Oil Street. Photo by Eric To
This story was originally published in the November 2010 edition of Muse, the new-defunct review of Hong Kong arts and culture.
It was a hot night when I sat inside the cluttered studios of the pirate radio station FM 101, six floors up inside an industrial building in Kwun Tong. I was speaking to one of the station’s founders, a rock musician named Leung Wing-lai, when the doorbell rang. Leung excused himself to go open the door. Three people walked in, including Ah Kok Wong, a composer who has been working with Kwun Tong’s artists to lobby the government against a new policy that made it easier for the owners of industrial units to convert their space into offices or hotels.
Wong told me about an Arts Development Council survey that was meant to determine exactly how many artists, musicians and other creative people are making use of industrial space. Unfortunately, few artists received the survey, so Wong and several others had taken to distributing it themselves. “I have my own studio, a band room and a studio used by the radio station, and we didn’t get copies at any of these places,” he said. If not enough artists completed the survey, he told me, the government would have no clear picture of the thousands of creative people that work in low-rent, run-down industrial buildings, and its new industrial “revitalization” policy would lead to unchecked property speculation, pushing out a huge chunk of Hong Kong’s artists, musicians and cultural organizations.
Leung returned to his seat. We talked about FM 101, which focuses mainly on arts, culture and music and was set up to protest against regulations that make it nearly impossible for a non-profit, community-based radio station to get a broadcast licence. A recent crackdown on the station’s fundraising efforts has forced its volunteers to pay for its operating expenses out of their own pocket, which has only been possible because the studio’s rent is low. “Without this kind of space, where would we go?” he asked.
FM101’s studios in Kwun Tong
Eleven years ago, another group of artists were asking the same question. The Asian financial crisis that followed the 1997 handover led the government to suspend all sales of its own property. One of the sites saved from the chopping block was the Oil Street Government Supplies Depot, a sprawling collection of vacant buildings in North Point, including a large warehouse and the former club house of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. Space inside the buildings was rented out for just HK$2.50 per square foot, which drew the attention of artists, architects and designers, who moved into the depot en masse. By the end of 1999, it had become a thriving creative village the likes of which Hong Kong had never seen. The following year, it was gone, the tenants evicted in preparation for the site’s sale to a property developer, who planned to build a hotel and cruise ship terminal.
Good space is never easy to come by, which is why it has always been a preoccupation for Hong Kong artists. This is a city with some of the highest rents in the world, where shops cram into the space beneath stairwells and real estate brokers make a distinction between a flat’s official square footage and the amount of space that you can actually use. Artists need space to produce artwork and space to exhibit that work — not to mention all of the space required for arts administration, arts education and other cultural endeavours.
These days, as artists in industrial areas worry about the new revitalization policy, big plans are in the works for new government-sponsored art spaces. The question of space has once again come to dominate discussion of the arts. But the ghosts of Oil Street beg the question: is space all we need to foster Hong Kong’s nascent creative culture?
Entrance to the former Government Supply Depot on Oil Street.
Photo by Andrew J. Cosgriff
When I asked the artist Choi Yan-chi about Oil Street, one of the first things she remembered is how vast it seemed. “Oil Street was the very first space in Hong Kong that had the style and atmosphere of a loft,” she said when we met at a café near her home in Kowloon City. “People enjoyed going there — their eyes would just open so wide.”
In 1998, Choi had just returned from five years in Toronto. With the help of a grant from the ADC, she set up 1a space, a venue for contemporary art. All she needed was a space. “We had thought the only space available was in a storefront, which we weren’t too happy with,” she said. A stroll through North Point took her to Oil Street, where she saw a banner advertising cheap space for rent in the government supply depot. “That was amazing in itself, and when we got inside, we were even more excited,” she said.
After 1a space moved into the depot, it quickly became the centre of gravity for Hong Kong’s avant-garde arts and design. “It provided a strong community for contemporary arts, which had always been invisible in Hong Kong,” said Leung Chi-wo, an artist who visited Oil Street just before he left for a two-year residency in New York. May Fung, one of the founders of the new media art group Videotage, which had a space in Oil Street, recalls the easy interaction that took place there. “In the evening, when artists had finished working, they’d go into the compound outside and just talk, or visit other studios,” she said. “You could feel the energy.”
