THE STREET ART OF HONG KONG
Evan Dale // April 10, 2019
More often than not, Hong Kong is described - against its will - with the use of adjectives and identities other than its own. A cultural makeup akin to that of its northerly mainland and confusingly divorced and remarried relationship with China; customs and societal values reminiscent in part to longtime overseers, colonizers, and lovers of tea and double decker busses, Britain. Yet, somehow, few outside of the small, dense island enigma ever describe or attempt to explain Hong Kong by utilizing things that are in and of themselves expressly theirs. Sure, China has had influence and continues to this day to hold some sort of strange stranglehold and rightful ownership to the land. Sure, the UK's values and global prominence helped turn Hong Kong into the bustling left-hand-side-of-the-road powerhouse that always accompanies their colonization. But Hong Kong has been, is, and will remain a place very much all its own. They boast their own currency, their own culinary scene, their own government, their own language, and their own way of life. One stroll around the city, permanently drowning in the shadows of 100-story buildings, steep mountain peaks, and dense rainforest will draw up comparisons of few places. For its mass density, diversity, and it's strange, forward, and honest freak show sort of street scene, many draw lines to New York as well. But let Hong Kong be Hong Kong. Let New York be New York.
It's much easier to see the differences and Hong Kong's individuality if open to making sense of surroundings without comparisons to what is already known. Embrace the new, the different, and the bizarre and beautiful things will make themselves seen and understood.
One of the most startling unique and vibrantly one-of-a-kind ways to learn and experience the culture of a place is to simply walk around the unpolished, non-touristy street corners, eyes open, and take notice of work from the local street artists. And there, Hong Kong reveals itself truly the enigma that it already and actually is.
It's early in the morning and I'm walking along the foggy promenade of Aberdeen - a quirky, smelly fishing 'village' on the southern horizons if the South Island, just down the backside of famous Victoria Peak, but seemingly existing in another dimension from Hong Kong's Central district. The same impossibly tall towers mark the waterfront here, packing in hundreds of thousands of residents into the long and winding sliver of land between the mountain and the harbor. But in comparison to Central Hong Kong or to Kowloon, it feels abandoned. It's quiet. Culturally, their identity is still reliant on fishing and shrimping, and they like it that way.
The walk to the nearest metro isn't too long - perhaps two kilometers down the oceanfront and the riverfront. But as the river winds slightly inland, and as a pocket of especially large and especially abandoned skyscrapers reveal themselves, the quaintness of Aberdeen is replaced with a sense of post-apocolyptia and artists' true expressions and opinions on the area - on greater Hong Kong altogether. For blocks, the lower levels of every inactive warehouse are exploding with vivid, hyper-colorful, geometrically absurdist paintings.
There are reasons why Hong Kong's street art take on such forms, and like the street art of every city, the reasons are simply reflections and statements of their location. Hong Kong is vivid, exploding with diversity, intensity, and culture-shocking experiences around each corner. Hong Kong is hyper-colorful, built up of a wide diversity that few cities in the world can match. And that diversity extends beyond race and belief and into the color palette of the city. Bright oranges, deep blues, and sea-foam greens not only make up the existing environment surrounding the city, but also paint the skyline with a boldness other cities would never dare strive for. Hong Kong is geometrically absurd, playing host to the world's grandest collection of super-tall structures nonchalantly twisting, edging, and rising from the sides of its steep mountain peaks to give the impression of towers and a skyline taller and funkier than seemingly possible.
The street art, coming from artists who call home to such a bizarre city, is reflecting and worthy of its otherworldliness.
But it’s also reflecting of Hong Kong’s approach to simultaneously support and celebrate artists while beautifying city streets. HKwalls is a key non-profit art organization that collects the rights to concrete canvases all around the city, in turn granting local and international artists opportunities to exhibit their work. Through the mediums of street art and street culture, HKwalls has developed a wide-ranging city-wide network of eye-catching pieces of street art. And in all coincidence, HKwalls holds their annual street art festival during March, so my time spent in Hong Kong – completely inundated by art – was even more appropriately timed than planned. But, as more and more one-of-a-kind street corners, alleyways, and warehouse walls caught my attention, nearly all of them, I noticed, had been tagged and promoted by HKwalls themselves. In a city so driven by art and design in all its forms, it’s refreshing and brilliant to see all kinds of artists and all kinds of art supported and celebrated to such extents.
When it comes to the history of street art in Hong Kong, the art occasionally moves away from nondescript forms, and into script itself.A man by the name of Tsang Tsou Choi is largely to thank for the rise of Hong Kong’s love for street art and for calligraphy to be considered in the conversation. His work, which is focused on the beauty of calligraphy as art itself, litters Hong Kong. His work is a combination of Western graffiti, artistic calligraphy, and the mystery of stream-of-consciousness writing. It is mesmerizing and has influenced writers and artists alike to explore a similar path. In fact, his work is so influential and important to Hong Kong and to street art’s history that most of his work in Hong Kong remains protected by the government. Today many artists working in Hong Kong and throughout Southern China have pulled inspiration from the movement that he started.
But it's not only the street art.
I arrive at the Wong Chuk Hang metro station and pay $7.50HKD to pass beneath Victoria peak by superfast metro and reemerge in the thick of it. I walk beneath some of the world's renowned works of architecture. The Hong Kong Central Government Complex, Bank of China Tower, Jardine House. I'm enamored by it all. But here, in the city's premiere tourist and civic district, street art is more severely enforced. Or perhaps, I was simply too distracted by the grandeur above to see the art below.
I'm headed to Hong Kong's Convention & Exhibition Center. It's the last weekend of March and the city is playing host to their third annual installation of Art Basel. By the tradition of the world's most prestigious art fair, a majority of the art exhibited has to be local and regional - many of the artists coming from the rich history of Hong Kong art itself. Very quickly, it becomes very easy to see the comparisons between the fine art and the street art. It is 2019 after all, and the two are almost inarguably interchangeable. Neither is better than the other, and other than galleria, the two draw remarkable comparisons. Bright, geometric, interactive, thought-provoking, and strange. It would be hard to come from such a place and attempt to express something different, right?
At some point, the show is overwhelming, and I return to the streets and the park for a change of pace. But all around me, the architecture, the culture, the people, and the art remain the same - remain purely Hong Kong.