Sunday, May 29, 2011

Not-so-serious art review with lots of pretty pictures.

* Note: All photos by Joyce Hor-Chung Lau. Please credit me and this blog with a link if you use any of them.

Here's my unofficial, unprofessional, un-work-related review of ART HK: what art I saw and, almost as important, what people wore. Sunday is the last day of the art fair, and it's only open a few hours, so it's your last chance till next year.

I enjoyed the public opening on Thursday more than the V.I.P. vernissage on Wednesday evening.
First, let me say that I am not really a very important V.I.P. (an annoying term that seems to have seeped into every aspect of Hong Kong and Chinese life). It was only after asking, twice, that I got a single pass, meaning that Marc the Metrosexual couldn't come with me.
(I don't mind. Marc was working anyway, and I'm the kind of journalist who never asks for anything free.)
There were lots of P.R. and media folk there -- even those who barely write about art -- as well as art scene types, and assorted rich people and socialites.
The vernissage is more about the art scene than the actual art. And I am more interested in the latter than the former. Not to sound like a grumpy old woman, but I don't care much for hours air-kissing and trying to see around people standing in front of the art with their wine glasses. It was even more awkward because I'm not drinking, and it sucks to be alone at an event and the only sober one there. The only complaints I heard all night was that a certain V.I.P. lounge had switched to a paid bar -- a mini emergency! Of course, this comment came from a thirsty journo.
The public day was more interesting, since it was normal people, if you will. I like ART HK because it doesn't feel like just some industry event. There were uniformed school kids, teens in flip-flops, elderly people arguing in Cantonese -- you get the idea.
***
One thing I noticed during the V.I.P. preview was that people were almost magnetically drawn to any piece of art with a reflective surface. There could be a booth with the most amazing other pieces, but if anything looked like a mirror, it drew a crowd. Maybe it's telling that art scene people really like gazing at themselves.

Anish Kapoor's reflective plates were a big hit at Lisson Gallery.

Ooh. Shiny. Hey, look! That's me! (The work is by Olafur Eliasson, at New York's Tanya Bonakdar Gallery).

How do I look in this dress?

****

Speaking of dresses, this trio -- from New York, I believe -- were the best-dressed people there. Hong Kong ladies -- we were beat.

****
Artists also like seeing themselves, and there were quite a few self-portraits.

Creepy life-sized self-portrait of New York-Argentinian artist Rirkrit Tiravanija.

Creepy self-portrait of Evan Penny, the South African-Canadian artist, as a young man.
***

You know what's relieving about not writing for work? I don't have to look up photo caption details. Here are some people standing in front of a big ball of stuff and a portrait of Leonardo di Caprio.

Here is a woman in a colorful top next to some sort of wavy statue. (You can tell I write professionally about art, can't you?)

This is Hong Kong's paean to giant seafood. Imagine if that was real. I'm sure some tycoon would pay millions to have it made into soup.

Murakami's flowers. I recognized them from the LV bag.


In my last post, I questioned Net-A-Porter's wisdom that we creative types go to work events in short shorts and high platform shoes. I only saw one example of this and got a (blurry) shot of it. This woman's feet must have been killing her. I spent two-and-a-half- days pounding the Convention Centre's concrete floors in modest, sensible 2" wedges, and I felt like I could barely walk at the end.
***
Sarcasm and sore feet aside, I really did enjoy the art fair. It's way bigger, better and more varied than even a year or two ago.
The downstairs main floor had the heavy hitters -- the big London / New York / Tokyo / Hong Kong galleries selling expensive pieces.
I think I preferred the two special sections up stairs -- one was for younger galleries showing younger artists, and another had small solo shows of only Asian artists. It was definitely funkier, and I think I found a piece I want to buy.

I do actually like talking to art people -- but more during one-on-one conversations during the fair proper. I met a few new contacts who seem really nice.

And I shouldn't complain / make fun of the V.I.P. lounges and passes too much. I used the lounge many times during my three days at the fair.
The Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre doesn't have great or particularly convenient food choices. It was so nice having a place where I could sit on a couch, kick my shoes off, order a water and a veggie sandwich, and meet someone for a quiet chat.

Friday, May 27, 2011

ART HK -- IHT article

Image courtesy Edouard Malingue Gallery

The Buddhist-inspired work ‘‘Three Heads Six Arms’’ by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan is on display through June outside Hullett House.

Hong Kong Art Fair Reaches Out Into the World

HONG KONG — It’s no surprise that Hong Kong’s art fair has taken another bound forward, given its quick growth since it began in 2008. But the rising number of galleries taking part — now at 260 — is not the only reason that 2011 is turning out to be a watershed year.

