Four young artists show up critics of Hong Kong culture

Four gifted Hongkongers are doing their bit to change the city's reputation as a cultural backwater, writes Madeline Gressel

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 3:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 5:26pm

In prosperous Hong Kong, arts and culture are commodities, with institutions increasingly blurring the lines between retail spaces and galleries. Yet despite being the third largest auction market in the world, the city is lambasted, often and loudly, for its lack of sophistication and cultural vacuity. Therein lies the cultural paradox: its focus on big hits and big profits doesn't always create fertile ground for homegrown talent.

However, The Review speaks with four young professionals - a musician, an actor, an artist and a poet - who exemplify a new creative scene quietly blossoming in the cracks of Hong Kong's booming marketplace. Through perseverance and experimentation, these artists have asserted the strength of a fresh, genuine creative generation.

I want to put my energy into the act of writing itself. Or else it's torture. Every day I wake up with a rejection from somewhere
Nicholas Wong, poet, on the lot of aspiring artists

Subyub Lee: the musician

Lee was studying drama at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA) when his music mentor, Alan Wong Ngai-lun, sold one of his songs to Taiwanese singer Yoga Lin You-jia. The song, Wake Up, is a catchy pop ballad with an upbeat 1990s rock feel. After learning of the sale, Lee Chi-fung, who is better known by his moniker Subyub (a cute corruption of the Cantonese for 11), says: "I just went crazy!" Wong signed Lee to his production company, Milkshake Music, where Lee began scoring popular Cantonese films. "And so I started my career," he says, smiling.

In the intervening three years, Lee has blossomed as a singer-songwriter in his own right. He straddles the delicate yet seemingly uncrossable line between the local indie and Canto-pop scenes. His songs are soft and folksy, catchy but not derivative: his melodies feel good. He cites 1990s Britpop bands such as Radiohead, Oasis and Blur as influences, but he sounds more like a Canto-pop version of US folk rocker Jack Johnson or whimsical Japanese musician Shugo Tokumaru.

Lately, Lee has been busy scoring the latest instalment of the Golden Chicken comic movie series and recording his album, which he hopes to release in July. "In Hong Kong, you have to finish a record to call yourself a singer. It's like a ticket to enter the industry." He finds Hong Kong listeners reluctant: "The audience is slow to accept music from new faces - basically everyone except Eason Chan Yick-shun. If [Chan] does it, people see it as quite a style." But he feels his audience is growing: a recent YouTube video garnered 50,000 hits in a few days. Lee hopes to one day become a musical nomad. "I want to be a touring singer. I love Hong Kong, but I've always lived here. I'd like to go somewhere else, like Taiwan, or London … Or Iceland. Who knows?" Young and talented, the world is his stage.

Baby John Choi: the actor

Choi Hon-yik's first role, in a secondary school production of Broadwaymusical West Side Story, was the impressionable young Jet, Baby John. Fourteen years old and suggestible, he decided to keep the name: he was going to be a star.

Choi went to the Academy for Performing Arts to study drama and realised, stardom aside, that he truly loved acting. "I love to observe people, become them, understand why they do and think as they do. At the APA, there's a library with more than 10,000 DVDs. I watched a movie every day after school. I fell in love with acting, with the detail the camera captures: the texture of the air, the texture of a human being."

After graduation, Choi began auditioning for film roles, to no avail. Four years passed, during which he shot television commercials, before his big break arrived: in 2009, he won the role of the romantic lead in the Cantonese dance drama, The Way We Dance. Another three agonising years passed before that movie got off the ground, but once it did, it soared.

"None of us expected the result," Choi says. "We were just thinking about when it would show and would people like a dance movie? I didn't think too much, I just put the whole of myself into the character. It was the first time I could touch my dream."

Choi draws his inspiration from the meticulous realism of Japanese television dramas. "They focus on relationships and emotions in a way that is deep, detailed, and intimate. Fewer explosions and gunshots, just life being lived."