Newspaper clippings describe an exuberant atmosphere. “Activities may include an impromptu performance-art piece, a celebrity photo-shoot, a roof-top DJ session or a free painting lesson,” reported the South China Morning Post in 1998. “Every city needs a place like this and Hong Kong has always had a missing link,” Ada Wong, an urban councillor and arts administrator, told the paper. “The spaces for art have always been provided by the Urban Council — cold, stark, institutional venues. There are lots of creative ideas from the new generation but they need space.”
Somehow, Oil Street’s derelict buildings managed to capture the creative zeitgeist of late-nineties Hong Kong. “It was all very organic,” recalled Mathias Woo, the chairman of Zuni Icosahedron, a performing arts organization that ran a 7,000-square-foot gallery, Z+, in Oil Street. Some have suggested that Oil Street’s success came from the site’s unique combination of vast interior space, with fourteen-foot ceilings and no obstructing pillars, with outdoor greenery. Others point to the convenient location next to the Fortress Hill MTR station. Still others suggest that the site’s waterfront location gave it particularly good feng shui. Whatever the case, said Wong Yue-wai, the director of Z+, “We saw the possibilities and worked to build something. I don’t think we’ll ever find an area as perfect as this.”
Oil Street’s artists unsuccessfully lobbied the government to stay put. When government land sales resumed in 1999, they were evicted. But they had won enough attention from the public that the government agreed to house them in an abandoned cattle depot in To Kwa Wan. While their new home was being renovated, half of the artists were relocated to an abattoir in Cheung Sha Wan and the rest to a vacant building at the former Kai Tak Airport.
But it was too late for Oil Street’s creative spirit. Leung Chi-wo remembers going to the abattoir to work on a video project after he returned from New York. “It was deadly quiet,” he said. “It was quite depressing compared to what I saw on Oil Street.”
The Oil Street artists and arts groups that survived the relocation process are now housed in the Cattle Depot Artists’ Village, a collection of red-brick buildings not far from the old airport. The Cattle Depot is everything that Oil Street was not: sleepy, obscure and beset by a top-down style of management that has stifled spontaneous creativity. The village’s open spaces are off-limits to artists — no artworks, no plants, no outdoor seating. “You can’t even take photos,” said Choi Yan-chi. “I took my students there to do outdoor sketches and they security came out to tell us not to do that. It’s bizarre.”
Even worse, the Government Property Agency, which manages the village, has begun restricting access by forcing visitors to register with security. The last time I visited the Cattle Depot, security guards eyed me suspiciously as I walked around with a camera in my hand. When I left, I noticed a group of South Asian men sitting on a ledge just outside the village entrance. Curious, I gestured to the Cattle Depot and asked them if they had ever been inside. They shrugged, looking nonplussed.
“It has only gotten worse,” said Alvis Choi, the assistant manager of Videotage. “We need to open up the space and let people in, so it can become a public space where all different kinds of audiences are involved. If nobody can see your work, what’s the point of being there?” In the final days of Oil Street, the government balked at the arts activities that were taking place there, and insisted that its studios and art spaces close their doors to the public. “It’s the
government’s role to facilitate the growth of culture and not manage it too much,” said Ada Wong. But, when it comes to art space, it seems afraid to relinquish control.
The Cattle Depot
In 2003, two years after the Cattle Depot opened its gates to the public, May Fung was talking about its experience at an arts conference when she was approached by a woman who owned an office and apartment block in Wan Chai. Much to her amazement, she offered to donate the use of her property to artists. The result is the Foo Tak Building, a cluster of artists’ studios and cultural organizations in a non-descript fourteen-story building just a few blocks from Times Square. “To me, there are only two concerns for artists — a lack of space and a lack of money,” said Fung. “So I told the landlord to rent space to artists for very little money. That’s the magic.”
The Foo Tak’s nerve centre is ACO, a bookstore, art gallery and event space on the building’s first floor. That’s where I found Kobe Ho, who manages the Foo Tak’s creative space, sitting behind a desktop computer and a pile of books. She explained that the building’s 600-square-foot units rent for HK$2,500 per month. “The people who apply for space have to be really poor,” she said. “We want to help the artist to grow. We’ve had some cases where an artist has grown so successful they can sustain themselves, so we asked them to move out, to make room for less established artists.”