Internationally, the owners of Art Basel are now majority stakeholders in the Hong Kong event, it was announced at the start of May, a turn that promises to give the fair more prominence.

Locally, ART HK, which opened to the public on Thursday, has spread beyond the confines of the exhibition and convention center. The large number of outside events has created for a first time what feels like a real citywide art week.

The fair has already succeeded in pulling in top galleries and orchestrating million-dollar sales of works by celebrity artists like Damien Hirst. The Hong Kong market is awash in cash, particularly that of newly moneyed collectors from China and other parts of Asia. Auction houses are getting into the act too.

Christie’s is the most prominent among them, and has a casual partnership with ART HK to hold its spring auctions in the same venue, at about the same time. From now until June 1 at the convention center, Christie’s will have 13 sales of art, antiques, wines, watches and jewels. Other companies, particularly smaller Asian auction houses, are following suit, with sales planned at hotels around town.

Local galleries also have waited for this week to open new spaces or major shows.

Hanart TZ Gallery — run since 1983 by Johnson Chang, an established dealer of contemporary Chinese art — opened its new space on Tuesday with a ribbon cutting by David Tang, the founder of Shanghai Tang, the luxury goods chain, who has been a busy man. The day before, Mr. Tang had opened a show for 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Both galleries are participating in the fair.

New galleries not officially part of ART HK are also using this week to raise their profiles.

The most booked man in town seems to be David LaChapelle. This week, Mr. LaChapelle, the New York fashion and art photographer, unveiled a 3-meter, or about 10-foot, collage inspired by Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” for his first Hong Kong solo show at de Sarthe Fine Arts, which opened in March. Mr. LaChapelle then held a private film screening, served as host for a party at a nightclub called Privé, and showed up at a Champagne breakfast a few hours later. On Friday, he will be debate whether art must be beautiful at Intelligence Squared, a British debating association.

Image courtesy David LaChapelle

David LaChapelle’s “The Raft of Illusion, Raging Toward Truth II” (2011).

Edouard Malingue Gallery, which opened late last year, worked with the Pace Gallery of New York this month to install a massive Buddhist-inspired sculpture by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan at a harborside hotel and shopping complex. “Three Heads Six Arms” will be showing in the courtyard outside the complex, Hullett House, a renovated 18th-century colonial building, through the end of June.

But the main buzz has been over the buyout of Asian Art Fairs, ART HK’s owners, by the MCH Swiss Exhibition Group, though the deal will not be official until July. The Basel-based company said that it would keep the local management basically intact through 2012. The only immediate change will be moving ART HK from its May slot to February, to fit in nicely between Art Basel’s events in Miami Beach, usually each December, and in Basel, Switzerland, each June.

Marc Spiegler, a co-director of the two Art Basel events, said by telephone from Switzerland that the goal was to have “three events on the arts calendar covering four continents, with Art Basel Miami Beach representing both North and Latin America.”

“We are not interesting in just copying and pasting the same fair in three locations,” he said. “Along with greater interest from China, we are looking at many rising art markets from Australia and New Zealand, to Singapore and Indonesia,” Mr. Spiegler said. “The Asian market is developing so quickly, it’s hard to say what it’s going to look like in five years.”

Annette Schönholzer, another co-director, added that the Hong Kong fair would eventually be rebranded as an Art Basel event.

“Art Basel’s involvement will bring unparalleled expertise and contacts that will take ART HK to a new level,” said Magnus Renfrew, ART HK’s director. “It will make us the third most important art fair in the world.”

There was unprecedented interest in ART HK, even before the Art Basel announcement, he said. “We were inundated with about 500 gallery applications and only accepted about half,” Mr. Renfrew said. “And while there are big names from New York and London, we’ve made sure to preserve the Asian flavor of the fair.”

One new feature at the fair this year will be the Asia One section, with 47 galleries representing a dozen nations, from the Turkey to India, Japan to New Zealand. “Because Asia One will consist of solo shows, it will give viewers, particularly collectors from the West, a more in-depth view of what is on offer,” Mr. Renfrew said.

Corporate interest has not lagged, either. DeutscheBank, a longtime sponsor, continues to be involved with the fair. Then there are quirkier offerings from companies like BMW, which is bringing in a Jeff Koons-decorated “art car,” or the Mandarin Oriental, which has afternoon tea cakes co-designed by the Chinese artist Zhou Tiehai.

Image courtesy BMW.

