VOICE-OVER: What makes Hong Kong unique? Its towering skyscrapers . . . dense neighbourhoods . . . traditional art forms . . . glittering movie stars and pop idols? How did this former British colony give rise to a distinctive culture over the post-war decades? How do artists, designers, architects, and filmmakers in Hong Kong today continue to define the city’s global image?
Join us for a tour of Hong Kong: Here and Beyond, one of the inaugural exhibitions at M+. This exhibition tells the story of Hong Kong visual culture through works of art, architecture, design, film and television, animation, and more.
Divided into four chapters, the show reveals the continuities between past and present by highlighting works that reflect distinct identities for Hong Kong. Over the past sixty years, Hong Kong has been a vibrant meeting place of people, ideas, and cultures from around the world. The exhibition reflects on the city’s historically open, dynamic culture and responses to unique challenges.
The exhibition’s first chapter, titled ‘Here’, opens with the work of a Hong Kong icon.
TINA PANG: The first work you'll see when you come into the exhibition, Hong Kong: Here and Beyond, is this work by Tsang Tsou Choi—the King of Kowloon. It's painted on a map of the Kowloon Peninsula in Tsang Tsou Choi's very distinctive calligraphy. We always knew that we wanted to start the exhibition with this work, partly to give a really strong indication of our location ‘here’ in Kowloon. But then, secondly, because his work was so much for the public, he really wrote his calligraphy only on public surfaces—on utility housings, on pillar boxes, and so on—and it was intended for everyone to enjoy and for everyone to read.
He wanted to communicate that he was descended from the original owners of Kowloon, and then to talk about the branches of his family and the areas in Kowloon that they occupied and that they were the rightful owners of. So, here are the locations. And along the top, he has a number of characters that read ‘5-6-7-8-9’ in a combination of Chinese and Arabic numerals. This is very, very distinctly Hong Kong, this kind of hybrid way of communicating.
But what really intrigued me and what really, I think, is important about starting the exhibition with this work is that he used ink, and ink is always associated with calligraphy, with landscape painting, with a very storied tradition of Chinese literati painting and cultural expression. Hong Kong during the late 1950s and early 1960s became a hotbed of experimentation in ink. That led to a really global innovation in contemporary ink painting, known as the New Ink Painting Movement. And so, we wanted to subvert this idea of ink as a more esoteric medium to talk about how it's actually something that is all around us and accessible to people from all walks of life, which the King of Kowloon's work was when he was alive.
VOICE-OVER: Ink paintings, like this one by Lui Shou-kwan, played an important role in the development of art produced in Hong Kong in the post-war period. Lui Shou-kwan, who arrived to the city from Guangzhou in 1948, was one of the most influential artists of his time. A central figure in the New Ink Movement, his mission was to ensure that the traditional medium of Chinese ink painting could respond to Euro–American modernist abstraction.
At a time when Hong Kong was an important regional centre of trade and manufacturing, it’s no surprise that Hong Kong artists were free to experiment with new and diverse artistic expressions.
TINA PANG: The other work that I want to talk about is this painting by Szeto Keung. Szeto Keung was an artist who was born in China, grew up in Hong Kong, and then trained in Taiwan. Underlying Szeto's practice are lots of ideas about Chinese philosophy that derived from that traditional training. After he graduated in Taiwan, he moved to New York, and there he became the centre of a Chinese diasporic art world, bringing together artists from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
What is really distinctive about his work is that—even though it has a lot of these traditional underpinnings, like many other artists working in Hong Kong or that emerged in Hong Kong and became important here—is that he’s synthesised a lot of ideas that are circulating globally around modernity and modern expression. So, he doesn't choose so much ink; he chooses to work in oils and acrylics.
I'll draw attention to a few things on this canvas. So, this is a little bit of an illusionary work. You can see here—this, in fact, it looks like fabric, but it's all painted. And you only know that really when you see his name, painted here. And he’s written his surname, and then the date of the work: ‘1992–93’. And then, as you move across the canvas, you can see he has attached a tree branch, and there is fabric here. But other elements of the painting, such as these rose petals, are all painted. And so, they're made. They look so real that actually only until you come up to the surface of the painting do you realise that it's a work of a master artist.
VOICE-OVER: Artists have always been at the forefront of commenting upon challenging social issues. The Vietnamese–American artist Tiffany Chung’s work Flotsam and Jetsam explores the fate of Vietnamese refugees who arrived in Hong Kong between the 1970s and 1990s. Chung discovered that this history, though recent, is hardly remembered by contemporary generations in both Hong Kong and Vietnam.
