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Mental Illnesses: What Do You Do When the Medication Ends?

Dr. Samson Tse works on recovery methods for mental illness patients in Hong Kong.

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.”

Image source: HKU Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning – CETL

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Social Fabric, Mill6 Foundation’s Spring 2016 Exhibition

Social Fabric is Mill6's Spring 2016 exhibition at The Annex.

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.

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Choi Sai-Ho, the Laptop Musician Syncing up Hong Kong

Choi Sai-ho plays electronic music in Hong Kong.

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!”

Image source: Choi Sai Ho 蔡世豪

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Opening an Art Gallery in Hong Kong — Feasible or Not?

Art Basel Hong Kong 2015

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?

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Film Review: Office 華麗上班族 (2015)

Hong Kong film poster for Office 華麗上班族 (2015)

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.

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Straddling by Li Yonggeng

Straddling by Li Yonggeng

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.

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Hong Kong’s Vegan Athletes

A raw vegan lunch option — raw sushi

“May I ask if there is cheese in the salad? Can we have that on the side, and I would like the dressing to be served on the side too, please.”

The waiter shuffled away as Angie Li took a sip of water.

“Always good to make sure,” she smiled.

Compassion for animals, preserving the environment, allergies to animal-based protein — there are many reasons for a person to completely cut off all animal meat and products from their diet. In a city like Hong Kong where having meat dishes is historically celebrated as a luxury, it is uncommon to find someone who would not take a second look at a big, juicy slab of steak. Combined with the traditional views of Hong Kong people, accepting this change of lifestyle built over decades is difficult.

Li shook off her tan winter coat as she settled into her seat to reveal a sleek runner’s suit underneath. A pair of grey trainers completed her hidden sporty attire. She looked like a typical office worker in Hong Kong who was prepared to go for a run after work. There was nothing really outstanding about her appearance that was a telltale sign that her diet was any different than one would expect. But indeed, she lives very differently from the majority of the population in the city: she is vegan, and she is a passionate marathon runner.

“I became vegetarian three years ago, then one year later I became vegan,” she said. “There wasn’t really a reason. I remember just waking up one day and thinking, “It’s not like I’ll die if I don’t eat meat for the rest of my life.” Then I just did it.”

Li isn’t the only one living this lifestyle in Hong Kong. Though still a minority, the plant-based community in the city has seen a big growth over the last several years. In 2014, Ipsos Hong Kong published a survey that 23 percent of the population had taken to going meatless once a week after the social startup group Green Monday implemented a campaign to push Hong Kong people to eat like a vegetarian every Monday. Vegetarian and vegan eateries, salad places and raw juicing stores have been popping up citywide in the past few years. Scroll through Instagram and one will find the new generation sharing mouth-watering photos of plant-based food. The general frame of mind in Hong Kong is definitely changing.

“A well-planned vegetarian diet can be nutritionally adequate, so as long as the diet is in line with healthy eating guidelines,” explained Dr. Susan Chung, a registered dietician and registered Chinese medicine practitioner. “In fact, it is generally lower in total fat and cholesterol and higher in fiber, folate, potassium and antioxidants, which are protective against heart disease, hypertension and cancer.”

Carmela Lee, another registered dietician, agreed.

“The major nutrient provided by meat is complete protein, which is the type of protein containing all essential amino acids,” she said. “Certain types of plant food such as nuts and beans provide protein, and can be used to substitute meat. It’s simply that plant protein is usually incomplete and less bioavailable compared with animal protein.”

Veganism is possible — that has long been proved. But the real question that most are concerned with is: can you mesh the plant-based diet with intense sports?

Li’s family and friends were unsupportive of her change. None of the people around her were vegetarian or vegan. She said her mother was shocked and spent nights shouting and crying. Her father and brother tried not to add fuel to the fire and hid their opinions, but Li later found out that her father used to cry secretly at night. Her home had become living hell.

