Artists drawn to Hong Kong's bright lights

Hong Kong is one of the world's most expensive cities, so why are foreign artists making their home here? Charley Lanyon canvasses some views

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 3:31pm

"Hong Kong sucks. It's expensive and stressful," says Korean-American artist Jin Meyerson. A big name in the art world, he has worked in New York, Paris and, most recently, Seoul. This morning, however, he is standing in his new studio, a converted industrial space in Fo Tan.

The artist abroad is not a new phenomenon. Impoverished, emerging artists are often drawn overseas by the promise of a receptive audience, cheaper living and a more bohemian culture. So why are so many foreign artists now making their home in Hong Kong, a city famous for its high cost of living and a tendency to favour wealth creation over artistic expression?

Most assume the driving force is the chance to get a break on the mainland. The Chinese market for art is booming and it is thought that Hong Kong offers foreigners a relatively easy point of entry. Not so for many emerging modern artists, who say that notion is outdated.

"I always use the internet to show my work and get opportunities," says French artist Charles Munka, who has made his home in Hong Kong for the past four years. "The world is getting smaller. Perhaps where you happen to be in it doesn't matter so much."

For many, one of Hong Kong's biggest draws is that it's unlike the mainland. Laurent Segretier, a French photographer who lives and works in a shared flat in Causeway Bay, tried to make his home in Shanghai and Shenzhen but soon became frustrated.

"China wasn't easy to live in and the language barrier started to be a real obstacle for my personal development. It was difficult to get resources such as books and most of my favourite websites were censored ... Living in China is not that cheap any more and it's much more difficult to collaborate or produce works over there in terms of quality and copyright."

For Segretier, Hong Kong offered the perfect balance between the energy of Asia and liveability. "I fell in love immediately ... I could finally share my thoughts and understand the world I was living in."

Also, the relative inexperience of the mainland art-buying public turns off some artists.

Fox Daniels, a painter based in Yuen Long, finds the Chinese art market's innocence and openness exciting, but Meyerson has a less charitable and more commonly held opinion. "The Chinese market is really cheesy. It's hard to make anything that's serious over there."

Many artists still perceive the Hong Kong art market as more sophisticated. Its convenience, widely spoken English (and increasingly French) and modern infrastructure aside, it seems there is something about Hong Kong that speaks to Western artists of a certain generation. The city inspires them.

As Portuguese sculptor Joao Vasco Paiva sees it, the city "as a sculptural background is the perfect setting for what I do".

Hong Kong still has a cultural cachet in the West unlike any other Asian city. Another French artist, Cedric Maridet, knew nothing about Hong Kong before coming here but still had a romantic image of the city in his head "from films by Wong Kar-wai or Johnny To Kei-fung."

Segretier's image of Hong Kong was based on sci-fi movies and books he became fascinated with. "In my head Hong Kong was like a massive light-blinking ship floating into a grey, heavy, cloudy sky."

For some growing up in the West in the 1990s, Hong Kong became a symbol for the futuristic Asian megacity imagined in pop culture, citing the anime classic Ghost in the Shell or films such as Blade Runner.

What they found when they got here did not disappoint. Munka remembers his first impressions: "Hong Kong looked like a giant playground to me with its highways twirling around hills, and layers of towers, textures and lights, next to the roughness and chaos of the city's backstreets and alleys."

For artists like Daniels, who draw their inspiration less from the cityscape and more from social stratification, Hong Kong offered a treasure trove: "I like the extremes of society ... Wherever you go you see these different layers of society on top of each other, whereas in places like London or Paris, or America, those worlds stay apart. That's what makes Hong Kong so sexy."

Still, Hong Kong historically has not been an environment for nurturing artistic growth. There are many adjectives used to describe this city, but bohemian is not one of them. Despite the recent influx, professional artists remain rare in Hong Kong.

It can be a lonely existence but the lack of a large artistic establishment is part of what makes Hong Kong so refreshing to many artists. Segretier explains: "It's not Brooklyn or Berlin, but it helps me to not live in the bubble of an art village."

Without having to spend so much time living the public life, artists can focus and get down to creating art.

Says Paiva: "What was missing here were the things to see - good shows, good concerts, different subcultures, good bookshops, a contemporary art museum. All that was missing, but for me it was good. I consumed less and produced more. Berlin is cheaper, for sure, but it's full of artists and because of that to have some visibility one has to spend more time networking than actually working."

By not being part of any scene, artists can preserve a sense of being observers, something that is especially true in the cultural mix of Hong Kong where an authentic understanding of local culture seems, for many Westerners, always just out of reach.

Paiva relishes the perspective that being an expatriate gives him. "Not being a true local, but also not being a tourist ... makes for the right balance so I can dwell in abstraction."

Even Meyerson, who came to Hong Kong because his wife got a job here, concedes that his very discomfort inspires and informs his work. "My work has always been about displacement. I was adopted at the age of four ... so everything I do is about displacement and I enjoy that about living in Hong Kong."

And, of course, there is less competition, which is always a good thing for emerging artists trying to establish themselves.

There remains one large, some would say insurmountable, obstacle keeping Hong Kong from reaching its potential as a haven for artists - the rent.

Most well-known overseas places for artists started out as low-rent areas such as Paris in the '20s or Brooklyn in the '90s. Unfortunately, the last of Hong Kong's low-rent neighbourhoods are disappearing rapidly. Already the high cost of living leaves artists scattered across the city: living on outlying islands and commuting into crowded studios in Mong Kok, hiding out in technically illegal industrial spaces or being forced to share crowded live-work apartments with an ever-growing number of roommates.

Nearly every artist tempers a love of Hong Kong with the anxiety that they may not be able to afford to stay much longer. Even though Hong Kong as an idea appeals to artists all over the world, there is real reason to worry that without low-rent options for artists, the influx of creative people to our shores might be over before it really gets started. [email protected]