G.O.D., the upscale local retail chain that specializes in homewares and interiors, created the fair’s V.I.P. lounge. And if you can’t afford the minimum entrance fee of 7,500 Hong Kong dollars, or $960, for a group of five, you can hang out with the plebeians at the Veuve Clicquot Champagne bar next door.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What do creative working types wear to an art fair?

I'm excited that I get to spend the rest of the week at the Hong Kong Art Fair.
And, as I often do when I have a really busy day ahead of me, I find I can't sleep and end up doing late-night online shopping / Polyvore making. (Yes, I know, not the best use of time).
According to online fashion guru Net-a-porter, here are the things that we creative-chic working women are supposed to wear: Buddy Holly glasses; well-tailored hot pants; chunky impossibly high heels; impractically small clutches; funky silver or crystal jewellery; and lots of neutral tones.

Creative Types
Black shorts by Philip Lim. Ankle boots by Rupert Sanderson. Sandals by Elie Saab and Aldo. Metallic leather clutch by Dsquared.

**
This must be the fantasy version of what women in creative industries wear, the same way that Sarah Jessica Parker's outfits on "Sex and the City" were the fantasy version of what freelance writers wore. (Most work-at-home writers spend their days in coffee-stained bathrobes, not designer frocks and Jimmy Choos).

Net-a-porter is right about the neutral tones and the glasses, though the Buddy Holly thing was newly hip among creative types in Montreal waaay back when I was in college in the 1990s.
They are also right about the jewellery. Once, when I was particularly distracted at a meeting, I took note of what a much-senior female colleague was wearing -- and it looks like silver and funky is the way to go. (I've personally worn the same Tiffany silver teardrop necklace every day for the last 5 years or so, since Marc the Metrosexual gave it to me).
But I have never seen colleagues in media / arts go to work events in hot pants -- no matter how stifling it is here in Hong Kong, no matter how well-tailored or expensive the shorts are.
Once upon a time -- when I first arrived in Hong Kong in my mid-20s -- I had cream-colored tailored short shorts that I paired with coffee-brown high-heeled sandals. I was showing off my toned and tanned legs, before they turned all pale and saggy from a decade of sitting in a cubicle.
I remember mincing my way down the stone steps next to the Fringe Club in that combo, trying to look cool, trying to see if any guys noticed, while also trying not to break my ankles.
There is a very brief window in time in which a young woman can get away with such an outfit. It helped that I worked at an indie local free weekly at that time.
Ah, youth.
**
So what am I wearing to the Art Fair? I have to find something that will last me through a daytime press conference, an afternoon back at the office, and a dressy evening event. And, unlike most of the tai-tai-type women who will be there, I won't be spending my day getting done up at the salon and picking out a cocktail dress. I'll be stuck with what I put on in the morning.
High heels are out, as I'll be running around and on my feet for about 9 hours -- and the concrete floors of the Convention Center are just brutal. (The fair is two storeys and seven halls big this year).
A small clutch is out since I need a bag big enough to carry the back-breaking stash of materials I get every year -- press packs, art catalogs, etc.
Also, I hate clutches, since they use up one of your free hands, making it even harder to maintain that drink / business card balance so important at social events.
I'll probably go the safe route -- sensible black wrap dress, sensible dress shoes, a cardigan in case the air con is freezing, my silver necklace and a big LV tote for carrying everything.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

British blue cat asks for tummy rub

A light-hearted post for the weekend...


You left me home alone all day while you worked.
Your punishment: One tummy rub.

Seriously, guys. I'm waiting here.

What's taking so long?

Alright then.

***
Since everyone asks, Hugo the Cat is a British Blue, which is a type of British Shorthair. In terms of looks and personality, he conforms almost entirely to his breed description.
They are known for being quite chubby, very quiet, a bit stand-offish with strangers, but warm to the people they know well. Once I asked if he was a bit heavy and lazy, and was told, "No, he's a British breed."
Gotta love Hong Kong. 14 years after the handover, we can still find things to blame the Brits for.
He's reserved in his affections (which, allegedly, is another British characteristic). If he's sure there are no strangers around to observe him, he will occasionally indulge in undignified behavior, as above. But he would never do this if there were guests in the house.
And he will not abide by having his tummy rubbed, or getting picked up and cuddled, if he's not in the mood. He won't bite or scratch, since he is not aggressive, but he will squirm out the way.
But he does like attention. The British Blues will quietly follow you around from room to room, perching right next to you -- like sitting on the sofa while you watch TV, or sleeping at the foot of your bed. But they would never belittle themselves to actually crawling on your lap.
I don't know about other British Blues, by Hugo purrs more than any cat I've ever had.
**
This post is dedicated to Wo Ai China, who posts photos of his cats in a dedicated manner every Saturday.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Xu Bing: An Artist Who Bridges East and West

Photo by Morna Livingston


By JOYCE HOR-CHUNG LAU

HONG KONG — In early May, assistants from Xu Bing’s studios in New York and Beijing scoured the gardens and dried flower stalls of London for material he could use for his next big installation.

