How Hong Kong arts projects will revive interest in heritage buildings
Four Hong Kong heritage buildings are hosting a series of art exhibitions in a bid to increase attendance and promote a dialogue with the past
For years, physical traces of history in Hong Kong were scrubbed off like dead skin in a Turkish bath. In a city fixated with development, the few old buildings that are still standing are all the more precious for surviving the purge, worthy of frequent obeisance amid a rising tide of local cultural pride. Yet, many heritage buildings that are open to the public for free, struggle to draw visitors.
Take Law Uk Folk Museum for example. A rare 18th-century Hakka village house a few minutes’ walk from Chai Wan MTR station, it received just 13,000 visitors in the last financial year, or less than 0.2 per cent of Hong Kong’s population.
Cultivating mass interest in museums of any kind is a work in progress here, but at folk museums like the Laws’ old house, formulaic and unchanging displays of simple, wooden furniture and wooden farming tools, accompanied by flat, textbook-style descriptions and videos, inevitably fail to inspire.
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Just how do you create exhibitions that evoke the sense of a place and provide an absorbing narrative about the interplay of private lives and broader history? Try calling in a few artists.
About a year ago, the government’s Art Promotion Office paired four local artists with four historic houses – in Law Uk, Wong Uk, Sam Tung Uk and Kom Tong Hall – and the results are now being revealed to the public.
Called Hi!Houses, these are collaborative projects that involve commissions of new works by other artists. They are interspersed among the original displays. It is a chance for Hong Kong to rethink how such public spaces are used, says Lo Yan-yan, the innovative government curator who heads the public art programmes at the Art Promotion Office.
Most of the lead artists started out knowing very little about the houses. “I live and work near Chai Wan but I had never been to Law Uk. Hong Kong has quite a few of these folk museums and my impression was that they were all a bit similar,” says ceramicist Fiona Wong Lai-ching. Her first recce of the place didn’t yield much of an impression. “It was dark inside, and I kept thinking, I would have opened up all those small windows if I lived here,” she says.
Jaffa Lam Laam was similarly unacquainted with the Sam Tung Uk Museum, a section of the two-century old walled Hakka village in Tsuen Wan that she has been paired with. “I went there once on a school trip and that was it,” she says. Her first visit for the Hi!House project was disappointing. The sterile, official atmosphere drained the former home of the Chan clan of any spirit, she says. “I was hoping that I could interact with ghosts, with the soul of the place. But there was nothing.”
What struck her the most, as she began talking to a former inhabitant, was the rootlessness of the Hakka people.
For centuries, speakers of the Hakka dialect gradually moved south to escape war and famine, becoming known as the “guest” people. Some, like the Chans, settled in Hong Kong and built a village surrounded by walls for protection. Then, in 1979, they were told to leave and make way for the new Tsuen Wan MTR station. Their peripatetic history is one Lam can sympathise with, she remembers how she struggled to be accepted here as a newly arrived, 13-year-old from Fujian.
She asked artist Lee Man-sang, an artist from a traditional Sha Tau Kok village, to sing in the Hakka dialect a nanyin song that she and composer Steve Hui Ngo-shan put together using Song-dynasty poetry. The melancholic music style native to southern China is well suited to tell the Hakka story, she says.
She has tried to dampen the empty echoes of the house, asking ink artist Chui Pui-chee to recreate a pair of duilun (calligraphy scrolls ) that she saw in old photographs, and had gone missing 30 years ago. In the courtyard, a wavy, reflective plate gives a nod to the importance of water in Hakka settlements – both as a practical concern and for feng shui reasons. “I had long conversations with someone who used to live there – he is now the village chief of the new, relocated Sam Tung Uk village – and he helped piece together a picture of what it was like. It was purely his version, of course, and there are discrepancies compared with official records or what other people say. But what is true history anyway? A city’s story is made up of memories and legends. We should allow room for imagination,” she says.
At Law Uk, Wong and her team have also come up with an interpretation that is part factual and part imagined. There are facts that should be honoured, she says, such as the detailed research conducted by the historian James William Hayes, the colonial official who fought successfully against the demolition of old buildings. Working with six young ceramic artists, she reproduced archived documents in ceramic, giving weight and a feeling of permanence to paper records. In one room, a miniature mountain range alludes to the Hakka experience of migration.
