Creating Across Cultures - Choi Yan Chi

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CONTENTS Editor’s Notes on Romanization and Pronunciation Preface Acknowledgments

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IN T RODUC T IO N By Michelle Vosper


WO MEN of WORDS Introduction by Jennifer Feeley



NIEH HUALING 聶華苓: On the Outside Looking In


By Michelle Vosper CHAPTER 2

LIAO WEN 廖雯: Writing a New Chapter for Chinese Contemporary Art


By Christina Yuen Zi Chung CHAPTER 3

CANDACE CHONG 莊梅岩: A Playwright Puts the Hong Kong Story on Center Stage


By Clare Tyrrell-Morin WO RLD of the VISUAL Introduction by Sasha Su-ling Welland CHAPTER 4

YIN XIUZHEN 尹秀珍: Sculpting Soft Histories



By Samantha Culp CHAPTER 5

CHOI YAN CHI 蔡仞姿: Blazing a Trail for Hong Kong Art and Education


By Clare Tyrrell-Morin CHAPTER 6

LULU SHUR-TZY HOU 侯淑姿: Taiwan Through a Feminist Lens


By Christina Yuen Zi Chung CHAPTER 7

JAFFA LAM 林嵐: An Artist Shines a Light on Community


By Clare Tyrrell-Morin with Valerie C. Doran CHAPTER 8

YANG LINA 楊荔鈉: The Art of Documenting China’s Most Vulnerable

By Jennifer Feeley



THE ARTISTS IN THIS SECTION, trailblazers of the contemporary era, can claim a long and illustrious lineage. As artists, patrons and collectors, women enriched the realm of visual expression in premodern China through contributions to the literati arts of poetry, calligraphy and painting. Jin Dynasty calligrapher Wei Shuo (272–349) was acclaimed for her stylistic innovations. Li Qingzhao (1084–1151) gained renown as a Song Dynasty poet, calligrapher and connoisseur of books. Yuan Dynasty painter Guan Daosheng (1262–1319) disregarded gender convention with her atmospheric rendering of bamboo, a traditional symbol of masculinity. Qing Dynasty flower and landscape painter Chen Shu (1660–1736) self-consciously identified with female predecessors when she painted Han Dynasty Lady Wenji alone in a tent with paper, ink stone and zither by her side. Embroidery, while not part of the male scholarly canon, was a means of female bonding, agency and self-expression. Female poets wrote about the practice, and women authored treatises on the art. By the

She exhibited sensuous paintings of female nudes at the First National Art Exhibition of 1929 in Shanghai and joined the faculty of the National Central University in Nanjing. As the violent clash between Nationalists and Communists divided the art world, Pan left for Paris, where she spent the rest of her life. Her transnational career is an important precursor to the five contemporary artists featured in this section. Their work attests to multiple border-crossings that complicate and challenge understandings of Chineseness. All have made groundbreaking innovations to form that challenge conventional art practices and institutions. Choi Yan Chi’s early deconstructions of Chinese calligraphy defy the politics of Western modernist abstraction, and her installations confront both mainland state violence and British colonial history in Hong Kong. Lulu Hou’s photographic and text-based work documents the dreams and struggles of Vietnamese women sold into marriage with Taiwanese men. Yin Xiuzhen’s installations ruminate upon the human cost of spectacular national projects

of the VISUAL late Qing, embroidery had gained new economic and artistic status. When Shen Shou’s (1874–1921) needlework portrait of the Italian empress won a 1911 art competition in Turin, the Qing government presented it as a gift to the Italian emperor. In the early twentieth century, Chinese art schools offered classes in Western painting and new opportunities for female artists like Pan Yuliang (1899–1977) to hone their skills in genres not yet dominated by a male tradition in China. Pan won a government scholarship that allowed her to train in painting and sculpture in Lyon, Paris and Rome.