The technique is not new to Mr. Xu. He has used what he calls “collected items” before, like a tank-flattened bicycle from the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and dust from the destruction caused by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack in New York. Part of what makes his most recent work interesting is its placement at the British Museum, an institution better known for historical artifacts than experimental art. The show, part of his “Background Story” series, opened on May 12.

"Where Does the Dust Itself Collect?" (2004) was made of 9/11 dust.

Courtesy Xu Bing Studio.

One of China’s best-known artists and the recipient of a so-called genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Mr. Xu bridges the very old and the very new. His new installation is a tall box with various materials inside that mimic the mountains, water and buildings of a 17th-century Chinese ink painting. That original landscape, by Wang Shimin and dating to 1654, is part of the British Museum’s collection and is displayed with its contemporary counterpart.

Viewed from the front of the box that stands at a height of 5 meters, or 16 feet, the new work takes on a slightly blurred appearance through a pane of frosted glass, “like the way ink looks when it sinks into paper,” Mr. Xu said. But the back is left transparent, so when visitors walk to the other side they can clearly see the dried plants, corn husks, crumpled paper and other debris he has amassed from those sites across London.

“I like to use local materials like tree branches or garbage,” Mr. Xu said. “It makes for a more direct, intimate relationship with the viewer.”

Mr. Xu emigrated to the United States in 1990 and did not move back to China until 2008, when he was appointed vice president for international relations at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, known as CAFA. Since then, he has been looked to as a cross-cultural spokesman, a role he seems to wear uneasily.

Just before his trip to London, Mr. Xu stopped by Hong Kong for a university lecture that happened to take place the same week that protests erupted over Ai Weiwei, a fellow artist who was arrested in April. In Hong Kong, which allows demonstrations that would be barred on the mainland, local artists illuminated images of Mr. Ai onto the walls of government buildings, a move criticized by the People’s Liberation Army.

“I don’t wish to comment on this,” Mr. Xu said in an interview in Hong Kong.

“I still have to live there,” he added, referring to Beijing. That same week his silence was noted in a Financial Times article, headlined “Apolitically Engaged.”

There are parallels between Mr. Xu and Mr. Ai. Two years apart in age, they are of a generation of pioneering artists born in the 1950s who came to prominence with the emergence of Chinese contemporary art in the 1980s. Both have spent considerable time in New York and both have been praised for bridging East and West. Both also were praised by the government in 2008 — Mr. Ai for co-designing the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics and Mr. Xu for his university appointment.

But the two could not be more different in style. Mr. Ai, who has created some abrasive and openly critical works, is now a brash activist working outside the system. Mr. Xu, a soft-spoken, owlish academic with round glasses and feathery hair, is a prominent figure in China’s top art institute.

While he would not address criticism of China for Mr. Ai’s treatment, Mr. Xu did comment on what he saw as a non-symmetrical level of understanding between East and West.

“The West generally doesn’t care much about what happens outside of the West,” Mr. Xu said. “Whereas people outside of the West care very much what happens there.”

He added: “We’ve been learning from the West for the last 100 or 200 years. It was Western culture that pushed human development over the last century. It is only now that things have changed and people are paying attention to China.”

Kai-yin Lo, an art expert in Hong Kong who was involved in promoting Mr. Xu’s installation at the British Museum, saw him as an in-between figure.

“Xu Bing is China’s international artist, and his art seems to be more appreciated abroad than in China,” she said from London. “While well versed in tradition, and in the culture and mores of the Communist regime, Xu Bing also poses cerebral and representational challenges to their validity and values.”

Mr. Xu majored in printmaking at the art school where he is now vice president. He is perhaps best known for two linguistic innovations: For “Book From the Sky,” which he created from 1987 to 1991, he invented an alphabet of 4,000 nonsense Chinese characters, carved them into wooden printing blocks and crafted hundreds of books using traditional typesetting and binding techniques.

After that, he came up with the Square Word Calligraphy system, which renders English words through Chinese brushstrokes. Chinese readers are frustrated because it seems like they should be able to read the letters and words, but they can’t. English readers see the Chinese-looking script and immediately dismiss it as illegible. It is only after the trick is pointed out that they realize they actually can read the writing.


