Shaun Bernier is the founder and acting executive director of HandsOn Hong Kong, a nonprofit organization that acts as a middleperson between volunteers and charities, helping to recruit volunteers or manage upcoming activities. Bernier tells Charmaine Ng about growing up in a family that instilled goodwill in her and bringing that to Hong Kong.
I grew up in the US with a family that taught me to appreciate what we had from a very young age.
My parents brought me to volunteer regularly with Habitat for Humanity during high school. That put me on the path to working in public service.
I worked in an NGO after university and gained advocacy experience in the public sector. It was my husband’s job that moved us to Hong Kong.
Coming with experience from the government, I didn’t know where to get started in the new city and with the language barrier here, it wasn’t really possible for me to work in the local government.
Timing-wise, starting HandsOn Hong Kong in 2007 was perfect. I had previous experience working with HandsOn New York and Washington DC and I saw a need for the organization in my new city.
HandsOn is perfect for someone wanting to help out in the community but doesn’t know where to start—especially in Hong Kong, where there is a lack of work-life balance in general.
We’re like a matchmaker between volunteers and charities. But we’re not your traditional matchmaker—we join you on the first date to test the waters. We hope that it’s a good fit, and that it’ll be beneficial and meaningful for both sides.
The charities we work with address a variety of social needs and we also partner with smaller NGOs who may not have resources themselves.
Volunteering benefits two or more people—yourself and those being helped. Volunteers are doing more than just asking for donations on the street. It’s a more rewarding way to address social issues.
I’m particularly passionate about refugees and asylum workers who cannot work in Hong Kong while waiting for their status.
I also have a soft spot for children and the elderly. We have a program where volunteers meet directly with the elderly in their own homes and provide essentials for them. It’s very eye-opening to see where they live beyond the elderly center.
I’ve brought my children along before and I hope over time, charity work is going to resonate with them.
HandsOn is like my first baby. As a social enterprise entrepreneur, I see myself starting something new.
It’s a normal Wednesday morning and Sai Ying Pun is full of people getting on with their daily lives. A security guard is greeting a resident of Siu On Building when a piercing scream breaks out. His head snaps back to find the source of the sudden noise—and when he spots it, the hairs on his neck rises in a cold chill. Just a street across, pedestrians are running in every direction from a man brandishing two meat cleavers at a middle-aged woman. The guard’s legs freeze and he watches, horrified, as the woman escapes and the attacker turns to a man close by to be his next victim.
In late 2015, a discharged psychiatric patient slashed two random passers-by on Des Voeux Road West. And this was not an isolated case—the last year alone has seen the news reporting at least ten cases of random attacks on the streets by past or present sufferers of mental illnesses. Whether or not the attackers really have a mental illness background, two things are for certain: these incidents do not help to reduce the stigma of those who are recovered, nor do they increase the population’s confidence in the government’s commitment to mental health care.
“Recovery means an individual feels good, finds new directions and experiences joy in becoming a contributing member of a society or neighbourhood,” said Dr. Samson Tse, a professor and researcher at University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Social Science. “The current method adopted by hospitals in Hong Kong is to prescribe medication to a patient then expect them to rejoin society once their symptoms have disappeared. But recovery isn’t as simple as healing a broken bone. It’s an ongoing, perhaps never-ending, journey.”
The professor rifled through the neat stack of papers on his otherwise spotless desk, searching for relevant data to back up his point. He is a small man with a pair of black-rimmed glasses, dressed in a white shirt with a pen tucked tidily in to the pocket. His office room echoes pristine order, with the books on the shelf organised neatly. A small photo of his family perched at the corner of his computer screen is the only personal touch.
Dr. Tse has been working with mental illness patients for years—whether it’s face-to-face in a high-security forensic psychiatric unit in New Zealand or from afar, examining the complex mechanisms of recovery from long-term diseases such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Having spent the majority of his education and career abroad, he returned to Hong Kong in 2009 to introduce the new, consumer-based concept of recovery, known as “personal recovery”.
In other parts of the world, recovery doesn’t end when doctor visits cease. Recovery doesn’t end when physical symptoms have disappeared. Recovery doesn’t end when a person starts working again. The reason that relapse is so common in mental disorder recovery is because it extends beyond the physicality of the body—precisely what Dr. Tse explores: what do you do when the medication ends?
Unlike Western countries, Asia’s population has a more rigid view on mental illness. In Hong Kong, those with mental disorders are seen as crazy people. The topic is practically taboo and hardly voiced aloud in public. Family members of past and present sufferers do not talk of it even with their extended families as it brings shame to them. Despite worldwide growing acceptance to non-physical sicknesses, the city has not seen a quick-enough progress of the inhabitants’ understanding in this area of study.
The main differences between the Western and local concept of mental illness recovery is that Hong Kongers place strong emphasis on controlling or eliminating symptoms and reclaiming life roles in work. Recovery is viewed as an outcome, a box to be checked off on a to-do list, as opposed to the view overseas, where it is seen as a process. In his works, Dr. Tse exemplifies the two outlooks with the Asian question, “have I recovered?” versus the Western question, “what is my recovery journey?”.
But changing the perception of recovery is precisely where Hong Kong runs into a problem. It isn’t easy for these people to find jobs and get their lives back on track as discrimination remains in all areas—in the workplace and even at home. Ask the typical Hong Konger whether they would feel safe if a past mental disorder sufferer was living next door to them, and the majority would reply “no”.
In Hong Kong, the mental health service landscape is a far cry from New Zealand’s, where Dr. Tse spent half of his life. The percentage of the local government’s GDP invested into mental healthcare is only 0.2% as opposed to New Zealand’s 0.9%. In fact, there is no direct translation of the word ‘recovery’ in Chinese. It is no wonder Chinese communities are so lost when it comes to mental illnesses.
Dr. Tse brings what he learned throughout his twenty-five years in New Zealand to Hong Kong in order to benefit recovered patients, current patients and the public. Going beyond medication, he and his team are constantly working on providing meaningful life roles to the recovered. They have found constant and incredible results in their peer support service programs.