“My mum actually thought I had been taken over by a ghost — like literally. But I couldn’t reassure her; I couldn’t even explain the reasons for change to myself. Looking back, I know it must’ve been crazy for her. Veganism isn’t popular in Hong Kong, and all she could say to me was, ‘how can anyone live like this?’ And I just told her not to worry because I wouldn’t die.”

Li took a sip of her water.

“She was the reason why I began running, actually,” she said. “I wanted to prove my mum wrong. I wanted to show her that this lifestyle is possible.”

Li said she began by jogging outside her block and found out that she loved running. It allowed her to clear her head, and it was a new challenge. The distances she ran grew longer and longer, and through all this, she was following a vegan diet. Eventually, she joined her first 10-kilometre race, a half marathon race, a then full marathon. Now, she travels all around the world to take part in marathons.

“In September, I’ll be competing in Germany.”

Seeing her transformation, Li’s family has long stopped worrying about her. She had shown them that it was possible to not consume any meat. If anything else, she had influenced them positively — now the family eats more plant-based food and adds fewer unhealthy condiments to their cooking.

It’s all fair and well following a vegan diet at home, but Hong Kong still lags behind other Asian cities like Singapore or Bangkok in the vegan dining scene. With so many social gatherings involving food, does adopting this lifestyle mean being limited when it comes to eating out and maintaining a healthy social life? Although Li prefers to cook at home, she is positive about the situation in Hong Kong.

“The vegan dining scene is thriving here, actually,” she commented. “More and more restaurants either have vegan options or are willing to make changes to cater for vegans’ needs. Mana Fast Slow Food is one of the top-rated cafés, and it’s completely vegan. If you want Indian food, there are plenty of Indian vegetarian places. The other day, I told the chef to prepare my sushi with just avocado. There are always options.”

Like Li, Vlad Ixel adheres to a completely vegan diet, and his running achievements outshines most. He would not have moved to Hong Kong from Australia if he had thought the city’s vegan dining scene had no potential to support his demanding lifestyle. Ixel, as it turns out, is an ultra-marathon trail runner.

“Marathons are 42 km in distance and ultra-marathons are anything beyond that,” he explained. “I’ve run many 50 km, 100 km, 150 km races. My biggest achievement to date was a 250 km self-supported ultra-marathon — self-supported means that you carry all your stuff with you — which went on for five days, across a desert, where temperatures went as high as 40 degrees in the day and as low as 0 degrees at night.”

When he was younger, Ixel ate carnivorously. His parents own a restaurant in Perth, Australia, where his father is one of the top chefs in the city and country.

“I ate a lot of good food. I was a huge meat eater. I was at that age where everyone worked out at the gym, tried to bulk up to look better, and obviously, we’d constantly search for proteins. I would eat 1 kilogram steaks in a sitting because it was what everyone did.”

But Ixel didn’t feel well. While he looked strong on the outside, he did not have the correct nutrition for his body. On top of that, he was smoking cigarettes, too.

“I needed a change. I wanted to challenge myself, so I signed up for two marathons and without training, I ran them both,” he said. “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 250-kilometre ultra-marathon.”

Ixel knew he had to prepare for the ultra-marathon, and while training, he researched for ways of quick recovery. He found that many advocated going on a plant-based diet. There was no loss for him to try, so after a huge steak on Christmas Eve three years ago, he quit meat cold turkey and became vegan overnight.

“My parents didn’t think that the change would be permanent,” he laughed. “They thought I was playing around: ‘Oh, it’s just a one-week thing for a teenage boy,’ but that Christmas was the last time I consumed any meat- or animal-derived food.”

The sudden change wasn’t hard for the runner at all. He had made up his mind, convinced himself that it was better, and he barely experienced any cravings for meat. Eventually he packed up his bags, moved to Hong Kong, and now resides in Sheung Wan, where he can hit the mountain trails conveniently. As a full-time runner who does coaching on the side, he trains two times a day, seven days a week, and joins races weekly.

