The Hong Kong Arts Centre’s 40th Anniversary Show Examines the Fluidity of Wan Chai

In less deft hands, the Hong Kong Art Centre’s 40th anniversary show would have been chock a block with neon signs from the bars and “gentlemen’s clubs” that line the city’s most infamous red light district, a few blocks away from the centre in Wan Chai. But Hong Kong curator Valerie C. Doran and HKAC executive director Connie Lam had other things in mind for this exhibition that investigates the neighbourhood the HKAC has called home for four decades.

Case in point: Wanchai’s red light district is indeed referenced, but ever so subtly in Ho Sin Tung’s “One Thousand and One Moons,” a site-specific installation that includes a pile of coins scattered all over the floor, an allusion to the HK$0.5 and HK$1 the Sisters of St Paul de Chartres paid to buy unwanted baby girls off their parents to prevent the former from descending into a life of destitution in the 19th century.

Revolving around the idea of topophilia, which Yi-Fu Tuan used to describe the affective bonds between people and places, Wan Chai Grammatica: Past, Present, Future explores the various sentiments that people have developed for one of the oldest districts in Hong Kong.

Wan Chai is often seen as the more entrepreneurial cousin of Central, which was the centre of colonial British power. Though the elite preferred to live and entertain on The Peak, it was in Wanchai where a bulk of the city’s commercial activity took place. “Although not the richest area in Hong Kong, a lot of merchants did business and lived in Wan Chai,” says Lam. “Hong Kong’s first power plant was built here in 1890. There were also a lot of colonial mansions.”

One Thousand and One Moons (2018) by Ho Sin Tung – Image courtesy of the HKAC

Speaking of the exhibition title, Doran notes that “the show is about how the voices of different artists each form a narrative. Individually they have their own styles, but there is enough coherences so that when you bring them together, it becomes a new thing, a grammar of Wanchai if you will.”

The exhibition also spans generations of Hong Kong artists. The oldest, Luis Chan, died in 1995,  Gaylord Chan is already in his 90s, followed by Chu Hing-wah, while the youngest artist, Mark Chung, was born in 1990. It also includes artists from across Hong Kong’s cultural spectrum, such as French duo MAP Office and Filipino photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani, as well as overseas artists like Mysore-based N.S. Harsha, who participated in the HKAC’s 2012 exhibition, Of Human Scale and Beyond: Experience and Transcendence. 

It is a testament to the way Wan Chai has nurtured and inspired generations of artists from diverse backgrounds. To that end, Doran brings up Karl Popper’s concept of “three worlds.” In his book Objective Knowledge, the British philosopher speaks of a world of objects and events, and another of psychology. When these two worlds collide, it produces a third world of knowledge. “World three is when you use the materials created in worlds one and two as material,” says Doran. “Even though Luis Chan died in 1995, it doesn’t mean that his work only exists in the past.”

Chan’s “Untitled (Fantasy Landscape with Undersea Mountains)” is the first piece visitors see when entering the exhibition space in the HKAC’s Pao Galleries. At first glance, the fantastical composition of two mountain ranges brings to mind Hong Kong’s omnipresent mountains, but it is also highly ambiguous. “We aren’t quite sure what to make of the layers,” says Doran. “Is the mountain at the bottom a doppelgänger of the one on top?”

Opposite Chan’s work, MAP Office’s “Wan Chai Island” is a multi-level fish tank installation that speculates on a future when the Wan Chai coastline no longer exists.“In a way, this work in the present is activating Chan’s older work,” says Doran.

The show revels in these kinds of unlikely pairings. The present also activates the past in Phoebe Hui’s “Process with Body, Water & Pendulums.” The movement of the swing sets activates a vinyl recording made by Hong Kong musicians to celebrate the opening of the HKAC in 1977, which Hui and Lam managed to salvage from the centre’s archives. “It was recorded, then archived, and nobody had listened to it for 40 years,” remarks Doran.

Another work, Mark Chung’s “A Summer Without Fireworks,” proposes a way out of Hong Kong’s current political troubles. As tensions flare between democracy supporters in Hong Kong and the central government in Beijing, many people refuse to celebrate on National Day, when fireworks erupt over the harbour. In reference to this, Chung has installed a series of nine television sets on ceilings that show videos of fireworks in Victoria Park from 1995 to 2014. By dismantling the relationship between the signified and signifier, viewers are able to enjoy the fireworks displays without them being burdened by any political associations. In a cheeky move, the artist has also punched a tiny hole through a cardboard wall, through which viewers can catch a clandestine glimpse of the National Day fireworks.

Peering through the hole also reveals the reclamation underway on the Wan Chai harbourfront, a reminder of how far — quite literally — the neighbourhood has come. The original Wan Chai coastline ran along Queen’s Road East, but much of what we know of Wan Chai today, including Southern Playground, the government offices on Gloucester Road and Hong Kong Art Centre, were built on land reclaimed between the 1920s and 70s.

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Tin Hau is coming for a Piece of Water (2018) by Jaffa Lam – Courtesy HKAC

“I always say, we are now walking on water,” jokes Lam. “Wan Chai is a very good metaphor for various changes in Hong Kong. This exhibition is about past, but it also looks to the future. Hong Kong will keep on changing, be it for better or worse.”

Jaffa Lam’s subtle yet powerful work, “Tin Hau is coming for a piece of water,” epitomises the fluidity of the land. In the 19th century, fishermen would pay respects to Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea, in hope of good fortune on the water. In her work, Lam recreates a Tin Hau temple but in a distinctly contemporary fashion. Inside the temple is a large rock suspended in mid-air, symbolising the goddess. As one pays tribute to the deity, one couldn’t help but wonder what exactly Lam hopes us to wish for. Is it simply for the safe return of those out at sea? Or that there is still a harbour for Tin Hau to guard in the future?

Amid the many paintings and photography that nod to Wan Chai’s streetscapes, it’s Yeung Tong-lung’s “Have a Rest” that is the most touching. Part of an ongoing series that began in 2008, the paintings are the product of the artist’s observations from a window in his apartment. One depicts an old man lying face-up on a bench, while another shows a middle-aged lady seeking shade. While each of these paintings could stand on their own, they also form part of a prodigious collage that spans the three floors of the gallery. Fragmented yet appearing to seamlessly blend into one another, it’s a tribute to what Wan Chai has always been: disorganised, sometimes chaotic, but also a place that relishes its fluidity.

Wan Chai Grammatica runs until November 4, 2018 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Click here for more information.

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