Beginning with her own identity as a migrant in Hong Kong, Tay asks of how these movements affect how one conceives of one self – how national and family histories and narratives converge with one’s memory, how everyday relationships affect us, how contemporary conditions, be they social, economic or political, create a discordant interiority, and how all these shape us. The imagery and audio text are presented unlinked, in layers that create different contexts for looking and listening, and in this way consider the mutability of these identities in transition that underlie the complex relationship between Hong Kong and China.
Excerpts of voices in project:
(Translated from Cantonese) …after they have been here for long enough, they forget. In my opinion, I feel my uncle has forgotten, my mum too. So then they take an entirely different position from Mainland Chinese on everything, and this adds to the sense of distance Hong Kong feels from China. Even people who were previously intimately tied to China will think they are different from Mainland Chinese, assuming ‘I am not the same as them’—as if they are watching the fire from the other shore…
You could say, the city has returned, but the heart has not.
(Translated from Mandarin) …it’s that they don’t really understand China. They don’t understand the level of vision and aptitude of our generation, which has undergone brainwashing but for whom it hasn’t worked. There isn’t enough interaction between us. Because of this, the two-way discrimination, added to the government’s own stupid on so many policies, there are fewer and fewer chances for interaction and understanding. If this is the case, then there isn’t much point in me staying here. When I came to Hong Kong, my goal was to become a global citizen. But I now realize that I’ve still ended up being a so-called citizen of the People’s Republic of China anyway…
(Translated from Cantonese) …I used to wonder—what am I doing here… What kind of person am I when I’m here in Hong Kong. All the interactions one has with the city—work, entertainment, friends, I had none of that. Besides having mum here, I lived like a solitary island. Back then, I struggled more with these issues, wondering whether I wanted to return to Hong Kong in the future. But later, perhaps as I grew up, I felt … it doesn’t really matter if I assimilate. As long as you have your own life, it’s fine; you don’t have to force yourself to become a “normal” Hong Konger…
(Translated from Mandarin) …My dad was in the army, so when I was born he wasn’t around… Initially, my mum was a government official in the township women’s department. She would go around to villages and give talks to raise women’s cultural awareness. Actually, I‘m not really sure—to me “women’s work” sounds rather abstract… When I still lived at home… I wasn’t so interested in family and marriage because I didn’t know what it was. But since I’ve left home, especially in Hong Kong, I’ve been able to slowly step out of my mum’s shadow. I can experience things and think about what I want, and feel things that are coming from me…
(Translated from Mandarin) …Since I was a child, I was taught in school not to participate in political debates, and to avoid all political activities. I felt that if I participated, something bad would happen. In time this has slowly become a kind of habit. I’ve become afraid…afraid of creating any negative outcomes for myself.
Although the state doesn’t explicitly say that if you speak out they will do something to you, in my heart there is a concern, and this worry creates a burden that wears my heart down, making me always uneasy…
(Translated from Mandarin) …The orientation camp was a very dark period for me. I really wanted to fit in, but it was very difficult, and it was very difficult to adjust psychologically also. So… After that, after learning Cantonese we could use that, with Mandarin and English, and we felt that we could communicate and do away with the misunderstandings and feelings of low self-esteem. But did we really assimilate, for example, into our Hong Kong classmates’ circles, I am not really sure…
(Translated from Cantonese) …I remember when I was in China, wearing the red scarf to school, studying patriotic things. When you learnt about Communism, it was all part of your studies, but it wasn’t something you needed to practice in your daily life, like the Communist spirit. It’s just a subject, like something you study for an exam. Perhaps it’s like Bible studies was. You don’t really practice what is said in the Bible everyday. It’s just like that. You still lead your life as a regular person; the Communist Party didn’t affect your life at all….
(Translated from Cantonese) …I know that many Hong Kongers don’t like certain behaviours of Mainlanders, so I feel that if I am with Hong Kongers, I hope I will not let them feel that I am different from them. At least, I will not be like their idea of an uncivilized Mainlander.
Second combing, harmony in your marriage
Third combing, blessed with many children and grandchildren
— The four blessings at the pre-wedding hair combing ceremony
Historically, women enjoyed little status in Chinese society. Daughters were often unwanted and were matched off in marriage at an early age. Women from poor families were often forced into arranged marriages and enslaved to her husband’s family, some ended up in abusive relationships with years of suffering.