Waves of inward migration from mainland China since the 1940s and a shortage of usable land have made population density and affordable housing issues that shape the city. Kacey Wong, who trained as an architect before becoming an artist, uses everyday materials in his art. In Paddling Home, he turned a tiny Hong Kong apartment into a houseboat to critique the city’s dense urban conditions, sailing it off the West Kowloon harbourfront to escape the tyranny of the property ladder.
While taking to the sea is one option, architect Gary Chang has found a way to maximise the space in the apartment he grew up in through evolving experimentation.
TINA PANG: One of the very special projects in this exhibition is a collaboration we made with the architect Gary Chang. It's a one-to-one reproduction of his home. It's such an ingenious design solution to living in small spaces today that is applicable not just to Hong Kong, but to everywhere else in the world now.
So, what we loved also about this project was that it's such a Hong Kong story. Gary lived in this space for his whole life, originally with his two sisters and his parents, so five people living in this thirty-two-square-metre space, with just—I think—three bedrooms, and one of them was, in fact, even rented out to someone at some point. So, this was where Gary slept; he slept on the sofa. Over the years after his family moved out, as a design student, he started to really experiment with the space himself. So, it's gone through many different design ideas. And Gary's idea, I think, is something that all of us can adopt, which is we should really shape our spaces to how we use them. And his principle is that, really, we live in the city, and so our homes can be very compact. And they can adapt to what we're doing at any given moment.
So over here, you'll see his bed, and so the bed comes down and, in that mode, it's a bedroom with a TV over here. And he has of a full-size shower. One of the principles of Gary's design is that everything is luxurious. So even though it's a small space, you can still fit a lot in it. So, this is probably a larger shower than any of us in Hong Kong would normally have. It also doubles as a private space for when he has guests, and they want to have a private phone call. Behind these walls, is a full-size bathtub, so he hasn't scrimped on any of the things that he really wants to enjoy in life. And then behind here—I'll just pull this out a little bit for you to see—is a walk-in wardrobe with a mirror—a full-size mirror—so you can get ready at the beginning of the day for your day, and then push back to conceal what's behind. We felt that this was such an important thing to show public audiences, to really inspire them for how you can live better in your own small space.
And then to complete the experience of visiting Gary's home, we shot the view from outside his window towards the Eastern Island Corridor, so that you really get the authentic experience.
VOICE-OVER: From the personal and subjective stories presented by artists, the exhibition turns its attention to projects that define how Hong Kong has been presented in mediums that represent communal experiences of visual culture. The section titled ‘Identities’ largely presents graphic design works, but it deliberately begins with two major built projects: the Peak Tower in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Pavilion at Expo ‘70 in Osaka. These projects’ branding and architectural designs emphasise the multiple ways in which Hong Kong positions itself at home and abroad, across the spectrum of regional tradition and global modernity.
From tourism projects and public campaigns to publishing and corporate branding, this section presents the varied ways Hong Kong projects its identity locally and globally, and how designers in Hong Kong mediate concepts of Asia and China through their work.
You’ll see materials related to the branding of the Peak Tower and Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, as well as the art direction for the influential English-language The Asia Magazine. All of these were designed by Henry Steiner.
In contrast to international-facing graphic design and branding, government campaigns focused more on domestic issues. Among these, this 1970s 'Keep Hong Kong Clean' campaign has an enduring appeal, even today. Its famous litter-combatting mascot, Lap Sap Chung, was illustrated by British artist and designer Arthur Hacker, who was the government’s art director for many years.
As Hong Kong’s economy boomed, so did its entertainment. From Cantopop to film, the exhibition celebrates the vibrant collaborations between photographers, stylists, art directors, actors, and musicians across different mediums.
Among the most fashionable places you could go in the 1980s was the Canton Disco, an influential venue for cutting-edge music, dance, and fashion. Alan Chan designed the branding for the disco, whose invitation to ‘dive in at the dep end’ featured the image of a swimming man from a 1930s Shanghai cigarette card.
SHIRLEY SURYA: We are so pleased to have [this] in the gallery. It's a poster by Kan Tai-keung, and it's on a film by a very rare female director called Cecile Tang. And so, it’s a film that was produced in 1970. It's an independent film, and this was a time when everything was made in the, like, kind of big house industry. But then Cecile Tang really kind of went out to actually film a movie about a female lead, kind of going through her own struggle of what it means to meet the society's expectations of her, but also her own longing, her own longing for a relationship. So, this poster here is a very key one because, even though the story is set in seventeenth century China and obviously a period drama, the poster itself is really communicated in a very avant-garde sort of way, where there is a very kind of monochromatic use of just pure black and white, the use of sans serif Helvetica font. Of course, you know, the title in English is called The Arch, which is actually a very key architectural element in the film. But then the title in Chinese is really about the person and the woman itself: dong furen [Madame Dong].