Xu Bing's name in Square Word Calligraphy.

It was Mr. Xu’s generation that brought conceptual art to prominence in China. Since his student days at CAFA in the 1970s, there has been a sea change in the scope and direction of art education. Then, there were seven majors and 80 students. Now CAFA has more than 20 majors, including new offerings like animation, and nearly 5,000 students.

For decades, Chinese academies relied on an old European beaux-arts model, with an emphasis on technique. They have now branched out but still hold onto basic classical training.

He was critical of some overseas art academies that, he felt, relied too heavily on theory and not enough on basics. “We learned the techniques of the West, but then we watched the West throw it away,” he said.

On Sept. 10, he will open the third installation of his Tobacco Project in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. It will include a 440-pound, or 200-kilogram, block of tobacco printed with the words “light as smoke.”

The first segment of this installation was shown in Durham, North Carolina, in 2000 and followed the history of the American tobacco industry. The second segment was shown in China, now the world’s largest tobacco producer and consumer. Past Tobacco Project works included a voice reading the medical records of his father, who died of lung cancer, and a book of tobacco leaves that was devoured by beetles over the course of the exhibition.

Similarly, his British Museum installation will be dismantled after it closes on July 10, as the organic matter inside will naturally rot away. Like a crushed bicycle, or 9/11 dust, it is meant to be a fleeting commentary on a changing world.

Aileen Li contributed research.

ART HK reminder

This was on the NYT's InTransit travel blog on May 13, 2011.

In Hong Kong, Art Fair and Auction Share Spotlight

A view of the exhibition center at last year's Hong Kong International Art Fair.
Image courtesy ART HK
. A view of the exhibition center at last year’s Hong Kong International Art Fair.

Art fairs and auctions are usually seen as playgrounds for high-flying insiders, like dealers and collectors. What most travelers don’t know is that they are often also open to the public. And in Hong Kong, a city with tepid museum options, they are often a better bet than the places written about in travel guides. The trick is being in town at the right time and finding events that are not widely advertised.

From May 26 to 30, art lovers can catch the double-whammy of the spring auction previewsHong Kong International Art Fair, both at the Convention and Exhibition Center connected to the Grand Hyatt (Harbour Road, Wan Chai). from the Christie’s auction house and the

Auction houses stage large, free exhibitions in the days leading up to sales. Just dress decently — and maybe leave young children behind. This season, Christie’s will offer artifacts from Imperial China; historic paintings, ceramics and calligraphy; and modern and contemporary Asian art. There is also its famed jewelry sale. (No, they will not let you try the jewelry on.)

Meanwhile, the Art Fair features mostly contemporary work, a younger crowd and a more casual feel — as well as a cafe and Champagne bar. If you want to hob-nob, snag one of the 500 Hong Kong dollar tickets (about $64) to the evening vernissage (or preview) on May 25. But the regular fair, from May 26 to 29, lets you see more art with less fuss.

There will be 250 galleries represented, from almost 40 nations and states, and lots of visitors, so get there when the doors open at noon. Tickets are 250 Hong Kong dollars at the door. Kids under 12 are free.

**

When I was going through ART HK's press photos, I noticed one shot featuring me (in the black skirt) and my I.H.T. colleague, as seen through a Damien Hirst work last year. I'm not sure if my being an (inadvertent) part of their PR campaign is flattering, or embarrassingly pretentious.

King of Kowloon -- IHT / NYT

Image courtesy Swire Properties.

Boy, I'm behind posting my work articles. This I.H.T. story on the King of Kowloon came out May 5. It's not too late to see the show, though -- it runs till May 31 at ArtisTree in the Tai Koo complex at Quarry Bay MTR.

I enjoyed this one, because it was a little weird, and outside the usual glossy expensive gallery-type stuff that's fed to me by PR people. You can't imagine the constant requests journalists get to give free press to companies, and how hard it is for (particularly younger, less experienced) journos not to just give in.

I'm happy when I find a story idea myself and then go pursue it. Plus, I think this story says more about the real nature of Hong Kong than most.
**

May 4, 2011

King of Kowloon Finally Gets Respect

HONG KONG — A toothless garbageman who once wandered Hong Kong’s streets with dingy bags of ink and brushes tied to his crutches is now the subject of a major retrospective. About 300 calligraphic works by the late Tsang Tsou-choi — who is best known by his self-dubbed title, the King of Kowloon — are showing at the ArtisTree art space in a high glass tower.