Around the beginning of the Qin Dynasty (circa 1640s), in the Shunde area of South China, thanks to the booming silk trade, sectors of women became financially independent. Many would wear their hair in a long braid to symbolise their autonomy until their wedding, often having a say in who they would marry. Towards the end of the 19th century, as Imperial China began to crumble and instability spread, many women in the area took the initiative and performed the comb up ritual.
The comb up ceremony involved bathing with mulberry leaves and a fellow sister would braid their hair. From that day on, they could only wear a light colour tunic and dark trousers. They would take the chastity vow and have no further obligations towards their parents. They were free to travel and make their own living.
Being an early feminist was not without its drawbacks. Combed up women were not allowed to return home to die in their old age, and their relatives could choose to have nothing to do with the funeral arrangements. As a result, many sisterhood homes sprung up and the combed up women would look after each other, often considered sisters for life.
After the fall of the imperial empire in early 20th century, the silk trade was in great decline and most of the combed up women were out of work. Many travelled out of china across South East Asia and took on the jobs of nannies and domestic helpers.
This project centres around Mak Ngan Yuk (麥顏玉), an eighty seven year old woman who was my nanny and worked for my family for nearly 40 years.
She is the firstborn child in a poor rural family in south China. Denied schooling opportunities due to her gender, she became the main caregiver to her 3 year old brother and baby sister at the age of 8. She started work in the Mulberry fields from around the age of 15 but was often sent home due to her size, and she was considered too slow. Desperate to learn to read, She started paying for her own schooling with some of the money she earned; when her father found out, she was told that if she was going to spend the money on schooling, she should be paying for her younger brothers to attend instead of wasting it on herself.
In her early twenties, pressure began to mount on her to get married. As the eldest sister, she was expected to be married before her brothers could find a suitable bride. Not wanting to be forced into an arranged marriage, she performed the comb up service and left for Hong Kong to work as a domestic helper.
After several temporary jobs, she would work for only two families for the next 55 years. During which time; she kept her family alive through the great famine in 1950s, paid for all her nephews and nieces educations, built several houses in her home village for her aunts, brothers and nephews and supported several of her nephews businesses, one of which flourished into a very successful business employing over 350 workers. Yet through all this, she has retained a very simple lifestyle. After retiring ten years ago, she chose to live alone in a government studio flat instead of moving into a sisterhood house (姑婆屋) and still enjoys the autonomy of being her own person.
She is respected and loved by not only her blood relatives, whom she has sacrificed so much of her life for; but also the grown up children that she cared for over the years.
In every sense, she symbolises the last generation of comb-up women, hard working, selfless and independent.
This project combines new photographs, found photographs and several other mixed media pieces, including Chinese Ink work and two textile based work. They retrace the life of Mak’s so far and beyond. Both biographical and anthropological, her story will be the starting point to explore generations of comb up women, giving a voice to generations of unsung heroines who are might otherwise be ignored and forgotten.
Kurt became a full-time photographer in 2003. He was the winner of the Luis Valtuena International Humanitarian Photography Award with his first picture story documenting the treatment of disabled children in India. He worked for many other NGOs and covered stories from Female Infanticide to ballroom dancers.
He gained his Masters in documentary photography at the London College of Communications in 2006 and began working on much more personal projects. He has since been chosen as the winner of Photograph.Book.Now competition, the Hey, Hot Shot! competition and the Jerwood Photography Award for his project People’s Park, a wistful exploration of the now deserted Communist era public spaces. “In Case it Rains in Heaven’ exploring the practice of Chinese funeral offerings, has been widely exhibited including a solo exhibition at Compton Verney and features in several public collections. A monograph of the work was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2011.
His more recent work, ‘The Queen, The Chairman and I’, a multilayered narrative picture book dealing with the story of Hong Kong of the last 100 years and the Asian Diaspora through the lives of his own family is presented as a Chinese teahouse. The project has been exhibited across 5 continents, most recently at the Victoria Museum in Liverpool, UK and Galleri Image in Denmark and Visual Art Center at the Chinese Cultural Foundation of San Francisco. The installation traveled Impressions Gallery in Bradford in 2016 and will continue to tour different venues across the UK.