Well, we chose this poster because of how Hong Kong's identity could be presented in very different ways. Sometimes it's all to do with tradition and history. But sometimes it's got to do with really a very kind of outward-looking, progressive-looking [approach], down to the choice of the font and all that. And so this poster, we believe, is very much expressing the nature of the film. these are a collection of cuts from the major clips from the film that really show the use of freeze-frame, cross-cutting, extended pans, or are very zoomed-in on an expression of the character. This poster really speaks to the cinematography of the film itself, and so we really think that this is a prime example of Hong Kong’s New Wave film, but also a very important generation of graphic design in Hong Kong in the 1970s.
SHIRLEY SURYA: So, we are really looking at something rather different right now. So just now, we were looking at a poster that was made for an independent film. But we also believe that graphic design plays a role in very mass materials—you can call it almost very commercial materials. This is an example of basically a marketing collateral designed for Mandarin Oriental in 1972 by Alan Chan.
And so, as you can see, it's the fan, right? So, the fan is a very important logo for Mandarin Oriental today. But in 1972, there was no logo yet. And yet, Alan Chan was able to use the idea of the fan as part of a collateral that was put on the bed of each suite. And then in this fan, when you open it on one side, is all the offerings of the restaurants and the bars in the hotel. But then when you flip it on the other side, you will see this kind of, like, reproduction of a very popular painting, an export painting of Canton as a port in the late eighteenth century.
And so, it's really kind of like [a situation] in which Hong Kong is being projected as part of this nostalgic, historical kind of like framing of what China is, or I guess Hong Kong is, from the perspective of the UK or the Europeans, but also presenting Hong Kong in a very progressive way. All of these are happening across different kinds of collateral. So, this is one example of that, but of course, being produced for a hotel called Mandarin Oriental that was highly iconic for Hong Kong, but also for the world.
VOICE-OVER: The final chapters of the exhibition, titled ‘Places’ and ‘Beyond’, look at the city’s built environment through its architectural landmarks, the challenges of its limited, mountainous land supply, and innovations, for example, in social housing and logistics infrastructure. These chapters also reflect the impact of the built environment on filmmakers, artists, and photographers.
Jardine House, when it was built as Connaught Centre, was the tallest skyscraper in Hong Kong and Asia in the early 1970s. It continues to be a major landmark on the Central waterfront. Designed by James Kinoshita of Palmer and Turner, its iconic circular windows distributed stress on its external walls, enabling speedy construction. Significantly, the footbridge connecting this building to the rest of the central business district has become part of a wide network of bridges, walkways, and escalators that allow pedestrians to navigate the city without touching ground.
Cities Without Ground, a model commissioned by M+, shows the network of bridges and walkways from Sheung Wan to Admiralty. Addressing both Hong Kong’s urban conditions and infrastructural needs, these systems act as an essential means of pedestrian circulation, linking the city’s commercial developments, informal gathering spaces, and residential towers.
The Peak Project was a winning design for a leisure club on Victoria Peak. Its architect, the late Zaha Hadid, also called it a horizontal skyscraper—a seemingly fragmented, floating, and layered complex designed as a counter-response to the congested nature of the city below. Though unbuilt, the project catapulted Hadid’s career and established her revolutionary approach to how architecture could be conceived and built.
The port of Hong Kong is one of the busiest container ports in the world. ATL Logistics Centre was one of the world’s first multi-storey logistics centres designed to allow trucks to drive up to the loading bay on the building’s rooftop.
SHIRLEY SURYA: So, we are really pleased to have this model in our collection. It is the first kind of, like, public housing for 8,000 people at Tseung Kwan O, meant to be the very first example of a very pioneering kind of, like, green building public housing. So, this was before the words ‘green building’ or ‘green architecture’ or ‘sustainability’ became a kind of currency.