Turning to her computer, Ho opened a spreadsheet that contained a list of the Foo Tak’s current tenants. She printed a copy and handed it to me, telling me what everyone in the building is doing, from the fourteenth floor to the first. I was surprised at how many of Hong Kong’s most prominent independent cultural organizations are based in the Foo Tak. Some of the tenants include Klack, a new art and photography magazine; In Media, an alternative news website; and Ying e Chi, which organizes the annual Asian Independent Film festival and distributes films like Vincent Chui’s 2008 political thriller, Three Narrow Gates.
Like any good art space, the Foo Tak has produced its share of iconoclasts, from In Media’s crusading co-founder, Chu Hoi-dick, who was involved with the protests to save the Central Star Ferry Pier and Choi Yuen Village, to the musician Ho Shan, who was in a band with My Little Airport’s Ah P. “The twelfth floor is where they held what they called a ‘naked Christmas party,’ which was shut down by the police, who thought it was some kind of drug party,” said Ho. “That’s when they started to get more political in their music.”
I asked Ho if she thinks the Foo Tak could serve as a model for other art spaces. “I don’t think Hong Kong has any other landlords like ours,” she replied. “Our collaboration is built on trust. There’s so much positive energy flowing between units here. People are doing really productive and creative work.” She paused for a moment. “A diverse society needs to have many different creative possibilities. Now that the government is pushing the revitalization of industrial space, it could really hurt arts and culture development.”
Foo Tak Building
Artist Karden Chan in her Foo Tak studio
The story of artists making good use of derelict industrial space is a familiar one. In the 1960s, when industry fled New York for cheaper, more modern space elsewhere, artists took over the cast-iron warehouses below Houston Street, setting the scene for the emergence of modern-day SoHo. Hong Kong’s industrial space was still being used for warehouses and factories until the 1990s. When the economy tanked during the Asian financial crisis, though, space suddenly became abundant and affordable, and artists began renting units in the hulking factory buildings of Chai Wan, Kwun Tong and Fotan.
In 1997, when he was a Master of Fine Arts student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Leung Chi-wo was among the first artists to rent a studio in Fotan, a grimy industrial area surrounded rather incongruously by thickly-forested hills. Before that, most artists either worked at home or rented a flat in a village house, which offered 750 square feet of space, but low ceilings, a narrow stairwell and neighbours who weren’t fond of noise or noxious paint fumes. In an industrial building, the only neighbours an artist had to worry about were printers and sausage-makers. Between 200 and 300 artists now work in Fotan.
Leung now shares a studio on the top floor of the Wah Luen Building, which is home to roughly 40 artists’ studios. One half of the studio is a workshop and the other half a gallery of sorts, with photos on the wall and a small stage, on which sits a pillow made by fellow Fotan artist Lee Kit. (“It’s not very comfortable,” said Leung.) When I visited on a warm summer morning, Leung had the windows wide open and a refreshing breeze was blowing in from the nearby hills.
Leung has dealt with the concept of space in some of his work, like his 2006 show Domestica Invisible, which documented the way Hong Kong people adapt to confined spaces. It has allowed him to appreciate its effect on an artist’s output. “I remember artists didn’t make big work in the 90s because most of us couldn’t afford big studios,” he said. “The gallery was the destination for our work — we’d do small things and assemble them there.” In recent years, since more artists began renting space in industrial areas, their work has grown bigger and more ambitious. “Painting has been coming back,” he told me. “You can’t do a proper painting if you’re living at home with your family. When I was working at home, I would always have to prepare if I wanted to do something. If you have a relatively permanent space, you feel that you’re always in a working mood.”
That sentiment was echoed by the installation artist Kacey Wong when I visited his studio on Ap Lei Chau. Bright and tidy, it opens onto a huge terrace overlooking the sea. When he first started out as an artist, Wong remembers working on a cardboard crocodile at home and freezing with guilt when his mother came home to discover the huge mess he had made in the living room. “Usually, the artist grows in scale to the studio,” he said. After working as an architect and enjoying success as an artist, Wong was finally able to buy his own space in 2006. He converted it into his “dream studio,” with sliding walls to create a flexible space and a treehouse-like “hea space” where Wong can go to relax.
