墜落，卻非鴿子回京 | A fall, but the pigeons don’t return to Beijing
約翰百德 (John BATTEN)
at 3:08pm on 25th February 2019
1. 嚴瑞芳在油街。Yim Sui-fong in Oil Street.
2. 北角電車總站附近長椅上的鴿子。Yim Sui-fong in Oil Street; pigeons on a bench near North Point tram terminus.
圖片: 約翰百德 Photo: John Batten
(Please scroll down for English version)
A fall, but the pigeons don’t return to Beijing
by John Batten
When Hong Kong artist Yim Sui-fong asked me to write a piece for an exhibition catalogue, I suggested instead we walk and chat about Hong Kong’s recent social, political and urban environment changes – our discussion would be the basis for the text to accompany her video, Fall Down, to be shown in a group exhibition in Beijing in March.
Our walk started at Oil Street in North Point. Then following King’s Road we visited older shops and just past the entrance to King’s Sauna we entered the basement of the old State Theatre to see sign-makers, tailors, hair-dressers, shoe shops and building contractors, who make this a much richer place than just an iconic architectural landmark. Climbing up the staircase of a nearby tong lau, we admired the beautiful green terrazzo staircase. We then walked through the North Point street market amidst the ding-ding of the trams and caught a ferry to Tokwanwan. We stopped for a brief coffee before returning by ferry, then caught a bus to Causeway Bay and Central.
Yim’s art focuses on video, photography and installation. Last year, Yim was awarded the prestigious WMA Masters Award for her photography and a personal story, The Unlocked Space, about her family - which she explored through historical artefacts found in an abandoned flat, and a wider story about Hong Kong’s co-operative housing. A recent video was a finalist in the Human Rights Arts Prize 2017: it is the symbolic story of pigeons released during the celebrations of Hong Kong’s return to the mainland in 1997, supposedly to then fly back to the mainland, but became disorientated and stayed because of that week’s terrible weather!
In between her artist life, Yim is one of the founders of the non-profit artist initiative Rooftop Institute located in the creative community of Art & Culture Outreach (ACO) in Wan Chai. With a commitment to community and Asian art engagement, Rooftop has for the past two years organized residencies for Hong Kong artists and secondary school students paired with artists from Japan, Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam to build Hong Kong’s regional Asian art links – in contrast to the more usual official travel and artist residency opportunities in Europe, USA and China.
Yim’s latest project is The man who attends to the times – which continues an aspect of her WMA project. It is, initially, a book of photographs and text about her father, following research and interviews with relatives and his former work colleagues. Yim unearths his “very ordinary life” and “tease(s) out tales which were typical of those who lived through the 1940s and 1950s as a migrant here – just like how we could easily discover a rags-to-riches story in nearly every family in a city (built) on migration.”
Her father worked for 29 years, between 1971 to 2000, at the old Government Supply Depot on Oil Street in North Point, now a large Cheung Kong development, with a small corner of heritage buildings, formerly the original premises of the Hong Kong Yacht Club, now the Leisure & Cultural Services Department’s Oi! art space. Yim tracks her father’s life, from the squatter area in Tai Hang where he first lived, his jobs as an usher at the old New York cinema, as a tram driver and restaurant waiter. And, then, his permanent government job as a watchman at the Oil Street depot. She presents historic photographs of the “transitory nature of Hong Kong’s colonial existence” focusing on Oil Street as a cog in the British administrative machine, and as an example of the (generally) efficient development of Hong Kong and her father’s social activities. In the second half of the project she walks the same routes her father supposedly made from their later home in Chai Wan to work. These recent documentary photographs are an overlay of the past, a contemporary record of similar scenery and people whom her father may have seen and met.
The former Oil Street government supply depot is a legendary place for Hong Kong’s arts community. After its closure as government warehouses in 1998, these spaces were cheaply rented out on short-term leases. Immediately, many artists and arts organisations saw an opportunity to set-up studios and gallery spaces. An organic arts community quickly evolved and was active for the next two years. Remarkably, Yim’s father and his “very ordinary life” and work place straddled both Hong Kong’s change in sovereignty and as witness to the late-1990s renaissance of Hong Kong’s art scene – the precursor of what it is today and of which his daughter is now an active participant. The lives of ‘ordinary people’ - the majority of us - are usually unrecorded, but nonetheless it is these same individuals who give depth to history’s intricate stories.
Yim Sui-fong’s Fall Down is a video that uses British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s fall on the staircase outside Beijing’s Great Hall of the People in 1982 as a metaphor for personal failure. Yim’s video shows performers spontaneously falling-down at different locations around Hong Kong, while the voice-over has performers explaining their feelings and ideas related to the performances and its historical precedent. Thatcher’s own fall was at a moment of social, political and historical significance as negotiations for colonial Hong Kong’s return to the mainland began.
Hong Kong in 2019, Beijing in 1982: different times, but inevitably linked by social and political history. Now, let’s tackle that text for this Beijing exhibition!
hic sunt leones*
date: 22 March to 21 May 2019
venue：798 Art District (Gallery Weekend Beijing 2019 "Up & Coming Sector")
*on mediaeval maps dragons or lions were often drawn to denote dangerous or uncharted land, thus leading to the Latin phrase ‘hic sunt leones’ or ‘Here be Dragons’
Link for further info:
This article was originally published in Ming Pao Weekly, 2 March 2019. Translated by Aulina Chan.