“With funding, we have trained three cohorts of peer support workers in the past few years,” explained the professor. “These workers are recovered patients. They have turned their mental illnesses into their strengths, for example through sharing their personal stories with current sufferers. As we talk, forty people are employed by NGOs to run groups!”
A smile broke through Dr. Tse’s face as he recalled the memory.
“There isn’t a singular most emotionally rewarding situation, but there is a stand-out memory I remember very clearly,” he said. “Nowadays, my team even hires recovered sufferers to help with research. A few years ago, there was one particular data set that didn’t make sense to me, no matter how many times I went back to it. In the end, I scheduled a lunch meeting with two recovered patients—one man and one woman.”
The data that Dr. Tse found incomprehensible was about factors that were involved with the stability of bipolar disorder recovery. Contrary to expectations, one of the listed factors that facilitated the process was excessive drinking.
“Binge-drinking is something that we think is bad, right? But it was such an exciting breakthrough to find out why from first-hand experience. During the meeting, the man and woman said to me, “Samson, can’t you see it? Drinking is associated with socialisation and many users may have used it to keep their friendships as the disease worsens!”.”
Suddenly, Dr. Tse saw the whole picture. Even everyday individuals would use alcohol as an aid in socialisation. What’s more, drinking excessively may mean forgetting—the mental illness sufferers can numb their problems that they do not want to deal with.
It’s obvious that personal recovery, or recovery through input from users as the professor calls it, is greatly beneficial for the mental illness community. But why is Hong Kong still lagging behind in terms of adopting this practice that many countries have today?
“The lack of locally based professionals in the field only continues to fuel the discrimination and poor healthcare system in Hong Kong,” answered Dr. Tse. “It isn’t poor pay, though there are indeed fewer opportunities for those working in the mental health career path here, like practicing psychologists, nurses and counsellors. Not only is there not enough education in the area of psychology, it’s also just not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s emotionally heavy for the everyday Hong Konger who already suffers from constant stress, but it’s emotionally gratifying, too, if you can manage it.”
And gratifying is exactly how Dr. Tse feels when he helps a mental illness patient. Having attended church regularly since childhood, he grew up watching his peers express their struggles with identity, relationships and studies. It was a no-brainer when it came to choosing what career path to walk down when it came to his tertiary schooling. Even before graduation, Dr. Tse knew he wanted to work with people in a dynamic and interesting way.
“It was definitely mental health rather than physical habitation for me,” he said. “I wanted to deal with human issues and work with a variety of problems using multiple methods. For example, in orthopaedics, you ‘fix’ a range of movements—it’s all physical. Dealing with mental illnesses is different. It includes a lot of things, like seeing clients, integrating them back into society and organising events with the rest of the community for them.”
After obtaining a diploma in Occupational Therapy in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, bright-minded Dr. Tse was asked by his favourite professor to work with her in her native country New Zealand. With scarce postgraduate opportunities in the early 1980s in Hong Kong, Dr. Tse flew to Auckland for what he had not known, at the time, would be the next two and a half decades of his life.
He continued after a brief pause as another memory sprang to his mind.
“I actually remember the exact scenario,” he said. “The interviewer flew to Auckland to meet me, and we sat on a patch of grass outside the hospital for the interview. I was offered a full time job at a forensic psychiatric unit on the spot.”
At the time, mental health service overseas was growing exponentially. It was right after the government-prompted 1988 Mason Report, a series of inquiries headed by Judge Ken Mason following multiple high-profile attacks and suicides involving mentally ill people. In New Zealand, state money was invested for seven new psychiatric units to be built. They were facilities catering to the mentally unwell involved with prison. As an occupational therapist, Dr. Tse had to work in a high-security institution with only twelve to fifteen people of expertise.
It was common for people to ask Dr. Tse if he was scared.
“I always told them I felt the exact opposite of fear. I felt safer, actually. There were premeasures taken and when it comes down to it, safety was not about physical establishments but close relationships.”
He explained further.
“If there are good relationships in place, then it’s all clear. As long as one of the staff has trust with the one of residents and vice versa, then if anything goes wrong, the pair can effectively communicate. At the end of the day, safety doesn’t come from alarms, electric fences or macho male nurses. It comes with communication.”
It was only logical that Dr. Tse’s timeline continued down the same path, given how inspired he felt from dealing with mental illness patients first-hand using the personal experience recovery method.
While working at the unit for three and a half years, he completed a masters in psychology part time and—smiling as he proudly presented his accomplishments—graduated with full marks and a distinction from Massey University. After a few years working as a lecturer, he once again graduated—this time with a doctoral degree from the University of Otago. His thesis was focused on recovery for bipolar disorder patients, which set the paving stone for his later works.
Dr. Tse’s return to Hong Kong in 2009 was due to an unexpected turn of events. He had settled in New Zealand well: he was married to a woman he loved with a son and earning a stable income working in an area he was passionate in. But when he received a call from his hometown with news that his mother was diagnosed with dementia, he knew he had to come back.
“It wasn’t my kind of lifestyle to ignore the problem and leave it all to my brothers and sisters. I did not want to abandon my family to live a life of bliss. I made the choice to come back.”
Although the poor mental healthcare landscape in Hong Kong meant that he had had to start from scratch in his career, the professor knew he had made the right decision. It was even more emotionally rewarding for him to bring changes to the people so close to him. In fact, it had to be him: no one else based locally had his experience and expertise from overseas.
Recovery through input from sufferers allows the public to enter their world. They need to be understood instead of having someone pathologise what they feel. Dr. Tse has brought a pioneering practice to Hong Kong by involving patients as partners in research, proving that the understanding of the disease is essential and beneficial for recovery in the local context.
With the peer support project strongly grounded as long as there is sufficient funding, Dr. Tse explains the next step in his work to continue to communicate to the public.
“It’s not published yet,” he said excitedly. “But it’s almost done. It’s about the concept of what I call ‘Toxic Space’. My team has done extensive research on the consequences of our typical fast-paced, urban lifestyle in Hong Kong—and the findings may surprise you. But apart from this, I still constantly work with patients face-to-face. There’s something different about it that separates it from research in the lab. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing them regain life.”