Choi hopes to bring an emotional rawness and realism to his roles: "I want to communicate with people through the screen - so that young Hong Kong people care about the characters, are concerned about them. This is why I act."

Adrian Wong: the artist

"I realised recently that I've never had a real job," muses Adrian Wong Ho-yin. Perhaps not, but he has certainly been busy. In 2005, after getting his master of fine arts at Yale University, the artist arrived in Hong Kong, intending to stay three months. He has now stayed eight years and counting, during which time he has firmly established himself among the foremost young visual artists pioneering new forms in the city.

Wong's work often uses a wry humour to investigate the oddities and inconsistencies of modern life. For his first solo show in 2007, A Fear is This, he explored superstition and fear mongering in Hong Kong through a series of wildly diverse installations. For one, Wong trained a chicken to kiss him, in defiance of bird flu panic. In another, he videotaped himself performing all of the prohibited activities on the Lunar New Year: taking out the garbage, washing his hair, pointing at the moon. "I wanted to explore what happens when you nurture fear," he says.

"In the early days, I tried investigating Hong Kong culture as kind of a spy. I think a lot more doors were open to me than other foreigners, because I have a Chinese face - I was an undercover local. There were times when it helped and hurt. Sometimes when people heard me speak [imperfect] Cantonese, there was hostility. They thought I was disconnected from my own culture or that I thought I was 'better than'. I don't consider myself a local, because I didn't grow up here, though I do have family ties to Hong Kong."

In a bid to deflect hostility, Wong created fake business cards using a Korean surname: Won.

Wong uses whimsy to great effect in his work, often enlisting the help of myriad creatures (both live and animatronic), including his two rabbits, Michael and Ernesto. In 2013, for Art Basel Hong Kong, Wong created an underground bar beneath the Fringe Club, called Wun Dun, featuring an animatronic jazz band of furry monsters. Recently, he gained access to a 65-million-year-old, privately owned triceratops head, and enlisted a team of 25 animal psychics to telepathically "read" the dinosaur. The readings will be compiled into a memoir that Wong hopes to eventually transform into a one-man play. He'd like to cast John Hurt as the dinosaur. "It's still very incipient," he says.

Nicholas Y.B. Wong: the poet

Nicholas Wong was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, a prestigious American award for contemporary writers, but he isn't much impressed. "Everyone gets nominated," he says, and then reconsiders: "I'm very happy, but I must catch myself from getting too pulled into these things, or else I'll expect too much. I want to put my energy into the act of writing itself. Or else it's torture. Every day I wake up with a rejection from somewhere."

Such is the life of a poet.

Wong, a professor at the Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong, has gained attention for his poems, which have been published in diverse journals such as The Baltimore Review, Folio and the Columbia Poetry Review, among others. He has also published a collection, Cities of Sameness. His poems, always in English, are clean, casual, alliterative and language-rich, making unexpected and often elusive connections between words. He cites as inspiration contemporary American poets such as Stephen Dunn and Kamiko Hahn, who play with the boundaries of language construction. His poems often deal with sexuality and love, although he is moving away from this to focus on an exploration of minorities in Hong Kong.

"I once wrote a poem about how lucky I am. Hong Kong is fantastic: no disasters, the weather's nice, you have a job, parents, a home. Compared to a lot of writers, sent into exile, tortured, or put in prison, I have no suffering. I have been spoiled, as a middle-class person," he says. "So I'm trying to push myself to see the world through the eyes of minorities. I don't know if I can pull it off, but at this point I find it more interesting than writing about sexuality."

Wong resists the temptation to measure himself in accolades and quantifications. "Hong Kong takes space away from me. I once felt that I wanted to be one of the poets under 40 people mention. But I think it's better to have more realistic short-term goals. My New Year's resolution is to 'get slow'. I want to slow down my writing, slow down my submissions, slow down my work. I want to find more space."