Beneath Hong Kong’s ultramodern surface, Vawn Himmelsbach finds a city experiencing an artful renaissance
To the first-time visitor, Hong Kong can feel overwhelming: a concrete maze of mile-high skyscrapers, thick as a forest, with dozens of cranes on the horizon. There’s a feeling of motion, of a city on a mission to modernize. But spend some time here, and you start to sense something else: a grassroots, indie spirit in its neighbourhoods. Hidden doors to trendy bars, renowned chefs in intimate, hard-to-find restaurants, crumbling historic buildings housing carefully curated art galleries, old warehouses converted into creative hubs for artists and designers.
Just a few years ago, Hong Kong was considered a cultural desert. Now it’s experiencing what some are calling a ‘creative awakening.’ There’s still, however, a tendency to rip down the old in favour of new development, but some young designers, artists and entrepreneurs are turning the “old” into something new.
“Hong Kong’s art scene has ventured beyond the conventional museum and gallery space,” says Alan Lo, co-founder of Duddell’s, a space for food, art and socializing. With independent art spaces in residential apartments, performance art in public parks and museum-quality curated exhibitions in shopping malls, Hong Kong’s new cultural context is constantly evolving and integrating art into the daily lives of the people of Hong Kong.
“Art is now closer to people than it has ever been before,” says Lo. “Duddell’s was conceptualized with this in mind, bringing art to the people in a fresh new way and offering an all-round cultural experience – a place where you can eat, drink and socialize while appreciating the art within our venue.”
Duddell’s has been designed to emanate the eclectic home of an art collector – one that also happens to have a Michelin-star Cantonese restaurant. When it first opened in 2013, though, Hong Kong’s local art community was still in the midst of development.
“With Duddell’s, we wanted to build a community around art, providing the public with a space outside of the more known commercial gallery context, to collaborate
with local and international curators in a unique way,” says Lo. “We were also looking for a space for people to convene and share ideas.”
With this in mind, Lo invited cultural leaders such as Yana Peel and William Zhao to form an art committee focused on planning a year-round art programme that would include exhibitions curated by prominent art personalities as well as a continuous series of art talks, performances, film screenings and other events by Hong Kong’s cultural innovators.
Today, Hong Kong’s art scene is booming, but Lo says this is way overdue. “With China becoming an economic superpower and [a] growing collector base in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong naturally became the epicentre of art trade in Asia,” he says. “M+ is only three years away and no doubt it’s going to be the most important institution in Asia.”
Scheduled to open in 2019, M+ will be a museum of visual culture focusing on 20th and 21st century art, design and architecture. Designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron – known for the Tate Modern museum in London and Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium – M+ is being built on reclaimed land. And, according to the West Kowloon Cultural District, the architects are “excavating a ‘found space’ for large-scale installations from around the existing Airport Express train tunnel that runs underneath.”
Despite this boom, it’s not easy for local artists and designers to make their mark in Hong Kong, or on a global scale. Rent is expensive in a city that has no space to expand outward – only upward. So they’re reclaiming urban spaces, from old tenement buildings to warehouses and industrial zones.
Artist Lee Kit and curator Chantal Wong are two of the city’s entrepreneurial forces that have created a grassroots non-profit arts space called ‘Things,’ located in Sham Shui Po – a gritty, seedy historic area in Kowloon. Located in a tong lau (historic tenement building), it offers a programme of events and exhibitions, and is meant to provide a space for experimentation and dialogue beyond the Hong Kong’s glitzy high-end galleries.
As described on the “Things” website: “Recent political developments in Hong Kong have triggered a spirit of political and civil urgency amongst the city’s population. These resistance movements are not only shifting the socio-political landscape but have also roused a creative awakening amongst the people of Hong Kong and inspired a profound reimagination of the city and its citizens. It is vital at this juncture to provide platforms that continue nurturing this sense of curiosity, especially in a city where imagination and experimentation continue to find little structural support.”
