Melancholy and Wishfulness in Historical Records: Lee Kai-chung’s solo exhibition I Could not Recall How I Got Here
Beauty does not last long, before you realise, it is gone. 
Hong Kong is a city of amnesia. People would let historical monuments be pushed away by urban development because what they care most about is making a living, resulting in the destruction of relationships and communities built over time. Due to the lack of an archives law, the Hong Kong government has destroyed documents that would have been more than 130,000 metres long if they were lined up. Departments responsible for preserving memories, like the Government Records Service, always show a reluctant attitude towards any requests for archival records because of the official order, trying to draw a veil over their work. If all documents regarding Hong Kong vanish bit by bit, will we be able to recognise ourselves and remember what made Hong Kong the way it is today? What historic events can the archival records tell us about?
The word ‘archive’ connotes all kinds of ‘historic evidence’, including commercial contracts, legal papers, maps, building plans, oral historical records, news videos, three-dimensional architectural models and many more. In archival studies, ‘data’ of various materials and different kinds are sorted, organised and catagorised to preserve the memories frozen in time. The collection, cataloguing and documentation of data must comply with the regulations on work of the institutions they belong to and follow the logic of their academic fields. The attempt to get hold of the past in a disorderly myriad of things could show us the direction that we seem to understand and feel comfortable to move in.
However, a number of archivists point out that during the process of collecting documents, organising and cataloguing information and preserving records, it is not possible for the participants to take an objective stand, and therefore the records that are kept are definitely not conclusive ‘historical facts’ or simply ‘facts’. In recent years, there has been increasing concern about how the general public use the records in archival studies and about how archives have evolved into places dedicated to the production of knowledge and meanings. At the end of the day, if we just store materials and leave them in archives, what we keep is nothing more than meaningless disjointed information and all we have are merely superficially unrelated memories that we cannot probe into.
Lee Kai-chung thrust his head into piles of documents and studied them in an attempt to connect people and stories of different eras and to find out what the past means to us in the present. Sharing a similar aspiration as the historians’, the artist aims to understand the linkage between the past and the present through his study and reshape the narrative around a certain historical event. Nonetheless, he does not follow the practice of historians, who try to get close to the ‘historical truth’ to comprehend the context of things that have changed and of those that have remained the same. The artist is in pursuit of the feeble glimmer of time — the sounds of life, hidden in the gap of time, flowing around the edge between memory and oblivion, unclear and puzzling, and yet implicitly expressing emotions and desires. After all has been said and done, he tries to capture fragments of the old times, recounting in his own artistic language the stories of ordinary people who struggled to survive through times of distress. His solo exhibition I Could not Recall How I Got Here recollects the vicissitudes of life in wartime Hong Kong by comparing and contrasting the different fates of the Japanese War Memorial and the bronze statues of Queen Victoria in the 1940s, sharing his reflections on how to deal with the times and the collapse and malfunctioning of the system.
Eventually we learn to forget. Being evil doesn’t need a reason.
When the audience set foot in the gallery, what they see is a projector creaking, and slides of grunge and damaged images pop up: A house stands at the peak. The room is crowded with beautifully dressed people, who are joking with each other. Bricks and tiles crumble to the ground, sending a plume of smoke and ash into the air. On the right side of the projection, the four black-and-white photographs capture the key moments of the video — under a grey sky a crowd is watching the memorial fall… The white space left behind creates nothing but emptiness (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1 The Retrieval, Restoration and Predicament (The Memorial), stop motion animation projection installation, 2019. Lee Kai-chung shows a video clip of the demolition of the Japanese War Memorial with stop-motion photography, questioning whether wiping out the wartime memories was helpful in rebuilding a new order in Hong Kong after the Second Sino-Japanese War.
The artwork The Retrieval, Restoration and Predicament (The Memorial) presents a history of post-war Hong Kong — a painful memory of blood and sweat. In 1941, when the Japanese troops occupied Hong Kong, they intended to erect a tall memorial representing the fallen soldiers. With its prominent location at the hilltop, the Hong Kong people would succumb to their ferocity and would be unable to lift up their heads again. To match the mightiness of the Japanese, the memorial made of granite was 80 metres tall and weighed 900 tonnes according to the design plan. The Japanese army threatened the local people into supporting the building financially and used forced labour to transport and dig out stones in order to expedite the grand project. Apart from commemorating the loyal soldiers who died for the country, the tower was a manifestation of imperial glory built up by killing and forced labour. In February 1947, the Japanese War Memorial fell as a result of a British decision. This means that the British Administration destroyed the invader’s authority and wiped out the trauma of domination and oppression. Can Hong Kong step out from the shadows of the war by erasing its memory? Who can decide what to remember and what to forget?