What’s more, the changes both Ixel and Li felt after turning to a vegan lifestyle were than simply physical. Both Ixel and Li said they felt better emotionally and mentally too. They both also said they experienced lifts in their moods, clearer minds and had more energy.

“I just feel stronger and healthier now,” said Ixel. “I take regular blood tests, and I don’t need to tell the doctors about my diet. They never question me because I’m always completely good to go.”

Unlike many athletes, Ixel and Li do not take protein powders to enhance their training. In fact, Ixel noticed that his performance improved after cutting out the supplements.

“Before I changed my lifestyle, I used to drink multiple protein shakes a day. The thing is, I smelled when I exercised back then. It’s not the natural stink of sweat, but the ingredients of the drink inside you. When I went vegan, I cut out protein supplements altogether, and I found that I no longer had that smell. It really tells you how unhealthy they are.”

Ixel shows that a completely plant-based diet is even sufficient for running ultra-marathons if one really puts work into it — a feat that even the majority of omnivores can’t do. In fact, there are many great vegan athletes in history who have done incredible things. Carl Lewis, for example, is an American vegan Olympic sprinter whose outstanding career includes nine gold medals and one silver Olympic medal in 100 and 200 metres sprints, relays and long jumps. Murray Rose, a vegan Olympic swimmer, set 15 world records and won six Olympic medals, four of which were gold. They all illustrate that living a lifestyle shunned by so many is nonsense when it can even lead to amazing achievements.

But for the doubters who may argue that foreigners are of a different build than a Hong Kong person, then Li exemplifies that someone who was born and raised in Hong Kong, with the typical genes of a Chinese girl, can be vegan and an athlete simultaneously too.

“When it comes down to it, tiredness, bad weather, external factors out of our control — they’re only excuses,” said Ixel. “I went from a huge carnivore to vegan in one day. I quit smoking cold turkey right before I turned 25 because I wanted the second quarter of my life to be healthier. It’s all about the strength and will in our minds. We are stronger than we think we are.”

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Profile: Sim Chan

Local Hong Kong artist Sim Chan

Inside the swanky bar of Hotel Sav, surrounded by businessmen in suits and women in cocktail dresses, Sim Chan looked oddly out of place. He had on a plain black hoodie, zipped all the way up to the neck as if protecting himself from the swimming pink lights, a pair of worn-out jeans and yellowing sneakers. His black backpack, splattered with blue paint, drooped beside his casual choice of footwear.

He didn’t seem to be the kind of confident artist who could pull off having a whole room in a high-class hotel to exhibit his work. But he certainly did look like someone who painted for a living. Most distinctively telling was his hair; long and pulled back into a ponytail, with a black headband camouflaged on his head to keep the baby hairs in place. Yet despite the efforts to tame his hair, it wasn’t sleek; uncontrolled wisps still stuck out from every angle, with a few white strands to complete the look. Oblivious to the fact that his hair was misbehaving in the humid Hong Kong weather, Chan pushed his thick black-framed glasses back up the bridge of his nose and managed a nervous smile.

“I don’t really know what to say,” his voice was a quiet mumble.

Chan was unable to make eye contact as he sat down and rubbed his hands together nervously. With his current status in the art world, one would expect full-blown confidence, perhaps even a little arrogance. Yet Chan carried none of the self-assurance many well-established artists had nowadays. In fact, he appeared to be the polar opposite of confident.

“This is a nice place.” He seemed unable to take the silence.

Chan had been specially selected by Hotel Sav in a rare collaboration between a corporation and the local art scene, where 22 artists of various genres were brought together to create works inspired by the theme of ‘love’ in rooms on the hotel’s 22nd floor, known as the Floor of Love. However, not all of the artists had a full room they could dedicate themselves to as only 19 rooms were used for the project. Those without their own room either shared or displayed singular pieces along the corridor. Local artist Chan, though, was one of the luckier ones to receive a whole space to work creatively.

