Celebrating street life, far from the artistic crowd

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 August, 2004, 12:00am

For those interested in Hong Kong's social history, Shanghai Street is a treasure trove: the crowded wet markets, smoke-filled cafes, old-style barbershops and neon signs for brothels all represent the city's urban landscape before gentrification in the 1980s. Amid such gritty splendour, a white-cube art gallery sticks out like a minimal Joan Miro piece.

Shanghai Street Artspace, on Yau Ma Tei's busy thoroughfare, has never been short of artistic showcases in its five-year existence, but it's not exactly a haunt for locals - in fact, they rarely visit at all, leaving the space often eerily empty.

Having grown up in the area, Isabella Yun Siu-wai appreciates that the gallery might be more at home in an upmarket district, rather than downtown Kowloon. 'The space should never look too daunting,' she says. 'After all, this is a neighbourhood where some people would never see an exhibition in their whole life.'

Yun is among a group of people trying to transform the gallery into a community venue. She's part of the team behind the Hong Kong Institute of Education's (HKIEd) year-long Bringing Inside Out and Outside In project at the venue.

The project's varied programmes are all based on aspects of Yau Ma Tei's unique street culture. From now until next June, the gallery will host 10 month-long exhibitions, in which performing and visual artists will be invited to pay tribute to cultural traditions such as fortune-telling, cage houses and karaoke. Artists will discuss their work and why it matters to the community at six forums. Students from local schools will be invited to take part in workshops. Artisans such as woodcutters and blacksmiths - often marginalised from the art world - will be asked to participate in some of the projects.

One of the main goals of the project - with $400,000 in funding from the Arts Development Council - is to celebrate the aesthetic value of what was once derided as mass entertainment or banal craftsmanship. This was illustrated in the first instalment of the project, Street Life of Cantonese Opera Singers.

Although comprising only a few text-filled boards and photo montages, the exhibition gives voice to lesser-known singers, who write of the difficulty of maintaining a performing career on Temple Street, while renowned singer Amy Wu Mei-yee relates her repertoire - melancholic odes about lost loves and hopes of a decent life - to the real-life circumstances among the destitute in Yau Ma Tei. For the opening ceremony, Wu and the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra's principal erhu player, Hsin Hsiao-hung, performed a selection of songs inside the gallery. It lived up to the project's mission of bringing the outside in: an art that's usually practised in the open under the banyans on Public Square Street was brought into the ventilated, white space of an art gallery. Curious passers-by were lured inside as Wu performed one of her most memorable songs, Grief by the Red Candle.

According to Dr Lai Ming-hoi, deputy head of the HKIEd's Creative Arts Department and the supervisor of the project, Street Life reveals the artistic quality of performers who have always been seen as entertainers. 'We acknowledge that street performers aren't only there for the money. They have their own aspirations to be seen as proper artists as well,' he says.

Temple Street culture remains the focus for the project's next exhibition, Fortune Telling. Led by the lecturer Ng Mau-wai, a group of HKIEd students will study the work of soothsayers and their cultural connotations in the context of Hong Kong's urban culture. Their observations will be presented as multi-media artwork.

Future instalments will include visual artist-composer Yank Wong's fusion of painting and music, and photographer Cheung Chi-wai's shots of dawn in Yau Ma Tei.

The increase of urban renewal projects in the area - as seen in the sprouting of skyscrapers and mammoth shopping malls on Shanghai Street in the past few years - is quickly breaking down the area's original social fabric.

Yun calls the concrete blocks 'bombs, because they appear out of nowhere and threaten to tear apart the community. This is why she and her fellow project members also intend to reduce the alienating appearance of the artspace.

'The other day, someone rang asking whether they could hold a Cantonese opera recital here,' she says. 'What we hope to do is to make this place a part of life for people here.'

Street Life of Cantonese Opera Singers, Tue-Sun, 11am-8pm (closed Mon), Shanghai Street Artspace, 404 Shanghai St, Yau Ma Tei, free. Inquiries: 2948 8500 or go to www.shout-art.org. Ends Sep 5