The show, “Memories of King Kowloon” (until May 31), in a spacious corporate-sponsored dimly lighted gallery, quiet as a library, would have been foreign territory for Mr. Tsang. He was most at home under the tropical sun and neon lights. An outsider artist, he spent half a century dodging security guards and police officers as he obsessively covered lampposts and mailboxes, slums and ferry piers, with his distinctive Chinese text.

Mr. Tsang, who died in 2007 at the age of 85, created an estimated 55,000 outdoor pieces, almost all of which have been washed away, painted over or torn down by the authorities and real estate developers. He was a rebel graffiti artist decades before it was fashionable, creating art brut in a city that has no time for outsiders.

Mr. Tsang arrived in Hong Kong as a teenage refugee from Guangdong, a southern province bordering Hong Kong, in the 1930s, and began his urban painting in the 1950s.

He toiled under the delusion that he was the rightful heir and ruler of the Kowloon Peninsula, dismissing all political factions that had controlled the area: the Qing Dynasty until 1898, the British until 1997 and China today. In his thick scrawl, he marked his territory with “royal decrees” and a “family tree,” using the names of his ancestors and eight children to build an imaginary web of princes and princesses.

Intentionally or not, he tapped into the unease of a populace tossed between two governments. He defaced, with equal joy, Queen Elizabeth II’s insignia on colonial-era post boxes and campaign posters for Hong Kong politicians.

Colonial-era mailbox, top. Defaced political banner, bottom. Photos by Joyce Hor-Chung Lau for the IHT.

His real-life wife and children shrank from attention when Mr. Tsang’s art became known, and even held a decoy funeral when he died to divert fans and the news media.

“The way society saw him, as an insane person, caused his family to feel ashamed,” said Joel Chung, a longtime friend of Mr. Tsang’s who lent hundreds of ink-on-paper works for the show. “He loved his family but, by figuring them so prominently in his work, he embarrassed them and, in their eyes, brought them down in society.”

Mr. Chung, an artist and curator who teaches at a creative arts high school in Kowloon, said that most of his students had been taught to shun Mr. Tsang for being mentally ill. “Generations of parents and grandparents have been pulling kids away from him on the street saying, ‘That man is dirty and crazy. Don’t go near him.’ ”

Mr. Chung recounted meeting Mr. Tsang in the 1980s. “He was working at a busy intersection and the crowd around him was so great that I didn’t even see him at first,” he said. “There was this shirtless old man, sitting on a trash can, painting. I stood there transfixed for an hour, but he didn’t notice me until he ran out of ink and started hollering for more. He never said please. He was the king, and kings don’t have to say ‘please’ to their subjects.”

For years, Mr. Chung and others in the art scene bought him food and introduced him to writers and visiting artists.

Mr. Tsang’s entry into the mainstream was a 1997 exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, followed by a show at the 2003 Venice Biennale. In 2009, two years after he died, one of his pieces sold at an auction at Sotheby’s.

Mr. Tsang, who began receiving disability and welfare payments when a falling garbage bin impaired both legs in 1987, never made a living from his art.

“It earned him some pocket money, but it made no difference to him,” Mr. Chung said. “He just handed the cash over to his wife. Except for eating, sleeping and bathing — well, he didn’t bathe often — he was painting.”


Hundreds of ink on paper calligraphy works in different colors. Photo by me.

The colorful ink-on-paper pieces make up the best part of the ArtisTree retrospective. But there was little the organizers could do to replicate Mr. Tsang’s real legacy: his street art has been reduced to only four sites, including a single pillar now preserved at the old Star Ferry pier.

Mr. Tsang’s work is supplemented with photographs, a documentary film, installations and pieces by other artists said to be inspired by Mr. Tsang.

Old-fashioned ink bottles. Photo by me.

The presentation seems almost too slick for its subject. The space is dark and serious. Newspaper clippings and objects from Mr. Tsang’s apartment — a crushed Coke can, brushes, empty ink bottles — are displayed in light boxes, as if they were treasures. To show where Mr. Tsang’s works once existed, there is a glowing 3-D replica of Hong Kong’s skyline that looks like a property developer’s model.

A lit-up model showing the King of Kowloon's old graffiti sites. Image courtesy Swire Properties.

Mr. Tsang’s scribbles were once part of a messy but wonderfully human cityscape, and nostalgia for him has grown as modern complexes have replaced wet markets, family shops and streetside stalls.

“Hong Kong has been tidied to the point that it no longer makes sense,” Mr. Chung said. “It’s only tall glass buildings, where people go straight from the home to the metro to the mall, all in air-conditioned interiors.”