A traditional art exhibition features one artist’s work from a single series. But today, exhibitions are no longer confined to one solo artist. They can range from a curator grouping several works influenced by a certain major event together, like the M+ Sigg Collection at Artistree, to including multiple works made of the same media in one space, like Statement 3: New Sculpture from Germany at the Goethe-Institut Hong Kong.
But in Central, a newer, rather rare type of exhibition has opened its doors to the public this April: Mill6 Foundation’s spring show, Social Fabric, held at event space The Annex.
Social Fabric’s full title is Social Fabric: New Work by Mariana Hahn and Kwan Sheung Chi, a duo showing of Berlin-born Mariana Hahn and Hong Kong-born Kwan Sheung-chi’s works, tied together by internationally renowned curator David Elliott.
As exhibitions have evolved over the years, so has the definition of art itself in the eyes of many in the art world. An exhibit like Social Fabric may well prompt some viewers to ask the bigger question of “what is art?” or whether it’s necessary to have interlocutors to help the public interpret art.
Hahn, who graduated from the University of Arts London, was taken with silk, a delicate material from China that is prominent in Hong Kong. Upon her arrival to the city, she stayed on Lantau Island and studied the “shu nu” — women who resided there and wove for a living. Her artistic practice has always been based on the notion that the act of “weaving” is a metaphor for the human anatomy. Using fabrics as her creative medium, her art works are essentially clothing items that can be viewed as the carrier of the living narrative. Her series of works in Social Fabric specifically explores the role of silk and how it has transformed Hong Kong over time.
In contrast, Kwan is based in the city. With a BA in Fine Arts from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, he is perhaps most known for founding various advocacy groups, such as Woofer Ten, which focuses on expressing local political and social issues using experimental art. His unusual works document his own life as a typical resident of the city, and the installations on display in Social Fabric demonstrate his role as an insider. They scrutinise the troubling question that a large percentage of youth in Hong Kong have about their hometown today — should they stay or leave, given the city’s past, present and anticipated future?
It’s not the first time multiple artists have collaborated for an exhibition. Yet previously, when a pair of artists who both had equal prominence worked on single show, they would produce works together, in that each artist would have physically altered the displayed work, or at least have had a say in the ideas behind the work during the creative process. There would be communication between the artists; a chemistry, a dialogue. But in Social Fabric’s case, what could possibly be the connection between the two series of works by these two very different artists?
When asked this question, Mill6 Foundation director Angelika Li had an answer that sounded like it had been rehearsed many times.
“I brought together these artists from very different backgrounds because I saw a similar sensibility in how they approach their work, despite their differing personalities,” she said. “Mariana has a very quiet, poetic way of talking about violent matters, and Chi is a very quiet person, yet his works speak very loudly.”
But a “similar sensibility” spoken from the mouth of a director of a charity organisation just isn’t enough. Hahn is Mill6’s inaugural artist-in-residence, and it feels as if the staff simply paired her with a local artist for convenience. Li, without status in the art world, would not convince many. This is where David Elliott comes in. With a worldwide reputation, the British curator has had 20 years of experience in the art field since beginning this journey as the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm until 2001. He has made himself a household name in the art world as a curator, adviser, writer and chairman. Invited by Li to curate Social Fabric, he has said he was “delighted” to be involved in such an exhibition — and who could doubt someone with such eminence?
Elliott definitely has a way with words. During the public sharing session of the exhibition, he pushed Li’s idea behind Social Fabric — the goal of which was to encourage viewers to see Hong Kong’s evolution through a different prism by contrasting past with present in unusual art forms.
“Mariana and Chi are two very different artists, but that’s how it works,” said Elliott at the public sharing session. “Although they had only met for the first time not long before the exhibition, instinctively, Mariana felt there was a way to work together. My role, as the curator, was to advise them on what to include.”
He explained the full picture.
“The name Social Fabric describes the collaboration perfectly well. It’s a joining of two cities, Hong Kong and Berlin, in a metaphor for the way Hong Kong migrants are woven together, just like Mariana’s weaving work. The different ideas and attitudes towards the city’s past, present and future — from Chi, as an insider looking out and from Mariana, as an outsider looking in — are woven together.”
The elaborate explanation nearly sounds convincing, coming from Elliott. But closer scrutiny of the information available about the artists themselves suggest otherwise. And it certainly did not seem to help that there was not much communication, much less any chemistry, between the two artists during the English sharing session, where both artists made speeches.
As the exhibition is in Hong Kong, Hahn of course could not speak about her work in her native language, German. Her English had a strong accent, but otherwise, she seemed able to communicate her ideas clearly to the audience. Kwan, on the other hand, was not fluent in English and decided to conduct his speech in Cantonese. Luckily for him, the entire audience understood Chinese — except for Hahn and Elliott.
This inability to communicate in the same language definitely explains, or at least contributes towards, the reason that the artists did not interact much during the short time they had known each other, as Hahn stated in interview. The German artist even went on to say that in essence, their works were separate.
“Chi’s a very poetic person,” she said. “We’re very different personality-wise. Because of this, we have our own approaches to making art. What David and Angelika hoped for us was that we would interact, understand and learn from each other’s ways. But we are not making a crossover here. The pieces stand as individual.”
There was obvious weight on Hahn’s works over Kwan’s — the German artist’s pieces outnumbered the latter’s three pieces by 26. But Kwan’s works, especially Hong Kongese, was the most impactful to the local resident. Observing the many types of visitors who wandered into the exhibition over a couple of days, the one piece of artwork that captivated all was the large-scale installation with which the visitor could interact.
As he described this work, he did not mention the other half of the exhibition altogether — this includes both the other artist and her pieces.
Inspired by the topical issue of identity, Kwan has covered the floor with tiny red and gold lapel badges depicting the flags of China saying “Hong Konger,” leading to a door that opens up to a bright white room. By scattering the badges all over the floor, his art goes straight to the heart of the question of what it means to be a Hong Konger today.
“I got these pins customised on Taobao,” he said. “I find it funny how you can buy your identity on the Internet.”
