Hong Kong is one of the densest, most expensive cities in the world, but contemporary artists have developed innovative approaches to the cost of being creative among the skyscrapers.
With an art auction market second only to New York and London, art fairs generating millions in revenue, an increasing number of international galleries and no GST or VAT-type taxes, Hong Kong is an up-and-coming international art hub. But Hong Kong’s artists are in many ways more directly affected by the city’s rapid urban development and high real estate prices than its ballooning international art sales figures.
A dense, expensive place
Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places on the planet. It is home to districts like Kwun Tong, where an average of nearly 55,000 people live crammed together per square mile. It also happens to be one of the most expensive cities in the world: average property prices per square metre outstrip those found elsewhere in Asia by thousands. The Special Administrative Region boasts the world’s priciest retail spaces and the third most expensive rental market, with residential rents that rose 22 percent in 2010 and home prices that rose 23 percent in 2012. Almost fifty percent of Hong Kong’s population resides in some form of public housing, and approximately 100,000 of its poor live in so-called “cage homes”, shocking six-by-two foot bed bug-ridden metal cages that still cost their residents about HKD 1,300 (USD 168) per month.
The rise and potential fall of affordable art space
Exorbitant rents plague all Hong Kong residents, but they pose particular problems for artists in need of studio and exhibition space. Clara Cheung, Co-founder of C&G Artpartment, one of Hong Kong’s only artist-run alternative art spaces, has seen the effect of rising rents on the art scene firsthand in Prince Edward, Kowloon, where she lives and works. ”The rent has always been going up, but in the past six to eight months it’s been getting really, really bad. Every day when I walk to the studio from my home, I see someone or some small business moving out.” In early summer of 2013, Cheung made the decision to cut C&G Artpartment’s space in half, giving up one of their two floors in order to save money on rent. She decided to stick it out in her existing space after the rent went up forty percent two years ago, but when the landlord raised the price again this year, it was the last straw. “The exhibition space is smaller than before,” she admits. “Maybe in the next few years we’ll have to try to do more documentary screenings.”
Clusters of artists in Hong Kong fall into two categories: grassroots groups such as C&G Artpartments that have developed organically, and government-sponsored groups. The situation for both before the nineties was dire, as there was neither affordable studio space for artists to rent themselves nor governmental support for the arts. Art production at that time was consequently often more site-specific, tending towards performances and installations. Ellen Pau, founder of the new media art collective Videotage, describes the period:
During the 90s, there was a popular answer to the question of why Hong Kong artists liked to do installations. It was that we didn’t have any space, and if we did painting, we’d need a space to store the painting after the exhibition. So the easy way out was to do installations – you did the job and then you threw it away.
A few key developments turned the scene around. The first was that the governmental statutory body called the Arts Development Council (ADC) was established in 1995, creating an official channel through which public funding could be directed towards the arts. The second was that factory space began to empty out as manufacturing industries moved out of Hong Kong to much cheaper spaces on the mainland. When rents in these industrial areas dropped due to the SARS crisis in 2003, artists started snapping them up.
Since the early 2000s, the result has been the emergence of artist villages spread out across a number of formerly industrial neighborhoods such as Fotan, Kwun Tong, and Chai Wan. Fotan – a mixed use district where approximately eighty artist studios and 300 artists are nestled next to metalworkers and other remnants of Hong Kong’s manufacturing past – is well known for visual art and is comparable to New York’s SoHo in the sixties or Beijing’s Dashanzi Art District in the late nineties, other renowned art areas that bloomed amidst the abandoned skeletons of obsolete factories.
Thanks in part to its proximity to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Fotan has become the site of choice for young artists looking to establish themselves over the past decade. The availability of affordable art space here has been key for Hong Kong’s next generation of local art-makers, says contemporary visual artist Kacey Wong in a 2010 interview with Time Magazine. “Before, people were just doing art at home and getting yelled at by their parents. These days, a fresh graduate from art school can share a studio for HK$1,000 [USD 130] a month. It’s a system that allows people to grow as artists.”
Cheap rent used to be Fotan’s primary draw, but the days of affordable studios may in fact be numbered thanks to the government’s 2009 “Policy on Revitalising Industrial Space,” which makes it much easier for profit-hungry real estate developers and speculators to buy up old factory buildings. By waiving certain fees linked to the buildings’ conversion, the policy essentially incentivises the total redevelopment of industrial space rather than its reuse or adaptation. The effects have been felt almost immediately. A 2010 Arts Development Council Survey found that rents had increased by 56.3 percent in the past year for industrial buildings in Fotan and 81.3 percent in Kwun Tong. Though artists may still be drawn to Fotan for its sense of community, its network or its shared resources, it seems unlikely that they will continue flocking to the area for the promise of low overheads.
A Governmental Helping Hand
Hong Kong’s government is not entirely blind to the plight of artists, and has in fact begun to focus new attention on the city’s creative sectors. In 2009, their Task Force on Economic Challenges identified the “creative industries” as one of the six sectors worth focusing on to boost employment and economic growth. Indeed, since then, these industries have come to account for four percent of Hong Kong’s GDP, beating out even tourism (3.4 percent) and manufacturing (2.5 percent).