In 1992 to 1997, Anthony Ng took part in a competition to build this public housing without the brief or an agenda for any sort of environmental awareness. But he—as someone with a background in studying natural resources management as well as [being] part of a very environmental activism of the 1990s—he actually thought that there was a way in which you're able to build high-density public housing that is not in conflict with a very important environmental agenda. This housing is not built in a very typical cruciform point block kind of masterplan. If you would look at it closely, the blocks are actually tiered; it’s stepped from the eighth floor to the up to the fifteenth floor. And not only that, the layout is really kind of thin and very linear. And then, within this kind of, like, thin linear layout, the blocks are of this very permeable massing, and so you will see sky gardens or the apertures and openings. Communal gardens exist in between these kinds of enclosure of the multiple blocks. All of these are meant to harness air quality, natural lighting, as well as views in such a way that you're able to reduce the amount of lighting that you use in the interiors. Also the idea of these solar panels on the rooftop, but also on the landscape gardens.
Also it's the first project that got the Hong Kong government to really notice the idea of having to bring in research into environmental efficiency in the construction of public housing, but also for buildings across Hong Kong. And so, Wong Kam-sing, our Secretary for the Environment, was actually involved in this project.
SHIRLEY SURYA: After this project, we are going to be going to something that is not so much built. And the reason why we are focusing on a project that is not built, like this one, is because we want to be able to emphasise the idea that Hong Kong is not just a place where you have to kind of confront challenges and come up with pioneering models, but that the city itself, the condition of the city actually stirs a different kind of imagination about how to build.
So, this project here is called the Harbour Road Office and Hotel Tower by Paul Rudolph, an American architect. This is one out of the two projects in this gallery that are so-called unbuilt. The other project will be the Zaha Hadid project called the Peak [Leisure Club]. But for this one, we're focusing on a very much, you can call it, speculative office tower. Paul Rudolph knows that he's given very limited space or site, which is actually today where Central Plaza sits in Wan Chai. It was developed by Sino Land, but the competition at that point was asking for ideas from several architects.
So, this project is key in a few points. The first one is that, because it's on a very tight site, he really wants this building to have a kind of, like, an entry point that actually invites the public, but also air and light. So, you can see the sunken plaza within this building very clearly, that in such a way that when you enter that site, right, you actually see [it] as a public space where you can actually enter and just hang out. And the second point is that, to build something so high but monumental at the same time [and] also light, this is an A-frame tower in which you can see that everything decreases in its horizontal dimension as it goes up. And the third point is that it's also subtly alluding to the kind of, like, regional—or what Paul perceived to be the character of the region, which is a pagoda sort of like a tower that rises up. And so, again, all these three aspects of what the design of this tower is really speaks of how again, Hong Kong as a place and as a site really became a source of a new imaginary of the urban skyscraper, and its relation to public space.
CHANEL KONG: We're really thrilled that moving image and all of its different aspects is such an important part of this exhibition. With the rapid adoption of free wireless television in the 1970s and the rise of the Hong Kong economy in the 1980s, Hong Kong television and cinema has not only been one of its most interesting cultural exports, but also created an industry where there is a lot of fertile ground for creative collaboration and hybrid expressions. Channel Surfing, 1970s–2000s is a stack of three CRT TVs showing clips from over four decades in Hong Kong's TV culture. From music videos to dramas to talk shows, cooking shows, and even public service announcements, these clips mark important moments in which designers, musicians, and filmmakers are all working together in a very collaborative and very hybrid way. And also, we really see from these three TVs how creative practices have kept pace with the evolution of the medium.
Where Do We Look Now? is a dual-channel installation showcasing clips from films that are set in, made by, or about Hong Kong. You can see that in the spatial arrangement, we're showing cinema clips that are generating different types of interesting tension and oppositions between past and future, between nostalgia and fantasy. We're also trying to really generate how cinema has been such an important part of visual culture in Hong Kong, but also really [it’s] about rewatching these stories to think about how they've also become our own stories as well.
TINA PANG: The exhibition closes with a new animation by the comic artist Kong Kee. So, we worked with the artist to produce this work that initially draws the viewer into a journey into the city and to challenge us to think about our relationship with our environment. So, the work really reflects on man and the city, and how we respond to it, how we react to it. But it also has elements of imagination and fantasy. Kong Kee has always been very fascinated with sci-fi.
You'll see that the very vivid colours and the way in which he's created a kaleidoscopic structure is mirroring and mimicking a little bit some of the things that we see in the city. In particular, he's drawing on neon signs and the culture of neon signs and the colours that we often see within the city that glow and draw us in.
So, this is a wonderful project that we think will really appeal to our audiences. It has this very kaleidoscopic impact that really creates an immersive experience of not just Hong Kong but any urban environment.
VOICE-OVER: Whether they experimented with diverse traditions, designed a spectrum of identities, influenced the built environment, or imagined bold visions for the future, the artists and makers here in this exhibition have shaped the visual culture of Hong Kong—and will continue to do so—here, now, and beyond.