Pan Yuliang (1899–1977) Self Portrait Oil on canvas. 1945 © National Art Museum of China

through her use of intimate, everyday materials and the domestic and industrialized labor of sewing. Yang Lina’s digital documentaries and feature films break taboos in representing divorce, domestic violence and female sexuality on screen. Jaffa Lam’s sculptures and installations illuminate race, gender and class-based marginalization in the face of cross-border economic realignments. While some of the artists identify as feminist and others frame their work in broader terms, their art poses critical questions for our time about culture and power. — Sasha Su-ling Welland 69



Belonging to two generations of artists naturally put in me in a state of ‘in-between-ness’. Yet this also allowed me to cross over generations and genres freely—to create my own path.

CHOI YAN CHI is an installation artist, painter, educator and cultural advocate who has helped to build contemporary art in Hong Kong for more than thirty years. She was a pioneer of new art forms, from installation to cross-media performance, and founded one of the city’s first independent art spaces.

Blazing a Trail for Hong Kong Art and Education By Clare Tyrrell-Morin


t dawn on June 21, 2015, a group of fourteen Hong Kong artists and art lovers stood upon a rooftop in West Kowloon welcoming the sun as it streamed through the clouds, radiating off the metal and glass structures of Hong Kong’s skylines and the deep blue of its harbor. As the southern winds gradually pushed away the veil of pollution, the startling beauty of this port city was revealed. This silent, meditative sunrise gathering was, in fact, a piece choreographed by Choi Yan Chi, one of two Hong Kong artists selected to take part in Yoko Ono’s global event Morning Peace 2015. The event, organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, connected artists from seven countries over 24 hours coinciding with the summer solstice. Choi called the work Waiting for the First Beam of Light—or in Cantonese, “waiting for dawn.” It was a nod to the “Occupy Central” movement protests of the previous year—a call for patience and faith in the dream of democracy. By 2015 Hong Kong had become an important platform for contemporary art in Asia, with its record-breaking auction houses, annual Art Basel Hong Kong art fair and the ambitious new art museum M+ under construction in the newly dedicated West Kowloon Cultural District. The new director, Lars Nittve, had come to Hong Kong in 2011 carrying a high pedigree as founding director of the Tate Modern in London. It was M+ that had commissioned Choi’s contribution to Morning Peace 2015. The day after Choi’s performance, Nittve reflected on the veteran artist’s influence: “Choi Yan Chi’s impact on the development of the contemporary scene in Hong Kong—and in a sense its ‘liberation’—has been extraordinary,” he said. “This, despite the fact that she is rather soft spoken and unassuming. I think as a role model for introducing new categories or strategies in art making, including installations and performative aspects; her teaching and the creation of 1a space when there basically was no place to exhibit contemporary art in Hong Kong; it is hard to find her equal.” 91


Waiting for the First Beam of Light, by Choi Yan Chi, commissioned by M+ as part of Yoko Ono’s global event, Morning Peace 2015.

Good Luck Girl Choi Yan Chi was born in Hong Kong in October of 1949, two weeks after the founding of the People’s Republic of China. “When people ask me how old I am,” she says. “I usually say I’m as old as New China.” As a child Yan Chi was considered a “good luck girl” because her birth was followed later by three brothers. She was raised by a mother from the Pearl River Delta region in Guangdong Province. Her father was a secondgeneration Chinese Indonesian and among the first generation of import and export traders in Sheung Wan district on Hong Kong Island. They lived in a tong lau—a tenement building several stories high—where they shared one floor and facilities with four other families. Choi’s family moved in 1967 into government-subsidized housing. Choi was educated at a government school where she proved to be a maverick. She wanted to study art, but followed her mother’s wishes for her to pursue teacher training. In her third year at Grantham College, however, she had the good fortune to study with a dedicated art educator, Kwok Chiu-leung, one of the first Hong Kong art teachers sent to 92


