No Place Like Home
A reflection on From Vanishing to Creation: A Dialogue about Urban Transition, a panel discussion accompanying the WMA Exhibition Transition
In the WMA exhibition Transition, visual artists Yim Sui-fong and Berton Chang examined aspects of the urban landscape of Hong Kong, from different ends of the emotional spectrum but with the connecting thread of finding humanity within the built environment. Yim explored the sense of loss and helplessness that comes with a dwindling sense of agency, while Chang brought a subtle sense of humour. They were joined in discussion by Ian Brownlee, who with his town planning background added an insightful historical perspective, and moderator John Batten who deftly linked contemporary art practices, citizen advocacy and urban development. What was stimulating about this discussion was the nuanced and multiple viewpoints that all fed into the complexity of individual and collective attitudes to understanding and interpreting Hong Kong as a site of restless belonging.
In his photographic series, Tales from The Common Space, Chang turned his lens to the relentless construction in Hong Kong. It can feel that we are forever living in a building site, the noise and the scaffolding making up part of the everyday scenery to such an extent that they seem barely worth mentioning, the constant backdrop to our lives. Chang looked with fresh eyes and gave us an almost childlike openness to the act of seeing. Just as we might look at clouds in the sky and see a face, Chang looked at cranes and hoardings, walkways and plants marooned in bland commercial buildings, and anthropomorphised them all. In his photographs, a bright red crane became a benign cartoon monster looming over a fence, a tree engulfed by scaffolding wasn’t hemmed in but playing peek-a-boo, a puddle of water leaking out from under a green, foliage-printed hoarding became a sign of someone behind there, or perhaps some thing, not making it to a washroom in time – maybe that same crane caught short and ducking out of sight this time?
There are no people in these photographs, and yet Chang’s use of humour as a strategy shows us the humanness of our man-made environment, and an approach to humanising it. Batten connected this approach to his observations of Hong Kong as a caring place with much evidence of the human touch. It would have been simpler for the builders to cut down the palm tree in Chang’s photo They have great hiding places!, instead they carefully built round it, the girders almost caressing the plant. In further examples, Batten drew our attention to how builders were often given free reign for the final external paint job on buildings and came up with amazing colourways and designs, flexing their creativity on a massive scale.
For all that big cities are stereotypically described as anonymous places, and there certainly is a level of sterility to much of the cookie-cutter, high-rise housing here, idiosyncratic human touches abound. Few urban dwellers have the luxury of a balcony, let alone a garden, yet the urge for greenery and fresh air sees pot plants perched on ledges, laundry hung out to dry on public railings, fish drying on tarpaulins in the road, and the fanciest of new neighbourhoods will still have an outdoor area with a red metal bin for burning traditional offerings, whether by design or human persistence.
Yim’s artwork The Unlocked Space grew from a very personal point of contact. She had gone to the district where her father had once lived, and found at his old address a co-operative building awaiting demolition, the land bought up for a luxury development. Although the buildings were old by Hong Kong standards, the generous-sized homes were still inhabited until 2016. The building was unlocked, fortuitously accessible, seemingly waiting to offer up its contents to Yim’s lens. Her series of slides, projected lingeringly slowly from old style carousels, record the objects left behind – papers, calendars, notes, toys, individual dentures, statues of gods and goddesses from a range of belief systems, VHS tapes, furniture, newspapers, family photographs, pornographic magazines – everyday detritus discarded. Evidence of lives lived and moved on. But there was still a literally living, brilliantly green cacti, a burst of vibrancy pushing up into one image. Those green tendrils of nature in amongst the concrete, even soon to be torn down concrete. Batten linked this idea of plants to a sense of renewal. Is it why cultivated pot plants are so abundant everywhere in Hong Kong, a human statement of not being cowed by concrete?
Yim gave us an archaeology of the recent past, still remembered, still familiar but about to slip irretrievably from our grasp. Did we have these outdated things as recently, and yet as distantly, as the 1980s, the date on copies of the South China Morning Post? Presumably VHS tapes might need some explaining to a millennial. The objects themselves can be read and questioned in multiple ways, historically, narratively, emotionally, nostalgically. The images are framed so we never fully see the larger space they sit within, yet there is a palpable sense of abandonment. We don’t need to see the whole to understand this. The fragment is not oppositional to the whole, Trinh T Minh-ha uses the example of a broken mirror “the shard still functions as a mirror, the essence of the whole is still contained in the part.”
