Hong Kong exhibit at Venice Biennale explores ties with Pearl River Delta

Hong Kong's exhibition at the Venice Biennale explains how our changing relationship with the delta region has influenced architecture on both sides of the border, writes Christopher DeWolf

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 June, 2014, 5:39am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2018, 6:43pm

Halfway through director Heiward Mak Hei-yan's short film, SAR², actor Eric Tsang Chi-wai takes a tumble in front of a billboard in Shenzhen's Qianhai development zone. "Supported by Hong Kong, serving the mainland, facing the world," it reads, reflecting the district's goal of attracting 100,000 Hong Kong permanent residents to live and work there.

Tsang plays Lee To, a Hongkonger who retires to Qianhai, where he falls in love with Lady Cheung, a Shenzhen native whose oyster farming village was cleared for land reclamation. In one intimate scene, Cheung (played by Taiwanese actress Kelly Tien Niu) asks Lee if he misses living in Hong Kong. "I can't really say," he replies. "Hong Kong is not my home any more."

SAR² is a story of alienation and ambiguity: Lee and Cheung live in spacious, comfortable apartments, but they are surrounded by vast construction sites and cut off from their families. Their romance seems to be as much a salve for loneliness as it is based on any kind of mutual attraction.

"They're wondering: What am I looking for?" says Mak.

It's a natural project for Mak, whose acclaimed 2008 debut, High Noon, dealt with a similar kind of rootlessness. SAR² made its debut in faraway Italy, where Hong Kong is participating in the 14th Venice Biennale of Architecture, the world's largest and most venerable showcase of the built form. Forty countries have mounted exhibitions in the biennale, which runs from June 7 to November 23.

This edition of the biennale is one of the most highly anticipated in years. Curated by iconoclast Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, it eschews the biennale's traditional focus on "starchitects" and looks instead at architecture itself, raising questions about diminishing influence in the face of technology and broad economic forces. It also tackles architecture's thorny relationship with modernity and the extent to which it actually serves human needs.

That latter point is central to Hong Kong's exhibition: "Fundamentally Hong Kong? Delta Four 1984-2044," which explores how the city relates to the Pearl River Delta. Four films, including SAR², are paired with buildings that represent themes such as land reclamation, cross-border migration, community and space for the dead. With Hong Kong's relationship to the mainland dominating the headlines, the exhibition takes a more ground-level look at the city's cross-border reality.

"Architecture is very rational, but film is very emotional," says Mak. "We are trying to use that emotional angle to express what citizens feel about living in the places they do."

Hong Kong's exhibition is staged inside a courtyard house next to the main entrance of the Arsenale, a 900-year-old former shipyard and armoury that is one of the biennale's two main venues. As the Mediterranean sun filters through a trellis covered by grapevines, the exhibition's three curators discuss their approach.

"We took out the information panels and put them in another room, so it gives the audience more room to think of the stories," says Ivan Lau, director of Hong Kong architectural firm LWK & Partners, who curated the show along with Alvin Yip, director of the Polytechnic University's Jockey Club Institute for Social Innovation, and Doreen Liu Heng, a Chinese University professor who runs an architectural practice in Shenzhen.

Lau points to models of the massive Kowloon Station development and the Lo Wu Commercial City in Shenzhen, which are paired with Connection, a documentary that traces the lives of three generations of women who have migrated from the mainland to Hong Kong.

"The models are much more interesting with the movie," says Lau. "It's the story behind them, the mobility and peoples' lives, that make these buildings what they are."

This approach marks a significant departure from many of the biennale's exhibitions, including Hong Kong's previous efforts, which often feature conceptual installations. Yip says this type of work too often becomes "bad art" that is hard to interpret.

"If we try to turn it into an art piece, then a lot gets lost in translation," he says. "With movies and models, it's real. It's a very humble exhibition in terms of execution, but very ambitious in terms of concept."

That is clear in the case of Connection, which is directed by up-and-coming documentary filmmaker Wong Siu-pong, whose debut feature, Fish Story, is now playing in cinemas.

"I'm always concerned about the relationship between people and place," says Wong.

When he first approached the subject, he discovered that most other stories of migration between Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta were "male-oriented," so he decided to focus on the stories of three women from Guangdong: one who moved to Hong Kong in the 1960s, another in the 1980s and a third, a Hong Kong-born architect who commutes to the mainland to work and see her Guangzhou boyfriend.

Hong Kong has influenced the architecture ... of the whole Pearl River Delta
Ivan Lau, architect

Like Mak, Wong wanted to express a certain ambiguity about Hong Kong's place in the world. "Nowadays, people can go anywhere, so Hong Kong might be just one stop among many," he says.