The account of the above event is recorded on a roll of film known to very
few and kept in an archival repository, but the video can no longer be
played somehow. Presenting to the audience the past event with stop-motion photography, Lee seems to want to preserve this Hong Kong memory. The video clip shown in his work, however, is blurry and has coarse grain, as if it were trapped in the gap between memory and oblivion, as causal relationships of the past have always been confusing and fragmentary. The artist is not so much calling up historical memories as showing the audience the quiescence resulting when a piece of the past is lost. People who have experienced the past are destined to make way for those who do not understand history, but should we just let everything vanish from our lives?
He is my every-present. But what is my past?
The demolition of the Japanese War Memorial happened to take place when the bronze statues of Queen Victoria returned to Hong Kong. The former praised and glorified death while the latter sang praises to the colonial ruler. Although the two things seem to have no connection with each other, Lee reveals that they are both — in essence monuments, based on their intertwined fates. Was the glory of the Queen not built on killing, forced labour, state-tolerated violence and rapaciousness? Were the British people not thinking about the ‘relative merits of their civilisation’ when they forced their beliefs, language, lifestyle and cultural values on Hong Kong?
In the gallery, the artist did not reproduce a familiar sculpture in classical European style, instead he cast nine pieces of fragments of the bronze statues (Fig. 2). The replica of the bronze lion appears to be so tiny and tame without the elaborate decorations. The crown, once above all others, is now placed below eye level and has lost its royal solemnity. As the Queen is not in sight, there is no way to see the charm of such a political leader with what is left of the statue — a bronze arm that has been badly scratched. Apparently, Lee has no intention of restoring the authority of the Queen’s statue when it was standing in the City of Victoria. Despite the many years that have passed, the artist cares more about the damages and repairs the statue has gone through so as to examine the rise and fall of colonial power. The first colonial ruler left Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation and another colonial ruler took over. In response to the metals collection campaign in Japan, the bronze statues of the Queen were seized, waiting to be recast for military use. After the Japanese surrender, the allied army found the fragmentary pieces of the statues in an arsenal known to very few people and shipped them back to Hong Kong.
Fig. 2 Queen’s Right Hand Holding the Sceptre, bronze sculpture (details), 2018. (Photograph by LEE Kai-chung) Lee Kai-chung ‘restored’ the fragments of the bronze statues to remind people of the wretched experience of life in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation, contemplating the relationship between Hong Kong and the colonial rulers.
After having studied the statues’ list of repairs and maintenance work, Lee combined 3D sculpting and the traditional craft of bronze casting to repair the missing parts of the statues, while also attempting to preserve the story of the recovery of the statues after the war. Once a colonial ruler, Queen Victoria has always occupied a spot in Hong Kong’s public spaces. What influence did the Queen, who had never set foot on this soil, have on us? How much do we know about the colonial government in terms of exercising its power and distributing resources? The artist’s restoration project does not focus on rectifying the fragmentary statues to their original appearance but on presenting how much history fails to mention — the absence of certain archival records, our limited knowledge of the colonial rule in the past, the reshaping of local history and identity by the current government, and the obliteration of historical stories that are already few and far between. And so, looking back today, how should Hong Kong tell its own stories while finding a balance between the past and the future, between development and conservation, and between global and local dimensions?
To read the article in full version, please check out Lee Kai-chung’s book I Could Not Recall How I Got Here.
 In this exhibition, Lee Kai-chung presented to the audience Hong Kong’s life under Japanese occupation from the perspectives of different people with the projection of a triple-channel video, which featured personal experiences of ordinary people and provided an insight into his views on the past, the way of reading history, and the interactions between archival records and wider society. Borrowing from the narration of how the artist created his artwork, as rendered in the subtitles, this article aims to further interpret the imagination inspired by his work while at the same time discussing it and dealing briefly with topics such as the application of history and archives.