Sunday, 16 December 2012

First Visit to JCCAC

On this sweating afternoon of mid-December, I attended the Handicraft Fair at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre (JCCAC) in Shek Kip Mei.

Converted from the old Shek Kip Mei Factory Estate, which used to be a stronghold of cottage factories during the 1950s and 1960s that have laid the foundation of Hong Kong's economic takeoff in the 1970s, the JCCAC is an arts village housing studios and workshops of an array of art forms. It was opened in 2008 as a self-financed, registered charity organisation.

To my surprise, the handicraft fair was packed with hundreds of visitors. Just felt like in the middle of the busy streets in Mong Kok. At least two or three layers of visitors jammed at the stalls while many others were trying to make their way through the narrow passageways.

Certainly it was a good sign that more people are willing to appreciate and patronise art. But whether the merchandise on sale at the fair qualifies as art can be contentious. How commerce stimulates artistic creativity by providing an incentive instead of overriding it by lucrative economic success is another issue that artists, designers and patronisers need to reflect upon.

The crowd was suffocating. Air seemed frozen. I could hardly breathe. My head started complaining by setting off the alarm aloud – a terrible headache. Then I decided to take the lift and go to the rooftop for a green exhibition.

The exhibits were made of polypropylene plastic pellets, among other plastic materials, collected on the shores and the beaches of Hong Kong after some containers carrying more than 150 tonnes of the plastic pellets, which belonged to Sinopec, were blown into the sea when Typhoon Vicente hit the city in late July. The exhibits were meant to remind us of the importance of protecting our planet. But how can we minimise our ecological footprint as a city dweller? We consume, but seldom, if ever, produce. We may reuse or recycle some items, but we throw away too much more. Looking at the exhibits made of plastic pellets, I couldn't help wondering where they will go after the exhibition. Regardless of their political ideologies, consumption has been accepted as the key to economic success in modern societies. But what is the best way to sustain our earth, the motherland on which our homes are housed, in the first place?

I looked around and saw the JCCAC being dwarfed by many public housing estates in the neighbourhood. Look at the neat and tidy windows of the same design. Each represents a household of a different story of Hong Kong. What does it tell you about the character of Hong Kong? Diversity in harmony? Or harmony in diversity?

Then I took the staircase downward and detoured onto each floor for a quick look. The design of the staircase, especially the large numerals indicating the number of floors, resemble those of the demolished Lower Ngau Tau Kok Estate where my grandma and grandaunt used to live. Of course the Lower Ngau Tau Kok Estate, built in the 1960s as resettlement blocks, was much dirtier and more rugged than the renovated and restored JCCAC. Yet the similarities in architectural features conjure up memories of a unique flavour of the local, humble grassroots vis-à-vis the exotic, colonial milieu of Victoria on the Island.

Strolling along the corridors on each floor also drew my attention to some vertical billboards that belonged to the old tenants of the former industrial estate. They were pretty standard in shape, all in black rectangles painted with white hand-written Chinese characters penned vertically. But the style of calligraphy varies remarkably. Now deprived of their original function of advertising, those billboards have become precious artefacts of Chinese calligraphy and witnesses of humble advertising in the bourgeoning Hong Kong half a century ago. The diversity in Chinese calligraphy style is now a forgotten privilege for the eye when our aesthetic taste has been numbed by uniform computer typefaces. The billboards scattering around the building just form a casual exhibition of Chinese calligraphy to me.

I don't know much about art history and architecture, but it is obvious that the design of the Shek Kip Mei Factory Estate has put great emphasis on conformity and pragmatism. To a certain extent it corresponds to the design of the public housing nearby, although the latter seemed to have been built or rebuilt only in recent years. But the old billboards that survive the tides of time remind us that physical conformity did not necessarily constrain human creativity. Half a century ago business owners would like to present their own character and good wishes by inviting scholars or people with great penmanship to write the name of their enterprises in the best possible style. This cultural diversity housed in physical harmony is by all means mesmerising. As our community is increasingly dominated by certain norms, practices and ideologies that have been taken for granted for decades, how tolerant are we to deviance or non-conformity? Are we still passionate about looking around for small, simple but creative ways of expressing ourselves, even within borders and limits? How much leeway are we willing to provide as a grooming ground of creativity? If for whatever reasons we no longer dare or are able to break the rules, are we ready to at least respect those who do, or attempt to do so?

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