England for training. Upon his return to Hong Kong, he paved the way for art education. “Kwok belonged to the first generation of Hong Kong Modernists and was closely associated with the Circle Art Group,” Choi recalls. The group was founded in 1964 by modernist artists Hon Chi Fun, Jackson Yu, Wucius Wong and others. “Kwok’s spirit really impressed me. I promised myself that I would follow my teacher’s path and help to develop art education in Hong Kong.” After graduating and beginning work as an art teacher, Choi took an evening art class in ink and brush painting (shui mo) taught by the distinguished artist Lui Shou-kwan in the Extramural Department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It is hard to overstate the importance of Lui in the story of Hong Kong art. He was one of the forces making this small colony an epicenter of new Chinese art in the 1950s and 60s. Lui was the leading figure in the New Ink movement, which modernized traditional Chinese ink painting and planted the seeds for Hong Kong art. Lui Shou-kwan spoke passionately about remaining true to millennia of artistic tradition and yet, inspired by modernism and the abstract expressionists, he also called upon his students to inject their own unique spirit into a painting. Choi befriended some students who were ardent followers of the New Ink movement, and they would meet and chat at the City Museum and Art Gallery in City Hall, down by the swelling waves of Victoria Harbour. Cultivating Art in a “Cultural Desert” In order to understand the remarkable path of Choi Yan Chi along the cutting edge of Hong Kong art, it is important to grasp the unique position of the Hong Kong artist. Although Hong Kong had been a sophisticated international banking and business center for decades, the city had acquired the label “cultural desert,” mainly for its lack of institutions supporting the arts. The tagline is misleading, for the city has had no shortage of artists or visionaries who have found sanctuary in the colony. After World War II, many of China’s outstanding artists and intellectuals began moving to Hong Kong to escape the turmoil of the civil war. The numbers increased after the communist victory in Choi Yan Chi and brothers, 1956. 93


1949, when an estimated 100,000 people began to cross into Hong Kong each month until the border was closed in 1951, effectively doubling the population (2.2 million by the mid-1950s). The British colonizers’ handsoff policy gave way to a thriving free Chinese press with a diversity of alternative voices. The city became a laboratory for new ideas and debate insulated from the prevailing mindsets in China. Within the churning, open port environment of British Hong Kong, they encountered ideas from the Western art world via Hollywood movies, pop songs, magazines, newspapers and books. CITY HALL and HONG KONG ART The opening of the second Hong Kong City Hall in 1962 was a landmark event in the history of Hong Kong art. For nearly 120 years after the British made Hong Kong a colony in 1841, the government had shown little interest in promoting art and culture. The first City Hall, which opened in 1869 as a recreation center for foreign residents, included a museum displaying exotic trinkets from across the British Empire. No Chinese art was exhibited, since the “indigenous art” of the colonies was largely categorized as “craft.” By the 1950s, after waves of refugees entered the territory fleeing China’s political upheavals, Hong Kong had a thriving population of progressive artists, but still no public galleries for displaying their art. The exception was St. John’s Cathedral, which became a popular venue for small exhibitions. The original City Hall was demolished in 1933 to make way for the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank building. Thirty years later, Hong Kong City Hall was rebuilt on the edge of Victoria Harbour next to the Star Ferry. Its Bauhaus-style building included the City Hall Museum and Art Gallery. The opening exhibition, Hong Kong Art Today, organized by Hong Kong City Hall, 1869, southern aspect. the museum’s first curator John Warner, featured works by artists like Hon Chi Fun and Wucius Wong, who formed the Circle Art Group in 1964. City Hall was also the home of Studio One, which showed art films in the 1960s and became a gathering place for artists and intellectuals. In 1991 the collection of the City Hall Museum and Art Gallery moved to a new building across the harbor and was renamed the Hong Kong Museum of Art. To the dismay of local artists, the opening exhibition, Too French, featured art from France. Choi Yan Chi was among 72 artists who petitioned the museum to prioritize Hong Kong art. Hong Kong’s City Hall in the 1960s.



