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.
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
Lam Tung-pang has been nurturing damaged plants back into health at the Wong Uk Hakka house.
Even small children love the image of the local bird Blue Magpie installed in the old Hakka house in Wong Uk.