The only similarity between Hahn and Kwan’s works is that all of the pieces were inspired by Hong Kong. With just one link between the two series, can a typical person without any arts education even tell that they are supposedly a collaboration?
Elliot said that he did not think art has to be explained. Yet, without his explanation of the two artists’ works during the sharing session, it really was difficult for the audience to understand what brings Hahn and Kwan’s works together as one. They are different in creative medium, different in origin, and the artists have had minimal communication with each other. The average passer-by would not to able to depict the “woven” connections that the curator had dressed up so fancily in words.
Likewise, John Batten, president of the International Association of Art Critics Hong Kong, agreed that art does not need to be explained.
“Today, there are many press conference-type events like a dinner with the artists or gallery owners,” he said. “They feel like propagandas to feed a certain viewpoint to the public. The best thing for the public to do to appreciate art is to see an exhibition cold, form questions then try and work out the piece on their own — being spoon-fed an explanation takes away from the experience. Today, art is more than just the intentions of the creators. The audience can take away what they want from an exhibition and that becomes what that piece does, too.”
Another prominent player in the local art scene, Mark Spiegler, the director of annual art fair Art Basel, explained his definition of “good art.”
“Good art is something that changes you. Often, it’s a momentary attraction between a piece and a viewer,” he said. “How do you know it changes you? You walk away with a new aesthetic, a new experience, a different person. If a piece of work scares you, makes you uncomfortable and you’re thinking about it after, you’re affected.”
Art is like the relationship between prose and poetry. Prose is the direct conscience of information from writer to reader and poetry works on a subconscious level. If the viewer does not walk away from Social Fabric seeing the connection between Hahn’s and Kwan’s work, perhaps only understanding it when it is put into words for them, or is not walking away feeling affected in any way, then Elliott and Li have essentially failed in their exhibition. The two artists’ works are, to put it simply, just two collections forced together by prose in order for Mill6 Foundation to have something to show for its spring exhibition.
Tai Kok Tsui Head west from Mong Kok and you’ll end up in Tai Kok Tsui, where you’ll get the best of industrial cool and homey and discreet residential vibes. Once where the Cosmopolitan Dock was located, it may be a historical neighborhood known to house an aging population, but you’ll see your fill of hipster youngin’s these days: here are our picks for what’s new in town.
Previously located in the Western district, underground music and arts hub XXX Gallery has moved its party room all the way to Tai Kok Tsui. Now housed inside a factory building, the gallery space continues to put on indie shows—think eclectic music, experimental film screenings and unconventional visual art. Unit 2A, Kin Luen Factory Building, 89-91 Larch St., xxxgallery.hk
Craving western food in an area where you are surrounded by local greasy spoons? Burgerman is a tiny store on Ivy Street offering made-to-order burgers. Previously placed first on the Openrice.com charts, this little burger shack is a hidden gem indeed. Take your pick between the VVagyu, foie gras, or soft shell crab varieties and more. If you’re still feeling hungry, they serve a variety of tasty pastas too. Shop C, G/F, 95-97 Ivy St., 2331-3973
Hung Shing Temple
If you’re headed to this old neighborhood hoping to have a taste of traditional culture, make sure to stop at Hung Shing Temple. As per its namesake, the small temple is dedicated to Hung Shing, a government official in the Tang Dynasty. This particular Hung Shing Temple is the only one in urban Kowloon today. 58 FukTsun St.
Craft Coffee Roaster
If you’re in need of an afternoon pick-me-up, take a coffee break at cozy Craft Coffee Roaster. This neighborhood café focuses on both traditional and cold brew coffees, offers whole leaf teas and serves a small range of sandwiches, salads and homemade desserts. If you’re around the area in the morning, they also serve up a mean full breakfast, perfect to fuel up for the day. G/F, 29 Tai Kok Tsui Rd., 2395-1888
The Brew Job Coffee
Another one for the coffee fans to tick off the list in the area is The Brew Job Coffee, a tiny café with a decidedly industrial-style vibe. Be sure to order their freshly roasted artisanal coffee, and don’t forget to get a bagel to go with it. A great place to get your work done as there are plenty of power sockets for laptops. An afternoon well spent that’s delicious and productive! G/F, 46 Hoi King St., 6097-9030
At around seven o’clock in the evening, one might cross paths with Choi Sai-ho among a crowd of office workers rushing to get home after a long day of work on the MTR. He is camouflaged against them—dressed in an ironed blue shirt, dark jeans and polished shoes, he checks his watch for the time and squints to read the face through his thick-rimmed glasses. He blends completely into the mass of skinny, thirty-year-old businessmen, but unlike everyone else, Choi isn’t in a hurry to get home for dinner. Instead, he is in a hurry to get to his latest gig in an underground dungeon.
“The first time I attended an electronic music concert was one by the Chemical Brothers who really ‘wow’ed me with their looks,” he says. “They were so cool. After the performance, I wondered if it was possible to make the type of music they played on my own—just using my own computer and software.”
The bag that Choi carries contained a laptop, yes, just like any typical office worker also on the MTR. But the laptop that has followed him throughout the years of his experimental venture wasn’t used for checking emails. Open it up and the average person wouldn’t be able to decipher the complicated music-making programs at all. Completely opposite from his appearance, he is someone else altogether: Choi Sai-ho is an electronic musician.
Born and bred in Hong Kong, Choi, who is 32 this year, followed the typical path of education and attended university after spending his childhood in local school. When he graduated with a master’s degree from City University’s School of Creative Media, he had no idea he would end up creating and playing music. In fact, he was heading in a different direction altogether. He was working to get a job in graphic design.
“I tried many things in university. Music was just one of them,” he says. “It wasn’t until later that I thought, hey, maybe I can make a career out of it. Maybe I can try it and see what happens.”
Although becoming an electronic musician in Hong Kong requires no formal qualifications or training, Choi didn’t go into the field completely inexperienced. Even though he had had no schooling in the subject apart from the compulsory primary school music lessons, he had played the violin outside of school during his childhood. Later on, he even formed a band with a group of friends.