Despite Hong Kong’s relative openness, however, the arts failed to thrive. There was no market for Hong Kong artists, no government support and no venues in which to exhibit their work. With the very foundations of the colony built on trade and a vast refugee population desperately trying to build a better life, the arts were pushed to the sidelines. This position of being on the periphery forged the unique character of Hong Kong artists. The critic Johnson Chang Tsong-zung (in the catalogue for Hong Kong Eye, Saatchi Gallery) described the Hong Kong artist’s identity today as having “developed out of a resistance to a compulsively commercial society that for decades had been singularly unsympathetic to cultural careers. The sardonic humor and quiet subversiveness of Hong Kong art may characterize the reactionary who gets no public recognition, but these qualities also describe the artist armed for survival in the harshest mercenary context.” Our friends were all surprised A Meeting of Creative Minds—and Hearts

to see two artists, one belonging to

It was Chinese New Year 1972 when Choi first met Hon Chi Fun, one of the most influential painters of the 1960s in Hong Kong. She attended a slideshow about his recent travels to the United States and Europe. The painter charmed the audience with his charisma; he talked about being robbed in Rome, the student movement in France, and traveling “like a hippie from country to country.” He instantly fell in love with a member of the audience—Choi Yan Chi—and began unremittingly to woo her. She was 22 and he was 50. Two months later the courtship was interrupted when Choi made a radical move. She quit her well-paying job as a teacher and set out for the United States by means of a scholarship to the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio. Known in the colony for its generosity with scholarships for foreign students, the school had been a stepping stone for many Hong Kong artists. When she landed in Columbus, Ohio, she shared an apartment with a group of fellow pioneering Hong Kong artists. They studied art by day and got illegal jobs in the same Chinese restaurant, where they worked all night until 4:00 a.m. They would ride back home together in an ancient jalopy, the pavement visible through the battered floor below their feet. Yet in Columbus, Choi felt far from the thriving arts scene and wanted to exist in its very pulsing heart. Within a year, she transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

modernism and the other to the contemporary avant-garde, living in the same family. — Hon Chi Fun



Engaging with Chicago’s Avant-Garde Choi consumed a steady diet of the avant-garde during her six years as a BFA and MFA student in Chicago and went to every lecture imaginable. She was present when performance art pioneer Chris Burden carried out his project Five Day Locker (which involved sealing himself in said locker for five days). She was in the audience when Marcia Tucker revealed her dreams that would grow into the New Museum in New York, when Judy Chicago discussed her ideas for her epic work The Dinner Party, and when Laurie Anderson delivered one of her first groundbreaking talks about performance art. It was the era of emerging feminist art. Choi also remembers Lucy Lippard and Miriam Schapiro as guest artists at the school. “I just felt there was so much I didn’t know, so I kept going to lots of activities, just to absorb,” Choi remembers. “I was taking in so many new ideas, opening my eyes wide.” She found an ambiance of generosity among the students that was equally mind-opening. “When students made a new discovery, they would write a big explanation on a poster and tell everyone the creative process,

Blank Quarter, by Hon Chi Fun, 1969.



step-by-step. In Hong Kong, people are protective of their information and tend to hide everything. Hong Kong always had categories and a mindset of feudal boundaries.” At first Choi found herself creatively blocked, but finally found her voice when studying Robert Rauschenberg’s pioneering “Combine” paintings, meshing sculpture and painting (see p. 75). “Completing the work Spring was really a breakthrough for me,” says Choi. “I broke through my fear about copying the ideas of others. And then I began to have a new sensibility that was my own.” In 1976, Choi was invited to show her series of “breakthrough” paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Awarded Fellowship Show at the Chicago Museum of Art. In Spring she deconstructed Chinese calligraphy, and obscured it with acrylic on three sets of plaster wall panels. “I wanted to highlight … that the legacy of Chinese painting should be perpetuated in sentiment and spirit; one should not be bound by the confines of material and the so-called ink-and-brush approach,” she later explained in an essay. But this method did not go down well with the modernists in Chicago. They believed in minimalist “pure art,” free of cultural references like calligraphy. “My professor said, ‘Yan Chi, why did you use a language that we don’t understand? … In those days, art was only supposed to be about art, so they didn’t appreciate my work. It kind of discouraged me. So when I returned to my studio, I erased all of that and began to do work that was Choi Yan Chi in her student days in Chicago, 1976. very minimal, very pure.” Wherever she went in Chicago, Choi could sense assumptions of “Chinese-ness” projected upon her. She felt some teachers expecting her to fulfill their Chinese stereotypes, while another encouraged her to drop all cultural baggage from her work. She began to feel chronically misunderstood and developed what she termed “an acute sense of otherness.” Even with women, she was unable to find a bridge. Choi remembers when a leading feminist artist visited her studio one day. “She said I had to be strong enough and brave enough to break the boundaries,” recalls Choi, who found the discussion condescending. “I actually avoided the feminists,” she adds, laughing. “For one thing, I had a very strong mother 97