Much of Kurt’s recent work, while remaining photographic in essence, has moved towards installation and sculptural based, pushing the boundaries of the medium. Echoed Visions, a series of installation question the medium of photography, made its debut at the Identity Art Gallery, Hong Kong in February 2014.
心.思.過. , a public participation project set within an classical Chinese garden in Zhongshan opened in August 2015 and will become a permanent feature within the park.
His latest work Sweet Water, Bitter Earth and Trust Little in Tomorrow made their debut at Unseen in Amsterdam, with planned exhibitions in 2017 both in the UK and US
He is represented by Jen Bekman Gallery in New York and The Photographer’s Gallery in London.
Inspired by a news picture of the HMS Ark Royal (R07) on its way to the Persian Gulf for the Iraq War in 2003, that he tore out from a UK Chinese newspaper, Tsang began a journey in spaceship design. Making sketch and drafting contract on his armoured fighting vehicles collection became a routine, or a ritual, in his life. Thousand of sketches filled up his desk drawers, a perplexed space. The sketches were covered by his thoughts and trace of living, and revealed his state of mind.
Tsang, 83 years of age, was a Chinese immigrant from Hong Kong and resided in an elderly residential home in North London. He arrived at Liverpool in 1967. Like most Chinese immigrants of his generation, he started a catering business, married twice, had four children. His family visited him on a non-regular basis. Sometimes weeks, sometimes years. Who knows? At least, he did not know.
Aging population and gentrification are social issues that we all face in the twentieth-first century. Welfare states and their governments work hard to ensure there will be adequate food and home for all. Tsang had been living in this elderly home in North London in the past twelve years. He stayed in the same bedsit, with pretty much the same breath of air, and the very predictable weekly menu.
I visited him and his space weekly over two months and I hoped to know him more. He repeatedly reminded me he would be dying at the age of 85. It is the nature of life. Before that moment arrived, he hoped the world would recognise his design – with hundreds of construction and engineering drawings of spaceship. Irrational proportion; unconvincing calculation; and yet with the most faithful intention – to fly away. By selling the copyright of his design to various world powers, that is worth GBP 96,000,000 in total, he could have money to save his prodigal son, a gambling addict, that I was told. On one occasion, he offered me 31 sheets (62 pages) of his sketches and hoped that I could help him spreading out his idea. From there, my journey of Tsang’s Odyssey began. The more I visited him, the more I observed a ‘dual realities’ of Tsang – a ‘reality’ that contained him; a ‘reality’ he constructed and confronted the world (or to live and believe). I became intrigued to unfold his worlds layer by layer, from what I could see by my naked eyes, to where I used my intuition to feel and contemplate. Behind the lens, I see the hugeness and expansive quality of the mundane.
62 pages of sketches, including drawing, user manual, conceptualisation, cost management and contract, present Tsang’s state of mind in its most tangible form. The actuality and presence of sketches inarguably are ‘proofs of being once lived.’ 28 photographic images were created to visualise my perception to and interpretation of his worlds, and some of his unfulfilled dreams. In this exhibition, I present 5 diptychs of photographic images and 4 documents to construct this moving yet immobile existence. I could not help but wondering, what and where will I (or you) be when we were 83 years of age? How much travels one experience in order to get settled down? Will we colonise Mars in the future? Could I travel to the Moon with Tsang’s design?
Every year, thousands of asylum seekers escape their countries in the hope of receiving state support as refugees. Fleeing from their homelands, some transit through the glittering metropolitan city – Hong Kong, to reach their final destinations, such as the United States, Canada, and New Zealand.
As a check point, however, as Hong Kong has no domestic legislation to grant refugees temporary or permanent status nor to resettle them. Most of the people strive to establish new lives in a transitory locale, end up stranded in Hong Kong for years on end, and some of them are still waiting to move to begin their new lives. Their mobility is challenged by their stranded condition, but remains active, however restricted.
Kwok has been working on a long-term project documenting the social landscapes of refugees’ mobility and relationships in Hong Kong: From Transit to New Lives, and at the same time conducting a project on male prostitutes in China’s Pearl River Delta: Sister Chang’e. His work has been published on international newspapers and magazines.
Kwok is highly observant and adaptable to cultural and environmental diversity. Apart from generating still images, he works both individually and collaboratively for multimedia storytelling.