A Hongkonger’s Desire for a Time Capsule: Postscript of an Art Exchange Trip to Vancouver

Written By Clara CHEUNG  [13 March 2017]

(About C&G: two Hong Kong artists who have founded the art space: C&G Artpartment in Hong Kong, in 2007.  The activities that C&G organize are often collective and participatory in nature, with a focus on issues surrounding the art ecology of Hong Kong as well as current events. )

It was an art exchange project initiated by a Canadian-born-Cantonese artist, Remy SIU, that brought C&G to Vancouver, Canada in the end of January 2017.  Although we have never been to this city, Vancouver, as one of the most popular destinations for Hong Kong emigrants in the 1990s, has always been a familiar name to us.  Despite this Hong Kong-Vancouver linkage from the historical perspective, it is not easy to visualize the connections between the two in the realm of visual arts and contemporary arts.  This trip during the Lunar New Year provided us a chance to have a glimpse of this somehow hidden connection.

Anyone growing up in the 90s in Hong Kong can hardly forget all different aspects in the intensive discussions about emigration, including the uncertainty of the future of Hong Kong after 1997’s handover, the fear of the brutal governance of the Chinese Communist Party, the hope to provide a better environment for the next generation, and the worry about being the second class of citizens in a foreign country etc.  The add-ups of various push and pull factors brought a large number of Hongkongers to Vancouver.  According to statistics provided by SICREMI , there were about 700,000 Chinese immigrating to Canada from 1983 to 1996, mostly from Hong Kong to Vancouver.  

This influx of people and capital from Hong Kong brought certain popular culture and living styles of Hongkongers to Vancouver, which can be easily seen through the increase of Cantonese radio and TV stations, and shopping malls full of Hong Kong characteristics at Vancouver in the 1990s. Different shopping malls in Richmond, in the greater Vancouver area, are like time capsules of Hong Kong in different ages.  Established in 1994, Richmond Public Market preserves the atmosphere of those shopping centers operated by the Hong Kong government’s Housing Authority in the late 80s.  Both the narrow hallways and the less coherent interior design of different shops at the fresh meat market section within Richmond Public Market resemble very well the vibrant style of such neighborhood market in Hong Kong, before the wave of privatization of Hong Kong government’s commercial properties in 2005.  The interiors of shopping malls such as Parker Place and Yaohan Center, on the other hand, are similar to those in Hong Kong from the mid 90s, in terms of the fonts and colors used for the shops’ signage design, a number of interior lightings and the larger space for the common area.  

Walking out of these time capsules, one can experience a more contemporary style of shopping mall in Aberdeen Mall, which has even more spacious design of a ‘public plaza’ within and is very similar to many other contemporary shopping malls all around the world, except the fact that you would be able to meet many Chinese faces and able speak Cantonese during purchase. I am not particularly fond of shopping malls, but I have to admit that a significant part of Hongkongers’ culture is revealed in our shopping malls, which basically have become an important regulated “public” space for many Hongkongers, ever since the 1990s due to Hong Kong’s continuous economic development toward the tertiary industrial sector and other factors.

Witnessing the symbolic resettlement of Hong Kong culture through the mall visits in Richmond, one may wonder if there is any other visible cultural linkage between Hong Kong and Vancouver beyond the layer of popular culture.  Michelle Wong, an independent curator and a researcher at Asia Art Archive, once commented that the wave of emigration actually created a gap in the writing of “Hong Kong art history” in the 1980s and 90s.  “Hong Kong art history” is in quote because, as Michelle pointing out, it is, nevertheless, always difficult to define Hong Kong art or to define what art from any particular region is about, as the global mobilization of the population has become so common nowadays.

Thanks to Remy SIU’s introduction, C&G were able to visit Mr. Josh HON, a Hong Kong artist who emigrated in the early 90s and also invited him to host an Under-the-Bed screening session together during our Vancouver trip.  Despite the limited amount of accessible documentation materials, the exhibit “Out of Context” from 1987, in which Josh HON also participated, still is one of the group exhibitions mostly referred to, in the writing about Hong Kong contemporary art.  While the Hong Kong art scene of the 1980s was predominated by the ‘East Meets West’ discourse and the new ink art movement, a new generation of artists also emerged to go beyond the gap between the East and West with a rather global art language.  