as a role model. I was already a financially independent woman with a very independent mind. I felt that they just kind of looked at me as an oppressed minority woman from Asia!” Breaking Through Boundaries

An empty canvas is full. — Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008)

Choi continued to defy expectations in art and in her life. During the first part of her stay in the United States, Hon Chi Fun wrote to her almost daily. Choi was inspiring a new and obvious sensuality in his paintings. One morning in 1976 while Hon was visiting Choi in Chicago, the two jumped in a car and drove down to Carson City, Nevada. His long hair flowed behind him through the open windows. She was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. “We were such hippies,” she says, laughing. “In those days nobody talked about marriage: they talked about divorce! But the two of us drove to a quiet city, to a registry office. We were so unprepared. The guy said, ‘Exchange your rings,’ and we didn’t have any rings. We just looked at each other and laughed.” Choi returned to Hong Kong in 1978 with new determination to push beyond the traditional forms and definitions of art. When she was offered a teaching role at the Swire School of Design at Hong Kong

Light and Shade, by Choi Yan Chi, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 1985. This work was a part of her larger exhibition An Extension into Space, Hong Kong’s first exhibition of installation art.



Polytechnic University, she decided to make the job a part of her artistic practice and launched an experimental teaching approach. It was entirely at odds with the conservative Hong Kong education system, which discouraged independent, creative impulses. She led her students off to the sands of Big Wave Bay in Shek O Village, where she inspired them to make Land Art with light, air and space. Within the walls of the university, she developed early forms of installation art—one day the class even set off small fires, after which university officials began placing security guards near her classroom doors. While continuing her painting, Choi was also starting to dive into a rich array of interdisciplinary projects with poets, dancers and performers. The 1980s was the second wave of the avant-garde in Hong Kong, the decade of the homecoming of young Hongkongers like Choi who had been born in the 1950s and trained in the best art schools of the West. A new group of innovators—including modern dance pioneer Willy Tsao, filmmaker Ann Hui, sculptor Antonio Mak, experimental art and theater pioneer Danny Yung, curator Oscar Ho, poet Leung Ping-kwan and Johnson Chang, whose iconic Hanart TZ Gallery would open in 1983— was starting to make things happen. “These new seeds gave Hong Kong its new movies, modern dance, new music, experimental performances, new photography and cultural studies in its formative stages,” Choi wrote in the catalogue for her 2006 retrospective [Re-]Fabrication. “The hip slogan for art at the time was to ‘break through boundaries.’ We all wanted to grow beyond our own ‘boundaries’ of creation, and cross-media dialogues became a popular form of experimentation.” One of Choi’s major creative partners was Danny Yung, who had recently returned from studying architecture in New York. In 1980 Yung invited her to collaborate on his four-part theater project, Journey to the East. She designed the set for the third performance, Question/Problem, which was staged at the Hong Kong Arts Center. Choi built an installation of movable gauze screens, onto which she projected slides and drawn images by artist Yank Wong. Her creation provided the environment for dancers from the freshly formed City Contemporary Dance Company. By 1985, Choi was starting to smash boundaries of her own. She opened Hong Kong’s first installation exhibition, An Extension into Space, at the Hong Kong Arts Centre—forcing Galleries Director Michael Chan, as well as the Hong Kong media, to search hard for an appropriate Chinese translation of “installation” (they settled on zhuangzhi yishu).