“Art can be a way of life, but in order to achieve that, you need a support structure, you need a space where you are undisturbed by relatives or the world outside,” said Wong as we sipped tea in the hea space. Earlier this year, in his studio, Wong built a houseboat that looks like a typical Hong Kong apartment, which he paddled into Victoria Harbour as part of a performance. Afterwards, he was able to keep the boat in his storage room. Without such an expansive studio, he would have had to destroy it.
Being able to work full-time in a studio allowed artists to become more professional, said Wong, and with that came the development of a system that encouraged their growth and exposure. The annual open studios event at Fotan, which attracted nearly 10,000 people last January, has given emerging artists the kind of exposure they would have normally waited half a career to achieve. “It used to be said you’d have your first show five years after graduating, but for us, in five years, we’ve already gotten lots of exposure,” said Lee Kit when I visited him in his Fotan studio last year. Though he has only been working as an artist for ten years, and finished his Master of Fine Arts degree in 2006, he has already attracted international attention for his installations.
There are signs that Fotan could soon become a victim of its own success. Earlier this year, the painters Casper Chan and Sindy Wong were forced to leave their 1,000 square foot studio in the Wah Luen Building when it was sold by their landlord. Luckily, they found another, almost identical studio in the same building for HK$7,500 per month, but the experience left them somewhat unnerved.
“It’s not the nicest building, but since most of the artists studios are in our building, it’s the most well known for outsiders,” said Chan. She told me that the open studios are used by some people as a real estate open house. “They don’t seem to be interested in the arts,” she said, instead asking questions about the rent, the square footage and the landlord. Some of her friends’ studios were sold soon after the open studios. “That makes us so angry.”
As if to emphasize what would happen if they ever had to leave their studio, Wong opened a red plastic bag and took out her most recent works: eight delicate paintings of snapshots taken from train windows in Japan. They were reminiscent of the last works I saw of hers, only much smaller. She recently started a job at 1a space and has been doing most of her artwork at home, she said.
“Is that what happens when you can’t work in the studio?” I asked.
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “Your work becomes tiny.”
“I couldn’t ever work at home — I like to work big,” said Chan.
With the government’s new industrial area revitalization policy, things are likely to get worse for artists who need a big, cheap space to work. Artists worry that the policy will encourage the same kind of property speculation that has pushed residential prices to near-record levels. There are already signs that investors are being drawn to industrial areas. In August, according to the South China Morning Post, the number of industrial property transactions rose by 109 percent in Shatin and 41 percent in Kwun Tong.
“The new system is useless to us,” said Homan Ho, a Fotan sculptor who runs a bookstore and art gallery in the Wah Luen Building. “Old industrial buildings are smelly and filled with dust. We like that. We need that. We don’t need to convert them into anything else.” Ho, along with Ah Kok Wong, has been rallying artists against the government’s revitalization policy. “This year is the first that prices have risen to the level where new graduates can’t afford a space here,” he said. “If they don’t have their own space, they can’t devote themselves to art full-time. Then we’ve lost an artist.”
In response to artists’ concerns, the ADC launched a survey to determine how industrial areas are being used for the arts — the same survey that did not reach many artists in Kwun Tong. Fotan artists already had the same problem. And in fact, some research has already been done on that very subject by the art critic Leung Po-shan, who sent me some of her findings.
In Fotan, according to her research, the number of studios has risen from less than five in 2001 to at least 60 in 2010. 70 percent of artists are under the age of 40 and 60 percent earn less than HK$15,000 per month — almost all of which comes from art-related jobs. In Kwun Tong, a district where development pressure is far more intense, artists earn less and pay more for their space. Most tellingly, Leung found that nearly half of artists would give up their studios if they had to pay more than HK$1,500 per month for their share.
Inside the Wah Luen Building
Osage Kwun Tong, a contemporary art space in an industrial block
The ADC survey consists of two phases, the first of which gathers basic information about artists, the second of which will collect more details about how artists use their studios. It is expected to be completed by the end of the year. I asked the ADC what would happen after that and was told in an email that the survey will be “forwarded to relevant bureaus for their reference when implementing the industrial building revitalizing policy.”