A white porcelain version of the traditional everyday garment worn by Hakka women is shown in another. Poetry based on the cheerful folk songs that Hakka women sang through all kinds of hardship are shown on porcelain tiles and projected onto the walls.
But it isn’t just about the old. Wong wants visitors to see the house as part of today’s world. Nobody farms in the middle of Chai Wan any more, so she turned the space next to the barn and the exhibition of farm tools into a temporary potter’s studio. Chan See-kwong, a young potter, experiments with different materials after finding inspiration in Hakka traditional cuisine. Three pavilions in the shape of Hakka women’s hats are being put up in the bare, exposed terrace outside to encourage people to spend time there. She has also made the house more habitable by today’s standards by installing fake windows that are lit, translucent ceramic panes. “It’s a project about history, but also a chance to explore new possibilities for ceramics,” she says.
Over in Sha Tin, long-time resident Lam Tung-pang has been exploring links between Wong Uk, an early 20th-century brick house, his personal history and that of a neighbourhood transformed into a satellite town in the 1970s.
“I have lived in Sha Tin for 36 years and I’d never been to Wong Uk. When I walked in I was struck by the beautiful murals on the walls and similarities with my family’s ancestral home in Fujian, which we used to visit regularly. But it was pretty bare,” Lam says.
He felt an urge to furnish it as if he was moving in. “I went back to the ancestral home with my mother and brought back pieces I remember from my childhood. I picked up second-hand furniture from other people that are evocative of the past. I hope visitors will see things they recognise, triggers that encourage them to probe their own past,” he says.
He also started rescuing broken branches from the grounds and around Sha Tin, replanting them in his studio and moving them back to the old house as a symbolic act of rejuvenation. That’s when he discovered a rare surviving example of a tree which used to be the foundation of a traditional Sha Tin industry – indigo dyeing.
“I took it to Max To, the founder of Indigo 11.5 on Lantau Island, and we extracted enough dye from the tree to make one small piece of blue cloth,” he says. “It was very exciting because the industry was abandoned a long time ago.”
The blue cloth, the furniture and his long conversations with the house’s friendly security guard are all fragments that help to define a home, he says. “My own idea of home is made up of multiple parts, of Sha Tin, of Fujian. A room full of museum exhibits cannot possibly reflect Wong Uk’s full story,” he says.
The fourth house in the Hi!Houses project is an outlier, as is the artists’ approach to telling its story. Kom Tong Hall in Caine Road was a grand mansion built in 1914 by Ho Kom Tong, brother of Robert Ho Tung and one of Hong Kong’s wealthiest men. For years, the Mormons used it as a church and in 2004, the government bought it and turned it into a museum about the life of Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
It was not the most popular decision, since there was no tangible connection between the house and Sun, and the attendance has hovered at about 60,000 a year. Still, artist Wilson Shieh Ka-ho decided to focus on Sun’s formative years rather than the house’s history as a family home. “There is a major exhibition about Sun at the moment and I think most visitors come here because it is the Sun Yat-sen Museum,” says the painter.
He asked art school graduates to design panels representing all the different places that Sun lived in: Guangdong province, Hawaii, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan and Malaya while he made drawings of key historic figures from the Republic of China years.
The panels – unveiled on December 31 – are quirky. The Macau panel features a recurring character covered in small dots, supposedly a leper from Macau’s former leper colonies. The Hawaii panel, featuring dancing figures in hula skirts, doesn’t seem to have much to do with Sun or the house. But as Lo points out, the point of the exercise is to explore how art of any kind can stimulate a new way of seeing old houses and hopefully, to encourage more creative uses of Hong Kong’s valuable museum spaces.
Wilson Shieh X Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum
7 Castle Road, Mid-Levels.
Mon-Wed, Fri 10am-6pm, Sat, Sun and public holidays, 10am-7pm.
Lam Tung-pang X Old house at Wong Uk Village
Yuen Chau Kok, Sha Tin.
From Jan 8, Mon, Wed-Sun 9am-1pm, 2pm-5pm.
Fiona Wong X Law Uk Folk Museum
14 Kut Shing Street, Chai Wan.
From Jan 15, Mon-Wed, Fri-Sun, 10am-6pm.
Jaffa Lam X Sam Tung Uk Museum
2 Kwu Uk Lane, Tsuen Wan.
From Jan 22, Mon, Wed-Sun, 10am-6pm.
All projects run until Jun 30.