Hong Kong and a tale of three museums

Nov 20, 2023
Hong Kong, China - April 24 2023: The Hong Kong Museum of Art, located at Tsim Sha Tsui

Three museums in Hong Kong help us understand the complexity of Hong Kong’s past and future and highlight the importance of Asia literacy in Australia.

On a recent visit to Hong Kong, I was able to see the new M+ Museum of Visual Culture, open at last in the West Kowloon Cultural District even as construction continues all around. The plus sign in the name indicates that this is more than an art museum. It is intended to showcase contemporary art from Asia and beyond and provides a home for the renowned Uli Sigg collection of contemporary Chinese art. At the same time, it documents and celebrates the creativity of Hong Kong, in interior and graphic design, architecture, fashion—all those things made in and for Hong Kong and exported world-wide. M+ has performance spaces, cinematheques, video library, members’ lounge and other meeting places that incorporate superb ‘borrowed views’ of the towers and peaks across the water. Surrounding green space on land reclaimed from Victoria Harbour provides more borrowed views, a performance venue called Freespace, grass to picnic on and more. M+, designed by Herzog + de Meuron and partners working collaboratively with Hong Kong teams, is an architectural destination. Lavish with space in a city where real estate is expensive and finely considered in every detail, M+ has presence and ambition to compare with Paris’s Pompidou Centre and New York’s renovated MOMA. At the time of my visit, director Suhana Raffel (formerly of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Queensland Art Gallery, where she coordinated the Asia Pacific Triennial from 2002-12) was away installing M+’s retrospective of Japanese superstar artist Yayoi Kusama in Guggenheim Bilbao. Raffel has led M+ since 2016 as the building evolved within guidelines determined by local authorities and museum staff in a changing environment. Another Australian, Michael Lynch, was CEO of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority before that. The Sigg Collection was part of the genesis of the new museum, making M+ arguably the best place anywhere to experience the development of art in China from 1972-2012. It was exciting to see works that I had last seen in Beijing in 1989. Sigg has connections with Australia too. Part of his collection was shown at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney, and the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, in the exhibition Go Figure! curated by Claire Roberts in 2012.

M+ is a Hong Kong achievement of an international kind, involving deep local expertise, an interactive relationship with China’s trajectory and the contributions of so-called expats, including Australians. It is an expertly managed achievement in difficult times. And it seemed to be appreciated by the many Hong Kong people visiting, mostly young and stylish, sometimes accompanied by mum and dad—like the senior couple I met who were sitting it out while their daughter took selfies with her friends in the roof garden. A gallery dedicated to the vertical city that Hong Kong has become was perhaps my favourite. It traces an architectural history that loops back to the futuristic 1960s visions of London group Archigram, whose archive is now at M+. Other visitors lingered over a video documenting performance art in Beijing in 1989, peering at part of their own history they were not likely to see anywhere else. Complex curiosities are in play here, responding to the invitation to learn and reflect.

If you’re thinking of visiting Hong Kong, Louisa Lim’s Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong (Text Publishing 2022) is necessary reading. Lim grew up in Hong Kong. She worked as a journalist there and in Beijing before joining the University of Melbourne where she now teaches journalism. Lim returned to Hong Kong to cover the protests that culminated in 2019 against moves by Beijing that seemed to violate the spirit of the One Country Two Systems agreement between Britain and China for the ‘handover’ in 1997. ‘In the only city on Chinese soil where political protest was allowed, Hong Kongers were performing their identity as a city of protest in order to defend it,’ Lim writes. The experience changes her from observer to participant in ‘the revolution of our times’, one of the movement’s catchcries.

Lim has a sharp eye for museums. She writes about the Hong Kong Museum of History in Tsimshatsui, not far from M+, where she heads for an exhibit about the distinctive Yue culture of this coastal region that dates back 3000-4000 years. She notes that ‘the museum’s careful presentation of Hong Kong’s history was a tightrope act, picking its way carefully between the barren-rock and time-immemorial myths’ (that is, Hong Kong was a barren rock until the British came and made it what it is and/or Hong Kong was Han Chinese from time immemorial). It ‘felt like it had been pieced together by a committee operating under very restrictive guidelines. … I was used to seeing this kind of slightly nonsensical exhibition in China, but it took me aback to see one in Hong Kong…. In 2020, the entire museum closed for another renovation and remodelling process.’