“But that didn’t work out in the end,” he says. “The main problem with working in a group is that you need to have a common goal, you need to want to achieve the same things.” He continued that for a while. All of the members were at different places of their lives, but the experience, though brief, was enough to reignite his interest in the music world.
Growing up in a time before accessing the internet became an everyday thing for the common citizen, the only music Choi could listen to was what was played on mainstream radio. He only ever heard the same singers dominating the scene and perhaps it was because of this that he tired quickly of Cantonese music, known colloquially as ‘Cantopop’. He was constantly on the search for different types of sounds.
“I’m not saying that Cantopop isn’t good,” he straightens this out quickly. “I liked certain singers and songs. But I feel the quality has gotten worse with time. Teenagers used to listen to Cantopop in the 80s and 90s, but today’s generation doesn’t. They choose to look to other places for music, they like kpop, jpop and foreign singers.”
Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Venetian Snares, the musicians who Choi counted off as his favourites, are names that are virtually unheard of in Hong Kong. The 32 year old laughed but shook his head in a downhearted manner as he described the identical blank expressions of every person he has ever mentioned his inspirations to. Hardly anyone ever recognises the names.
“Sometimes if I mention DJ Shadow, who’s more mainstream, I get a more satisfying reaction. But you can see how it is here. The industry for electronic music in Hong Kong is a disaster.”
Yet Choi, knowing full well the “disaster” of a market for the genre in Hong Kong, was adamant he wanted to pursue a path in electronic music because it was something different, something special, to his ears. It was nothing like what he had heard growing up. To the outsider, it certainly seemed like a bad decision to make in a city that only cares about money, but surprisingly, unlike the common ‘tiger mother’s of Hong Kong, his parents were happy to let him do what he wanted.
Having performed globally, Choi has definitely had a taste of the electronic music scene elsewhere in the world. In every overseas location he has played in, including Switzerland, Germany and Brazil, he has been met with a more enthusiastic reaction from the audience. But he shrugs as he defends Hong Kong when comparing the different situations, concluding simply that he understands the culture of his hometown. The people here are just not as expressive because of the way they had been brought up.
“People always joke to me that when I perform to a Hong Kong audience, it must be like performing to a pile of bricks,” he laughs lightheartedly. “They take electronic music in with an attitude that’s for listening to classical music. Someone has even said to me that when I’m performing, it looks like I’m checking my emails on stage!”
Although electronic music has a small audience base locally, Choi is still insistent on staying in the city where he grew up. He was also determined not to switch to a more mainstream style because he found that where he was at allowed the most honest expression of himself. Being an awkward talker, electronic music is his voice. Plus, he adds, he is beginning to see a ray of hope—an improvement in the popularity of lesser-known music genres in the recent years.
“There is definitely more variety in the music scene nowadays. The audience is transforming. You can even see small indie bands like Chochukmo doing large scale adverts even though they’re singing English songs and not Cantopop.”
There is a pause.
“And I’ve always wanted to do something in Hong Kong. It’s a challenge but it’s my home. If I can achieve something here, then that’s the happiest thing for me, much more than if I make it big in other countries.”
It might not be easy making a living from being a full time electronic musician, but Choi showed—and still shows—that it isn’t impossible. Over the years, he has grown from a young boy with no musical background to a man who holds at least several gigs a year, at places ranging from small underground venues to large music festivals, like Clockenflap. He has also collaborated with many famous artists of different genres and has been approached by the government for public talks and music workshops. In 2013, he received the Award of Young Artist in Media Arts from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, which funded much of his second independently produced album, Sync.
So what’s in the future for the young star?
“I want to perform in Hong Kong’s biggest venues, like the Convention and Exhibition Centre. Oh, or even better, the AsiaWorld-Expo—but definitely not now!” He laughs as he imagines the situation. “Perhaps in the future. I don’t have a big audience now. It would be quite embarrassing!”
SW Wong is the co-founder of The Closeteur, Hong Kong’s newly launched online shopping mecca which features preloved items offered by celebrities, fashion influencers and industry professionals. It also works to support charities too: Half of the profits go to environmental charities 1% For The Planet and Aquameridian Conservation & Education (ACE) Foundation. Charmaine Ng talks to Wong about fashion waste and how she hopes to change Hongkongers’ view towards secondhand clothes.
Before starting The Closeteur, I worked in the fashion industry. On the side, I did charity work and was part of Shark Savers Hong Kong. I also launched [a campaign pledge to stop eating shark fin] I’m Finished With Fins with a friend. Through charity, I met a lot of people who worked for the environment and learned a lot about the field.
One year ago, together with a friend who was also interested in fashion and also did a lot of charity work, we began forming our business idea. Our goal was to combine our love for fashion and our passion about helping the environment together.
Many people do not know that they are indirectly contributing to pollution by partaking in fast fashion. Today’s popular culture is one where clothes are cheap, so people are always purchasing without thinking about the quality and whether or not they really like the items. The more we buy, the more we end up not wearing and throwing away. This in turn causes us to buy more.
This fashion waste contributes to the landfill problem as more than 10,000 tons of clothes are thrown away each year just in Hong Kong.
However, Hongkongers do not like to purchase secondhand clothes.
The Closeteur is different from other secondhand stores because we teach you how to mix and match the pieces we sell.
I previously lived in Australia and people there recycle as a part of their everyday lives. But it’s different in Hong Kong—the government here has to do a lot just to educate people on the subject. Nowadays, it has improved. Like recycling, it’s possible to change our attitude towards fast fashion clothes, it just needs time.
We want to change the view on secondhand clothes, not just convince people to buy them and that’s it. To change the industry, we must change ourselves and our spending habits first.
People always ask: are they from superstars? Why should I buy these secondhand clothes if I can get brand new ones?
Everyone wears a piece differently and the first owner will have thought of how to style the piece when they bought it.
A large number of celebrities are selling their old clothes through The Closeteur. They will model their items themselves to provide inspiration of how to wear their pieces for buyers.
We also have an interactive magazine online. There, we give information about fashion waste and tips on taking care of your clothes right to keep them new longer.
