Architecture of Density #8b (detail), Michael Wolf, 2005
Kowloon Walled City, south elevation, Ian Lambot, 1990
Flotsam and jetsam, Tiffany Chung, 2015-2016
Flotsam and jetsam, Tiffany Chung, 2015-2016
1979 06 10 Yau Ma Tei dockyard, Tiffany Chung, 2015-2016
everywhere kowloon king, anothermountainman (Stanley Wong), 2009
Doors, Tsang Tsou-choi (King of Kowloon), 2003
Homage to a Profile, Hon Chi-fun, 1977
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M+ Museum offers a retrospective detailing the visual development of local art

From the beginning of the twentieth century, Hong Kong’s story has been one of adaptation and survival in a regularly shifting socio-political landscape. Significant events that the city is still recovering from — British colonialism, accommodating refugees from near and far, World War II and the lead-up to the 1997 Handover, when the special administrative region was formally returned to the Chinese government — have led to fractured, disparate understandings of this transient city. The promising times post-WWII and the Asian financial boom of the eighties and nineties (before the fall) reinvigorated artistic expression and the desire to shape and define Hong Kong. Besides classic mediums of oil and ink, new technology arose and broadened the creative scope. Art could be digitised and commercialised. Skyscrapers grew, seemingly overnight, to dot the now densely packed downtown areas on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

Looking beyond its simplified identity as “a former British colony”, Hong Kong: Here and Beyond is an exhibition at M+ Museum that depicts the city’s visual culture from a modern perspective. The exhibition presents various themes to tell its story.

In the 1950s, Hong Kong led the charge in contextualising and reframing Chinese ink painting to fit into the modern world. Sitting at the helm was artist Lui Shou-kwan, who laid the ground for the New Ink movement. Highly skilled in both classical and contemporary painting, Lui’s expressive and dynamic works are deceptively simple in execution yet inspire a powerful response from the viewer.

By the 1980s, local artists began to move beyond traditional forms of art, seeking out new ways to interact with their audience. The period between the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the 1997 handover brought to the surface questions of identity, history, and culture. These became rich topics for artists both before and after the turn of the millennium.

One such artist was the self-pronounced “King of Kowloon”. Born in Guangdong in 1921, Tsang Tsou-Choi decorated the streets on Kowloon side with his distinctive calligraphic style. Writing on surfaces such as post-boxes, lampposts and doors, local government agencies considered Tsang a nuisance and frequently painted over his public work, only for the mischievous artist to return to the now blank site to reinstate his writings over and over again. Only a few survive today, including a set of double doors that greets visitors as they enter the exhibit (written over in 2003) and a map of Kowloon (written over circa 1994 to 1997).

Anyone — visitor, temporary resident or long-term local — will tell you the same thing: Hong Kong is a crowded, densely packed space. Think “sardines in a tin can”. Post-war productivity and the promising economic landscape of the eighties and nineties led to a steady boom in population. Currently, about 7.5 million people are packed in an area of 1,108 square kilometres. Apartment buildings that would seem tiny in any other city are the norm in both private and public housing here. With little land allowed for residential development, sky-high complexes are the soundest option.

Shifting the focus from sea to land, architectural designer Gary Chang addresses another concern of Hong Kong living: cramped quarters. In hyper-urban areas, square footage is precious and rarely receives the thorough consideration needed. Domestic Transformers (developed in 2006 – 2007) comprises a thirty-two square metre room with a system of movable walls, ceiling tracks and multipurpose furniture that could transform into at least twenty-four different configurations. Mainly comprised of chromium steel, Chang’s design feels at once modern and futuristic. The sterile setting had the effect of making the video projection of a typical neighbourhood (a stand-in for a window) seem much more realistic.

Hong Kong’s period of financial prosperity coincided with a rush of new technology from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. Television and film soared in the public eye. Music became a source of creativity like never before, with a new focus brought to cover art for CD cases. A golden era for Hong Kong’s entertainment industry, Cantopop (a fusion of the words “Cantonese” and “pop”) rose to global attention, nightclubs and fashion magazines sprung up, seemingly overnight, to encapsulate the wild imaginations of its patrons.

From Kowloon’s city streets to the uptown clubs of Canton Road, Hong Kong’s modern art culture was a continuous call-and-response to its changing environment. While the city is largely known as a financial hub, its artistic days are far from over. Eye-opening exhibitions such as this in the newly open M+ Museum and in other publicly funded spaces, such as Central district’s PMQ and Tai Kwun, offer the space and reverence that art, an integral part of life, should hold.

Text & Photos Victoria Mae Martyn