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Notes on Mobile M+ Yau Ma Tei

"Context as Potential and Constraints"

Co-authored by Sunnie Chan + Mia Fong + Solomon Yu


It was with much enthusiasm that, while the seven artists selected to participate in the inaugural Mobile M+ exhibition were finalising their proposals, we began our search for potential locations to host six large-scale installations for this temporary visual-art showcase across multiple sites. While the hunt for exhibition space outside the venues of established institutions brought about some disheartening technical challenges, the process of organising Hong Kong’s first public “nomadic” museum project did, more interestingly, raise questions as to how much the selected sites might influence the artists’ works, and the extent to which the community would embrace the presence of art in such close proximity to where they live and work.


Without having any specific criteria — apart from keeping the venue options within Kowloon’s Yau Tsim Mong district — we made aerial surveys and perused Google Maps before exploring the area on foot. The district comprises Tsim Sha Tsui, Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok — each its own distinctive neighbourhood. We naturally concentrated on Yau Ma Tei for its proximity to the site of the future West Kowloon Cultural District, as well as the surprising contrasts in the physical and social textures between it and the adjacent areas of Jordan and Kwun Chung, which reflect the profound transformations in the history and culture of the Kowloon Peninsula.


Yau Ma Tei has historically been characterised by its diverse and varied make-up — at once metropolitan and suburban, industrial, commercial and residential, seafaring and land-based. Originally a narrow anchorage used by fishermen, Yau Ma Tei has grown from a prosperous market town in the late 19th century into one of Hong Kong’s busiest residential and commercial districts. Rows of shop-houses and tenement buildings sprang up, and the area soon became Kowloon’s centre of entertainment, with cinemas, theatres and street performances. It was also in this period that the area was referred to as “the poor man’s nightclub” – a description that is still widely used today. Primarily a working-class district, Yau Ma Tei’s built environment resembles a typical urban street block pattern, yet it is not uniform. While there are clusterings of businesses of similar trades, it is also characterised by a dynamic coexistence of traditional and new business clusters not found in the city’s standard commercial areas. But these physical and cultural traits of Yau Ma Tei are threatened by commercial development, partially because few of its buildings possess “monumental qualities”. Yet it is this very “ordinariness” that gives the area its value, of embodying as it does, the experiences and history of Hong Kong’s local population.


From retail shops, restaurants, funeral homes, parks, MTR stations, theatres, government buildings and wet markets, to defunct sauna complexes, vacant units in shopping malls, deserted residential buildings, empty factory spaces and decommissioned schools — we explored a diverse range of singular places steeped in history. There were also sites that we considered “neutral” — what we referred to as borderline “non-places” — such as bare warehouse façades, walls along pedestrian tunnels, rooftops, trucks, cargo containers, outdoor billboards, empty plots between buildings, barges in typhoon shelters and spaces under bridges. It is within this area that we wanted to secure a combination of such venues, believing that they would provide a rich context for dialogues between the artworks, the site and their potential audience.


After rounds of search, selection and elimination, we came across a five-storey building in Jordan, situated at the intersection of Nanking Street and Battery Street that had been unoccupied for more than ten years. Though we initially aimed for an exhibition across multiple venues, we began considering renting this building to house all the artists’ works after considering factors such as the availability of the building on a short-term lease, which would simplify the process of license application; the multiple floors, rooftop and ground-floor areas available for various use; and the proximity to a culturally diverse neighbourhood filled with various aged tenement buildings occupied by jade traders, ethnic minorities and low-income residents. But beyond the spacious square-footage, high ceilings and numerous windows, it was its history of having been previously converted into many subdivided flats, in which tenants shared kitchen and toilet facilities, that particularly attracted us to this 1960s building. While walking through the spaces, we found traces of dismantled partition walls on the ceiling; extensive growth of mold; stickers of cartoon characters plastered on faded wallpaper; scribbles of telephone numbers, dollar figures and words expressing the fear and stress of urban living. Together, they hinted at the harsh realities and intriguing stories of past inhabitants, which we thought would provide a rich socio-historical context on which the artists could build their work. We discovered, however, that as the occupation permit for the building is listed as residential, a formal change of usage to a temporary “venue of public entertainment” — which is how an “exhibition” is categorised according to the Places of Public Entertainment Ordinance — would require a series of year-long procedures from various regulatory bodies. As part of a publicly funded organisation, M+ had to comply with all applicable legal requirements in producing the exhibition. Being presented with various specific concerns regarding our planned exhibition space and programming by the different public offices led us to consider practical issues concerning usage, safety, legal structure, audience capacity and licensing that seemed more pertinent to exhibition-making outside of more conventional venues.