Mr. Chung acknowledged the irony of having a King of Kowloon retrospective in a skyscraper.

“Ideally, his art would be anywhere and everywhere, but it’s too late for that now,” he said. “People in the art world would probably not go seek out some graffiti in Mongkok anyway, so it’s good that we have a show here.”

Swire Properties’ Island East complex, which is home to both ArtisTree and the offices of 300 multinationals, is a place of uniformed guards and immaculate lobbies, where nobody would dare litter, much less paint graffiti on a wall.

Babby Fung, a spokeswoman for Swire, called Tsang a “cultural icon.”

When asked how Swire would react to a modern-day King of Kowloon decorating its glass towers with ink, she replied, “We’re not focusing just on his graffiti. Instead, we’re seeing his as a part of Hong Kong history.”

Pressed further, she added, “We’d communicate with him first to ascertain if he was really an artist.”

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Kindle is making me buy books that are not on Kindle

Following up on this old post, I did finally buy a Kindle. It's great, and I'll tell you all about it soon.
But first this question: I've come across a surprising number of books that are not available on Kindle, at least not for customers in Asia. Has anyone else had this problem?

I love the fact that you can read the first chapter or two for free on Kindle. This gets me all excited about a book, but then I'm frustrated when I realize I can't buy it digitally.
By then, it's too late -- I'm already immersed in the story and, if the Kindle breeds anything, it's a sort of literary impatience. I want to continue this book now.
So I end up going to Amazon and having the paper copy shipped to me.
Now, is that a clever marketing strategy or what?
So far, I've bought the top two as paper copies, and am considering the third. I recommend all three:

* Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue. This is by the same author who wrote "Room," a creepy book about a mother and son trapped in a shed by a psychopath, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker recently. ("Room," by the way, is available on Kindle).
"Slammerkin" is like a better-written, higher-brow version of the trashy historic "romances" (faintly veiled soft erotica) I used to sneak around to read when I was a kid. When my parents went shopping somewhere like Sears, I'd go straight to the rack of escapist paperbacks usually geared for suburban housewifes, mostly featuring Fabio on the cover.
There are plenty of the usual pretty servant girls, corsets, and heaving bosoms in "Slammerkin" -- but not the usual happy ending or, for that fact, any real romance.
It is about a seamstress's daughter who is sick of the grinding poverty and strict Puritan mores of her household. She gets kicked out for getting pregnant and befriends a glamorous-looking prostitute. Though reluctant at first, she realizes that working the brutal streets of 18th-century London is an easy way to afford a lifestyle she could never imagine before -- rainbow-colored silk gowns, nights out on the town, total independence, and freedom from ever having to cook a meal or wash a shirt. But, of course, it doesn't last. It all goes horribly wrong and she finds herself accused of murder.


* Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. In terms of plot and theme, this is quite close to Slammerkin. But this being Atwood, it is a subtler and more serious work (way less sexy) and is based on a real 19th-century murder trial.
Grace Marks is an impoverished but exceptionally pretty Irish immigrant to Canada, who escapes the misery of her home by becoming a housemaid to rich families. She becomes involved in a plot to kill the master of the house and is sentenced to life in jail for murder.
The story is told mostly as a flashback, by a much older Grace who is still in prison, though she insists on her innocence.

* To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This is an old school-days favorite of mine, as well as a Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. classic. The story is told from the point-of-view of a little girl in a small Southern town. (I was going through a Southern Gothic phase in high school). Her father, a middle-aged white widower, decides to take on the court case of a black man falsely accused of rape in an area ripe with racism.

Another Amazon question -- why will it suddenly not allow me to choose any shipping option but the most expensive? It kept doing this for "To Kill A Mockingbird." And I am not paying HK $300 to express ship a HK $60 paperback. I'm better off just heading to Dymocks.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Drat. I forgot to pack lunch

These random holidays always sneak up on me. Nobody in my office gets them off, except for admin staff, so they pass me by. Marc the Metrosexual works public holidays, too, so they barely cause a ripple in our household.
Like Buddha's Birthday.
I'm not particularly religious. And while Buddha seemed to have been an upright kind of man, his birthday doesn't affect me except that it leaves me without lunch today.
I'll try not to hold Buddha personally responsible. In fact, I'll even eat vegetarian if I can find it.