In Room 2222, which he had full charge of, spanned TwinklingCity, an oil painting that reached to the very edges of the white walls. Depicted was the clustered city scene of Hong Kong with a clear blue sky that took up two-thirds of the upper half of the painting. A physical kite in the shape of a heart extended out from the sky to hang in mid-air above the bed. The only written explanation was printed on a small white sign next to the light switch by the door: the words “subtheme: love the planet”.

Perhaps the honour of giving him a full exhibition space to be seen by tourists from all over the world was due to his impressive achievements. The artist had a prominent impact on Hong Kong’s art scene with many public shows, exhibitions and awards, including being one of Perspective magazine’s “40 Under 40” creative talent. Having previously exhibited in many different social scenes ranging from classy art galleries to primary schools, one would expect Chan to be fluent with promoting himself and his works by now.

Yet as the interview went on, it was apparent that Chan was a different person from his professional titles. As a young artist struggling to make ends meet on a day-to-day basis, he required a little more pushing than expected as he recounted the concept behind the room he designed in Hotel Sav and his passion for the arts that has kept him creating for eight years.

“I love architecture and the city,” he began. “Yet I dislike how we live as though we are bound by rules in Hong Kong — but I have learned to accept the city for what it is by looking at it through a different emotional standpoint.”

Although TwinklingCity was not focused on a typical subject that one would relate ‘nature’ to, Chan explained that ‘nature’ did not simply have to be limited to trees and mountains. To him, Hong Kong’s natural environment was exactly what was painted along the bottom of his painting — labyrinths of high-rises. The artist constantly found beauty in the rushed urban pace of the city, something he was surprised to meet at first when he graduated from secondary school having grown up in the suburbs of pre-development Ma On Shan.

“It’s not been easy as an artist here,” he said. “I’ve loved art since I was young, but I don’t have much confidence in myself. Creating art as a full-time job scares me and I’m always living in fear — when will I finally break and fail?”

Growing up poor, he’d never had the financial support of his parents. When asked why he decided to be an artist, he admitted that he’d never been strong academically and worked part-time in a 7Eleven after high school. He’d always had an interest in studying art, but never thought he had the ability to pursue it seriously. He said he would still be moving boxes for a living 10 years on if his art teacher had not noticed his talent and pushed him to apply for art school. And throughout his life, it seemed like he needed a lot of pushing.

“He’s a very shy person and he can’t express himself well verbally, so I have to do the talking for him sometimes,” Gabriel Cheung, his best friend, said. “But I don’t mind helping him with that. In return, he’s a great brother. He’s a classic handyman, and he repairs whatever’s broken in my house, helps around with little renovations and he even did the spray-paint job for my car.”

It took a painfully long time for Chan to warm up to talking. Yet, as suspected, it was not the worst of it — at least the interview was not being conducted on-air on television. It was soon revealed that that situation had indeed happened before. While still at art school, Chan had been invited for a live interview with TVB. Although he had his friends supporting him from the sidelines, the whole session turned out to be a disaster. Listening to the story, one could imagine it unfolding in a painfully excruciating way. The TV host started off normally but became more and more desperate as each of her guiding questions were met with a moment of silence, followed by two single vowels of mumbled Cantonese. Cheung laughed as he described the unravelling drama from backstage.

“I could smell the awkwardness and desperation from both sides. The TV host kept glancing at her crew for support and Sim kept giving us pleading looks as if to say, ‘“please save me”!’ If it wasn’t live, I don’t think the recording would’ve ever seen the light of day.”

The root of Chan’s lack of courage was intriguing. When probed further, the artist shrugged as if he had accepted it a long time ago. In fact, he unexpectedly showed the first slither of pride when he admitted that he actually embraced his personality.

“I’ve been like this as far as I can remember. It’s just me. In some ways I’m actually grateful because my shyness has allowed me to become an artist. The visual is my only voice. If I wasn’t shy, my art may be completely different. They may not speak as loud as they do now.”