Some of the many questions we had to address were: What is the usage listed on the building’s occupation permit and would an exhibition fit with the official usage?; Does the building have sufficient means of escape, or does the width of the stairway meet the latest fire safety regulations?; What is the maximum number of visitors per location for the purpose of crowd management?; Does a performance in the street, or a sculpture in a shop-front or park, require a license for “public entertainment”?


These questions also gave rise to more theoretical ones. For example, to what extent is an art exhibition a form of “entertainment” and not a “cultural” or “educational” activity? How should we define and distinguish the boundaries between these activities? When it is put under different regulatory categories, the same exhibition space would have to meet a whole new set of rules and restrictions to satisfy concerns including public safety, compliance with town planning, the smooth running of daily life in the city, etc. It is a game of negotiation, between official authoritative bodies, artists’ proposals and available property space. It, therefore, became apparent that any art exhibition model, however creative, artistically provocative and “boundary-testing”, could not be above the law, and like any activity involving the public, it required adherence to appropriate regulations, despite how restrictive they might be to the creative process. In the end, such issues prevented us from acquiring the four-storey building, and we went back to a multi-venue approach and worked with our artists’ latest proposals to once again explore suitable locations in line with related legalities.


After several attempts, we finally found venues that would fit each of the artists’ conceptual concerns and also potentially provide stimulating experiences for both local residents and art patrons. One of them is an open-air lot under the flyover near Temple Street Market, surrounded by street-side stalls, fortune-telling booths, antiques bazaars and the nearby Yau Ma Tei Police Station, Tin Hau Temple and parks. The site’s historical association with a vibrant night life, urban myths, as well as “vice establishments”, makes it an appropriate backdrop for Tsang Kin-wah’s visual sanctuary in the form of a large multimedia projection under the flyover for contemplation of light and darkness, life and death. Surprisingly, we also found two apartments above a row of coffin shops along Portland Street to house Yu Lik-wai’s photography and film installation. Located next to a motel, and with dimly lit stairways leading up to the apartment hinting at supernatural fables and scary cinematic moments, it is an ideal site for Yu’s serial drama of improbable “ghost stories” inspired by societal anxiety. A nearby park — specifically Portland Street/Man Ming Lane Sitting-Out Area — is the site for Leung Mee-ping’s installation of disused Coca-Cola and Sprite neon signs transported from Macau. The park, realised as part of Yau Ma Tei’s urban renewal project, along with nearby luxury developments such as the Waterloo 8 apartment block, mark the “modernisation” of the neighbourhood. Such advancements are counterpoints to the ageing texture of the local post-war tenement buildings — a fitting context to surface the tension between heritage conservation and urban revitalisation, the very issue addressed in Leung’s installation. For artists such as Pak Sheung-chuen, however, the uncertainty of his exhibition space led to a mobile approach in which he expanded his “site” to cover the expanse of a whole district, through the staging of several performances. Using the entire exhibition period for his project, Pak would take advantage of the pedestrian culture in Yau Ma Tei by orchestrating “performances”, inviting the public to take part in workshops of his invention; the outcomes of these performances would then be showcased in various

shops, making them part of the neighbourhood’s everyday fabric.


So while the search for sites revealed a matrix of regulations that became barriers governing the use of both private and public space for artistic purposes, and while we wonder to what extent our success (or failures) in finding these sites have influenced the artists’ conceptual intentions, we are pleased with how the various spaces might potentially extend the content of each artwork, and create unlikely, and perhaps richer, encounters between them and the audience. We hope this first edition of Mobile M+ will enlarge our vision and bring about greater flexibility for how art-, place- and exhibition making can potentially happen in our city.




Original article included in the Exhibition Catalogue, Mobile M+: Yau Ma Tei, 2012, M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong


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