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 (Hong Kong) - - HK - ROY LIU / CHINA DAILY Con­tact the writer at basu@chi­nadai­lyhk.com

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 ar­chitec- ture, 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.”

Home thoughts

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 sto­ries from the dull com­pi­la­tion of facts that has made many young peo­ple de­velop an aver­sion to­wards his­tory lessons in school. The Hi! Houses se­ries is in fact an ex­per­i­ment to­wards lib­er­at­ing lo­cal his­tory from the pages of text­books and invit­ing the public to re­claim a cul­tural her­itage that is right­fully theirs.

Ide­ally, vis­i­tors en­ter­ing th­ese tem­po­rar­ily made-over her­itage houses will take away a bit of “home” as they leave it. The cho­sen houses have all been lived in in the past and hence carry traces of lifestyle prac­tices from the old times — open-top built-in clay stoves in Hakka house kitchens, for in­stance. The houses are like a can­vas with a base coat on which the as­signed artists will leave their per­sonal im­print, mix­ing doc­u­mented his­tory, sto­ries from col­lec­tive mem­ory and a cre­ative in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the spaces in keep­ing with their own aes­thet­ics.

“I hope vis­i­tors would feel a sense of home on see­ing the artists’ works recre­at­ing the scenes of an­cient liveli­hood, based on their un­der­stand­ing of the old sto­ries and by imag­in­ing how it might be to live in the old houses now,” says Lo Yan-yan, cu­ra­tor with the Arts Pro­mo­tion Of­fice at Oi! Street who tied up with the An­tiq­ui­ties and Mon­u­ments Of­fice, the Hong Kong Mu­seum of His­tory and the In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage Of­fice for the project. What the artists have added to the houses, says Lo, helps “re­vive the old houses in a modern con­text and evokes a sense of be­long­ing. We hope peo­ple would love the places not only be­cause of their his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, but also for the homey sen­ti­ments and in­trigu­ing traces of life in th­ese old houses.”

Lit­tle is­land of his­tory

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 Depart­ment (pre­cur­sor to the present Hous­ing Au­thor­ity) pe­ti­tioned the cu­ra­tor of the Hong Kong Mu­seum of His­tory (HKMH) in 1976 to save Law Uk.

It was pri­mar­ily due to the in­ter­ven­tion of the chief cu­ra­tor of HKMH that the house still stands — like a lit­tle is­land of his­tory, sur­rounded by a close-knit mesh of high-rise res­i­den­tial blocks, in­dus­trial build­ings and a bustling MTR sta­tion. Wong, who works mainly in ce­ram­ics, will be cre­at­ing porce­lain repli­cas of the cu­ra­tor’s let­ter and a few 18th-cen­tury hand­writ­ten doc­u­ments point­ing to the an­tiq­uity of the house for the ex­hi­bi­tion.

“I used a pen to fill in the groove cre­ated on the ce­ramic, so I have ended up writ­ing th­ese doc­u­ments all over again,” says Wong, de­scrib­ing her process. The act of try­ing to re­trace his­tory, quite lit­er­ally, seems like an apt metaphor for the artists’ role in the Hi! Houses project in gen­eral — an at­tempt to piece to­gether erased his­tory even as one adds bits and pieces of one’s own as if one were cre­at­ing a palimpsest.

As she dresses up each room at Law Uk Folk Mu­seum with her cre­ations, in­clud­ing an il­lu­mi­nated porce­lain moun­tain range show­ing the way the orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants of the house ar­rived from the north, the en­tire process of putting the ex­hi­bi­tion to­gether is be­ing doc­u­mented which will form part of the show. But then while records and archival ma­te­rial have a piv­otal role in the Hi! Houses project, at the end of the day, “what’s more at­trac­tive to an artist is per­haps the feel­ing of his­tory and the imag­i­na­tion of times past,” says Wong.

In her imag­i­na­tion, each room in the Law Uk house has a dis­tinct per­son­al­ity — the bed­room is fem­i­nine and in­ti­mate, while the farm­ing room is more like an ar­ti­san’s work­shop. “Un­like in other places where it is com­mon to be liv­ing in 300-year-old houses, in Hong Kong we have very few in­stances of old build­ings be­ing re­stored and used for res­i­den­tial pur­poses,” says Wong, who to­tally en­joyed the long hours spent fan­ta­siz­ing about the ways the dif­fer­ent rooms in the house would lend them­selves to her artis­tic in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

She felt strongly about giv­ing her au­di­ence a sense of the Hakka lan­guage. “Sing­ing folk songs is a way of ex­press­ing the deep­est cul­tural mem­o­ries of Hakka peo­ple,” says Wong. So she has carved some of those lyrics — of­ten about the hard­ships of work­ing in the fields all day, or mourn­ful dit­ties about say­ing good­bye to a rel­a­tive one might never see again — on back­lit porce­lain slabs and bam­boo yokes used by Hakka women to trans­port stuff. “I want to use ce­ramic as a lan­guage to talk about Hakka cul­ture,” says Wong.

Spin-off projects

Mean­while in Wong Uk, Lam’s young col­lab­o­ra­tors, Quee­nie Hui and Wena Ho, both stu­dents of cul­tural man­age­ment at CUHK, are qui­etly get­ting their act to­gether in the lead-up to the open­ing in Jan­uary. Ho de­vel­oped a some­what off­beat au­dio guide for the event. The nar­ra­tion, in the voice of the house, is gen­tly provoca­tive, goad­ing the vis­i­tor to find out more.

Sound-in, as the au­dio guide is called, says Ho, “is more like a friend who vis­its an ex­hi­bi­tion with you, giv­ing you in­sights and sto­ries that you can­not tell merely by look­ing at the art­works”.

For in­stance, in the gallery ex­hibit­ing fab­ric dyed in indigo ex­tracted from plants grow­ing in the area — a trib­ute to the indigo dye­ing that once flour­ished in Sha Tin but has since dis­ap­peared, ex­ist­ing only in lo­cal mythol­ogy — the au­dio guide will share the in­for­ma­tion with the au­di­ence, and then lead the train of thought to a deeper, philo­soph­i­cal level, by ask­ing, “Is it true to say that ev­ery place has its own color?”

Lam, who will con­duct work­shops with chil­dren from pri­mary and sec­ondary schools, ask­ing them to come up with cre­ative work based on their ex­pe­ri­ence of the house, plans to take the model be­yond Sha Tin, to an aban­doned monastery in Tuen Mun and else­where, if he can have his way.

“In school chil­dren are taught his­tor y as sep­a­rate from their im­me­di­ate sur­round­ings. I wanted to put th­ese two back to­gether. This way you cre­ate some­thing which re­lates to your own his­tory as well,” he says.

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


its fas­ci­nat­ing fea­tures, the old Hakka house in Wong Uk vil­lage did not get too many vis­i­tors un­til re­cently. Fiona Wong will use her cre­ations in ce­ramic to draw at­ten­tion to Hakka cul­ture at the Law Uk Folk Mu­seum.


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.


Pedith Chan,

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