The curators say they paired Wong's film with models of Lo Wu and Kowloon Station because they represent the changing position of the border in Hong Kong, from the frontier to the city's very centre. With a cross-border bus terminal, the Airport Express, office towers, hotels and nearly 6,000 apartments, the Kowloon Station complex is neither here nor there - as much an outpost of global commerce as a neighbourhood in Hong Kong.

Benjamin Lau, design director at TFP Farrells, which planned the complex, says the film sheds new light on its role in the city. "Most of the time when we talk about architectural planning we are talking about functionality, but these films describe where we are at this point in time, the challenges we face," he says. "I really hope it gives us architects inspiration in the future."

Two other films deal with hot-button topics: Hong Kong's acute shortage of burial spaces and the cultural influence of the mainland. Rest is Pending, directed by Ng Ho-yin, is a fictional look at one man's struggle to find a resting spot for his deceased father. Faced with a years-long waiting list for a public cemetery space in Hong Kong, he travels to Macau and the mainland, where a network of luxurious, resort-like columbaria have emerged in response to the shortage in Hong Kong.

Over the Wall, directed by Ted Tsim Ho-tat, imagines a scenario in which a famous mainland theatre director travels to Hong Kong to stage a play in the West Kowloon Cultural District that explores the cultural, linguistic and economic differences between Hong Kong and the mainland. He hires a local architect to design a wall that would separate the virgin land of the cultural district from that of the old city beyond, but this becomes a point of contention.

"The wall is about authority," says Tsim. "The director thinks that if you build a wall around West Kowloon it's easier to control, but the architect tries to break it down."

This symbolism irks Aric Chen, the design and architecture curator for M+, who bristles at the film's implications.

"It's the evil, mainland overlord versus the noble Cantonese-speaking architect," he says. "Besides verging on xenophobic typecasting, the film is fascinating to me as an artefact of the political situation in Hong Kong."

Chen says Hong Kong increasingly suffers from the "political gridlock" suffered by his native United States, with a seemingly intractable split between those who favour more integration with the mainland and those who want more autonomy for Hong Kong. Given that situation, the Venice exhibition's focus on Hong Kong's relationship to the Pearl River Delta seems ripe for controversy.

"Some have said 'This is a Hong Kong exhibition, so look at Hong Kong'," says Ivan Lau. "But Hong Kong has influenced the architecture, urban form and living arrangements of the whole Pearl River Delta." That influence now runs both ways, he says. "That's where the conflict comes from."

Yip, who curated Hong Kong's first exhibition at the Venice Biennale, in 2006, defends the regional focus. "The last four exhibitions have been looking inwards for inspiration," he says. "This time we've tried to put Hong Kong in a very different context. We've gone back to a much more historical belief that Hong Kong is the locus for a lot of different culture, trade and knowledge."

"Hong Kong's energy comes from openness and mobility - we take the good things from a bunch of different cultures and make it our own," says Lau. "We are a sponge. But all of a sudden we don't absorb as much as before. We've established certain boundaries, and I don't think that's good for the city."

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Biennale highlights

This year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture will  run for six months,  twice as long as previous exhibitions.  Just as well, because it would take days to absorb the dozens of intricate displays.  Here’s what you should check out first.

Crow’s Eye View: The Korean Peninsula (above)

This imagined discourse between South and North Korean architects won the Golden Lion for best national pavilion. Although North Korea refused to participate, curator Minsuk Cho manages to weave a fascinating portrait of life on both sides of the border with works by architects, writers and filmmakers.

Monolith Controversies

Visitors to Chile’s Silver Lion-winning national exhibition are greeted by a replica of a 1970s apartment in a prefabricated apartment block, setting the stage for an investigation of prefab housing design through Chile’s tumultuous recent history.

Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15

How do you design buildings in a land whose people were until recently nomadic? That’s the topic explored in Canada’s national pavilion, which takes a critical look at the history of  Nunavut, the country’s first self-governing Inuit territory. Keep an eye out for soapstone sculptures of evolving building types.

1:1 Dom-Ino

Architecture geeks will love this full-scale construction of Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-Ino, a renowned prototype for mass-produced housing that until now was entirely theoretical. 

Across Chinese Cities: Beijing

Beijing Design Week curator Beatrice Leanza has assembled a sprawling look at the distinct urbanism of China’s capital, with artefacts from the rapidly disappearing hutongs, scale models of the city’s urban history and interviews with old-timers who’ve seen it all.

Monditalia (below)

Curated by Rem Koolhaas, this vast exhibition occupies the 700-year-old Corderie dell’Arsenale with a diverse look at Italian architecture and urbanism. Film plays a prominent role, along with dance and music; there are also displays on 41 research projects on phenomena such as Sikh temples in the Po Valley and the political violence that wracked Italian cities from the 1960s to the ’80s.