Meanwhile in 2022, with funding from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, the Hong Kong Palace Museum opened on another prime site in the West Kowloon Cultural District to showcase objects on loan from the Palace Museum in Beijing. This architecturally designed building is a copycat rival to M+ in some respects and messes with its sightlines, and perhaps the fengshui. HKPM presents extraordinary national treasures that, on the day I visited, told a history of the Qing dynasty as rulers of imperial China, centralising, authoritarian, patriarchal. It included graphic depictions of how rebels around the borders were successfully subdued. The audience was different here, in larger family groups (was there a concession for taking an elder along?) and spoke more Mandarin. Cantonese, classically the Yue language, is under threat as lingua franca in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Southern China. I wonder if those coming to behold China’s imperial splendours at HKPM were arrivals from the mainland themselves, experiencing a different sense of belonging. Whatever the case, a touring exhibit called ‘Cartier and Women’ pulled the biggest crowd, showing fabulous jewels made for the Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace of Monaco and others connected with European aristocracy. Go figure.

Finally there’s the Hong Kong Museum of Art, established in 1962 in Tsimshatsui as the city’s first public museum of art. This venerable, sometimes neglected institution has recently had a major makeover and was buzzing. Its new, user-friendly displays show Chinese art from back in time and emphasise connections to the Pearl River delta region and its art practitioners, connoisseurs and collectors. A current show, for example, is A Tale of Three Cities: Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area and Export of Silk Products in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Louisa Lim diagnoses the phrase ‘Greater Bay Area’ as ‘to Hong Kongers … a blueprint for absorption into Greater China … [and] China’s version of the historical narrative: Hong Kong as just another Chinese city’. This museum has an even better view of the harbour that remains at the heart of Hong Kong. I’m interested in its superb Chinese landscape paintings too, some from the late 17th century fall of the Ming dynasty, when the invading Manchus (who became the imperial Qing) took over by force. Another reminder of the cycles of history.

Museums interpret societies through how they understand material objects in terms of place, time, making and meaning. At this point in the 21st century, as we see in ever less informed and less nuanced ways, we risk making errors of omission to our detriment. We disengage from the realism that comes with knowing history and geography with breadth and detail. Interoperability, for example, as achieved among defence systems, is a concept that seeks to overcome distance and differences on a global scale, enabled by fantastic new technological possibilities. If it’s an idea that originated in the United States, it has been taken up elsewhere no less keenly.

Hong Kong reminds us of alternatives and it is in our interest to take a closer look. The story there is ongoing, more complicated than it seems. I was surprised to find that Hong Kong’s taxi drivers still have trays of the former colony’s scallop-edged coins at the ready for change. They prefer cash to credit cards. That is a contrast to across the border in China where cashless payment by mobile phone is the norm, in a surveillance society. Particular practices of locatedness matter. In Australia we are connected to Hong Kong and to China by long, rich, continuing connections—human and cultural as well as economic and political—that are part of our locatedness and who we are. As the historian of Chinese Australia, Eric Rolls, himself both a historian of place and of the environment, memorably put it: ‘Without the Chinese, Australia would be a lesser country.’ It is up to us, then, on that ground, to maintain the capacity for as full an understanding as possible of what is going on in the region, to equip ourselves for participating effectively in it. That means work and study on our part. It depends on resources being committed—in schools, universities, cultural institutions and organisations and diverse communities across the country. The necessary intellectual inquiry and cultural exchange are for everyone. It should not be left to the experts or niche advocacy groups. Anyone can enjoy reading fiction translated from Chinese, for example—from Mandarin by Yu Hua, from Cantonese by Dorothy Tse, or by Taiwan-based Malaysian Chinese writer Ng Kim Chew in the hallucinogenic story collection Slow Boat to China.

Including the Asia-Pacific region within our purview, rather than automatically privileging Western civilisation, should come naturally in Australia. Civilisation is the work of all humankind, after all, as art historian Kenneth Clark acknowledged back in 1969 in his television series Civilisation, more recently updated to Civilisations (plural) by historians Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga for the BBC in 2018. In a new book, Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations (Jonathan Cape 2023), Schama expands his canvas to tell the full story of how the West reluctantly learnt from the East via outsiders, interpreters and mavericks in response to outbreaks of epidemic disease. His narrative travels through Turkey, Russia, Iran, India (centrally), and on to South-East and East Asia, reaching Hong Kong where bubonic plague arrives by steamship in 1894. I learned here what others may already know, that the N95 surgical mask used against COVID19 was originally the idea of Chinese scientist Wu Lien-teh for preventing transmission of pneumonic plague in Manchuria a century ago. As we look back on the recent pandemic in Australia, do we have any idea where our masks came from?

In the end, writes Schama, there are ‘no foreigners, only familiars’—a lesson we ignore at our peril. Yet if we keep understanding alive and communication active, we all become beneficiaries, as we enlarge our thinking about geography and history and the ideas that differences generate, even in something as much fun as a museum visit. Hong Kong has been through the worst of times. But life goes on. Maybe that’s an opportunity—the best of times for us to refocus our attention.


Read more articles in our China Perspectives series:

China: Perspectives beyond the mainstream media

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