短評《陳巧真:踱步》 Review: Chan Hau Chun ''Silent Sojourns''
約翰百德 (John BATTEN)
at 1:41pm on 3rd June 2024

(A review in English by John Batten of Hong Kong artist Chan Hau Chun’s exhibition Silent Sojourns at WMA space in Hong Kong)


(一篇有關香港紀錄片工作者陳巧真的展覽英文藝評。 《陳巧真:踱步》。WMA space,香港。)


Images above:


Image 1:

Chan Hau Chun: Still from A room of many rooms (2019-2024), single-channel video projection, 27min16sec 


Image 2:

Chan Hau Chun: Section of A night of all nights, showing kitchen basin (diameter 35cm) and light bulb (diameter 5cm), installation view, 2024


Image 3:

Chan Hau Chun: Pages from Dream, transcript of a dream, zine, 2024  


All photographs: John Batten



Review by John Batten:


Chan Hau Chun

Silent Sojourns



Hong Kong documentary filmmaker/artist Chan Hau Chun’s Silent Sojourns is the second project commissioned for WMA’s 2023/2024 theme of “Home.” Chan has reconstructed-as-installation a Hong Kong residential unit divided into separate, black-panelled rooms inside WMA Space, its gallery in a nondescript office building. In these small roomed, now-exhibition spaces, Chan attempts to recreate the inside atmosphere of what she describes as an “ordinary-looking (residential) building” housing many subdivided flats, in an undisclosed location in Hong Kong, possibly Sham Shui Po where many such flats are located.



Chan Hau Chun: Section of built sub-divided flat walls, installation view, 2024 (photo: John Batten)


Chan initially visited “a homeless acquaintance” in this building in late 2018. Over the following five years, she visited regularly and lived in the building, meeting residents from different floors. She began filming, including talking to residents, in 2019. In an excellent zine-like booklet, containing photography, drawings, one or two-line aphorisms, a formal explanatory essay and four pieces of poetry, Chan outlines her own observations, emotions and the reflections of residents. This exhibition is intriguing as it mixes a political message about sub-standard housing, with an overtly artistic presentation of the lives of residents in such poor accommodation. Therein lies a tension in approach that I will outline below.


Housing is Hong Kong’s most enduring social issue because (to keep it simple) the government relies on high-priced land sales and land premiums from private property development for revenue, residential property is then sold at high prices to private owners who consider it both home and investment. Public rental housing is sought-after, even by the middle-class, as it offers ultra-cheap, albeit small, accommodation compared to the high costs of private rental housing. Often caught in this private rental trap are the city’s elderly poor, recent immigrants and families from the mainland ineligible for public housing, and those with mental, health and addiction issues whose itinerant lives reduce their accommodation options to very small, cheaper rooms in subdivided flats.


Chan Hau Chun: Still from A room of many rooms (2019-2024), single-channel video projection, 27min16sec  (photo: John Batten)


Chan’s exhibition is sensitive and articulate and portrays systemic poverty completely differently from the organisation most active in poverty-alleviation reform, The Society of Community Organization (SoCO), whose many exhibitions and published books in collaboration with experienced photojournalists explicitly pushes for social and housing policy changes. These books (and an excellent video about West Kowloon) graphically show the poor living conditions of cage-homes and subdivided flats accompanied by graphic stories by individual residents.


In Chan’s videos the residents are similar; in the exhibition we meet and learn a little about their lives through videoed interviews inside the small homes in which they live. Another, shorter video, Wandering away from home, filmed on the street gives, I suppose, a context of abstracted alienation. Inside the completely black-walled, labyrinth-like, partitioned rooms, the exhibition also includes photographs, text, hanging dimmed lights, an illuminated kitchen basin, and various publications to read (including the ‘transcript’ of a dream), and a Chinese chess game in-progress on the ground amidst graffiti/scribblings on the floor. At the exhibition entrance is a large hand-written ‘reminder notice’ written on a small table-top:


         To me

                  Remember, all your hard work means

               nothing. Remind yourself that your

               ultimate dream is to die freely.


These words set the personal, sometime-poignant, existential approach to the exhibition. Chan states, “…Weary figures are eclipsed by the visible and invisible rooms, as they traverse different times and spaces. Here, solitude is perhaps a peculiar common tongue, shared among strangers living under the same roof.”  


Chan Hau Chun: Who will join me for a game of chess? (2024), installation view, with stool (hidden), 2024  (photo: John Batten)


This feeling is highlighted throughout the exhibition, but revealed to visitors is a struggle in how best to present the exhibition (the layout, the location of videos, the darkness of the spaces, etc), and by extension, the residents themselves. Available to read is a three-page discussion “on space” between Chan and the exhibition curator Chloe Chow. This is an extraordinary discussion as the ‘back-scenes’ of exhibition-making are private, usually never discussed in public.


Chan Hau Chun: Still from Wandering away from home (2019-2024), single-channel video projection, 10min48sec  (photo: John Batten)


The voice of the artist is inevitable in an exhibition, but is an uneasy position for Chan. Possibly, as a filmmaker it is the film that contains her entire message, but a physical exhibition requires additional added objects, and these are loaded with other nuanced meanings. Chan and Chow both discuss how to approach the exhibition as its physical appearance overinfluences everything. In one exchange, Chan says: “Perhaps, the reason I don’t want to show the agony of the partitioned rooms is that there is also beauty. There’s warmth and sweetness in it.” However, she is explicit of the exhibition’s social role: “...the reason I started this project is that I believe society’s structures and procedures have dehumanised them (the residents) for too long. So, I don’t want to invade their lives with a specific objective, but rather to envision the complexities of their existence.”


This exhibition requires the viewer to read much material provided by the artist, to watch videos and sit in uncomfortable, dark and tightly partitioned spaces, and consider the wise words about life and their circumstances by the residents, all honestly spoken. It can be taken, as the artist says at one point, as “…a salute to the beauty and cunning of life….”



Chan Hau Chun: Silent Sojourns

WMA Space, Hong Kong

19 April – 30 June 2024

Visitor registration necessary at: Chan Hau Chun: Silent Sojourns