Hong Kong people have always been peripatetic, and the UK has long been a favoured destination, owing to a long history of colonial connections. There have been several waves of migration since the 19th century, including recently, as more and more Hongkongers leave home in the wake of political instability and Covid-19 restrictions, taking advantage of new visa options for British National Overseas passport holders, which includes most people born in Hong Kong before the handover in 1997.
Among these migrants are artists, designers and makers, many of which have ended up in London, whose robust arts infrastructure and cultural energy make it an appealing home for anyone creative. It’s perhaps not surprising that many of Hong Kong’s emerging talents can be found living and working there now, joining a community of second-generation creatives whose families left Hong Kong decades ago.
But who are these artists and what are their stories? We’ve decided to shine a spotlight on eight London-based artists and practitioners alike whose identities are connected to Hong Kong in one way or another, with more to come in the second part of this story. By showcasing a diverse mix of artistic practices and backgrounds, we hope to uncover a breadth of voices, perspectives and stories, and address the nuances and complexity of what it means to be from, or with roots in Hong Kong, enabling us to take a closer look at how shifting notions of identity are entangled within our existence, and can be reckoned and mediated with.
Bo Choy’s oeuvre explores post-colonial identity, mysticism and ancestral pasts through a body of works spanning film, writing, sound, costumes and performances. She describes them as narrative devices that weave together memories, imagination and extraordinary elements. Skillfully embedding and unfolding fictional narratives within our socio-politico-historical contexts, Choy invites us to venture into a fractured, affecting dreamlike space that slips between personal and collective consciousness. She is currently developing a new film project as part of the 2022/23 FLAMIN Fellowship cohort that ruminates on Cantonese polytheistic opera, customs on ancestral worship, family constellation therapy, genetics and physics.
Working with clay has provided ceramic artist Gerald Mak with a tangible way to reflect on his evolving experiences and relationships. His intricate body of works, which take the form of vessels, sculptures and wall-based art pieces, are often decorated with interlacing and overlapping hands depicted in abstruse, sometimes numinous, gestures. The hand, as a motif, alludes to Mak’s ongoing contemplation with notions of making, craft and identity. His work draws on the cultures and objects he grew up with, including personal items, memorabilia, furniture and Chinese antiques such as jade bi discs and stone and wooden tablets. In his research, Mak has looked into the ways hand gestures play a role in communication during protests, and more recently he has been studying the hands of Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy in Chinese and East Asian Buddhism.
Mak is exhibiting new works in a trio exhibition with artists Eugene Chung and Ho Lai at Contemporary Crafts Centre in Hong Kong, which runs from September 30 to October 16, 2022.
“Is there a word in Chinese for when leaves fall off trees and they land back onto earth? I often felt like that leaving you,” writes the photographer and set designer Kenneth Lam in his emotive goodbye letter, titled “My Grandmother’s Language” (2022), dedicated to his late grandmother in Hong Kong. Although he spent most of his childhood in the UK, Lam frequented Hong Kong over the years to take care of his grandmother and spend time with his family in their village. While the artist does not speak Cantonese, and his grandmother did not speak English, their potent bond was built on the unspoken language of “Chinese love,” a notion Lam describes as encompassing these actions: “To cook, to be fed, to be near.” Intensely personal and often taking the shape of reflections on home, or feelings of grief, Lam’s works imbue a breadth of emotions and nostalgia in viewers.
No matter what subject matter or medium he is working with, Hong Kong-born artist Lam Pok Yin is on a quest to unearth mechanisms of power, and subsequent social implications that are embedded in our systems. Lam studied architecture before graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art with a MFA in photography earlier this year. While it may not be immediately apparent, his background in both subjects has a strong influence in his fascination with examining and deconstructing processes, and questioning how images are made and disseminated. His most recent video-based installations such as “The Human Workforce Superhighway” (2021) and “An Increasingly Difficult and Futile Task” (2021) exhibited at Vanguard Gallery in Shanghai, are an amalgamation of his research of MTurk, an Amazon crowdsourcing marketplace, and probes the depths of technology-driven labour and its implications for society, imploring viewers to consider their role as users of a globalised circulation that dehumanises labour.
The most compelling artistic experimentations are often derived from times of restlessness and uncertainty. This is exemplified in photographer Lean Lui’s thesis project “Disorder Sensing” (2022), a series of abstract imagery on paper consisting of vivid tints in watercolour-like stains and erratic, fizzing marks. Using light sensitive paper, the artist, who describes her state of mind at the time as “angry and frustrated,” made pinhole cameras that she repeatedly threw at the wall or were tossed in a washing machine. These methods of high speed exposure—done in complete darkness, which required the artist to relinquish control of the process—resulted in something simultaneously ominous and delightful to behold. It echoes Lui’s interests in Daoist’s teachings of coexisting binaries: of yin and yang, light and shadow, and beauty and darkness. Frequently travelling between Hong Kong, the UK and Europe, the upstart photographer has been straddling the worlds of fine art and fashion photography, and has already built a name for herself in latter working with high profile clients.
Raucous, disruptive and unabashed are all words apropos to the mixed-media works of embroidery Hong Kong-born artist Nicole Chui. She was first introduced to the medium by her grandmother, with whom Chui would spend long summer months as a child. Piqued by her grandmother’s skills in needlework, 15-years old Chui started learning the craft as they sewed floral patterns on Chui’s childhood dresses. Over a decade later, It is evident that the artist has re-invented a visual lexicon antithetical from its domestic roots. Known for her use of messy lines, lurid colours, and anarchic compositions, Chui has scored a range of commissions from high-profiles clients and musicians. On top of her successful career, the artist is also a highly active within the community, and is the co-founder of Baesianz FC, a London-based football team for women, trans and non-binary people of Asian heritage.
Born and raised in York, papercut artist and printmaker Tom Tse lived in Hong Kong in his early years but has mostly grown up in the UK, where he is based now. Like many British Chinese of his generation, Tse grew up around his parent’s takeaway business. Working as an architectural assistant by day, he often made models by hand, which eventually led him to explore the world of papercutting. “I had some spare scalpel blades lying around, and just started cutting into photographs and paper when I was bored,” he says. Using Instagram, the self-taught artist started sharing his works online and connecting with other like-minded artists.
In the beginning, his subjects mainly came from what he was most familiar with–architecture, landscape and streetscapes. More recently, his papercuts traverse topics like pop culture, television, music and memes. Last year, he created a series of playful, tongue-in-cheek fai chun—an alternative take on the traditional Chinese New Year decoration—for the group exhibition Don’t Call Me Oriental at the Steamroom in London, a Chinese takeaway turned laundromat and shop/cultural space. At the core of his art-making is infusing humour, celebration of heritage and community-building into the everyday.
For Shen Ka-yee, who pursued an education in psychology and expressive arts in Hong Kong, performance is a medium that most resonates with her fascination with the visceral connection between our emotions and movement. Interestingly, it is also a practical matter. “I did not, and still don’t have money for a studio or materials. In performance, all I ever need is myself and my body,” she explains. After receiving an offer for the MFA programme at Goldsmiths, Shen moved from Hong Kong to London in late 2021, but has since suspended her studies. These changes have proven to be challenging for the artist, and making art is “perhaps the only way to make sense of everything,” she says.
In one of her most recent performances, “Mild Symtoms of 2019” (2022), which took place at Tate Modern in March, she invited participants to watch news related to Hong Kong protests and political developments with her, inciting candid responses and deliberations. Perhaps Shen remains poignant and doubtful about the future of Hong Kong, but she continues to search for a way forward as she defines herself through art-making and connection with those around her.