Installation work, that is, work that steps outside of the canvas and the frame, reduces the distance between the viewer and the object viewed. Visitors, formerly outside of the work, are now inside. — Oscar Ho



Politics Demand an Artistic Response

The one who danced to the music The one who liked eating noodles The one who liked drinking plain water The one who wore a hat to keep off the sun Where have they all gone now? — Leung Ping-kwan Quiet Things

Two major events punctuated the Hong Kong arts scene in the 1980s: the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 that would return Hong Kong to China in 1997, and the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square. Choi Yan Chi remembers a moment in April of 1989, sitting with the poet Leung Ping-kwan and the feminist performance artist Yau Ching, and discussing their interdisciplinary project Object-activity set for that summer. They were preoccupied with the student movement taking place in Beijing and could not concentrate on their work. “We just kept talking,” remembers Choi. “Especially Leung Ping-kwan, who was connected with the cultural circles in China. The intention of our performance kept changing; finally we just had to follow the impulse of the student movement.” The traumatic termination of the protests on June 4 unleashed a flood of sorrow, anger and fear throughout Hong Kong. “We felt paralyzed,” remembers Choi. “It was the first shocking political event for Hong Kong people. We asked ourselves, ‘Why are we doing art? Is there any meaning?’ For young people at that time, my students, it was the first time they awakened to the realization that they were Chinese. People were getting anxious; 1997 was approaching, there was a sense of urgency, the wish for democracy started to grow.” When Object-activity opened a month later, in July, the exhibition provided a much-needed mourning space for the entire creative

A student confined in a fish tank as performance art for the collective exhibition Object-activity, Sheung Wan Town Hall, Hong Kong, July 1989.



community. It stretched across three days and five performances in Sheung Wan Town Hall. Broken chairs, black balloons and black fabric were scattered throughout the space—and artists from different disciplines were invited to come and take part. One of the pieces, in which a student, Afa Cheng, submerged himself underwater in a fish tank, had a powerful effect upon her. “I knew I would do something with that image,” she recalls. In the spring of 1989, before the political upheavals of the student protests, Choi had been awarded a grant from the Asian Cultural Council to travel to New York to update herself on trends in art over the decade since she had first visited. Right after the Tiananmen tragedy, many artists wanted to stay close to home, but Choi’s plans were already set. The stimulating atmosphere of New York’s art scene provided a diversion for her troubled soul and she filled her schedule with alternative performances and visits to galleries. She made friends with artists who had fled China in fear of a crackdown on artists and intellectuals. At the same time, American artists were riveted on the unsettled energy in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Choi returned to Hong Kong with a renewed sense of the importance of art to social and political commentary and a new resolve to express, through her art, the feelings and the predicament of the people of Hong Kong in the aftermath of the Tiananmen trauma. Drowned Choi understood that the times called for something more dramatic than a canvas alone could convey, and began a series of installation art pieces she called Drowned. She created Drowned I at the Hong Kong Arts Centre in 1991. Choi placed fish tanks in the gallery space, cut up poems about the student protests in Tiananmen Square and let them float in the water with a projector shining through it all. In 1992, Drowned II was shown at the newly opened Hong Kong Museum of Art in Tsim Sha Tsui. From this piece, Choi extended the concept, placing minimalist glass tanks upon podiums in the space and piling stacks of books within the water. The notoriety of the Tiananmen tragedy brought Hong Kong, for the first time, to the ongoing attention of the international art world and Drowned had thrust Choi onto the international stage. In 1993, she was invited to Brisbane, Australia, as the sole artist to represent Hong Kong at the First Asia-Pacific Triennial, which celebrated the growing Asian contemporary art movement. Drowned III: Swimming in the Dark featured glass tanks, now filled with viscous oil, and stacks of books