And that bigger picture contains another kind of unseen loss, the Civil Servant’s Cooperative Building Societies. This was a thirty-year experiment in communal welfare housing started in the 1950s, providing “more creative housing policy than today’s government.” Today, housing options have narrowed down to just two, public or private. The politics of home ownership and availability are exacerbated in Hong Kong where the wealth gap is one of the most unequal in the world, house prices the highest, and a property investment influx sees many new flats sitting empty as assets rather than homes. Whereas previously an education and hard work were seen as stepping stones to home ownership and security, this is increasingly untrue as flats become simultaneously smaller and ever more unaffordable.
Yim and Chang also shared other artworks that fed into the discussion. Chang’s colourful photographs of Hong Kong used a tilt shift lens, giving a miniature, toy-like look to the image, reducing the urban setting to a simplified and romanticised version of the world. Here he is concerned with manipulating perception to align the image with the perverse sense of the city as a cute commodity. Yim’s video Black Bird Island merged the poetic with the political, with images of birds freewheeling against a stormy sky, pigeons perching along all and every kind of available ledge in the city or strutting around at street level, intercut with a bird’s eye view of a small girl being bullied in a concrete space between two buildings where children have gathered to play. The visuals are accompanied by sounds of the city and voiceovers ranging from excerpts from the weather forecast for the 1997 handover, how pigeons were brought in and released at the ceremony, the homing instinct of pigeons, even though many stayed on, the changing coastline and the taunts of the bullies and the defiant little girl. The video reaches for what is at the heart of every current discussion about Hong Kong, its fractured identity, on going tumultuous political landscape, and the underlying tension of uncertainty.
From its inception as a colonial territory, through to its handover of sovereignty from Britain to China and speculation about the future, Hong Kong citizens have always had to negotiate their sense of identity and belonging. Hong Kong born cultural critic Rey Chow talked of “the tactics of dealing with and dealing in dominant cultures that are so characteristic of living in Hong Kong. These are the tactics of those who do not have claims to territorial propriety or cultural centrality” This lack of claim has increased rapidly in recent years, a complex sense of diminishing time in which to assert what differentiates Hong Kong and its people before it becomes, as often reported, ‘just another Chinese city.’
Visual art is not the only form that can situate location so tellingly. Leung Ping-kwan (Yesi) always wrote evocatively of Hong Kong, with a keen sense of both local identity and also what is lost when a city develops so rapidly. He lamented in his 2009 poem that “this is a city that’s good at forgetting.” But ten years after those lines were written, after a period of unrest and increasing activist and grassroots engagement, many are trying hard to be part of a city that’s good at remembering. Ian Brownlee, with over 40 years first hand experience in Hong Kong’s urban development, was well placed to detail the city’s urban evolution.
Brownlee walked us through Hong Kong’s built history from the 1970s to the present day. He professed to not looking at art much and wondering whether his presentation would be too literal and lack the poetic evocations of the artworks. In fact he added a hugely important overview that contextualised the reasons for some of the current administration’s seemingly out of touch housing policies. His was a vital reminder that to understand the present, you have to understand the history that brought you here. Brownlee arrived in Hong Kong in 1977 as a town planner, in direct response to the urgent need to safely house hundreds of thousands of refugees from China who were then living in squatter huts. Those huts formed extensive slum areas and in severe weather, thousands of people lost their lives due to flooding, mudslides and fires. Brownlee was part of the team brought in by the colonial government to deliver the newly established public housing programme, building the new towns that transformed the New Territories.
A critical point he made was what a genuine housing crisis looks like – people living in unsanitary and deadly conditions, and that the government of the day had proactively forged ahead to provide secure and permanent housing. He took us through the progression from establishing public housing and delivering it at astonishing speed, to the development of transport infrastructure, how the MTR changed the face of planning, to the modern city of today.
A key takeaway was how policies that were once transformative, from a responsive government, can become bureaucratic and hidebound over time. An example is that once the public housing programme was established, a sense of community sprang up through use of both the communal and nearby public spaces. Activities ranged from rooftop classrooms, to streets as playgrounds and gathering places. Continued government concern was to keep clearing away this public street use, developing hygiene and safety regulations as part and parcel of demolishing the squatter slums so they could never be re-used.
This fixation with clearing life off the streets continues today. It can be seen in the ever decreasing number of street hawkers as licenses are not renewed, with moving open air food markets and dai pai dongs (street food stalls) into purpose built indoor halls. Somewhere along the line the vibrancy of street life was overlooked, and the danger of regulations can be that they lose sight of the human need for community and shared spaces. Regulations that were made in a different time, for a different purpose morph into inflexible policy when the original reason for them has long gone. At its worst, the public housing system is now weighted so those in greatest need are not at the top of the housing list. This surely points to a lack of understanding in government about the importance of quality of life.
