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13 Aug 2020 / by Tina Pang, Chloe Chow

How Did You Two Meet? Hong Kong Visual Culture Objects in the M+ Collections

Two works in the post have been put together to form a banner. On the left, an ink painting on paper depicts Hong Kong at night using varying shades of black, dark blue, and yellow. On the water are several boats, and along the shore, buildings with yellow lights are visible. On the right, a watercolour painting depicts a blue boat on the stormy  sea. A group of people sit or stand on the deck, looking into distance.

Left to right: Lui Shou-kwan, Hong Kong at Night (detail), 1961. M+, Hong Kong. © Helen C. Ting. Tiffany Chung, flotsam and jetsam (detail), 2015—2016. M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2016. © Tiffany Chung

How did you two meet? is a ‘recipe’ for a public programme from the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal. The CCA invited us to put our own spin on this recipe at M+. Our How did you two meet? recipe goes like this: Pick two seemingly disconnected objects in the M+ Collections, and narrate a story that connects them.

Two curators from M+’s Hong Kong Visual Culture Team took on this challenge in an online programme. Curator Tina Pang introduced a piece by Lui Shou-kwan, while Associate Curator Chloe Chow explored a piece by Tiffany Chung.

Participating curators:

  • Tina Pang, Curator, Hong Kong Visual Culture, M+
  • Chloe Chow, Associate Curator, Hong Kong Visual Culture, M+

Lui Shou-kwan, Hong Kong at Night (1961)

Ink painting on paper depicts Hong Kong at night using ink wash in shades of black and dark blue, and yellow. On the water are several boats, and along the shore, buildings highlighted in yellow are visible. Along the lower right side is written the title of the work in Chinese, *Hong Kong at Night*, along with the artist’s name, Lui Shou-kwan.

Lui Shou-kwan, Hong Kong at Night, 1961, ink and colour on paper, M+, Hong Kong. © Helen C. Ting

Tina Pang: The work that I would like to share is Hong Kong at Night, by Lui Shou-kwan, painted in 1961. Lui was born in Guangzhou and moved to Hong Kong in 1948 in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War. In Guangzhou, he began to consider the question of how Chinese ink painting could survive as a medium of contemporary art. After arriving in Hong Kong, he was able to study Western art at first hand as well as deepen his study into the essence of traditional Chinese painting in his pursuit of a new freedom and abstraction in his works. Lui worked for the Hongkong and Yaumati Ferry Company, which allowed him to view the landscape of the city in all weathers. Hong Kong was the subject of many of his works. He believed that abstraction resided in nature, and painted many studies of his environment throughout his life, even after he made his major artistic breakthrough in his abstract ‘Zen paintings’.

Hong Kong at Night is an ink painting comprising different intensities of ink wash, including blues, greys, and black, punctuated by the white of the paper, and yellow representing the city lit at night. I would like to draw your attention to the simple black lines in the middle and lower parts, which are reminiscent of those of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian in his Composition in Yellow, Blue, and White, I (1937). I wonder, would Lui have also seen this abstract painting?

Detail of an ink painting on paper depicting buildings on Hong Kong island highlighted in yellow. The shades of black and yellow are used to show the city at night. Black vertical and horizontal ink lines painted in the lower half of the painting.

Lui Shou-kwan, Hong Kong at Night (detail), 1961, ink and colour on paper, M+, Hong Kong. © Helen C. Ting

What made Lui so amazing was his ability to use simple economic brushstrokes to depict Hong Kong as a modern city. At the time, it was rare to see night scenes in traditional Chinese painting, and this work is a tribute to the artist’s powers of observation, and his ability to translate that into groundbreaking works. Thirty years later, another artistic master, Wu Guanzhong, painted his own abstracted depiction of Hong Kong at night entitled City Night (1997). This painting is part of the collection at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, so in the future you’ll have the chance to compare the two works for yourself.

Tiffany Chung, flotsam and jetsam (2015–2016)

An installation consisting of multiple small watercolour paintings and two videos mounted on a white wall. The paintings recreate scenes in documentary photographs of the experiences of Vietnamese migrants seeking refuge in  Hong Kong, including their travel to the city by boat and their lives in refugee camps. Among the paintings are white, grey, red, and blue labels with text.

Tiffany Chung, flotsam and jetsam, watercolour, ink, and acrylic on paper; text on Plexiglas plates; two single-channel digital videos (colour, sound), M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2016. © Tiffany Chung

Chloe Chow: I would like to introduce a relatively new installation by Vietnam-born American artist Tiffany Chung, flotsam and jetsam, which was created between 2015 and 2016. The installation consists of several parts, including 28 paintings, 40 paragraphs of writing about past refugee policies in Hong Kong and Vietnam, and two video segments in which Chung and Vietnamese refugees still residing in Hong Kong revisit the High Island Detention Centre and Pillar Point Vietnamese Refugee Centre.

