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Digital print depicting an extremely tall high rise building complex next to a blue body of water. The building complex is completely covered in rich, bright green vegetation. Multiple tiers in the building complex are covered in fields and forests, and multiple wind turbines can also be seen.

In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections is the newest exhibition at the M+ Pavilion, running from 22 June to 30 September 2018. This is part two of the curatorial conversation between the two exhibition curators, Pauline J. Yao (Lead Curator, Visual Art) and Shirley Surya (Associate Curator, Design & Architecture), who discuss the potential links between Hong Kong and Southeast Asia that can be explored through the show.

Pauline J. Yao: We are highlighting Southeast Asia as a region that can be simultaneously perceived as near and far from Hong Kong. The histories of Southeast Asia are not well known here, but there are definite links to Hong Kong. These can’t always be easily seen on the surface, so it’s interesting when things are accidentally revealed through works in the show.

Shirley Surya: As a museum based in Hong Kong, which has historically been a point of intersection between various parts of Asia and Europe or America and which some have viewed as equidistant to East and Southeast Asia, our position also lets us look at Southeast Asia in a transnational way. This means that we’re in a position to frame subjects in relation to local and regional specificities as well as across national borders.

Three ink and colour paintings on silk in a row. The painting on the left shows a woman standing in front of three drums and playing them with her hands. The words ‘Rebecca Pan, congas’ and ‘Quizas’ are written next to her. The painting on the right shows a shirtless man wearing sunglasses standing in front of a large xylophone-type instrument. The words ‘Wong Kar Wai vibes’ and Quizas’ are written next to him. The painting in the middle shows a man and woman playing guitar and bass on top of an insignia on the floor that says ‘Hotel d’Angkor’. The words ‘Tony Leung guitar’ are written next to the man, and the words ‘Maggie Cheung bass’ and ‘Quizas’ are written next to the woman.

Wilson Shieh Ka-ho. Angkor Quartet, 2004. ink and gouache on silk, triptych. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Yiqingzhai Foundation Limited, 2014. © Wilson Shieh

Yao: We also want to highlight the idea of looking south; of looking in a different direction. Historically and culturally, Hong Kong has often looked towards East Asia, so I think it’s an opportunity to look elsewhere. It’s an opportunity to probe the idea of Hong Kong being part of Southeast Asia.

For example, one of the works by a Hong Kong artist in the show is Angkor Quartet by Wilson Shieh, which is a playful riff on Wong Kar-wai’s film In the Mood for Love (2000). It represents a period in time when Hong Kong was a crucial hub for trade and migration to Southeast Asia, and when places such as Singapore and Cambodia were not far-off locales but seamless and fluid extensions of the territory. Shieh’s addition of the Hotel Angkor insignia makes reference to the one scene of In the Mood for Love filmed outside Hong Kong, at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

The painting shows a man and woman playing guitar and bass on top of an insignia on the floor that says ‘Hotel d’Angkor’. The words ‘Tony Leung guitar’ are written next to the man, and the words ‘Maggie Cheung bass’ and ‘Quizas’ are written next to the woman.

Wilson Shieh Ka-ho. Angkor Quartet (detail), 2004. Ink and gouache on silk, triptych. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Yiqingzhai Foundation Limited, 2014. © Wilson Shieh

Surya: We want the show to raise questions about what’s happening in Hong Kong, in comparison to Southeast Asia. For example, the first thematic section of the exhibition presents a series of works related to strategies of designing buildings for the tropics. Hong Kong actually falls within the region with a subtropical climate, but the buildings here are far from being designed for a hot and humid climate—which is what Hong Kong experiences at least half of the year. So we hope the works could possibly raise questions like: to what degree could the strategies deployed by architects in Southeast Asia possibly be deployed here?

Yao: On the flip side, there are some formal similarities between the nature of institutional buildings or civic architecture in Hong Kong built in the early 1960s—such as City Hall or the old Chinese University of Hong Kong campus—with projects in Singapore and Malaysia represented in the architecture archival materials in the exhibition. Although the buildings come out of different contexts, the formal similarities can still provoke questions such as: why is there a similar appearance? What could be the connection in terms of the sources of influence in architectural design? For example, British colonial architects were working in Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

Brochure featuring a monochrome image of a rectangular building with a flat roof and angular lines sitting next to an artificial body of water. A big block of red is above the building, the words ‘singapore conference hall trade union house’ written in English, Tamil, Chinese, and Malay.

Ministry of Culture (Singapore). Souvenir Brochure, Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House (1961–1965), Singapore, 1965. Printed paper. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Architects Team 3, 2015. © All rights reserved

Surya: You can, for example, compare the Singapore Conference Hall, designed by Malayan Architects Co-Partnership, and the Peak Tower, designed by Chung Wah Nan Architects. Both were built around the same time in the late 1960s; both architects are British-trained, and both buildings create a new kind of civic monumentality and public destination in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Monochrome photograph of an architectural model against a dark background. The model is of a white, rectangular building with a rounded structure on top held up by two thick pillars.

Chung Wah Nan Architects Limited. Photograph, architectural model, Peak Tower (1967–1972), Hong Kong, [1967–69]. Gelatin silver print mounted on paper. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Chung Wah Nan Architects Limited, 2013. © Chung Wah Nan

We want people to be reminded that historically there are links between Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, and that, in a contemporary context, Hong Kong could—in some cases—reimagine itself as part of a broader set of geographies, and wider relations.

Yao: Generally speaking, people should question the impressions or expectations that they may have towards Southeast Asia. We’re trying to present something that acknowledges the region’s rich complexity—it is not singular and uniform—but at the same time reveals how similarities exist too. We also hope that people will walk through and question the idea of identity as being fixed to just one location. The notion of Southeast Asia is something that occurs in multiple locales. It’s very fluid.

Image at top: WOHA Architects. Permeable Lattice City, 2011. Digital print on paper. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of WOHA Architects, 2014. © WOHA Architects

This article was originally published on M+ Stories to coincide with In Search of Southeast Asia Through the M+ Collections.

Pauline J. Yao is Lead Curator, Visual Art at M+. Shirley Surya is Curator, Design and Architecture at M+.

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