“In a decade, Wong Chuk Hang might look more and more like Central,” declares Dominique Perregaux, founder of the South Island Cultural District. The former industrial hub is fast gentrifying, with gleaming high-end commercial buildings, trendy cafés and restaurants. The MTR arrived in December 2016, helping the district become a bit more pedestrian friendly. It now seems inevitable that Wong Chuk Hang will become an engorged complex of high-end residential, commercial and retail.
But for now, the neighbourhood still has a fair amount of grit compared to the rest of Hong Kong Island, as art lovers and collectors attending the latest edition of the South Island Art Day on 29 March 2019 will discover. The biannual event, organised by the South Island Cultural District, throws open the doors to 19 galleries and art studios. A range of indoor and outdoor performance art pieces will round out the day.
It’s a different experience to the Central art scene. “If you go gallery-hopping in Central, you don’t feel that you are in an art district as there are so many other different shops, restaurants and other such distraction,” says Perregaux. By contrast, Wong Chuk Hang is more focused, with fewer distractions. And it’s perhaps a bit more unassuming. “People who visit Wong Chuk Hang galleries don’t feel intimidated, unlike certain galleries in H Queens or Pedder Building,” says Perregaux.
The Swiss-born gallerist is aware that Wong Chuk Hang’s development presents a paradox of sorts. While some argue that gentrification isn’t inherently bad, the reality is that it is driving up rents and pricing out artists and other creatives who have called the area home for years. According to Perregaux, the average rent in Wong Chuk Hang has doubled over the past four years. It’s the same old tale, and one that is becoming all too real for artists like David Boyce.
“Developers are buying all the industrial buildings and building premium buildings,” says Boyce, a New Zealand native who moved to Hong Kong 13 years ago. “40 percent of industrial buildings are gone now, and I just got word that two more would be torn down. People are moving to Kwai Hing, Kwai Fong or Chai Wan.”
Boyce is also moving. As a farewell of sorts, he is teaming up with his studio partner Kirsteen Pieterse and Hong Kong artist Mak Ying-tung for a performance art piece on South Island Art Day that will explore the destruction of their art studio. He is also putting up a series of acrylic signs around Wong Chuk Hang, spelling out suggested tasks, from the easy-to-do to the near-impossible.
“The way I work, the way I see things has completely changed since I moved to Hong Kong,” he says. “One of the things I became enamoured by was the acrylic signs, all bearing different ‘instructions’ in Hong Kong. Don’t walk on the grass, don’t do this, don’t do that, and so on,” he says. His version of the signage can be seen as a love letter to Hong Kong – albeit one that pokes fun at it.
In her performance “In Vain,” Yeung Siu-fong, an artist who lost her arms in an accident when she was nine years old, will blow up balloon after balloon, letting each and every one of them fall to her side without tying it up. The piece is both personal and political. “The ability to tie the balloon reflects the limitation of my physical capability, but it also speaks to the general sentiment of the pessimism in Hong Kong society,” she says. “People are speaking up, they are expressing their discontent, but it seems like nobody is willing to listen to them. Nothing you do will result in anything. People are feeling pretty helpless. But if you don’t at least try, you can’t live with yourself.”
Artist Kacey Wong’s work takes on a more optimistic tone. “The Tower of Community” is a direct response to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, in which Wong was an enthusiastic participant. The three pieces, all standing at different heights, from six to eight feet tall, are composed of coloured panels that are staggered to look at once like a tree, tower or house. “During the [Umbrella] Movement, I saw relationships being built and broken down,” he says. “These relationships could be between the individual and family, or the individual and society. I want to express these shifts in an abstract form. If you look at it from different vantage points, you’d see different things.”
It’s not the first time that Wong has made art that responds to a specific political event. While others shy away from politics label for fear of being pigeonholed as a “political artist,” Wong embraces it fully. “Hong Kong society is very divided right now,” he says. “There is a move towards extremism. I think art should reflect that; art should reflect the spirit of the times.”
Wong is a firm believer that art can change the world – for better or for worse. “As an artist, you need to be careful of who you’re partnering with, or who is doing the art commissioning,” he says. “I’ve said no to a lot of projects in the last decade. I’m always thinking: what is healthy society? What role can art play in that?”
It’s a difficult question, especially in the context of fast-changing Wong Chuk Hang, where the growth of an art scene may precipitate its own destruction. For now, though, there is plenty of art to consider – and plenty of questions to ask.
The South Island Art Day takes place on 9 March 2019, from 10am to 2pm. Click here for more information.