Half of our profits go to environmental charities, including 1% For The Planet and the Aquameridian Conservation & Education (ACE) Foundation.
Fast fashion in Hong Kong won’t change as long as the demand is still there. But I feel that education can slowly change the industry, just like our recycling habits and consumption of shark fin. It’s a personal choice that comes about through public education.
Shop sustainably from thecloseteur.com, where you can get free shipping all across Hong Kong
New to Hong Kong’s art scene comes veteran art gallerist Massimo De Carlo, who made his venture into Asia by opening his first gallery in the region in Central on 21 March. Despite the art market slump and the slowdown of gallery openings in the city, he remains positive that Hong Kong is the evident choice of location for business in the new continent.
It’s not hard to see why De Carlo feels this way: art week in Hong Kong has arrived, bringing along with it multiple art fairs, shows, talks and cocktail parties. The media are ringing with news about the major players such as Art Basel, Art Central, the Asia Contemporary Art Show, the Hong Kong International Film Festival, as well as smaller gallery openings and talks by famous artists from all over the world. Hordes of buyers from overseas are entering the city, scaling the fairs for art pieces that may make a good investment or a beautiful status symbol in their homes.
Yet despite what appears to be a flourishing art scene in Hong Kong, as De Carlo tests the waters here, leading observers of the art community suggest that behind the façade of a thriving market is a different picture.
“Art Basel made its Hong Kong debut three years ago and gained popularity in a very short time,” said John Batten, president of the International Association of Art Critics Hong Kong. “Although everything looks great on the surface, this immediate rise has generated a false impression of a strong art scene in the city.”
But bringing with him nearly 30 years of experience, De Carlo is confident about his new gallery opening. The gallerist is very prominent in the international art scene with his inaugural gallery in Milan and his second gallery in London, the latter of which gave him experience with a slowing art market after its opening in 2009. He holds a position on Art Basel Hong Kong’s selection committee board and has observed the Asian market over the years. Surely, his new gallery will easily counter the high rents of the city.
Following Hong Kong’s swelling art auction sales in 2014 where it was twice that of 2010, galleries have popped up all over the city. Some have bravely decided to set up their bases in Central, but others have decided on neighbouring instead in the relatively less expensive Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun. To play the game even safer, there have been openings in industrial buildings in Quarry Bay, Chai Wan, the Wong Chuk Hang area and across the harbour in Kwun Tong.
In Central, the major international names Gagosian Gallery, White Cube and Pearl Lam opened in 2012. Among many other newer additions in the area are Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Lehmann Maupin and Pace Gallery, but there has been a large drop in any more openings since 2014. In terms of relocating for cheaper rents, XXX Gallery is one of several. In 2011, it first opened its doors in Sheung Wan, but moved farther away to Sai Ying Pun in 2013, and earlier this year, it packed its bags altogether to a cheap space on the Kowloon side in Tai Kok Tsui. Numerous galleries like Studio Rouge, previously located in Central, have even closed down completely after less than three years of operation.
And ironically, De Carlo’s gallery took over a space in Pedder Building previously owned by Ben Brown Fine Art, opened in 2007, which decided to downsize in the face of China’s economic slowdown.
Meanwhile, the oldest existing gallery in Hong Kong, Galerie du Monde, is looking to relocate from its Central premises, which it has occupied since its establishment in 1974.
“We want to stay in Central, but it’s turning out to be a huge challenge as there aren’t a lot of choices in Hong Kong,” said Kevin Yang, the managing director of Galerie du Monde. “There are many big limitations in this area especially. Rent is just the first thing.”
Galerie du Monde had previously considered cheaper locations like Wong Chuk Hang, a thriving arts area in the south of Hong Kong Island where many galleries were popping up. But for Yang, it was a no-go, as the traffic there is still much lower than it is on Hollywood Road. Yang applauded Wong Chuk Hang for offering a “better space” but ultimately decided against it as it was “not yet convenient.” He reasoned that most of the gallery’s clients have voiced their preferences for the Central area and that the general public wanted a place to visit conveniently during their lunch breaks. Moving far away from the business hub would mean that these lunchtime visits would cease, eventually become infrequent visits or in the worst case, stop altogether.
“The gallery business is not like opening a bar. The traffic is low because only a small group of people are interested. Holding exhibitions — which are already very expensive on their own — means the gallery space has to have certain qualities,” said Yang. “There are many parameters. It requires a practical ceiling height, a certain wall space and of course, it has to be a certain size.” He went on to list the limitations, highlighting the problem especially for contemporary art works as they often come in large scales that need a lot of room.
“The problem won’t stop — Hong Kong’s government doesn’t support the arts, so we have to fight for ourselves here,” Yang continued. “Another thing is, the gallery business in Asia is all very commercial. The only way to survive is to rely on selling art to fund ourselves, but there are so many galleries and so few buyers. The competition is huge.”
At this point, the retail rent in Central is a minimum of 100,000 dollars per square foot. Furthermore, operating a gallery does not simply entail paying for the space — if a suitable one can even be found in the first place — but as Yang mentioned, there are many additional costs, for example management fees. A gallery business is still a business. The space needed regular renovations and the staff had to be paid.
“When Galerie du Monde was established in the ’70s, the rent was obviously much cheaper. It was around 20,000 a month for three storeys right next to the road in Central,” Yang began to lament, but quickly straightened himself. “But of course, the selling price for an art piece was much lower, too, at around 3,000 to 5,000 dollars.”
Perhaps it has to do with the attitude that Hong Kong people have towards art. On the other side of the globe in New York City, for example, there are many experimental art spaces. These types of spaces are not prominent in Hong Kong. XXX Gallery remains the only gallery showing experimental works, yet one can clearly see how it has fared with its multiple relocations.
Then why do galleries still choose to remain, or in De Carlo’s case, open up in Hong Kong despite its many disadvantages?
“Low tax, convenient shipping of art works, many professionals in terms of transportation, restoration and framing,” listed Yang. “That’s why we prefer to stay here despite the rent. And there’s one good thing about the small space. It’s easily controlled and monitored.”