While it has been supporting the arts for many years through organizations like the ADC, the Hong Kong government has only recently created art spaces in a proactive way. Its first major project after the controversial handling of Oil Street and the Cattle Depot was the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre (JCCAC), in Shek Kip Mei, which opened two years ago in a former factory block. The centre combines shops, theatres, art galleries and small artists’ studios. It is a brilliant example of adaptive reuse, with a covered courtyard that serves as a public gathering space, a mix of uses that makes it an interesting place to visit and and a rooftop that opens onto sweeping views of the surrounding neighbourhood.
But its early days were rocky, with critical media coverage that focused on complaints from artists that the centre’s management was aloof and the its open-door policy was disruptive, especially to artists who needed to work on weekends, when thousands of curious visitors poked through the studios. The centre’s director, a painter and sculptor named Eddie Lui, had great plans for the JCCAC, but he was never able to raise enough money to realize some of them, like hosting film screenings on the roof. Eventually, though, things seem to have settled in, and most JCCAC artists I’ve spoken to say they enjoy working there.
Lui stepped down from his post in February. He has now returned to working as an artist, art consultant and curator. I visited him in his Kwai Chung studio on a bright morning. (“It’s 1,400 square feet,” he said, pouring me a glass of water. “By JCCAC standards this is a luxury.”) The problem with government art space like the JCCAC, he said, is that the government finds it difficult to commit to the nitty-gritty of arts management while also respecting amorphous, unpredictable nature of art.
“It’s like the palm trees they are planting nowadays — they don’t want any leaves falling off,” he said. “They want it to be low-maintenance and trouble-free. But a cultural venue is always going to be full of troubles, especially in an old building. How to get rid of the sewage? The chemicals used by artists? If we won’t take the trouble of thinking about that, we shouldn’t be keeping up the appearance of encouraging creativity. You can’t tell people to be creative and then say, ‘You can’t do this or that.’”
Lui refers to the JCCAC as “a good experiment” — a testing ground for how to run a successful art space. Its artists’ two-year contracts were recently renewed without a rent increase. Perhaps most importantly, the number of JCCAC artists who work full-time has increased from 20 in 2008 to 60 today, he told me, and the turnover rate has remained below 10 percent, “and only a very small percentage of those were disgruntled tenants who decided not to renew their contracts.” The JCCAC’s opening weekend attracted 2,000 visitors; its most recent open studios event attracted 20,000. But its eclecticism — putting glass-blowers next to painters — created problems that Lui hopes other spaces will avoid.
In Central, the government is now embarking on two ambitious new art centres, one in the former Central Police Station, a lumbering Victorian edifice, and another in the former Central Married Police Quarters, an airy piece of postwar Modernism. While the Jockey Club will be funding the development of the Police Station, the project for the Married Police Quarters is far more contentious. Non-profit organizations were invited to submit proposals for its use and three were short-listed: one from Sino Land’s Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation, another by the Musketeers Education and Culture Charitable Foundation, set up by the chairman of the Hong Kong Economic Times and a third by the Hong Kong Institute of Contemporary Culture (HKICC), run by a group of arts workers that includes Mathias Woo and Ada Wong. Although the winning proposal will be announced in October, only the HKICC has revealed its proposal to the public.
The potential of the Married Police Quarters — along with its potential challenges — was revealed last winter when it played host to two art festivals, Detour and Heritage X Art X Design. During both events, the quarters’ old apartments were used as exhibition spaces while film screenings, concerts and presentations were held in the courtyard below. For Detour, the artist William Lim built a bamboo bridge between the quarters’ two blocks of flats; for Heritage X Art X Design, a traditional bamboo theatre was used for hip hop and rock shows. People gathered on the upper-floor balconies, watching what was going on below and wandering between installations. The energy was palpable, evoking memories of Oil Street, but both events were plagued by persistent noise complaints from people living nearby.
The HKICC proposal for the space would take pains to keep that energy alive, partly because it involves many of the same players that were behind last winter’s two festivals. Several star “anchor tenants” would maintain spaces in the building, including the designer Douglas Young, music guru Anthony Wong and McDull creator Alice Mak, and each would train apprentices and hold public forums. Other spaces in the complex would be rented out to emerging artists and designers.
