Central Market (1:24)
Comics Stall (1:10)
China Café (1:18)
The Old Sweeper (1:12)
“Emperor of Kowloon” Tsang Tsou Choi (1:12)
Newspaper Stand (1:12)
Tim’s Toy Shop (1:12)
Pinwheels stall of Wong Tai Shin Temple (1:12)
Lan Kwai Fong (1:24)
Sung Fook Lan Lantern Shop (1/12)
Tai O Heritage Hotel (1:35)
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Miniatures that evoke honest, truthful, and authentic emotions

An Art Journey into the Past and Present Urban Reinvention, Advance Beyond 25, on show at Central Market, sponsored by the Urban Renewal Authority and Chinachem Group, is an assembly of 100 miniature urban landscape models. Each model conveys a three-dimensional snapshot of a recognisable time and place in Hong Kong.

Some of the most iconic images are in the Central Market stairwell model by Ian Choi and Tim Ho. The two artists gave homage to Hong Kong photographer Ho Fan by recreating some of his ‘50s and ‘60s black and white images of urban life. Fan Ho’s genius was to frame his subjects with surrounding features, most frequently shadows and light, in a way that found honest human dignity in what otherwise might be considered a common, crowded, and ordinary environment.

The same artists also created Comics Stall. In this model, the scene is from two separate images of children enjoying comic books. The dichotomy of such an austere, even harsh environment juxtaposed with the obvious joy in the expressions of the children is what makes this scene so captivating. Details, like the tiny painted comic books and the bricks showing through the plaster are fascinating, but it is the lifelike facial features and gestures of the children that make this model a favourite with the crowds. The modellers were able to get this level of detail by using 3D modelling software with a 3D printer, although the colours were hand-painted, probably with the help of a large magnifying glass.

Motion picture directors loved the vintage China Café as a movie set location. This inexpensive two-storey cha chann teng on Canton Road in Mong Kok operated from 1963 until the end of 2019. The retro décor had made it a popular location for local films like PTU: Police Tactical Unit (2003). The miniature captures all the details including the high-back wooden benches, the green and white tiled floors and the faded stickers and posters. Bruce Lee is one of the patrons and, like the café itself, this model is a salient reminder of Hong Kong’s past.

Movie stars are not the only subjects for the model makers. Some nostalgic pieces, such as The Old Sweeper is a reminder of the poignant sacrifice made to maintain clean streets. The aged man with the arched back cleaning up the rubbish was a scene most people tried to avoid seeing. There is no glamour in this model, but it is a truthful representation of life for some in the 1970s.

Likewise, there is no glamour in “Emperor of Kowloon” Tsang Tsou Choi. With this model, the artist captures an eccentric Hong Kong character in action. For many years the protagonist, Tsang Tsou Choi, tried to stake his family’s claim of royalty over Kowloon with graffiti on electric boxes, lamp posts, walls and bridge piers. Usually, the property owners cleaned them up, but the prolific artist persisted. Decades of effort and his consistent style inspired other graffiti artists and earned him the nickname King of Kowloon. Now his artwork is in the M+ Museum, Hong Kong Museum of Modern Art, sold at Art Basel and auctioned at Christie’s.

Newspaper Stand depicts a formerly common street scene, but without the fairytale ending. This model captures the quiet dignity and hard work of a hawker who daily unpacks and neatly organises his merchandise in a low-rent but chaotic location. Print used to be the only source of news and entertainment, so hawkers like this provided a convenient and vital service. But mobile technology, branded convenience stores, and public ordinances are putting an end to this type of business.

Tim’s Toy Shop is special. It is a model of a 1970s Kowloon Walled City shop with over 200 miniature toys. What makes this model special is the respectful young girl admiring the toys under the watchful eye of the shopkeeper. The girl’s face conveys wonder while the shopkeeper’s face conveys the wariness of age, each expression understandable by the viewer.

Pinwheels stall of Wong Tai Shin Temple similarly illustrates the hope of youth. In this miniature, the details of the street, wall and pinwheels are 100 per cent realistic, but it is the characters’ expressions that capture the moment. The little girl’s enchantment with the pinwheels is perfected by the shopkeeper’s and father’s desires to perpetuate the girl’s excitement. The model is a reminder that joy can be contagious.

Lan Kwai Fong carries on the search for joy theme with a character-filled model of an over-the-top Hollywood Halloween party complete with intricate movie costumes, paparazzi, a face-masked bartender and Allan Zeman. Like other miniatures in this collection, it shows people striving to have fun, but it does not hide some of the ugliness, like discarded beer cans, or people being drunk. It is an authentic representation of a nightspot that has been a traditional part of Hong Kong since the 1980s.

These miniatures evoke honest, truthful, authentic emotions that form part of the collective memory of the people of Hong Kong. For hundreds of years, Hong Kong has been in a constant state of change, from Chinese to British rule and back again. Buildings, incomes, and lifestyles have changed, and some of these transitions have been bittersweet. Combined, they have contributed to what Hong Kong is today. This exhibition helps us to remember that, and for this reason is worth seeing.

Text Martin Wray / Photos Cammy Yiu & Martin Wray