When asked if Galerie du Monde would move to similar Asian cities if given the chance, Yang shook his head. He said that even if Singapore, for example, lifted its fine art tax, the gallery would still choose to remain in Hong Kong. It had also previously considered Shenzhen. The neighbouring city is now a thriving arts hub with its many galleries, exhibitions and biennales. The attitude of the mainland government is the opposite of Hong Kong’s. To draw in tourists, it supports the arts scene greatly. It had helped develop the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, a former industrial area, into the huge art space it is today — and it has been a success. Many Hong Kong people who are interested in the arts make day trips to Shenzhen just to experience what they cannot at home.
“We actually spent two years researching Shenzhen as a potential place,” said Yang. “But still, the back-up service is different. The customs are different. What we show in the mainland has to be censored. And most of all, the people are different.”
He talked about Galerie du Monde’s previous venture into Macau. The gallery had opened a branch in the mall of the Four Seasons Hotel, taking care to select a space with high traffic. Yet after just five years, it closed down. From what the gallery staff could tell, the main problem was that the Macau audience was simply not ready for contemporary art. The only visitors of the gallery were tourists and not local residents, which was not sustainable in terms of money.
Unlike Batten, Yang sees Art Basel as a good opportunity to foster more public interest in art. As expensive as participating in the fair is, it at least appears to bring in art education. But wandering around Central the weekend before art week kicked off, many galleries were closed in preparation for the week ahead. Would this be because of the shocking price of a booth in both Art Basel and Art Central that costs half a million Hong Kong dollars for a mere few days? And is the public really being educated about art as a whole, or are they only seeing a part of it, only being exposed to big, established names who are able to afford a booth?
Pilar Cano Romero, the curator of Puerta Roja’s current exhibition, spoke about the application process. The gallery had a booth in Art Central.
“Getting into these art fairs is difficult. There is a preview selection, and you must have great artists. Only strong galleries with great CVs make it through.”
It’s all dandy on the surface as masses of people attend the art fairs. But apart from the rich and wealthy, most would not buy the art. And more importantly, apart from the ones really invested in the subject, most would walk away regarding the fair as a day trip equivalent to a leisurely stroll in a park. Perhaps Hong Kong is still much more of a suitable place to make a venture into the Asian market than any other city in the region, but the growth of public interest and education in the area still lags behind the west.
Even leading art dealer David Zwirner, named the third most influential person in contemporary art by ArtReview magazine, is holding back on opening a gallery in Hong Kong despite having been eyeing it for several months now. He has yet to find a suitable space and wants to wait for the rent to fall — that is, if it ever does. But like De Carlo, he sees Hong Kong with more potential than the mainland or Singapore for its easy shipping, and eventually wanted to break into the Asian market in this city.
It doesn’t appear that De Carlo’s gallery opening will persuade other big names to follow suit. And despite the current public interest in art, the craze will die down after a week to a continued decrease in gallery openings and increase in downsizings, relocations and closings. But taking the example of Galerie du Monde’s decision based on experience of over 40 years, as well as interest in the city by many leaders in the industry, it is safe to conclude that at the current moment, Hong Kong is still first choice for arts expansion in Asia. Survival of a gallery is still possible, but perhaps only by established names. And for those big names, there is no predicting when or how long retail rents will take to fall, so as De Carlo’s case: if not now, then when?
It’s hard to tell who’s protagonist and who’s antagonist in director Johnnie To’s new film-cum-musical, Office. The characters sing and occasionally dance as they try to figure themselves out in the highly stylised setting of financial conglomerate Jones & Sunn’s office. To’s first musical number is adapted from fellow cast member Sylvia Chang’s stage play, Design for Living, and stays loyal to its theatre roots with a vast, open-plan set. Incorporating numbers from songwriter Lo Tayu and lyricist Lin Xi, Office portrays the honest but rather heartbreaking capitalist lifestyle of the common Hong Kong resident to the world.
The musical is a well-known genre in Hong Kong, but Office is the first such movie to gain prominence overseas. The cast, which is well known locally—Eason Chan and Tang Wei—are less known abroad—so what can it be?
The story kicks off a short while before the 2008 global financial crisis, following Lee Xiang’s (Wang Ziyi) point of view on his first day as a probationary hire at Jones & Sunn. As the innocent intern is slowly introduced to the complex surroundings of his workplace, the viewer too first look into the office: machines churning, cogs turning, workers bumping into each other as they rush to their posts—the whole atmosphere is frantic. This out-of-control ambience remains for the rest of the film.
Throughout Office’s two-hour playtime, the audience watches the inevitable tragedy unfold between three couples at different stages of their career path. Topmost is Chairman Ho Chung-ping’s (Chow Yun-fat) love affair with scheming Winnie Cheung (Sylvia Chang), while his wife is in a deep coma. Then we have David Wong (Eason Chan), who lets his greed for money take over his life and who somehow manages to schmooze his unhappy coworker, Sophie (Tang Wei). And just starting out at Jones & Sunn are Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) and Kat (Lang Yue-ting), who are initially innocently enthusiastic about the cooperate world… until they see the furtive power plays and manipulation between their coworkers, exposed layer by layer as the plot unfolds, bringing to light themes of betrayal, greed and 20th century capitalism—themes that contributed much to Office’s success at the box office by setting it apart from other Hong Kong films of its genre.
While other local musical-films tend to focus on story lines concerning spy agents and prisoners, To’s examination of office politics is much more relatable. Throughout the film, I found myself nodding at the all-too-familiar scenes and was left wondering: is this the path I’m also headed down?
Because Office was originally a stage play, its musical roots stems from a theatrical arts style. Elements of a traditional play are also directly incorporated into the film. Heavy sentiments are expressed through lyrics, offering insight into the characters’ minds and true emotions. Much of the spoken exchanges between the office workers are lies that are directly contrasted by the lyrics in the songs they sing. For example, in a melodic soliloquy, Kat sings about her true identity after lying to Lee Xiang about her family. “Do you believe I like myself only if I’m unlike myself?” she croons.