Additionally to a lack of confidence in himself, Chan found it difficult to earn money. He’d expected this when he first set out on this career path, but reality was harsh beyond words. Yet despite the daily heart attacks of not being able to pay the rent for his studio or sell any art pieces, he ploughed on, as art was his only voice in a world where everything and everyone intimidated him vocally.

“My money earned from selling a piece of work is all used to pay the rent for my studio in Fo Tan, which I need to continue creating. There was one year where I would just eat one piece of bread a day because I could not afford food.”

Against all odds — the daily emotional distress, physical living difficulties, the list goes on — Chan has had the drive to carry on for eight years now. When asked why he did not take on side jobs like teaching drawing classes, he was stubborn in his reply. Just a physical millimetre off his art pieces was never acceptable, and it seemed that his plans for the future followed this rule too. After a few initial responses of incomprehensible uttered vowels, Chan finally replied that he did not want to put his focus on other projects. He just wanted to paint.

“This passion — it will burn out otherwise. I’ve seen it happen with many artists,” he said.

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Chiu Kee Porcelain, a Hidden Gem That Will Remain Hidden

Chiu Kee Porcelain in Peng Chau, Hong Kong

A visit to the outlying islands of Hong Kong, you say? What about Lamma Island, if you’re into eating? They offer scrumptious seafood along the coast. No? What about Lantau Island then, if you’re into hiking and great views? Oh, you’d rather rest? Well then… how about Cheung Chau, the tourist hotspot where you can basically do everything. There must be something for you there, biking, beaches, food, souvenirs – you name it!

Wait, what’s that? You want to visit Peng Chau? That’s a first… what’s there to do in Peng Chau anyway?

Easily accessible from Central Pier No. 6 but not often visited by people other than its inhabitants, Peng Chau Island was once an industrial powerhouse in the 1970s and 80s. It was home to many factories, making furniture, leather, light bulb, needle, ships and other types of handicrafts. In fact, in the 70s, one could even find the largest factory in Southeast Asia for making matches there.

However, the industrial side of Peng Chau is now just a shadow of its past. Unlike its neighbours today, the island does not focus on catering to tourists and instead just silently houses its inhabitants. Without good reason, a typical outsider would not travel there. But there is potential – a little workshop that many people do not know about called Chiu Kee Porcelain, a hidden gem that is simply a 30-minute ferry ride away.

Mrs. Nam Kiu, an elderly woman, was just opening up the gates of Chiu Kee Porcelain as I arrived outside her tiny store on a late Thursday afternoon. She greeted me cheerily as she invited me into her late husband’s oasis of porcelain pottery, telling me about the visit to her family in Cheung Chau recently. It was not my first time there – I had discovered Chiu Kee’s existence two months ago when I randomly stumbled across it one day during summer, and this time, I was back to collect my own hand-painted porcelain plate.

With only a Facebook page fully in Chinese as its presence on social media, Chiu Kee is a virtually unknown former ceramics factory. The page has only 400 likes and the last time it was updated in 2013.

In the 80s, it was a well-powered factory with 30 craftsmen including the Mr. Nam Chiu, who used his porcelain painting skills to feed his family. However, the influx of mass-produced mainland goods that came with time deeply affected the business, and in order to continue supporting his family, Mr. Nam had to take on other jobs. He had no choice but to downsize his workforce when circumstances became so bad that even being a night guard paid more.

In his absence, Mrs. Nam took over the daily running of the store and the painting of porcelain. Chiu Kee is one of the last original workshops in Peng Chau still running today and the last remaining family-owned pottery business in Hong Kong.

While I waited for the next ferry back to Hong Kong Island, Mrs. Nam arranged her ceramics. I watched as she carefully stuck her hand-written price tags onto several condiment palettes. After a bit, she moved on to organising a stack of hand-painted porcelain plates.

“These just came out of the stove,” Mrs. Nam said, gesturing to a small room behind the store. “They were painted by customers this week.”

