Sound Art is Bringing New Life to a Decrepit Local Mall

“Am I in the right place?”

It’s the first thought you may have upon entering Soundpocket’s 10 Years of ASP, an exhibition showcasing works by 16 artists the sound art organisation has sponsored through its Artist Support Programme (ASP). A few broken furniture pieces lie just outside the entrance. Tape reading “Do Not Enter” is half-heartedly bound to an abandoned shop with its front gate knocked down. Two people holding bags of groceries slip past. 

This is the Fu Lee Loy Shopping Centre in Fortress Hill, one of the many bedraggled malls that dot Hong Kong’s residential neighbourhoods. It’s an unusual location for an exhibition, but that’s exactly why it was chosen by curators Alice Wong, Mandy Chan and Vanessa Lai. It’s par for Soundpocket’s course. The organisation was launched in 2008 by curator and writer Yang Yeung, who wanted to offer a platform for exhibitions, research and artist sponsorships. It has proven itself to be a masters at finding sonically-interesting sites – especially places with a strong sense of local identity. In the past decade, Soundpocket has hosted exhibitions on a beach on Lamma Island, Kadoorie Farm and the Kwun Tong Pier. 

10 Years of ASP was curated by Alice Wong, Soundpocket’s executive director, along with Mandy Chan and Vanessa Lai. They chose the Fu Lee Loy mall largely because it is undergoing a grassroots revitalisation spearheaded by a nearby neighbourhood resident Wong Wai—also known as Uncle South—who has been negotiating with the mall’s landlords to rent out their commercial spaces to young entrepreneurs at low cost. 

Wong is in his 40s but says he understands the challenges young people face in setting themselves up given Hong Kong’s high rents. For young artists or designers, these shops can provide a new stream of revenue. Home to a motley mix of old tenants and new shops, the mall feels like an experiment, making it an ideal setting for 10 Years of ASP, which is not quite a retrospective, nor a themed show, but rather a platform for sound artists to freely play with different mediums and ideas. 

Now in its 11th year, the ASP supports artists via stipends and mentorship. “We’ve never really shown works of all the artists we’ve supported at one time,” says Alice Wong. “Even if you ask those in the art scene, they might be able to name one or two of these artists, but not all. We don’t see this as a retrospective, but I do feel this [exhibition] is an important moment in the history of Soundpocket. It also gives us confidence to keep supporting local sound artists.”

10 Years of ASP was curated by Vanessa Lai, Mandy Chan, Alice Wong – Photo by Nicolas Petit

The works consist of videos, installation, photos and performances, and they take over four spaces in the mall: three empty shops and Mist Gallery, an independent gallery that moved into the shopping centre six months ago. In a way, the mall already provided a framework for the exhibition, thanks to its distinct range of atmospheres. There’s a certain stagnation that can be heard—and smelled—and its narrow corridors echo with the sound footsteps. Unexpected draughts leak in through cracks in windows and walls. 

Co-curator Mandy Chan says the eerie atmosphere, including the “incessant water leaking sound from the second floor,” gives sound art and performances a rawness compared to a gallery space equipped with fancy audio-visual equipment. The participating artists seem to agree. “I grew up in old buildings myself,” says Josephine Chan, whose works are on display. “I find the sounds of old buildings very different to the sounds in a new building. Here, for example, you can even hear the staticness in the air.”

One of the smaller shop spaces in the mall is dedicated to Chan’s Hop Hop Hum!, an immersive sound installation piece that invites visitors to experiment with various sound-making objects, from keyboards and a flute to pieces of fabrics, paper scraps and styrofoam. As visitors play with these objects, it creates a high frequency sound that bounces off the walls of the space – an experience slightly discomforting to the human ear. 

Chan says she has deliberately manipulated the frequency of the room to reflect the dissonance of life in Hong Kong, a noisy city by any standard. “We all encounter many sounds, some of them quite disruptive, but because we are so used to it, we don’t realise it most of the time,” she says. 

