Tradition trampled in “fine arts” frenzy

By Doug Meigs May 23, 2012

Fung Kwok’s paintings are relics of a rapidly changing society.
The elderly man hunched over his worktable every day, at a cramped, unlicensed stall on 443 Shanghai Street. Using calligraphy pens and erasers he produced charcoal portraits, based on photographs.
Fung’s works often adorned household altars honoring his clients’ deceased relatives. He also sold artistic sketches. There was a portrait of Mao Zedong, and a nude woman, lifted from a vintage pornographic film.
Demand for Fung’s charcoal paintings had fallen over the last few decades. Inexpensive photocopying became commonplace, and in turn, his skills less needed. Yet the man retained clientele. A pink receipt book documents a steady stream of transactions between 2009 and 2010, proof he had recently produced about one painting every three days. A 16x20 inch portrait of a one person would cost about HK$400-500.
Fung is the picture of dignity, himself. He wears gold-rimmed glasses with his silver hair parted nearly on the side. About this time last year, he was painting at his stall. The city’s arts sector percolated at the time with further anecdotal evidence that Hong Kong was relinquishing its “cultural desert” status to become “the arts hub of Asia”.
Interest in the Fine Arts again consumed Hong Kong when ArtHK returned to Wan Chai last weekend for the fifth straight year. This year, Fung was absent from his usual workplace in Yau Ma Tei. His stall had been almost completely demolished a few months earlier. All that remains now is a small wooden cart.
He had spent nearly 40 years reproducing photographs in the vicinity. The stall in Yau Ma Tei was his second. He had been forced to vacate the first when Langham Place Shopping Mall was built in the 1990s. Stalls like Fung’s once were common around Hong Kong. Only a few remain.
Fung had a stroke over the winter. While he lay in hospital, a notice was posted on his stall, warning that workers needed access to paint the adjacent building. There was nothing Fung could do.
His son retrieved any salvageable materials, and he shared the bits of memorabilia with Wooferten, a local community arts group at 404 Shanghai Street. 
Since then, Fung has been recuperating at home with his son in the New Territories.
Wooferten has been showcasing Fung’s story and paintings inside its gallery-cum-office.
The exhibit is part of a “Yau Ma Tei Self-Rescue Project” meant to inspire neighbors to support local businesses and to oppose gentrification of the area. The exhibit closed last weekend, but Fung’s portraits will stay on display until the end of June.
Fung declined China Daily’s requests for an interview through Roland Ip, one of the exhibit’s curators at Wooferten. The painter cannot read or hold a calligraphy pen since he suffered the stroke. Ip relayed Fung’s historical background from conversations with Fung’s son. The reticent painter is 80.
However you define his charcoal paintings — artwork or craftsmanship — Fung’s work is far more likely to appear inside local homes than any of the highbrow ornamentation sold at art fairs or displayed in the windows of Soho’s galleries.
More than 60,000 people attended ArtHK, which opened last Wednesday with a VIP preview. It concluded on Sunday. Hong Kong’s general public alongside globetrotting millionaire art collectors perused booths set up by 266 galleries from 38 countries.
ArtHK is considered Asia’s most important art fair. Work on display included masterpieces by Western iconoclasts, celebrity painters from the Chinese mainland, other Asian artists and a small contingent of local artists.
The homegrown event was sold to MCH Group last July. The Switzerland-based buyer runs Art Basel, the world’s top art fair. Art Basel also owns a subsidiary event in Florida (Art Basel Miami Beach).
Next year, ArtHK’s name will change to “Art Basel in Hong Kong.” The new owners promised to retain the event’s mix of Asian and international works while retaining Magnus Renfrew as the fair’s director. At an opening press conference, Renfrew said Art Basel’s leadership would help Hong Kong’s art scene to reach a broader international market.
Ip suspects Hong Kong’s supposedly new “regional arts hub” status is merely a reflection of the city’s thriving commercial art market, which has grown rapidly thanks to its duty-free port and convenient sales outlet for in-demand mainland artists. Christie’s and Sotheby’s are entrenched in Hong Kong. The city, officially has become the world’s third largest art auction market by sales, behind New York and London.
“I don’t think the city was ever a cultural desert. We have many great movies and street culture, but those are not ‘high art,’” he said, speaking with China Daily while walking past the remaining fragments of Fung’s stall on a brief loop around the nearby Yau Ma Tei neighborhood.
“Government officials don’t think of small things as culture,” he complained. “They only look at the big picture. Even if a building is ‘not historic enough’ it still has a cultural context worth preserving. These stalls (he gestured to the green metal hawker stalls lining Canton Road) are also related to local culture, even if they’re just selling mechanical second hand objects. Before the present age, this street was full of stalls.”
Ip expects most of the stalls to disappear in the next five years. He said the government’s Food Environment and Hygiene Department has stepped up pressure on hawkers after the disastrous fire on Fa Yuen Street that killed nine people in November.
Returning to the Wooferten offices, Ip pointed to hand-painted “advertisements,” made by artists in memorial to small businesses forced to close because of increasing rents.