To foster creativity, the governmental ADC has established publicly subsidised artist centres such as the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre (JCCAC) and facilitated the growth of areas such as the Cattle Depot Artist Village by allowing arts organisations to move into historic, government-owned buildings – in this case, a series of abandoned red-brick slaughterhouses. The government also has a number of new arts initiatives in the works, including a recently announced “Arts Space” project, in which they will partner with property developer Hip Shing Hong Group to establish ten studio spaces in an industrial building that will be rented out at heavily subsidised rates. Slated to open later this year, the project hopes to host an equal mix of new and established artists through affordable two-year rental contracts.
On a much larger scale, there is also the multibillion dollar West Kowloon Cultural District project. Though the project idea was proposed as early as 1998, the construction that will turn West Kowloon into a world-class arts district with seventeen different new museums and performing arts spaces has yet to begin. The time it has taken to see any tangible progress has made many question the government’s true commitment to the arts, as has the fact that there is only one person related to the arts on the project’s 21-person board. In conversation with The Wall Street Journal, critic and curator John Batten notes that in Hong Kong, “the real people that do things are never the people that run things. The people who make the decisions don’t love art.”
Despite the government’s best efforts, these publicly funded initiatives are often seen by local artists as suffering from a top-down and business rather than people-centred approach. Artist Hiram To expresses an opinion held by many when he says,
Generally it’s the public institutions that drive the art scene and commercial opportunities are an add-on. But in Hong Kong, it’s the reverse. I don’t think bringing in brand-name people or institutions will help. You can’t transport the art culture here.
Clara Cheung, who chose to open C&G Artpartments in Prince Edward precisely because of its proximity to the proposed West Kowloon Cultural District, has not lost hope for the venture, but stresses that it will take time for those working on the project to execute it effectively. “They need more time to really get to know the community, the Hong Kong people. Even the PR team or the museum team don’t know the locals very well. We’ve had some discussions about this and I guess they are working on it, but it takes time to get engaged with people. I guess we need to wait and see.”
An excess of bureaucracy has also plagued existing government-funded initiatives, causing problems that range from grant delays to restrictive policies that forbid arts organisations from using publicly funded space for exhibitions or public events, activities technically prohibited in what is officially registered as office space. Ellen Pau notes that artists are therefore often caught in a double bind when it comes to opting for public funding or financing themselves.
If you are paying with your own money for an artist’s studio, the problem will be that the rent will go up, because as everyone knows, Hong Kong real estate always goes up. It will also be difficult for the artists to group together in more convenient or central places in the city. But if your studio has public funding, there are lots of regulations.
Art in a tight space
High rents and high population density haven’t just affected the ecology of the local Hong Kong art scene – they have affected the form and content of the works made by local artists as well.
Conceptual artist Tozer Pak Sheung Chuen had no need of studio space for the first half of his career: he started out contributing an inventive visual column to the Sunday supplement of Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily every week between 2003 and 2007. Though he’s since moved away from using the newspaper as his medium, the efficiency of creating non-tangible works and the power of communicating directly with his readers left deep impressions on him.
The island’s 2009 representative to the Venice Biennale, Pak is extremely conscious of Hong Kong’s lack of space. “Every moment in Hong Kong, you are thinking how to solve the problem of insufficient physical space. It becomes a basic survival skill – there’s no need to mention it. If you know making big artwork will cause you trouble, who will make it?” Pak deals directly with this idea in one of his works presented at the Biennale entitled “Breathing in a House.” For ten days in a small apartment, he breathed into plastic bags until the whole space was filled with containers of his own breath – a reflection on the spatial constraints of urban living.
Pak continues to rent a twenty square foot mini storage space to store his works after they’ve been exhibited, which costs him about HKD 470 per month (USD 61). The cost, though minimal, nonetheless seems to Pak “too expensive and worthless.” In the past two years, he has forgone the need for studio, exhibition and storage space entirely by switching to the creation of text installations and publications. His third book, a collection of images and ideas culled from his sketchbooks, comes out at the end of 2013.
Ellen Pau, a new media artist herself, has been influenced by Hong Kong’s claustrophobic conditions in similar ways. “Because of lack of space, I really prefer to make art that is not an object, that is less space-occupying. Digital art is always a good medium in Hong Kong, because the medium itself doesn’t take up too much space.” She adds, however, that having physical spaces in which artists can get together remains crucial even for those making less tangible works. “If artists just work within their own studios without talking to or being inspired by other artists, they would never do anything good. Artists villages still help creativity, no matter whether the work created occupies space or not.”
Hong Kong artists who haven’t made a shift to media that inherently take up less space, often find themselves creating smaller works. Cheung, who admits that C&G Artpartments is limited to showing works that can fit through their regular residential-sized door, explains: “Everyone here is creating artwork on a smaller scale compared to people from mainland China. Hong Kong artists are making smaller works. When Chinese artists come they are amazed – it doesn’t work for them.”