drowning within. Every second, from each stack a bubble arose, as if the books were breathing. Each tank stood atop an imposing, British Empire– style wooden podium. “Oil was destructive, but at the same time, a preservative,” Choi explains. Later that year, Choi had a solo exhibition at the House of World Cultures in Berlin. Here Drowned IV appeared in a room with cabinets— the stacks of books eroding in the oil, melding together into a solid wall. Glass bottles, shrouded in black gauze, sat atop the high walls around the room. Each contained a lone, live, black Siamese fighter fish. The fish tanks were to appear again and again in her works. “I used the fish to symbolize Hong Kong people,” she explains. “They look so smart and pretty but can only swim in a small, restricted space.” Hong Kong’s impending return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 weighed heavily on the minds of Choi and her husband Hon Chi Fun. Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents were starting to emigrate out of the colony—mainly to Canada, the United States and Australia—

Drowned I, by Choi Yan Chi, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 1989.



Drowned III: Swimming in the Dark, by Choi Yan Chi, First Asia-Pacific Triennial, Queensland Art Gallery, 1993.

in the lead up to the 1997 Handover. Most stayed abroad long enough to obtain “insurance policy” foreign passports, and had plans to return to Hong Kong. In 1993, Choi and Hon packed up their belongings and emigrated to Toronto with their 14-year-old son Wang-kwong. Yet life in the suburbs, far away from the hustle of Hong Kong, left Choi utterly alienated. Drowned V appeared at Toronto’s Mercer Union Gallery in 1994; this time the fish tanks held decomposing books set atop a domestic scene of living room furniture. The fish swam, solitary, in picture frames hanging on the walls—trapped by their domestic parameters. When Danny Yung reached out to Choi to see if she would take part in a new project entitled Journey to the East ’97, she leapt at the opportunity. This inspired her to move back to Hong Kong in January



Past & Future, by Choi Yan Chi, in Journey to the East ’ 97, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, 1997.

of 1997, six months before the Handover, to take part in the show at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Yung’s show, including five artists from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China, became a panChina artists’ forum. Choi created Past & Future, for which she ripped the carpet from a floor and filled the space with rows of school desks—all facing a blank blackboard. When visitors stepped into the space, it triggered a recording of a classroom of students loudly stepping to attention. “At that time, there was a lot of worry about what would happen in Hong Kong,” Choi explains. “I pointed at education and said whatever change would come, would come from education first.” Choi had become a fearless campaigner for art education. In her writings in the New Evening Post, Bo Yi Magazine and the Hong Kong Economic Journal she constantly pursued the question. As Danny Yung remembers, “In the 1980s, she relentlessly recommended her students to



me for my arts ventures. Several of them became key members of Zuni Icosahedron. All became cultural drivers and leading forces in Hong Kong in the following decades.” Contemporary Art Finds a Humble Home in Hong Kong Something unexpected happened after the British sailed out of town in July 1997: nothing. After the world’s media descended on the city on July 1, after Prince Charles and former governor Chris Patten drifted out of the harbor on H.M.Y. Britannia, life continued as normal. Yet below the surface, a radical shift was taking place in the arts scene. The British had left an abandoned government-supply depot in North Point, which was now quickly filling with squatting artists, filmmakers, designers and performers. Choi was there immediately, bringing her experience in Toronto’s thriving arts scene, and joining forces with fellow collaborators such as Hiram To, Howard Chan and May Fung. They created a space in a huge, former school hall—a modernist building with high ceilings. They named it “1a space,” after a bus that runs between the glitzy financial hub of Hong Kong to an impoverished area on the edges of the territory. “It really resembled a loft in New York City. People were amazed,” Choi remembers. “The Hong Kong Museum of Art in Tsim Sha Tsui wasn’t nearly as free as this.”

Cattle Depot Artist Village, 2010, the home of 1a space.



