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 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.”
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.
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.