The biggest distinction between Office and other films of its type is the masterful use of setting, fashioned by production designer William Chang. The surrealist, exaggerated presentation is something that is typically only seen in a stage play, but Chang has modified it so that it’s not only well adapted to the big screen, but also so that it advances the plot. Office deservedly won Best Art Direction at the 35th Hong Kong Film Awards. But, ultimately, it’s the relatability of the subject matter that has made Office such a hit both locally and internationally.
Straddling, 2011 Li Yonggeng Shoes, bamboo Dimensions variable
Straddling by Chinese artist Li Yonggeng certainly does catch one’s eye in Galerie du Monde’s current exhibition, A Path to Life. Aiming to showcase both Li’s public and private life, the exhibition is split into two series: “Sew” and “Do”, the latter of which Straddling is part of.
At first glance, the installation is minimal. Seven sets of the artist’s old shoes are separated at a distance by a long bamboo stick on ground and wall levels. The shoes, a mixture of trainers and slip-ons, have clearly been well-worn. As such, their colours have been dulled and muted, nearly fading into monochrome. Right from the get-go, a mood of sadness is set, but aesthetically, the overall look is definitely visually pleasing.
While there is unity in colour in the materials, there is contrast in form between shoe and bamboo. A thin stick balances the first shoe of each pair with the second—the entire art piece emits a sense of nervous tension. In daily use, shoes come in pairs, yet the bamboo separates the two halves at a longer distance than makes the viewer comfortable, requiring the additional support of the wall. Sometimes, it is the absence of something particular that emphasises a certain point. In this case, the absence of a permanent setting medium, like superglue to join the objects, lays additional stress to the discomfort of the viewer. There is an incompleteness about the whole installation. It reflects the fragility and temporality of life.
Li was born, grew up in and currently lives and works in China. His works use objects encountered in his everyday life that contain certain histories. These objects are not altered in any way—rather, they are combined and presented with a new visual perception that evokes emotion in the viewer. The artist cleverly draws on their attributes and keeps them as raw as possible. By including his own personal objects, he builds a connection between his private life and his practice. For example, his bamboo sticks are the same as those he uses in his yard to grow plants. Bamboo is also oftentimes a symbol of China, thus the inclusion of this particular material in the installation points to Li’s heritage and childhood.
Yet Straddling’s dimensions are varied with reason—it is not a permanent, site-specific exhibition. Combined with using such an ordinary everyday item as a shoe, which is universally recognised, is the significance of a work of art that can be set up wherever there is a wall. This speaks of a common topic that is present everywhere in the world. It is universally relatable and everyone can walk away taking something from it.
As humans, we are not immortal. At any time, things could go wrong—whether it is a small incident like losing a wallet or a fatal accident like contracting a life-threatening disease. It may not happen but eventually, something will give way—someone knocks down the bamboo sticks, the wall collapses, or the materials simply erode with time. This art work points at another universal truth: nothing is permanent.
What exactly is an “ultra-marathon trail runner?” Marathons are 42km in distance and ultra-marathons are anything beyond that. I’ve run many 50km, 100km and 150km races. My biggest achievement to date was a 250km, self-supported ultra-marathon, meaning you carry all your stuff with you. It went on for five days across the Atacama Desert, where temperatures went as high as 40 degrees in the day and as low as zero degrees at night.
How did you get into marathon running? I used to drink and smoke a lot. I was addicted to caffeine and I basically replaced water with Red Bull. When I was about to turn 25, I decided to make the second quarter of my life healthier—so I changed. I decided to challenge myself. I signed up for two marathons and without training, I ran them both. It felt good to achieve something new. So I went on Google and searched for the hottest running race in the world, and that’s when I signed up for the 250km ultra-marathon.
Why do it in Hong Kong? Trail running is booming in Hong Kong. You can run a hundred races a year, probably even more. It’s the place you want to be if you’re a trail runner. The Hong Kong Trail is my favorite: It’s quite runnable and it’s covered, which is very nice in summer. I train twice a day, seven days a week, and join races weekly. I’m determined not to get sucked into the nine-to-six lifestyle. My goal isn’t to get rich. Here, I can coach in the morning and be on the trail in an hour. That doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. Back in Australia, I had to drive to get to a trail. Here I live in Sheung Wan, and after hitting the trail 2km away from town, I don’t see anyone for hours.
Do you bring music along on your runs? When I’m on the trail, surrounded by nature, I don’t listen to music. I don’t need it. I don’t think about anything. I concentrate on my breathing. I run a lot of 100km races by myself and it allows me to zone out and meditate.
How do you get enough protein as a vegan athlete? Protein is overrated. There is protein in everything. Look at gorillas and rhinos—they’re vegetarian, but they’re pretty strong. I get my protein from beans, greens and chia seeds. I’m still running seven days a week, training four to five hours a day, racing every week, so something’s working. I used to be a huge meat eater. My friends and I were constantly on the search for proteins to bulk up. I would eat 1kg steaks in a sitting, but it didn’t feel good. When I was preparing for the ultra-marathon, I researched for ways to quick muscle recovery and saw that many people suggested going on a plant-based diet. I didn’t have anything to lose, so I had a huge steak on Christmas Eve and became vegan overnight.
Ever get tempted to stray? Going vegan was easy because I saw amazing results. I was sleeping better, recovering quicker, running faster. With the amount of training I do, I eat 5,000 to 6,000 calories every day, which means every day can be cheat day. There’s a lot of unhealthy vegan stuff, like vegan ice cream and deep fried stuff, but I try to eat healthy—although usually after a race, I don’t mind the quality of the food I’m putting into my body. It’s just easier to get energy by indulging in calorie-dense food like tortilla chips and dark chocolate.
What health advice would you give urban dwellers? Whether or not you’re an athlete, get enough sleep. I sleep eight to nine hours every night. How well you perform during the day, how sharp and productive you are, shows the amount of rest you’ve invested in your body. People I coach have demanding jobs, but they still have their running goals. It’s easy not to get enough sleep, but when you push your body while not feeling your best, injuries happen.
What’s the most annoying misconception about vegans? People think vegans are weird, hippie-looking people. I’m just a normal person.