This settlement, known as Oil Street Artists Village, was the first such arts district in Hong Kong. Its forty units housed the studios of some of the city’s most pioneering groups, such as Videotage and Zuni Icosahedron. The counterpoint to the more traditional Hong Kong Museum of Art, which was run largely by the Ink School contingent, Oil Street was a release for the avant-garde of the 1980s, who had been educated abroad. The village lasted only a year before the government evicted them all (clearing the way to sell the property for enormous profit). Decades later, the government would realize the error of its ways and build an art center called Oi! on a nearby site. Back then, however, the spontaneous village showcased the astonishingly diverse contemporary art forms that were taking root in Hong Kong—a city that still didn’t have a museum dedicated to contemporary art. Choi’s group was eventually relocated to the Cattle Depot Artist Village in out-of-the-way To Kwa Wan, formerly a quarantine center and abattoir, built in 1907. 1a space moved into a barn there and soon became a leading independent arts space, which presented researchheavy programs, including conferences and exhibitions. Choi became the chair—a role she has held for more than two decades. Completing the Circle By the early 2000s, Choi’s campaign for arts education was beginning to show results. At the time, she was heavily involved in establishing the Academy of Visual Arts (AVA) at Baptist University, the only studiofocused arts academy to grow from a Hong Kong university. By 2013, the AVA had become one of the city’s leading art academies and John Aiken, former head of the Slade at University College London, had taken on the role of Director. The AVA now sits alongside some of the most important art colleges in the region: the pioneering School of Creative Media at City University, the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Asian campus and the fine arts programs of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong. Over a few decades, Hong Kong’s visual art education grew from nothing into a flourishing and vibrant force. In September 2014, Hong Kong’s “Occupy Movement,” demanding genuine universal suffrage, surged into life on the streets of the city. That month, Choi was deep into an art project, a powerful performance and video work called Head to Head Conversation. She placed members of the public in solitary rooms in a colonial building, cooked meals for them



Image from Head to Head Conversation, a performative video work by Choi Yan Chi, Oi! Art space, Hong Kong, 2014.

and filmed them as they paced the enclosed spaces in forced silence. Like a puppeteer, she matched them with other volunteers via iPads and asked them to engage in intimate conversations. The resulting video works, coinciding by chance with the biggest civil disobedience movement in Hong Kong’s history, became an intimate portrait, capturing the innermost thoughts and dreams, fears, doubts, inter-generational tensions and hopes of Hongkongers during the protest movement. The cultural critic and media artist Linda Lai has been observing and admiring the uncanny timeliness of Choi’s work for years. “She was the key player of many ‘first’ attempts—installation, cross media performance,” Lai wrote in the catalogue for [Re-]Fabrication (2006), a retrospective exhibition of Choi’s art work over three decades. Yet as Lai points out, Choi’s “breadth and avant-gardism have not been sufficiently understood … there was often a lack of mature or properly informed context within the art/critical community at large to make sense of her creative practices.” When Hong Kong celebrates the opening in 2019 of M+, its first museum devoted to contemporary and visual culture, it will be thanks to artists and cultural visionaries such as Choi Yan Chi, Oscar Ho,



Leung Ping-kwan, Danny Yung, and pioneers Lui Shou-kwan, Hon Chi Fun, Wucius Wong and many others. They have persevered against their city’s overarching disinterest in the arts and forged ahead with hope and determination, despite being ignored or even evicted. Choi has played a quiet, but fundamental role in a miraculous project—taking a desert and making it bloom through creative vision, innovation and sheer hard work.

Thinking Through Seeing, installation by Choi Yan Chi, Hong Kong Museum of Art, 2010. Choi Yan Chi and 1a Space created this work as part of the Kai Tak River Project, an environmental program that brought together the community for the rehabilitation of one of the longest and most polluted waterways in Hong Kong. The installation included projections of images of the waters, full of fish and underwater life, of the newly cleaned public nullah.




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