Since only a handful of the shops at Fu Lee Loy are occupied, every sound—a group shuffling through the corridor, or a book falling from a shelf—feels amplified. “You hear different sounds every time you visit,” says artist Brian Chu. He leveraged the uniqueness of the mall’s soundscape in “Corridor,” a 45-min performance art piece. Making use of the entire length of the mall, sounds from everyday objects including milk powder can, a spring and metal plates reverberate in the low-ceilinged space. 

The intimate yet ordinary setting of the mall also works well for art pieces that offer a response to everyday life. One of these is Fish Tsang’s “Life at home,” which consists of videos depicting different household objects, including a washing machine and a computer keyboard installed within a wooden cabinet left behind by a former tenant. With headphones on, you are transported to a home setting, where you viscerally feel the whirl of a washing machine, and the ground vibrating beneath your feet. 

Not all the works on display emit sound. Chloe Cheuk’s “Searching for the root when the sun hasn’t gone down” is series of black and white photos of brick arches, a wrist with a ribbon tied around it, water barricades, and a crowd holding up a sign – images referencing the anti-extradition protest of 2019. Nicole Wong’sTwilight Grey in Urban Natural” consists of window frames fixed to a wall. It’s a succinct commentary on Hong Kong’s jam-packed urban environment: what view does your window offer? Likely the wall of the building unit opposite you. 

Wong says Soundpocket’s curators don’t believe sound art needs to take on a definite form. “We’re more interested in discussing the ‘sound in art’ – how sound is manifested in dance, theatre, literature, theatre, the visual arts,” she says. “Even when a work isn’t producing sound, it doesn’t mean that it does not have anything to do with sounds or the act of listening.” 

Cheuk’s work is a case in point. “[It] doesn’t produce sound on its own, but if you ask anyone who’s seen the show, these images might evoke certain sounds and noises [from the 2019 protests], whether it is because they have experienced that in real life, or through the media.” 

And just who is the audience for the show, exactly? Does exhibiting in a run-down mall in the primarily residential neighbourhood attract a different crowd from exhibiting in Central, known for its blue chip galleries, or Wong Chuk Hang, which has a flourishing creative scene? “In terms of culture, we’re just a block away from the Oil Street Art Space,” says Wong. “There are a ton of revitalisation plans happening. This neighbourhood is very rich. And as artists, you always want to attract a diverse group of audience.” 

So far, however, attracting kaifong—ordinary neighbourhood residents—has been a bit of a challenge. “Sometimes [they visit], but others would pass by the mall entrance, look at our poster, and walk away. I think it takes time,” says Wong. But Soundpocket is no stranger to the neighbourhood, having hosted sound walks in North Point from 2012 to 2017. Participants walked through the neighbourhood without speaking a word and through the process, came to a better understanding of the varied sounds, visuals and textures that make up a neighbourhood.

As with other older areas in Hong Kong, North Point and Fortress Hill are going through massive changes, with old buildings giving way to upmarket towers. There has been an explosion of indie coffee shops, and the impending revitalisation of the State Theatre, just around the corner from Fu Lee Loy, will certainly have an impact on the neighbourhood. 

It brings to mind Sham Shui Po, another grassroots Hong Kong neighbourhood that is undergoing rapid gentrification. While gentrification has drawn hordes of young people to the neighbourhood on weekends, it has also led to a rise in rents, which is pricing out older tenants. Do Soundpocket’s curators fear being seen as complicit with gentrification? Wong points to the ephemeral nature of a lot of sound art. “When we create sound walks, that work is intangible. It’s not something that we dump in the middle of the neighbourhood,” she says. 

Ultimately, she says, it comes down to intent. “You need to be very clear about why you are doing something. When we do sound walks, we always say we’re placemaking. We are absorbing the stories of those living there or who have lived there. We are not trying to change a place.” 

10 Years of ASP runs until July 11, 2021. Click here for more information.

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