Situated in a big old house with European architectural style, which, at the time, was also the studio of Josh Hon and other artists, “Out of Context” was an exhibition of this new artistic voice.  Josh’s installation, titled As, If: Is was “a site-specific piece for ‘Out of Context,’ an ice block melting in front of an unplugged fridge around the same size in the still hot and humid October…(I)ce block or water was recurrent material or motif for Hon’s art, its conceptual interchangeable physical state in this work also reminded us his consistent interest in philosophy with the hint from the title and its minimalist approach.”  This piece later was developed “into his multi-media works As If His/Story I(1998) and II (1989) to explore the notion of history,” during his collaboration with different theater groups.  Immediately after the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing, China, in 1989, Josh also proactively participated in the reconstruction of the Statue of Democracy in Hong Kong in response to the massacre where the original statue was destroyed.  

While one may find it difficult to associate Josh’s active engagement in arts and society during the 1980s with his fading-out “from the Hong Kong art scene in the early 1990s (when he immigrated to Hope, British Columbia),” certain clue can be found in a dialogue conducted in 2007 between Josh HON (H) and KUNG Chi Shing(K), an important independent Hong Kong based musician who has collaborated with Josh in many experimental theater productions.   

“K: In the years before you left Hong Kong you seemed to have completely lost faith in art because you knew it couldn’t help you find what you wanted.  But to me, art is a kind of self-cultivation; even if it has a social significance, it is of an indirect kind...”

H: I don’t dispute that.  Art is a kind of self-cultivation; but while artists are individuals, they also are irrevocably linked to society --- that’s why it is my responsibility to create a stronger dialogue with the world.

K: Did you leave Hong Kong because you were disillusioned?

H: Around 1993 or 94, I just felt the need to get out of Hong Kong for a while.  I saw certain problems in society --- people were too smart and knowledge was no longer neutral. … The smarter human beings are, the stronger the desire to control --- I think this is a true source of pain.  I felt that no matter how intelligent an understanding of society I might have, or what actions I might take to change society, in the end, it would all just lead to a quandary; but of course, it was also a result of my ignorance and impotence. The other main reason I needed to leave is that I felt we were far too isolated from nature.  Coincidentally, my parents were emigrating to Canada… where I found a town called Hope --- a place that is close to nature with a small community.  Yes, I needed a smaller community; in a way, this is similar to how we did theatre.  We always needed a more intimate-sized space to interact with people… ”

Before Josh HON’s solo exhibition titled, “Dead Water Convulsion,” at Center A in Chinatown, Vancouver in 2016, Remy SIU, who has been very active in the art scene and involved with the Cantonese community in Vancouver, has never heard of Josh HON at all.   However, as LEUNG Chi Wo, the curator of “Dead Water Convulsion,” once mentioned in another exhibition about Hong Kong’s handover in the year of 2007: “From a social perspective, the power of creativity would be limited if we only stick to professionalism.”   Resettling in Canada with his family, Josh HON found his new home close to nature at Hope in 1994.  Thereafter, he built his art studio next to his house, worked with ceramics, became a lifeguard, etc… later on also studied counseling and has practiced as a counselor for some years now.  

It was a great pleasure for C&G to visit Josh HON’s cozy studio in this trip.  Besides his ceramic works and books, we also saw some old Hong Kong art magazines and a big canvas with collages of photocopied images and text describing “Hong Kong Avant-garde Artists 1980-2008.”  Josh nicely explained to us that it was made for a self-introduction session in a counseling course that he took.  In fact, his current practice is also related to performing art and art therapies.   Fading-out from the art scene of professionalism, Josh HON’s power of creativity did not vanish but was transformed into other forms and channels.