Inside the building, across from Fung’s charcoal paintings, a video installation played a continuous loop of storefronts dissolving into chain stores. “It’s like an apocalypse for local shops,” he said.
Gentrification is endemic throughout Hong Kong. Rent increases have forced many local residents to relocate to distant, less expensive districts. Ip said art galleries and cultural hotspots exacerbate the problem. He used the term “Soholization” for the social disruption resulting from galleries and upscale shops concentrating in Soho.
“We don’t want art to be the only character of a community — to neglect the other characters,” said Ip. “But if local culture has been falling off in Yau Ma Tei continuously, people in the local community should really be careful about us artists.”
Many of the world’s top contemporary art galleries have already established shops in Hong Kong. Last week in Central, Gallerie Perrotin from Paris and Pearl Lam Galleries from Shanghai opened. The French gallery opened 17 floors above where London’s White Cube gallery launched to great fanfare in March. Pearl Lam, originally from Hong Kong, opened her space on the sixth floor of the Pedder Building, just below where New York’s Gagosian Gallery made its high-profile Asia debut in January of 2011.
Nowadays, Central’s concentration of galleries is seeping into neighboring Sheung Wan. Hip cafes and fashion boutiques have joined the procession, occupying former storefronts of car mechanics, printing and hardware stores.
Asia Art Archive (AAA) is situated in the midst of Sheung Wan’s “Soholization”, on the 11th floor of the Hollywood Centre. Down on the street, local antique shops mix with restaurants, repair shops, and coffin-makers, all near a Taoist temple.
AAA researcher Janet Chan spent most of her life in Western District. She grew up in the neighborhood. She admits it has changed dramatically in the past few years. Despite nearby rents tripling in 2011, after the stylish Lomography Gallery Store moved next door to the Para/Site Art Space (downhill from the archive), she remains optimistic that local conservation-minded people will preserve Sheung Wan’s eclectic atmosphere.
Chan first heard the phrase “cultural desert” applied to Hong Kong while attending secondary school in the 90s. She believes the term stems from public expectations that a global financial hub should host a likewise cosmopolitan cultural landscape.
Today, Hong Kong is investing an astronomical sum in the arts — HK$2.8 billion (that’s HK$242 million more than Singapore according to ArtAsiaPacific’s 2012 Almanac). Hong Kong’s contemporary art galleries and arts spaces now number 97, also nearly double Singapore’s tally).
“Because of my job, I’ve had an opportunity to talk with people in the art communities of nearby countries and cities,” she said. “When they talk about Hong Kong, they usually only know about the art fair and whoever joined the Biennial. I think Hong Kong as an art hub and Hong Kong art are so different.”
Chan took a black pen and drew an outline of Hong Kong on a blank sheet of paper. She proceeded to illustrate the city’s evolving arts ecology. When she finished, the paper was covered with a thick tangle of annotated markings from New Territories to Ap Lei Chau.
In the 1950s, there were occasional artist associations’ exhibits in hotels. The Museum of Art opened in 1962 (and relocated to TST in 90s). The Hong Kong Arts Centre in Wan Chai ushered in government-funded independent art spaces in the late 70s. Arts-focused institutions of higher education became more plentiful in subsequent decades. More local graduates turned to art.
By the 90s, alternative art spaces began reclaiming Hong Kong’s derelict industrial areas, while international galleries began concentrating in Soho. Curator-run spaces dominated the art scene during the new millennium, said Chan.
In the current decade, the government’s ultimate arts project began formalizing its foundation. Design plans were finalized for the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) in 2011 and the WKCD Authority hosted its first event, a Cantonese opera, in a makeshift bamboo theatre, in January of 2012.
Coinciding with ArtHK, WKCD’s contemporary art museum named “M+” soft-launched last week with a pop-up exhibit on the downtrodden streets of Yau Ma Tei. Seven Hong Kong-based artists have installation works at six different sites. The exhibit will continue until June 10.
Works include a park sculpture made of giant neon Coca Cola and Sprite signs discarded in Macao; a vacant  “tong lau” (tenement building built in late 19th century to the 1960s in Hong Kong) retrofitted as a multimedia ghost story; silly “self-improvement” workshops hosted by local shopkeepers; and museum-style video installations tucked into makeshift gallery spaces.
“For M+, it’s very important that the museum is not the same as the building. It’s actually in reality a relationship between the art, the artists, and the public,” said Lars Nittve, M+ executive director, noting that the museum would be ultimately anchored in the communities of western Kowloon. He described Yau Ma Tei as the embodiment of “Hong Kong’s heart and soul”.
The physical M+ is not scheduled to open until the end of 2017. Nittve is in the process of acquiring artworks for the 58,000 square feet space. He estimated that Hong Kong artists would take up 20 percent of the collection, with the remaining space dedicated to artists from China, Asia and the West.
Many neighborhood residents seemed baffled by the impromptu gallery spaces. On opening day, Mobile M+ tour guides took guests through labyrinthine streets to view the exhibit, while Yau Ma Tei residents and shopkeepers swarmed about in their daily routines.
As the M+ entourage walked past, one local man voiced his confusion: “What’s with all these gwai-pos (foreign women)?” he asked in Cantonese. “Is somebody shooting a movie?”