A watercolour painting depicts a blue boat on the stormy  sea. A group of people sit or stand on the deck, looking into distance.

One of the paintings in the flotsam and jetsam installation. Tiffany Chung, flotsam and jetsam, watercolour, ink, and acrylic on paper; text on Plexiglas plates; two single-channel digital videos (colour, sound), M+, Hong Kong. Brown Family Annual Acquisition Fund, 2016. © Tiffany Chung

In this installation, Chung attempts to tell the history of Hong Kong’s Vietnamese refugees through different characters, fragments, and memories. Her interest in this history is in large part due to her own family history. Chung’s father was a helicopter pilot in an elite squadron of the South Vietnamese Air Force who was captured during the war and detained in a North Vietnamese prison until its conclusion. Later, the family moved to the United States, but Chung knew virtually nothing about her father’s detention and wartime experience. She began to research this history of the Vietnamese refugees, collecting information from newspapers, magazines, and survey reports, and gained access to the archives of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva between 2015 and 2016. She also discovered that the topic of the Vietnamese migration is taboo in Vietnam, with the government unwilling to acknowledge it. To educate the younger generation about this history, Chung shared her research, in particular documentary photographs, about the experiences and conditions of refugees and invited the young artists to turn them into paintings. The results are the 28 paintings in her installation. They capture the boat journeys to Hong Kong, to refugees’ lives in refugee camps in the 1980s, as well as the conflicts that erupted as the British government tried to repatriate them. Chung’s aim with the installation is to show this part of history through the pictures, to insist that these experiences are not fictional. Furthermore, she hopes that through this installation, the stories of refugees and migrants will be elevated to a higher level, challenging the official state narrative and opening up discussion.

Tiffany Chung: Revealing History
Tiffany Chung: Revealing History

Video interview with Tiffany Chung

Video Transcript

TIFFANY CHUNG: For me, I respect history. I know that it is hard to say what would be the most accurate version of it. My work is a way to counterbalance the grand narrative that’s put forward.

The paintings in the installation at M+ are based on archival photographs of the Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong back in the day. And because my project [involves] working with the young artists in Vietnam to give them access to this history, I asked them to render those photographs into paintings. So a lot of questions came up during our periodic critiques to monitor the progress, and the questions were like:

‘Why do these people look so sad?’
‘What happened?’
‘Who are these people?’
‘Were they our people?’

There are a lot of little nuances and details that we did not know, I did not know about before. So it was a very important process for them to actually know as much as they can about this history.

I have to make sure that this is not a fiction. People don’t see it as a fiction, or as a work of art. It is real. And it was real lived experience. And the history, however painful it is, still needs to be reconstructed; needs to be revealed.

Also to think about how you can use the lessons learned from this history for the current refugees from the Middle East; from Africa. I want to bring this conversation to hopefully a higher level, starting by talking with human-rights lawyers to learn about their work—to learn from them, and also to strategise with them.

Of course I feel the burden of history, and I feel that, why I have to take on this burden? At times, it can get really depressing, but then you just kind of move on. Somebody’s got to deal with it. So I have gone this far. Let’s continue.

How are the two pieces connected?

Tina Pang: These two works are connected through theme and history. Hong Kong at Night reflects Hong Kong in the early 1960s, when many people came here in the wake of the Great Leap Forward famine, while flotsam and jetsam portrays Vietnamese refugees fleeing from the Vietnam War to Hong Kong. Another connection is that both artists believe that art has the power to influence society.

Chloe Chow: In fact, artists of all eras want their work to respond to society. Chung places great importance on whether paintings can both present parts of history and provoke a dialogue about them in contemporary times. Throughout the creative process, she not only did research, but also talked with human rights lawyers, as well as conducted an oral history of Vietnamese in Hong Kong to better understand their lives. From this, you can see that the artist doesn’t just want to capture a period of history; her intention is to generate a conversation about how the past continues to have relevance today.

Tina Pang: These two works also remind us that life has its ups and downs. Lui weathered the turbulence of the Chinese Civil War before settling in Hong Kong, and the generation of Vietnamese in Chung’s piece experienced their own trials and tribulations. Even though reality may be difficult, there will always be works of art to inspire people.

Chloe Chow: I would like to share something Chung said. She once told us that when creating this installation, she had to not only look back at her own past but also relive a sad period in Vietnamese history, which was a heavy burden. She often asked herself why she wanted to do this. Her answer was that although the history was weighty and the memories painful, she wanted to continue onward, writing and reshaping that important part of history with courage. How do we, through collaborative effort, preserve and construct a framework of the diverse voices and alternative perspectives that are being excluded from the dominant historical narratives? Hopefully, these two works will encourage us to keep working on this together.

This interview has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

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