Brownlee made clear cut distinctions between housing crisis, housing problems and housing desires. Whilst fully appreciating Hong Kong’s contemporary housing issues, his optimism about the future, built on his knowldege of the past, was striking. He retains confidence in the imagination and enterprise of Hong Kong people to overcome challenges. His experience of urban change, at a pace most western countries couldn’t imagine, was of Hong Kong people consistently combining apsiration with pragmatism to make the most of whatever comes their way.
Hong Kong’s process of rapid urban transition grows more complex as the countdown to full integration with mainland China looms. Home is never purely about the physical space of four walls, it is a broader space of belonging and community, a space where we feel at ease and, most importantly, local. As the urban landscape, and our relationship to it, changes, our sense of home and belonging survives, adapts and evolves. It is strained when unaffordable housing is combined with the demolition of landmarks that figure symbolically in people’s understanding of home, when “seemingly indestructible landmarks that had been part of the lives of so many (such as Queen’s Pier) … have been threatened by increased governmental encroachment and intervention.”
The demolition of Queen’s pier in 2007 was when the phrase ‘collective memory’ took hold. Although that battle was lost, it ignited grassroots concern groups and proved the point that people care about much more than a new shopping mall, a sentiment that can feel ignored by developers and government. Hong Kong itself has often been referred to as a consumer commodity in Western media, “as a mute object tossed between British imperialism and global economies, the forces of mainland Chinese nationalism and Western neoliberal moralism”  but this is to ignore the singular lived experience of its inhabitants.
The speakers prompted sharing from the floor about the emotional sense of connection to place. One man recalled the abundant insects he’d played with as a child, calling water bugs in particular the best toys ever. A Hong Kong childhood that was outdoorsy and more connected to the natural world prompted reminiscences from those old enough to share similar memories and at the same time, as with other developed countries’ housing problems, linked particular local experience to global concerns.
Batten and Brownlee shared how they had both become involved in urban conservation advocacy, and how even that had evolved at breakneck pace – from literally handing out flyers in the streets to a handful of passers by, to reaching thousands online. Conservation and adaptive use of built heritage is relatively new here, still evolving, and goes against the established demolish and rebuild model, although housing and conservation don’t have to be at odds. Batten mused on how they had initially lost many battles but learned and become more effective along the way. That government has now accepted that parts of Central are worth preserving is due to sustained pressure from concern groups. And whilst there is fracturing of concern groups with different interests, there is also more engagement from citizens finding their voice.
This discussion brought us humour, history, a sense of loss and belonging without the false distractions of rose-tinted nostalgia. Things weren’t always better in the past, and no one knows for sure what the future holds, but urban transition is relentless and no one knows that better than a Hong Konger. The conversation touched on many intertwined transitions, political, social, urban, personal, communal, environmental, technological, and took us down unexpected and interesting paths revealing the interconnectedness of experiences. It’s not so much that the current climate chips away at the sense of belonging but rather it heightens the resolve to clarify what it means to belong here. How does the urban environment affect our identity and the notion of home? What does home mean? What do we need to ensure we still feel at home?
Fast moving urban change is a constant that has become part of the everyday. But that does not mean that the everyday is simple or easily navigated. Hong Kongers are used to constructing their everyday stability even as rapid socio-political shifts move the ground beneath them. Lines from Leung’ poem Images of Hong Kong, written nearly three decades ago in 1990 while looking ahead to the 1997 handover, seem as pertinent as ever,
We keep changing our position,
we are looking for a different angle
that neither adds nor subtracts,
forever on the margin, forever in transition.
 ICA, with M+ and Hong Kong Arts Centre present: Films by Trinh T Minh-ha.
Trinh T Minh-ha in conversation with Wolfgang Tillmans, chaired by Linda Lai Chiu-han. 28 April 2018 HK Arts Centre Agnes b cinema.
Neon Yiu Ching Hei, “Cooperative Opportunity: Learning about the History of ‘Housing Scheme for Local Government Officers’ from Housing Documents,” in Transition (WYNG Foundation, 2018).
 Rey Chow, Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,1993) 25.
 Andrea Riemenschnitter, Review of “Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience” by Rey Chow (Columbia University Press, 2014), in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture Journal (2016), http://u.osu.edu/mclc/book-reviews/riemenschnitter/
Kay Mei Ling Beadman
A visual artist and researcher based in Hong Kong. Her art practice is multidisciplinary including painting, text, video and installation. She has exhibited in Australia, China, Hong Kong, Serbia, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka and the UK. In 2017, she co-founded the artist-run initiative Hidden Space and is currently a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong, researching visual culture and the representation of mixed race identity in Hong Kong.
Beadman has also worked in the fields of conservation and language education, specialising in medieval architectural sculpture in the UK, and developing English language literacy programmes for the Hong Kong Education Bureau.