s history as the home of the now-demolished Kai Tak Airport, where descending planes flew astonishingly close to buildings.

Ho is a history buff who works with light play in photography. He says that it is important to draw attention to Hong Kong’s urban heritage, as the city’s relentless development threatens to wipe out its own architectural memorabilia. Ho also says he likes the fact that Lumieres is a non-commercial event, complaining that the city’s art scene is becoming increasingly money-oriented, even as many local artists struggle with soaring rent.

Ho’s piece incorporates neon lights, a nod to a once-ubiquitous form of signage that has started to disappear in the face of changing tastes and stricter government regulations. The vanishing neon signs is the subject of another part of Lumieres, as local historian George Wan leads tour groups through Yau Ma Tei and Jordan, two districts that still have a high concentration of neon. “It’s important we treasure these signs,” he says. “Many were built from the 1930s to the 60s, and designed by artist calligraphers, so they really are very special.” His tour is funded by Hong Kong Neon Heritage, a group that aims to promote this endangered part of Hong Kong’s urban fabric.

The love for neon is shared by Map Office, the art and architecture practice run by Valérie Portefaix and Laurent Gutierrez. Keen to highlight the city’s unique (and threatened) biodiversity, they are mounting a neon installation on Duddell Street that features fireflies and other insects. Portefaix says the decision to use neon rather than LED or other forms of lighting was easy. “For me, lighting and neon represent intensity, and with neon, it’s easier to control that intensity,” she says. As more and more neon is replaced by ultra-bright LED, she says the way people experience Hong Kong will dramatically change.

It all comes down to a question: what is the meaning of light? “For me, it’s about the spirit of the people,” he says. “We want to draw out the existing uniqueness of the city and let the people to see the potential in Hong Kong.”

Lumieres Hong Kong takes place from November 23-25, 2017 at various locations in Central and Tsim Sha Tsui. Click here for more information.

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