She went on to explain that in the present day, producing porcelain cannot generate an income with the rising rent and expensive raw materials. A few years ago, in order to earn more money, Mr. and Mrs. Nam began to organise workshops for interested parties to experience painting their own porcelain plates, bowls or cups to bring home. These workshops have proved to be a success with younger customers and also spread the disappearing art of crafting porcelain to the next generation.

“Oh dear, these batch of plates were from August – of last year!” Mrs. Nam suddenly exclaimed while sorting out the plates. “And these – from 2011!”

She shuffled the colourful porcelain cutlery around, sighing.

“Some people say they’ll come and collect their pieces tomorrow, or next week, or next month… but they never come. I never throw my customers’ works away, but they give me a headache in terms of storage!”

Most of Chiu Kee’s visitors are young adults who have heard of the workshop through word of mouth. The only promotion that Mrs. Nam had somewhat intentionally done of her store was a 3-month course she had set up with a collaborator called Mr. Lee, as I later found out when a pair of customers came in.

“I heard about you through Mr. Lee from PMQ,” the pair said. “He told us that we could paint here?”

“Yes – Mr. Lee! Oh, but maybe not today, as it’s quite late already. Come back another day – just call me beforehand because I don’t open daily. You can book a session too, just gather at least two customers and I’ll open for you.”

After the couple’s departure, I curiously asked whether Mrs. Nam did anything to advertise the business, as it seemed that customers only heard about the store’s existence from their friends. The elderly woman shook her head in response.

“I don’t go out of my way to find the media. It’s not that I don’t welcome the journalists, or that I don’t enjoy better business, there’s simply no need. The media can come to me, I don’t mind, but I’m also happy living my life like this – I can open my store when I feel like it and have a vacation when I need a rest. It’s suitable for someone my age. Don’t worry though – there is enough money to manage for now!”

When asked if she would ever move on to something else, Mrs. Nam smiled.

“I first started painting to make a living and intense passion has faded with time, but other than this, what else can I do now? I’m old and no one will hire me… it is much more enjoyable than washing the dishes for McDonald’s, that’s for sure!”

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Oi! What’s This All About?

Oi! Oil Street Art Space in North Point, Hong Kong

On a weekday morning, hurried businessmen and women scowl at their neighbours’ fowl morning breaths as they make a race out of the Fortress Hill MTR Station. They climb upwards to ground level, some preferring to hike up the steps instead of fighting for the escalators to save time, and at the entrance of their designated exits, the typical Hong Kong city setting meets them: rows and rows of endless commercial buildings. But no one bats an eye at the strange, almost-clockwork scene, and individuals scatter off in different directions. Most faces are either expressionless or screwed up into a frown.

Meanwhile, amidst the crowd-fighting workers, the gates of Oil Street Art Space rise as the preserved Grade 2 Historic Building wakes up to the public. The first batch of users are the elderly, who greet the guard cheerily as they enter the development and make use of the 300 square metre open green lawn for their daily morning tai chi. Slowly, the art galleries too open as casual passersby peek in to take a look at the strange red-brick building that sits so unmatched within the collage of urban high-rises.

Oil Street Art Space has had a long controversial history before finally settling down as it is today. Wong, 80, was one of the elders taking a morning stroll inside the development on a Tuesday morning.

“Yes, yes, I remember all the controversy – the artists and the post-nineties and their fight to keep Oil Street against the government,” he said.

Located at 12 Oil Street in the North Point neighbourhood, Oi! was named so because ‘12’ is a homonym for ‘realise’ in Cantonese, a word that echoes the aspirations of many to bring art to the public and community. Formerly the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club built in 1908, it is the only building situated along the original coastline to survive North Point’s land reclamation in the 1930s. After the moving out of the Yacht Club’s headquarters in 1938, the empty buildings were utitlised as the Hong Kong Government Supplies Department’s staff residence and warehouse until 1998 when it was officially written down for demolition.

That was when the change began.