Hong Kong’s art scene has ventured beyond the conventional museum and gallery space
A walk through the streets of Sham Shui Po, alongside second-hand electronics shops and haberdashery stalls, reveals young entrepreneurs having found affordable spaces to set up shop – from coffee houses to vintage bike shops to 100ft Park, a new mini-art space. There’s also 22 Degrees North, set up by designers Rex Yam and Joey Ku as a concept store to promote local brands (including their own), as well as provide a meeting point for local creative professionals with regular art and cultural events.
Around Hong Kong, there’s an emergence of these new spaces – some run by artists, others run as public-private partnerships.
One such partnership is PMQ, near the art galleries and boutiques of Sheung Wan and Hollywood Road. Originally the campus for Queen’s College, the site was transformed into the Police Married Quarters after the Second World War and, eventually, fell into disrepair. Now, those residential units have been converted into design studios, shops and restaurants, with spaces for pop-up shops, exhibits, events and even a night market. Efforts have also been made to maintain the original features of the site, such as the rubble retaining wall.
The mission of PMQ is to nurture ‘create-preneurs’ and to support Hong Kong’s creative industry through collaboration between design talents and business professionals. “PMQ wants to be the unique platform for Hong Kong’s creative industry to promote the appreciation of creativity and design among the public,” says Victor Tsang, executive director with PMQ.
A panel of experts selects applicants based on their creative portfolio, business plan and willingness to work with others designers in PMQ. The successful applicants then enter into a two-year contract with PMQ, receiving subsidized rent as well as other supports while they build their business.
There are more than 100 creative enterprises here, and visitors can meander through the complex, watch artists at work and buy their wares – from fashion to jewellery, ceramics, leatherwork and home décor – directly from the artists themselves.
“We hope these local talents can open their markets from PMQ, and that eventually they will be able to sustain their business and continue to thrive without our help,” says Tsang. “Our tenants have, from time to time, shared that it could not be possible for them to start their studios if not for PMQ.”
Aside from a growing number of spaces for art, design and culture, there are also more events that showcase Hong Kong’s creative side. Indeed, Hong Kong’s ‘coming out’ is often associated with Art Basel in 2013 – when the world’s most prestigious art fair began holding an annual event in Hong Kong.
Events such as Art Basel, as well as Art Gallery Week and various other art fairs that take place throughout the cultural calendar in Hong Kong, provide a number of platforms to highlight local and international talents, says Adeline Ooi, director of the Asian branch of Art Basel.
“The art scene in Hong Kong has definitely become more diversified and dynamic as a result of the growth of the art market and the increasing numbers of galleries opening here from all over the world,” she says. “We’re also, this year at Art Basel in Hong Kong, seeing increased interest in photography and precisely curated booths – a number of galleries are choosing to exhibit only one or two artists.”
This year, 25 galleries from Hong Kong will participate in Art Basel, taking place in March. New entrants include Blindspot Gallery and Galerie Ora-Ora, which will be participating in ‘Insights’ for the first time. Another highlight will be the unveiling of a new work by Hong Kong artist Samson Young, who was awarded the first BMW Art Journey in collaboration with Art Basel – a prize that saw him travel across five continents recording the sounds of historic bells.
While Hong Kong is home to myriad commercial galleries in Central – Pedder Building alone houses Gagosian, Ben Brown Fine Arts, Lehmann Maupin, Simon Lee Gallery, Hanart TZ and Pearl Lam Galleries – Ooi also recommends a visit to Para Site, a non-profit contemporary arts centre. It was founded in 1996 as an artist-run space, making it one of the oldest independent art institutions in Asia.
And anyone visiting Hong Kong should check out the South Island Cultural District (SICD), she says, which was founded in 2013 and is now a destination for 22 local and international art galleries, studios and non-commercial art institutions. But Ooi’s personal favourite? “I’d definitely recommend a visit to the Hong Kong Museum of History in Tsim Sha Tsui East, where I’ve seen some really lovely shows of ceramics and historical artifacts.”
While Hong Kong’s creative side is still taking shape, it’s an exciting time for up-and-coming local artists and designers. This creative awakening provides opportunities for the public – and international visitors – to see Hong Kong in a new light, where ‘old’ and ‘new’ co-exist to create something wonderfully unique.