Wednesday 20 August 2014


by Luca Lum 

I’ve travelled to New Zealand a total of nine times since I was three years old; time is slow there, its land is vast and flat and its horizons infinite, bereft of obvious marks of civilisation.Coming from the world I was accustomed to (sky crowded in by a dense halo of concrete fortresses) it always seemed like a kind of terra nullius or arcadia, some post-human earth. 

Now all my travels to other places are always haunted by the spinning disorientation of spatial difference set in motion by my early visits to New Zealand. New Zealand was Other; I was Other. No matter how many times I visited, whenever I arrived I was always estranged.

Travel to all places me is precisely that feeling of estrangement, of being shorn apart and set adrift of being somewhere and at the same time nowhere, as though my feet can’t quite find a firm hold, my vision disoriented by an elusive horizon. 


In Hong Kong I am greeted by a ghost -- a black dog of cement, heat, and noise. A spectre of the metropolis: home. The horizon is rimmed with rooftops and my steps find their footing. Gravity challenges the evidence of movement: the passport stamps, the tired eyes. I stare at the concrete and feel humidity cocooning my skin and I feel not quite elsewhere, not quite nowhere. It feels as though I’ve stepped out my front door to another street in the same old world.


I find small differences that pool into larger ones. I catch them like the drips from air-conditioning that fall into my eyes: the chatter of Cantonese; the labyrinthine fretwork of streets that curve and weave in and out of each other; the city’s patch-work of the old and new; the vibe of the place, a kind of restlessness — a buzz, a trajectory, a momentum.

“How’s HK?” a friend asks on Facebook Messenger, “I remember I didn't really like it because it was so noisy and cramped. Like Singapore, but worse.”

It’s the second day and already it seems as though I have seen so much, as though I have been here for years. Hong Kong shakes you awake with its surprising turns and its unceasing rhythms. Every sense in my mind and body is like a hypersensitive needle on a scale, tremblingly registering each new stimuli. Moments are full-bodied, deep and vivid. I absorb everything.

We were at Spring Workshop the day before, an independent art space known for its artist residences. I’d never seen a space for artist residencies, and for some reason I’d anticipated cramped rooms with poor ventilation and demanding government overseers. Spring Workshop looks like the HK equivalent of a New York loft. Located in an old industrial site, its grubby, garage-like exteriors give way to slick, pristine interiors — a long, open-concept space with moving partitions that render the site malleable. It’s relaxed, independent, fluid — a form that mirrors its function — to provide a space outside of the main bustle of Hong Kong to develop one’s praxis. Away from the hum and distractions and beat of the main city the mind is flushed clean and its contents can be examined and sieved like panned gold. It’s less a return to Romantic purity than the feeling of needing to be ensconced Elsewhere in order to work — to be at a distance from noise — things, phenomena, people — in order to think clearly, to inhabit the mind more fully.

“I love it here”, I message back. I tell them Singapore feels sluggish by comparison, dogged by a certain lassitude, a complacency. A friend from California once remarked while we were queueing for the shuttle bus at Marina Bay Sands, Sentosa, that he found Singaporeans really trusting and kind of naive. I was startled for a moment, but then I took a close look at the people around us: they stood slouched, eyes glued to their phone screens, vacantly staring into space with vaguely lobotomised expressions. They trusted their environment. It was not going turn against them — no gum, no guns in this sin city without the sin, a dream pristine brought to you by an urban anaesthetic.


I trawl the streets of Hong Kong on our day off. On Google Maps on my phone the streets seem precise and logical — but I’m lost once I steer my eyes to the pavement and the sky. The edges of buildings are variegated and lines do not align to the lines on my map. I enjoy getting lost.  My limbs are tired but enlivened. I walk with my back erect.

That night I go to a rooftop bar in Central HK with two friends, J & V. J had studied Literature and Art History, while V studied business. We’re outliers at the bar, kids in comparison to the well-heeled, cosmopolitan financier types swirling liquor over low tables.

I’d met one of my friends in Singapore about a month prior. I’d taken her around the “Unearthed” exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum because she wanted me to show her the local arts scene. She told me she was happily surprised that Singapore seemed so vibrant in that regard — according to her, Hong Kong was dead by comparison.

“Our institutions are not good,” she said. “Our art museums are terrible.”

I was surprised. I fill her in on the places we’d visited and the people we’d talked to — the Asia Art Archive, Claire Hsu, Chantal Wong; Para Site, Cosmin Costinas. “Hong Kong seems a lot more interesting to me. There is something about the city’s chaos that seems to afford greater latitude for creative work,” I tell her, “It’s less centrally regulated.”

Space is a significant factor here — like Singapore, Hong Kong also faces incredible land-shortage, but my sense is that its approach to urban planning is different. I see it in the patchwork character of the city. I wonder about Hong Kong’s land-use policies and to what extent they were centrally controlled and to what extent market-driven, and how that influences its art ecology. I ask my friends, but they’re not certain.


On our way to Kowloon to obligate my desire to visit Chungking Mansions, my friends and I pass a booth raising funds for “Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP)”, a proposed nonviolent occupation protest for universal suffrage set to take place in Hong Kong’s Central Business District in July, just outside one of the MTR stations. “You should go,” V says, “This is another part you have to see. People from Hong Kong love to protest.” I tell her sure, I’d love to, but by then I’d have flown home.


Chungking Mansions is gaudy and bright. The main shopping area is lit to a full glare under florescent lights and is relatively organised and clean. It’s filled with mostly South Asian and African migrants. A dense node of migrant activity and littered with stores selling knock-off Casio watches and cheap electronics, it's a colony, an ant’s hive of transplants in the larger hive of Hong Kong, and reminds me of Lucky Plaza. The biggest difference is that its occupants are mostly male.

“I don’t know why you want to come here.” V says, “There is nothing special about this place. A lot of tourists come here now.” I spy American tourists marked out by the authoritative way they take up space and their fanny packs and big cameras slung around their necks. The dark, labyrinthine vision presented by the vision of Wong Kar Wai in Chungking Express is probably elsewhere in the building, in the dense tunnels above the white glare. As though the otherness we seek is kept inside the deepest reaches of the hive, not allowed to spill out onto the streets. The furthest we get to piercing its interior is taking the elevator (cramped, and monitored by CCTV) to the “The Delhi Club” and peek in through the slip of glass at the door.


On our last day we head to Asia Society to catch Xu Bing’s exhibition, It Begins with Metamorphosis. It’s situated next to the British Embassy in a quiet, affluent-looking neighbourhood dotted with posh hotels. We cross a large rooftop space used as a garden. There were mostly student visitors at the exhibit, gaggles of children from the French or British school.

The space has high ceilings, and looks like a tomb. A central axis runs through the gallery, and from the start of the exhibition you can see the artwork right at the end, beckoning with its aura. Except for the noisy children — who don’t know any rules and who probably wouldn’t care to obey them even if they did — the space is filled with a religious quiet. It’s hallowed ground. It’s another kind of otherness, the otherness of world sealed up around itself.

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