Nevertheless, if the writing of art history focuses on “art productions” only, then the precious movement and spontaneous flow of the art spirit would always be neglected.   C&G’s interest in the “creative power” drove us to invite Josh to one of our programs: “Under-the-Bed” screening and sharing, to share his old videos that never been shown in public before.  Josh genuinely shared 4 clips out of his VHS tapes from 1994 to 1996, ranging from his trip in search for Hope, football games with artist friends, and an interview with a Chinese activist.  The documentation of this “Under-the-Bed” session in Vancouver, was then screened in Hong Kong at C&G Artpartment for Hong Kong audience in March 2017.

The story of Josh is particularly meaningful for Hong Kong artists to review after the Umbrella Movement in 2014 when more art practitioners have doubts about art and particularly art in the contemporary art system.  In the past decade, there has been more and more discussion about socially engaged art in Hong Kong.  I personally remember being invited to three to four talks or discussion sessions on the related topics in the year of 2013.  The desire to formulate social change with art practice has been strong amongst the local art community.  Later on, during the Umbrella Movement from September to December in 2014, it turned out that no professional artists were needed to help initiate art projects at the occupy sites.  The power of creativity came out strongly from participating citizens when they upheld the free will to construct their own community in the occupy sites which were public spaces without top-down regulations.  Artists participated as individuals, instead of with the role as artists, within this social movement.   

On one hand, what is needed for social change, in the long run, is art in life and the power of creativity, but not art made for contemporary art discourses, nor art made for any artistic career development.  On the other hand, what was needed at the occupy sites, in the short run, was art neither, but actions to protect the occupy sites and strategies to use the occupy sites as bargaining power at the very early stage of the occupation. Artistic ideas with too much romance often lose out the practicality in real political sites.  As Josh HON pointed out in his sharing, no matter how much visual impact the photo of the ‘tank man’ had (the man standing in front of the tank in the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989), it did not help make the social change. “You cannot fight against guns and cannons. You stand out. You can die without effects basically. The general direction is grass-root movements on smaller social change.”  Josh went on to emphasize we need to work with education, identity, cultural preservation, and branching out to do those things instead of dramatic confrontations.

Another significance to bring back Josh’s stories back to Hong Kong is to hopefully fill in the gap for the writings about 1980s’ art in Hong Kong.  One of the Under-the-Bed audience in Hong Kong, Chris CHAN, an artist and also once a student of Josh, responded at the end of the screening session in Hong Kong that, although Hong Kong was commonly described as a “cultural desert” by the mass media in the 1980s and 90s, he actually had a very different experience.  Learning art from Josh HON and witnessing many Hong Kong artists returning after studying aboard in that era, Chris saw that it was actually a time when multiple vibrant artistic voices start to grow in Hong Kong.  To recognize the faded-away significance of this artistic page in the 1980s is important for the on-going local art history-writing project.

After the encounter with Josh HON, C&G’s journey in Vancouver ended with the multi-media theater show, Visitors From Far Away to the State Machine(Visitors), by “Hong Kong Exile,” an interdisciplinary arts company formed by Remy Siu and two more Vancouver-based artists who have certain Cantonese background.  It was an amusing story about two aliens’ journey to the Earth, in which they encountered different phrases of Hong Kong in the future when they jumped in and out of different fantasies during time travel.  Through sarcasm and dark humor with the playful sci-fi background, the performance critically responded to the social and political situation of Hong Kong.  Indeed, Hong Kong Exile has worked on several art projects related to Cantonese culture and the anxiety of Hongkongers due to the colonial rules (under the British rule before 1997 and the rule of the People’s Republic of China nowadays), including an exhibition titled transgression/cantosphere in early 2015 about preserving the Cantonese language and supporting the Umbrella Movement.   

Watching Visitors, for me, was a chance to review Hong Kong from afar, and to experience ‘Hong Kong’ through one who is so close yet so far from my hometown.  To a certain extent, the production by Hong Kong Exile functions almost like a time capsule for me, who has been constantly facing rapid changes within the political turmoil in Hong Kong in the past few years.  If the ultimate destination of Hong Kong cannot escape from the State Machine, the stories kept by Hong Kong Exile and other artists in Vancouver, which has once been recognized as the second Hong Kong, certainly can help preserve some of the Hongkongers’ voices which may soon be completely suppressed.  