Art fighting in service of space
The creation of smaller works and the turn towards less substantial media are both easily understandable responses to the lack of affordable space in Hong Kong. It seems, however, that the city’s cramped quarters and rapid growth have also caused a subtler shift in the local art scene’s understanding of what the purpose of contemporary art should be. Particularly among the post-eighties generation, there is a turn towards art as social activism, often with a focus on issues related to land development. More and more, it seems that young artists tend towards two extremes, either signing contracts very early on with commercial galleries or taking another route entirely and getting involved in the city’s social activist movements.
The link between art and activism became more pronounced around 2006, when the demolition of the historic Star Ferry pier to make way for a six-lane freeway angered locals and woke people up to the importance of fighting for the preservation of Hong Kong’s architectural heritage. Ever since, artists have been increasingly up in arms over the way that property developers have destroyed vibrant neighbourhoods with little concern for the preservation of local culture and ways of life. A particularly notable example is the 2010 involvement of artists in protests against the demolition of Choi Yuen Tseun village for the construction of a high-speed railroad that would further connect Hong Kong with the mainland. Thousands attended the artist-organised “Choi Yuen Tsuen Woodstock: An Art Festival among the Ruins,” lying down in the half-bulldozed fields to listen to music and poetry.
More recently, artists have been organising arts and crafts events on-site at Ma Shi Po village, one of Hong Kong’s last remaining agricultural communities, to raise awareness of its imminent demolition to make way for housing complexes, by bringing city-dwellers out to experience life in the far reaches of the suburbs that might otherwise go unnoticed. In June, Clara Cheung also helped EmptySCape, a team of multidisciplinary artists devoted to exploring Hong Kong’s empty spaces, to launch the Ping Che Village School Art Festival, which took place in an abandoned school.
The event was an attempt to help participants experience a new type of engagement with their environment, but it also drew its inspiration from the fact that Hong Kong’s most controversial development plan is underway in precisely the northeast portion of the New Territories where Ping Che is located. 614 hectares there are slated to become the site of 60,700 new publicly subsidised housing units by 2031, creating affordable new homes but displacing thousands of existing residents. Given that the New Territories here directly abut the mainland, widespread opposition to its development are also seeped in the fears about greater integration with China. The public, concerned that the government is constructing a “back garden” for Shenzhen’s super rich, fears the collapse of the “one country, two systems” policy if mainlanders are allowed easier access to this border region.
The reason that land development has become a hot issue among artists and activists is in many ways linked to the handover of Hong Kong back to China. In their article “Continuity and Change in the Urban Transformation of Old Districts,” Pui Leng Woo and Ka Man Hui of the Chinese University of Hong Kong argue that,
With Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, people have come to view the city, its history and form with a heightened sense of belonging. Authorities that forge drastic change are now met with increasing resistance from residents, activists, and academics.
The increasing concern over deals that the government is suspected of cutting with land developers and the growing sense of pride in both Hong Kong’s cultural heritage and all that distinguishes it from the mainland, have fueled local artists’ interest in creating participatory, community-based projects with an anti-development, activist edge.
So has the sentiment that such rapid urbanisation is a symptom of an unsustainable and even undesirable way of life. “When I was growing up,” says Cheung, “the whole atmosphere in Hong Kong was that you would work really hard, so that you could earn enough money, so that you could save up enough to have an apartment and buy a certain kind of middle-class lifestyle. But why is that the best? Through different art projects, we can suggest to people that there are different kind of aesthetic experiences in life that can be cool, that can be about beauty.”
Rather than stamp out creativity, the pressure cooker of Hong Kong’s real estate market seems to have channeled artistic production in new directions. Far from the glistening museums and international art fairs, the most interesting core of the local art scene is gathering in distant industrial districts and empty spaces carved out of the urban detritus discarded by a city in perpetual motion upward and outward, searching for beauty in whatever space is at hand. Cheung speaks calmly, but with conviction: “Art can suggest that there are alternative living styles. The middle-class dream, it’s not the way to go, or at least, not the only way to go.”
- 5 films every arts practitioner should watch – Ellen Pau, Director of Videotage Hong Kong - August 2013 – Ellen Pau gives a list of art films to inspire artists
- Into the (lime)light: Hong Kong photographer South Ho – Schoeni interview – July 2013 – Ho unveils the workings of man’s soul through architectural metaphor
- “Hong Kong Eye”: New narratives in Hong Kong contemporary art – picture feast – May 2013 - an exhibition gives an overview of the city’s contribution to international art
- Cities of the future: What’s next for art an urbanism? – Default13 interview – May 2013 – artists from Asia and Europe combine forces to reimagine urban space
- Emerging Chinese installation artist Tozer Pak Sheung Chueng at the Venice Biennale 2009 – April 2009 – serendipity, ontology and urban exploration are combined in Pak’s Venetian installation
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