In early September, however, the South China Morning Post quoted a member of the committee that will decide on the winning proposal as saying that the HKICC proposal was strong in its “creative elements,” but weak in other aspects, especially management.
When I met Woo at the Zuni Icosahedron offices in Happy Valley, he scoffed at the assessment. “I have no idea what that means,” he said. “We’ve been managing a non-profit arts group for 30 years.” Woo, an architect, playwright and art critic, is one of Hong Kong’s most trenchant cultural commentators. He was also one of the most discouraging people I spoke to about the arts in Hong Kong. “It’s worse than 10 years ago, much worse,” he said. “The problem in Hong Kong is that there’s always lots of people doing creative things, but they don’t have the right platform to express themselves, so it dies down really quick.”
Woo told me about something he was told by a member of the West Kowloon Cultural District committee, before the original plans were scrapped and send back to the drawing board: “‘West Kowloon is not for artists, it’s for the Hong Kong people.’” He looked at me in disbelief. “Does that mean artists are not Hong Kong people? From Oil Street to the whole West Kowloon saga, you can see there’s a huge gap between the establishment and the creative community.” He drew an analogy between artists and street hawkers: both are subjected to an environment that stifles creativity and innovation. “Art in Hong Kong is very marginalized. For corporations, it’s a PR exercise. For the government, it’s a social service.”
Though he spoke with more vitriol than most, Woo’s sentiments are shared by many other artists and art administrators. When I met May Fung in her office at the Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity, where she is the acting principal, she took out a blank sheet of paper and began writing down the names of each government department involved in arts funding or management until the paper was a covered in a scrawl of bureaucracy. “Everyone has a part in the arts and no one knows what’s going on. There’s no overall policy for how to develop Hong Kong’s arts and culture in a holistic way,” she said. “The government knows, after Oil Street, the Cattle Depot, Foo Tak, Fotan, that they can’t not do anything. But I have doubts if the present way of doing things is right — should all artists be put into villages?”
The trick, it seems, is to provide enough funding and infrastructure for the arts to thrive — “low rents and long leases,” as Woo put it — but not to smother it in restrictions and regulations. “Let things happen,” said Choi Yan-chi. It’s not clear whether the government is capable of doing that. After years of complaints, control over the Cattle Depot will be handed over to the Development Bureau, but the government is mum on what exactly that will entail. It also declined to comment on anything very specific about the Central Police Station or the Married Police Quarters.
The Oil Street Government Supplies Depot, meanwhile, remains empty, its grounds used as a parking lot. The planned hotel development was quashed by the Town Planning Board, but the site is still on the list of government properties to be sold by auction. “It would have been a major local attraction — an incubator that could have really built a strong identity for Hong Kong as a creative hub,” said Woo. “Instead, it has been pushed back underground.”
Photo by Paul Chu
The changes that have occurred since this article was first published just over a year ago have been subtle but, in some ways, profound. Many of the issues remain the same: the government’s industrial revitalization policy continues to push up rents for artists, musicians and other creative enterprises. They face other bureaucratic hassles too — take the fate of the Hidden Agenda music venue as an example. The creative community is still pushing the government to adopt a more coherent cultural policy.
But there is also good news. 2011 was a banner year for contemporary art in Hong Kong, which has found itself at the centre of a booming Asian art market. The success of the Hong Kong International Art Fair, now one of the world’s largest, has had a spillover effect on the local art scene, especially thanks to collaboration with organizations like the Asia Art Archive and Para/Site non-profit art space. The Cattle Depot is now under new management, which is exploring was to revive it. And some interesting new galleries have opened with a focus on the local art scene, like Saamlung, which has already held three exciting shows since it opened in November. The PMQ and Central Police Station projects continue apace and the West Kowloon Cultural District finally breaks ground this month. Like most people in Hong Kong, I’ve been very sceptical of the cultural district, but the team in charge of its development have been very visible and active in the creative community, which gives me hope.
Tags: Art Space, Hong Kong, Industry, Kowloon, New Territories, Redevelopment, Revitalization, West Kowloon Cultural District