Where his­tory gets a voice

In an at­tempt to lib­er­ate lo­cal his­tory from the pages of text­books, four HK artists give cen­tury-old houses a tem­po­rary makeover. A re­port by Chi­tralekha Basu.

China Daily (Canada) - - HONG KONG -

Eleanor Hui usu­ally ar­rives at the old Hakka house in Wong Uk vil­lage, Sha Tin, early, car­ried in the arms of her fa­ther. The 2-year-old is so taken by the im­age of a Blue Mag­pie re­cently in­stalled in the house, she can­not seem to get by with­out this rit­ual visit — a habit her fam­ily seems to en­cour­age. Young Eleanor is per­haps the youngest par­tic­i­pant in a soon-to-be launched art project to bring the pub­lic closer to the his­tory and cul­tural her­itage in their own back­yard. And go­ing by her keen­ness, the bid to re­vive in­ter­est in some of the near-for­got­ten, cen­tury-old houses in Hong Kong by the re­sus­ci­tat­ing touch of art seems to be work­ing.

Lam Tung-pang, who painted the bird on a room di­vider which seems to grow out of the back­rest of a wooden chair, is try­ing to breathe new life into the an­cient struc­ture in Wong Uk. Ear­lier peo­ple vis­it­ing Yuen Chau Kok Park would pass the house by with­out en­ter­ing, or, if they did, would be out in 30 sec­onds, says Lam. Now, even be­fore the ex­hi­bi­tion which he is putting to­gether of­fi­cially opens in Jan­uary, the house al­ready has a steady trickle of vis­i­tors who walk in, in­trigued by the go­ings-on in­side.

Built in 1911, its in­te­ri­ors used to be quite bare. Lam has in­stalled a slew of early 20th-cen­tury fur­ni­ture — low-rise cab­i­nets and side­boards made of wood and bam­boo. Clouds carved out of sheets of frosted glass, images of hills and rain­drops on waves painted on planks of wood, to in­di­cate orig­i­nally the house stood by the sea, have been at­tached to some of these. There are also frag­ments from sto­ries Lam wrote, placed strate­gi­cally around the house, as well as pot­ted plants, some of which were res­cued from the neigh­bor­hood af­ter they took a beat­ing from Typhoon Haima.

When the show opens, there will be video pro­jec­tions of sun­sets, the rising moon and rain stream­ing down the house’s tiled roof like a water­fall dur­ing mon­soon. “So there is a sense of the pas­sage of time,” says Lam about the project which is es­sen­tially about giv­ing the au­di­ence a sense of his­tory through art. “The idea is that you walk around, ab­sorb the ran­dom jux­ta­po­si­tion of text, images, mov­ing pic­tures, plant life and ar­chi­tec­ture, and cre­ate your own mem­ory of it.” The show will be over in six months. Lam, how­ever, is hop­ing the vis­i­tors who come to the house will take away a per­son­al­ized mem­ory of it.

It seems the house has al­ready be­gun to func­tion as a repos­i­tory of sto­ries. Pedith Chan, who teaches cul­tural man­age­ment at the Chi­nese Uni­ver­sity of Hong Kong (CUHK), says young Eleanor’s strong at­tach­ment to the an­cient struc­ture points to the power of art in con­nect­ing in­di­vid­u­als to his­tory. “The in­ter­ven­tion of art is a way to in­ject some spirit into build­ings like these which would not nor­mally draw that much au­di­ence at­ten­tion,” says Chan. “I re­ally hope this project can con­nect the lo­cal com­mu­nity back with this build­ing and the his­tory of Wong Uk. I hope they are in­spired to dis­cover dif­fer­ent sto­ries from the project.”

The old Hakka house in Wong Uk is one of the four cen­te­nar­ian houses in Hong Kong to have been cho­sen as sites for the Hi! Houses se­ries of pub­lic art projects. The first of these will kick off on Jan 1 at Sun Yat Sen Mu­seum on Cas­tle Road, with a show by the artist Wil­son Shieh. Like him, the three other par­tic­i­pat­ing artists — Jaffa Lam, Fiona Wong and Lam Tung­pang — will each use the space in a her­itage struc­ture as­signed to them to bring its his­tory to the pub­lic in a way they can re­late to. The idea is to sift the hu­man

The in­ter­ven­tion of art is a way to in­ject some spirit into build­ings like these which would not nor­mally draw that much au­di­ence at­ten­tion.” pro­fes­sor of cul­tural man­age­ment, CUHK

The his­tory it­self is quite fas­ci­nat­ing though. Doc­u­ments from 1767 and 1796 pre­served in the Pub­lic Records Of­fice sug­gest Law Uk Folk Mu­seum in Chai Wan, as­signed to the artist Fiona Wong, was built well be­fore those dates. The Law fam­ily who ar­rived from Guang­dong in mid-18th cen­tury, lived there un­til a part of the house was bombed dur­ing the Ja­panese Oc­cu­pa­tion in 1941. And then the house was turned into a fur­ni­ture work­shop un­til the Re­set­tle­ment

ROY LIU / CHINA DAILY

Lam Tung-pang has been nur­tur­ing dam­aged plants back into health at the Wong Uk Hakka house.

ROY LIU / CHINA DAILY

Even small chil­dren love the im­age of the lo­cal bird Blue Mag­pie in­stalled in the old Hakka house in Wong Uk.

Pedith Chan,

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