Hong Kong

It’s already been a couple of months since my 3 week stay in Hong Kong earlier this summer, but it actually took me quite a while to slog through an overload of thoughts and impressions in order to come to some useful, simplified observations.

First off: I grew up in Hong Kong. I lived here from ages 2 to 7, and my sister was born there. Despite my many trips to Asia, I’d never managed to get around to returning here, though.

When Herb and I passed through the city for a few days in 2015, it was the first time I’d been back as an adult. I was immediately struck by how intensely familiar it felt, despite how dramatically different it now was. The air just felt right on my skin; the smells and sounds felt true–like…home, somehow. Given my peripatetic childhood, “home” is always a loose concept, at best–nothing I expect to feel like permanence, but familiar is always nice. I finally identified Hong Kong as the place that anchored my deepest formative memories, and determined that I’d be back for a longer stay in the future.

HK from TST on the Star Ferry
HK from TST on the Star Ferry
Admiralty sunset mirage
Admiralty sunset mirage

In the past couple of years since that first taste, it became very clear that spending time here just made sense professionally, too.  Since Hong Kong is rapidly becoming the epicenter of the globalized art world, I had an interest in learning more about what that really looked like and how it functioned, in order to better serve my teaching and studio practice.

the venerable Pedder Building, ground zero for fancy art galleries
the venerable Pedder Building, ground zero for international art galleries like Pearl Lam and Lehmann Maupin

While I spent a decent amount of time investigating local galleries and art spaces,  it felt like I barely scratched the surface of the array of venues and events here. I was disappointed to miss out on the M+ Pavilion (its show closed right before I arrived) and a few other interesting spots seemed to be entering something like a summer hiatus, but I was exceptionally glad to finally experience established arts venues like Asia Art Archive, Asia Society, Osage and Para/Site, after many years of curiosity.

installation from artist project at Para/Site addressing local agriculture politics
detail of Chloe Cheuk’s sculpture at Asia Society

I was also particularly glad to see a lot of smaller initiatives promoting art and art education at a more local community level, like Comix Zone and Oi!. Some local friends of mine also turned me on to more underground projects involving community kitchens and comics workshops with migrant domestic helpers, which were really inspiring and ultimately more compelling than the commercial galleries.

catching up with Old Master Q in the Comix Zone reading library
‘So Boring’ pay-what-you-can community cafe and activist library, Yau Ma Tei

That said, the commercial gallery scene was still fascinating in its own way, if a very glossy, moneyed way . While a couple of elite club venues felt more like vanity projects for the banking class, many legit spaces were intent on presenting serious, smart, blue chip-calibre shows that I was really impressed by.

Lee Kit at Massimo De Carlo

As a way to give my days some kind of structure and as a reason to dig into culture a little deeper, I enrolled in Mandarin language lessons for 2 weeks. I felt conflicted about not studying Cantonese, since it’s really the primary language of HK (and SF, really), but the reality is that Mandarin is more broadly useful, especially with many of my international students. Still, I love the sound of Cantonese: it’s more familiar to my ears, having grown up with it. And I do already speak a tiny bit of it, so now that I’ve got some grammar basics under my belt, hopefully I’ll continue to build up both languages, if slowly and clumsily. Baby steps.

Two weeks of Mandarin is barely enough time to get past pronunciation and some basic pleasantries, but it was still well worthwhile: my instructor was fantastic about providing cultural context for the language, and we’d often veer productively off-course from the lesson when I had questions about other phrases I wanted to understand.

(this is actually Ko Sin Tung’s piece in the Asia Society show entitled “Spectacular Seaview”, which is more of an ironic commentary on luxury real estate than an illustration of my new language skills)

But back to the initial premise of this extended stay. There’s really something to be said for addressing one’s formative experiences, which is something that had never interested me directly before now. It’s been a strange and fascinating thing to realize that all of my earliest conscious memories and impressions are HK. Some of these are dream-like: the hallucinatory images of a small child, colors, patterns and smells that are stuck to me for the rest of my life. And some of these are truly weird: for instance, while I’ve always told people I grew up in Hong Kong, I didn’t notice how odd it was that my experience of this involved growing up in a haunted house at the back of a Tsuen Wan oil terminal, wedged between all of the oil tanks, pipelines, an abattoir AND a massive cemetery.

Oil terminal, house on hill, cemetery, from a family album (abattoir behind house/below cemetery)

And so, even though the terminal was torn down years ago, I made it a personal mission to trek out to the remaining cemetery to see what I could see. This turned out to be an excellent use of an afternoon (and a lovely view, to boot).

Tsuen Wan cemetery view towards Rambler Channel, Gin Drinkers Bay and Tsing Yi

And given Hong Kong’s subtropical climate, after various sweltering adventures to cemeteries and the like, I also found it deeply satisfying to go cool off by swimming at as many beaches as I could. This is something our family did constantly when we lived here, as do many locals and expats. My childhood revolved around the water here, so I reveled in any grown-up opportunity I could squeeze in to retreat to a neighboring island or beach.

cheung chau
Cheung Chau
cheung sha
Cheung Sha
deepwater bay 2017
Deepwater Bay

I started keeping a new art journal during this trip that many of these impressions and images are making their way into: it seems a new body of work is on the way in response to all of this, so consider this post a brief introduction into what will probably be some sort of exhibition or project in the near future. Until then, I’ll leave you with this favorite image of 2 Woffords, many years ago, having a fine father-daughter moment at the very same beach you see above.

Deepwater Bay, earlier
Deepwater Bay, version 1.0