“From 1999 to 2000, the government leased out empty rooms of the abandoned warehouse to artists for a small sum,” said Loretter Leung, a spokesperson of Oil Street Art Space. “That’s how Oi! came to be in the beginning… it marked the beginning of the whole idea.”

The cheap rental fee at just HKD$2.50 per square foot attracted an influx of artists, architects and designers. In less than a year, 12 Oil Street had become a thriving creative community to no one’s expectation. But despite the protests at the end of 1999 to keep things as they were, the government successfully emptied out the space of all creative activity, keeping its word of only leasing it out for one year. The artists were instead moved to Cattle Depot Artist Village, another revitalised declared monument.

“From 2001 to 2006,” Leung recounted the timeline of Oi!, “the space was used again for storage until Oil Street really had to be sold. A property developer had planned to build a hotel with the land – but then, as if suddenly, the government decided not to sell the land anymore.”

After suffering through the government’s ever-changing whims, the fate of Oi! finally settled down from its long journey in 2009 when it was declared a Grade 2 Historic Building. Four years later in May 2013, maintenance work was completed and the art space officially opened up to the public.

“Oi! is popular with passersby because it is free of charge to anyone without the hassle of upscale art galleries that require a formal dress code,” said Leung. “It has changed the way that people regard what art is – art has now opened up to all working classes, instead of just being reserved for the rich and wealthy as previously perceived.”

Providing a rare green retreat in the densely urban North Point, the frequent visitors of Oil Street Art Space are a collage of vastly different people: the elderly, who use the outdoor area for their morning exercise; the businessmen, who stop by at lunch hours to enjoy their takeaway boxes; the young artists, who come to search for inspiration at the art exhibitions; and the random passersby, who just happen to walk by but curiosity has drawn them in.

“But its strange,” commented Lee, 62, who happened to be one of the visitors who had joined Leung’s tour of the historical building on a Saturday afternoon. “I remember it used to be bigger. Maybe it’s the changing season but there seems to be less green space.”

“Actually, you’re correct,” said Leung.

She continued on to explain that as a part of the construction work of the development happening next door to Oi!, a rather large chunk of the green lawn had indeed been borrowed by the new neighbours for construction use.

“But don’t worry,” reassured Leung to the worried faces of the crowd of her tour. “It’ll be returned in a few years.”

Still, the hushed murmurs did not seem to silence.

The empty lot next to Oil Street Art Space had been idle as an abandoned carpark before it was picked up by Cheung Kong Holdings for the erection of four apartments and two hotels. The construction hoardings that currently surround the site exemplifies its title ‘Harbourside Luxury Living’ well with its mounted text and fake flower-wall. With only two years to go until its scheduled completion in 2017, the construction was well under way, polluting Oi! with a mixture of dust and noise.

Working on the residential and hotel project next door to Oil Street Art Space is the landscape architecture firm Earth Asia Design Group. An employee of the firm, who requested to remain anonymous, confirmed that the developer had “borrowed some land for site reformation”.

Although Oi! has fought a rough battle to successfully receive a permanent license to remain put as a public art outlet, the luxury residential and hotel project next door poses another series of unsettling questions. While the borrowed land will be returned in due time, the new neighbour’s completion will bring along a set of implications that cannot now be confirmed without concrete information.

One example would be the design of the new lot – would there be a fence or a wall surrounding it? Without one, the new development could appear like it was connected to Oil Street Art Space – and if so, would passersby misinterpret the public green lawn as a part of the private garden next door? How would this affect the flow of people who currently feel comfortable wandering into 12 Oil Street? If Leung was correct and the most successful element of Oi! is that it is a freely accessible public area, would people who were once comfortable strolling in for their morning tai chi feel repelled by the towering ‘Harbourside Luxury Living’ complexes that had suddenly erected next door?

“I just hope that whatever’s building next door won’t change Oi! too much,” said Leung. “It would be such a shame if the artists and youth fought so long and hard for an art outlet that only lasted four years because ultimately, it became overshadowed by a new development next door.”

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