There's little decent food near our office, which is halfway between the Eastern Tunnel entrance and the old North Point Ferry Pier. And it's worse on PHs. If I'm with it, I'll remember to cook and pack something before I come in. But I wasn't.
I got home at about 9:30 pm last night, ate a really late dinner, made the mistake of starting a John Irving novel and then couldn't sleep. I wanted to get to the end to see if the aging writer gets back together with the woman he's been pining for for 36 years. (Nothing like a good geriatric love story...)
So I spent my morning getting up late and playing with Hugo the Cat, who was lounging in a pool of sunlight at the foot of our bed. Hugo has the highest quality of life between the three of us. He's certainly the best fed.
**
Sometimes I grudgingly go down to the Pacific Coffee Co. in the building lobby, even though the food's not great. It's just convenient.
I'm vaguely resentful that they displaced the local Hong Kong guys who ran mom-and-pop type stores down there for years, till a few months ago. At least the mom-and-pop shops had hot food like noodles and rice.
The mom-and-pop store said they were perfectly willing to pay the rent, even with increases. It's just that building management thought that something corporate, shiny and new would look better -- or that's what we heard down the grapevine.
So out goes the lovely guy who would delivery satay beef noodles and bags of fresh fruit to our office. And in comes some chain with packaged sandwiches.

But even if I wanted to pop by PCC, it's not open on public holidays. Another old North Point standby, Big Bite, has just closed over landlord issues.
So my best bet is to walk through the heat to King's Road where the fastest option is, ugh, McDonald's. There are also two crappy malls with the usual take-out options, like Starbucks, Fairwood, KFC, etc. I've rather exhausted those possibilities after 6 years here. Also, I never eat store-bought fried chicken, because it's so much greasier than what I make at home.

Recently, I've been going to more local places. We all get caught up in our usual gweilo-y lunch habits. I found a little dive near Seven Sister's Temple Road in North Point where I got a great, filling beef noodle soup for HK $23. Its broth was rich with a wonderful and somewhat surprising aroma -- maybe anise, or five-spice powder? There's also a small street that runs parallel to Java Road with tiny stalls of Thai and Indonesia food. The Thai place has a good tofu and vegetable green curry.

Still, I dream of working in, say, IFC, where I can pop downstairs in a few minutes and get a good salad, sushi or baguette sandwich from CitySuper, or a veggie burger from White Spot, or a million other options.
But who am I kidding? Newspapers aren't investment banks. If we paid for IFC rent, we probably couldn't afford editors' salaries...
**
Good thing I always have an emergency food stash here. I do have Nespresso coffee pods, a blueberry granola bar, an apple and a box of muesli. But that's not going to last me for lunch and dinner.
Oh, scratch that granola bar. I just ate it.
**
Maybe if I spent less time blogging, I'd have time to get lunch.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ai Weiwei in Hong Kong

Don't take that headline literally. I wish Ai Weiwei were safe and sound in Hong Kong, but he is not.
Ai is the artist who disappeared into Chinese custody on Apr. 3 after trying to board a flight to Hong Kong, and who has not been seen since. Since he's gone missing, images of him are popping up all over the city.

At brunch today, a friend took out his iPhone and showed us the Ai background he had installed. This would be a guy who doesn't work as a journalist, activist or artist -- just a normal professional guy.
We wandered through SoHo after brunch and saw Ai posters, stencils and graffiti art, in the windows of galleries and small shops.
The other day, I asked a cabbie why there was traffic. He said it was because of an Ai demonstration, and then launched into his opinion of the matter, unprompted.

The Ai case has triggered a wide public response here that could never happen in mainland China. Partly I think it's because people do have a sense of common decency, and right and wrong. Here, you don't have to be a dissident or activist to feel that way.
It's also because people are still wary that the "one country, two systems" arrangement will not hold, and nobody here wants the Internet censorship and Communist control that our comrades have to deal with on the other side of the border.

The other night, some people shone an image of Ai, plus the message
"Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei?" onto the walls of the People's Liberation Army's Hong Kong barracks, as well as other buildings, like City Hall and government museums. It caused no permanent mark, as it was just done with a camera flash.



According to the SCMP, the Hong Kong police say there is no criminal offense and arrested no-one. Hong Kong lawmakers say there was no criminal offense. But the PLA, which usually keeps a very low profile in Hong Kong, says there was.

I don't know if they will actually act on it -- it would be a PR disaster if it did. But if the Chinese military thinks it can overrule Hong Kong law, that is a breach of "one country, two systems."

Here's Spike's take on it.

More from the SCMP, which is behind a paywall (which is really too bad, since they do some good reporting).

Political commentator Ma Ngok, of Chinese University, said the PLA's response showed that it was "politically embarrassed".

"It is technically very easy to make such projection and no one can prevent it. The army cannot say which ordinance was breached. More people will challenge them if they continue to make such a big reaction."