Beyond this pessimistic vision, more art exchanges between Hong Kong and Vancouver actually have begun.  Other than exhibitions by Hong Kong Exile and Josh HON at Center A in 2015 and 2016, Vancouver Art Gallery has also launched two exhibitions that involve artists from Hong Kong and artworks referencing Hong Kong culture:  Pacific Crossings: Hong Kong Artists in Vancouver and Howie Tsui: Retainers of Anarchy in March 2017.   The once unclear linkage between the arts in Hong Kong and Vancouver seems more visible in Vancouver nowadays, and more dialogues between the artists from the two cities can be foreseen as well.  Hopefully, time capsules, either in the form of history writing, storytelling, architectural design or any other art forms, would not only exist for the viewers’ nostalgic desire but also help construct new identities with critical recognition of the past.

❶ SICREMI stands for “The Continuous Reporting System on International Migration in the Americas.” An Overview of the history of international migration in Canada can be found at: http://www.migracionoea.org/index.php/en/ sicremi-en/238-canada-1-si-ntesis-histo-rica-de-la- migracio-n-en-canada-3.html

❷ About Under-the-Bed screening: Since the first screening in December 2013, there have been more than 30 artists participating in “Under-The-Bed" events at C&G Artpartment in the past three years. The screening and sharing session aims to invite artists to show their video works that have never or seldom been publicly screened (for whatever reasons), and to share the work’s concept, content, making-of, difficulties during production and reasons for keeping it under-the-bed. The videos from under-the-bed, often can intrigue many questions about the cultural and art ecology in the old days.

❸ Pp5. LEUNG Chi Wo, “Josh Hon: Dead Water Convulsion ---- Hong Kong – 1980s,” [exhibition catalogue]. Vancouver: Center A. 2016. Available: http:// centrea.org/2016/07/josh-hon/.

❹ LEUNG. Pp 10. ❺ LEUNG. Pp 10.

❻ LO. “The Statue of Democracy with a Hong Kong face in the end.” 2016. Avaliable: https://theinitium.com/ article/20160527-culture-goddessofdemocracy- 64tiananmen/

❼ Pp233-235. KUNG Chi Shing (ed.). “Book 3” from “The Box Book.”Hong Kong: MCCM Creations. 2009.

❽ Pp41, HO Selina Chuifan, wen yau (ed.). A Documentary Talkover/Handover. Hong Kong: 1a space.

❾ KUNG. Pp236.

❿ The term ‘cultural desert’ was used to refer to the lack of ‘high art’ or ‘fine art’ culture, while the consumer and popular culture was so overwhelming in Hong Kong during the economic boom in 1980s and 90s.

⓫ More about the theatre group: https:// www.hongkongexile.com

Clara CHEUNG

Graduated at Rhodes College (TN, USA) with double majors in Fine Art and Computer Science in 2002, Clara Cheung then studied for the Postgraduate Diploma in Education at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2003, and received a master degree of Cultural Stud- ies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong in 2007. She has been the head of the visual arts department in a Hong Kong high school from 2003 to 2007, is currently an active member of the non-profit art group, Project226, the founder of C&G Artpartment, and a part-time lec- turer at Hong Kong Baptist University.

She has co-curated many art exhibitions at C&G Art- partment and other venues in Hong Kong, responding to local social and cultural issues, including problems in the local art ecology. Besides, she also has organized various art education programs for other organizations and schools. Her recent artworks are often inspired by children’s toys and science experiments, to help herself re-interpret and tackle various contemporary issues and problems, like pollution, the usage of nuclear energy etc.

Having had different solo and group exhibitions in Hong Kong and overseas, she is interested in exploring different mixed-media in art-making. Some of her works have been collected by private collectors and art museum.

Illustrator。 Susan Chan

Susan Chan draws illustrations and posters that criticize Hong Kong and Chinese government's suppression
of democracy movement. It is famous for the series of “criminals” whose “criminals” in the protest scene wear mask and do good. It is a work that draws attention to the fact that the Hong Kong police officers cover all criminals regardless of their severity.

 

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