Exhibitions Analysis China

Creative space is hard to find

Artists and galleries are seeing rents rise even in old factories and warehouses far from the centre

Areas such as Chai Wan provide important spaces for the arts community. Photo: Platform China & Chai Wan Mei Organisation

In dusty warehouses and hulking factory blocks on the city’s periphery, creative communities are thriving in spaces that are a far cry from the glossy skyscrapers for which Hong Kong is known. “They are like these beautiful wormholes in the urban fabric of Hong Kong where you step outside the regular downtown drill,” says Mimi Brown, the founder of non-profit Spring Workshop. “They are so important: they are incubators.”

Spring Workshop, which is in a converted book warehouse in the industrial neighbourhood of Wong Chuk Hang, has become one of the city’s most interesting venues for art production and dialogue. Covering around 1,350 sq. m, the privately funded space plays host to artists’ residencies, regular talks, and experimental workshops engaging local artists. Past exhibitions have included Qiu Zhijie’s immersive installation featuring more than 200 wood, steel and glass spheres covering the floor (“The Universe of Naming”, 23 May-18 August 2013).

A growing number of artists and designers have gravitated to the area and its surrounding neighbourhoods in recent years, setting up studios among the old garages, printing factories and industrial-scale bakeries. Dealers such as Beijing’s Meg Maggio and London’s Fabio Rossi and his partner Jean Marc Decrop have also opened galleries, at Pékin Fine Arts (IB23) and Yallay Space, respectively. Almost a dozen spaces, operating under the banner of the South Island Cultural District, host joint private views, partnering with artists who open their studios.

In a city with one of the highest costs of living in the world, the cavernous warehouses have afforded artists and gallerists the freedom to experiment with large-scale works. Adrian Wong, who moved in last year, uses his 186 sq. m studio to create monumental sculptural and performance pieces. He says one of his key reasons for migrating to the area was the saturation of arts spaces. Collectors such as Alan Lau are also setting up vast studios nearby to house their art.

More artists are due to arrive thanks to a partnership between the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and property developer and investor Hip Shing Hong Group. Later this year they will offer subsidised studio spaces of up to 120 sq. m, occupying an entire floor of an industrial building.

Flocking to Fo Tan

Perhaps the highest concentration of artists is in the remote Fo Tan district in the New Territories. Graduates from the nearby Chinese University of Hong Kong began flocking to Fo Tan’s factory estates as early as 2001. Lam Tung-pang, known for his dream-like charcoal paintings on plywood, was among the first artists to arrive and still works in the area. Since Lam and his peers combined forces to launch an open studio event more than a decade ago, as many as 250 artists, dubbed the Fotanians, continue to open their studios today. However, rising rents are putting a strain on the colony. Local artist Tsang Kin-wah says his monthly rent has increased from HK$4,700 ($606) to HK$8,000 ($1,032) in the past five years.

Art adviser Jehan Chu says costs are also climbing in Chai Wan, a factory district at the eastern end of the MTR line that is home to a big creative enclave. Yet so far this has not stopped the influx of artists, designers and gallerists.

The loft-style spaces of Chai Wan are a breeding ground for creativity, and multi-disciplinary crossovers are common. “It’s not just about the production of art, it’s the fostering of a community. This is what creates an atmosphere upon which creativity can be catalysed,” says Chu, who gives the example of Beijing gallery Platform China (IC37) teaming up with furniture label Casa Capriz to create a space for exhibitions bringing together vintage furniture and contemporary art.

In contrast to these organically grown hubs, which are thriving, many argue that government-initiated projects such as the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre (JCCAC), a revived factory estate in Shek Kip Mei, are struggling. It opened in 2008 with the aim of providing low-cost studios for more than 100 artists, but has been beset with problems.

“I thought it would be more like 798 [Art Zone, Beijing], but as it evolved, it turned out to be more a centre of arts and crafts,” says local artist Kacey Wong, who opened an experimental gallery there but closed it two years later, citing issues with JCCAC’s management. “It was such a controversy because they treated artists as if they were caged animals to be displayed like trophies.”

With unreasonably tight regulations on studio hours and usage of space, and a lack of publicity, the centre has fallen off the radar. It is now home to an unusual mix of craft workshops and retail outlets, with a handful of exhibiting artists.

Many see JCCAC as indicative of government-led efforts: “These projects are very focused on this whole cliché of building some nice hardware for the people, but there are no people behind it. Without community you have nothing,” Chu says.

While government-funded arts projects haven’t had the strongest track record in Hong Kong, hopes are high for PMQ, the former Police Married Quarters being transformed into a design hub. PMQ is opening in stages, its soft launch on 9 May is due to be followed by a grand opening in late June. Unlike most of the city’s creative communities, the building occupies prime real estate in Hong Kong’s central business district. The site occupies around 6,000 sq. m and is perched above Hollywood Road, a street filled with galleries. It will feature 130 studio units for designers alongside shops, restaurants, a rooftop garden, communal exhibition spaces and six studios for “designers-in-residence”.

The majority of PMQ’s spaces have been allocated to design studios occupying upper floors. Many are established local designers and labels such as C’monde, a design studio run by Swedish-born industrial designer Johan Persson. Single studio units are 40 sq. m or 64 sq. m, with rents ranging from about HK$12,000 to HK$22,000 ($1,500 to $2,800). Local designers are benefiting from 20% to 50% discounts.

Several members of the local arts community have expressed concern about the lack of emerging designers in the complex: “I don’t understand the kind of positioning they are thinking about,” Kacey Wong says. “Young designers can’t afford that kind of rent.”

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