Dewey Visits Cao Fei’s “A hollow in a world too full” at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong

Dewey Punk Pickles doesn’t understand art. She’s never studied art in school though she was a librarian at an art and design university. She goes to art exhibitions because it seems like the cool thing to do. All the cultured, intellectual, creative types, the type of people she associates with, are all going to drink wine at the art opening.

Dewey goes to the JC Contemporary at Tai Kwun to see Beijing-based artist Cao Fei’s show, A hollow in a world too full. Tai Kwun used to be a prison complex back in the colonial days of Hong Kong. The Jockey Club spent a fortune restoring and renovating the previously abandoned space. Dewey thinks it’s ironic that the institution that makes its bucks luring Hong Kongers with horse racing and gambling is now the city’s peddler of art and culture.

The entrance of JC Contemporary and its lobby is full of pretty, well-dressed people.  They stand in clusters, chatting while sipping on their wines and beer. Dewey stands with her husband, Mean Dean, while drinking a glass of white wine. For free wine, it isn’t bad at all, she thinks to herself. She says hi to some friends, people she knew when she was a librarian. Then, with Mean Dean, she walks up to a grand staircase leading to the exhibition space. The place still smells like fresh paint. She has no idea what to expect.

Rumba (2015-2018). Video capture from the exhibition. 

The first things Dewey encounters are some seemingly mindless yet hyper-aware disc-like robot cleaners roaming on a minimalistic landscape. They navigate the narrow passageways from one island to the next without aim but always swivel at the edge of the raised platform.

“I don’t get it,” Dewey thinks to herself, “what are these Roomba vacuum robots supposed to say?”

She keeps these thoughts to herself as she doesn’t want the people around her to hear her stupidity and ignorance. She clutches her exhibition catalog, hoping to glean some insight from it. But she has trouble reading while walking, and Mean Deans has already moved on to the next room.

The next room is a darkened theater. On the wall outside, it has a sign indicating that only those over the age of 18 are allowed to enter. The film shows a post-apocalyptic fantasy world filled with miniature architectural sets and figurines. Dewey sees the derelict golden arches of MacDonald’s restaurant and abandoned Porsches. There are people in this film too, and they look scared, in pain, or like zombies.  Then, the scene changes and a man and a woman start to have a conversation in French. Dewey feels a little voyeuristic at this point as she stares at a pair of figures fucking on the screen. The woman is on the top riding the man. Dewey can’t help but notice that it looks like the woman is riding a metal rod, the rod is the man’s dick. Riding a rod doesn’t sound like a pleasurable experience.

Dewey is not bashful or anything, but while the film is fascinating on some level, it lacks plot. It doesn’t have a beginning or an end, and things are happening randomly. Sitting there in the dark room, she starts to feel sleepy. She curls up next to Mean Dean and falls asleep.

Prison Architect (2018). This is a close-up of one of the installations.

She wakes up when Mean Dean stands up to go to the next room, which has distressed walls with grey, peeling paint. Close to the back wall is a desk with an old-timey lamp on it. The lamp is on. Dewey sees a black rotary phone, a glass ashtray with two boxes of matches, and a file on a prisoner open for all to see. Behind the desk is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II hanging crookedly on the wall.

“Ah,” Dewey thinks to herself, “this must be one of the offices when Tai Kwun was still a prison.” This she understands and thinks is interesting. She feels that she understands culture and history better than art.

At this point, the exhibition space has closed. Dewey Punk Pickles and Mean Dean leave the exhibition, having seen only half of it.

A week later, Dewey returns to the JC contemporary. This time, she reads the exhibition catalog before going to the show, so she has some vague idea of what to expect.  After seeing the vacuum robots, the film with the zombies and the fucking couple, and the prison room, she finds herself on the top floor.  There are two screens flashing with animations. She looks at one of them for a while. It looks like a city in China but like a Chinese city on crack. It has a crazy, over-the-top color palette, and the perspective spins as if we are seeing the city from a drone.  At one point,  Dewey sees Tiananmen Square. In the place where Mao’s portrait should have been is a picture of a panda. She chuckles.

She doesn’t bother to look at the other screen in the same room. Instead, she climbs down the grand staircase and continues the exhibition.

Prison Architect (2018). This is the space where the film is shown.

The next exhibition is another film, and according to the catalog, it is called The Prison Architect, a newly commissioned work. The film is only a part of the work, as it also includes installations that span three floors. The film takes place in Tai Kwun in the past as Victoria Prison and in the present as Hong Kong’s hub of art and culture. The protagonists of the film, a female prison architect and a male poet-prisoner, exist in parallel realities–she lives in the present while he stays in the past. Cao creates illusions in the physical space by installing prison-style bunk beds, the same ones from the film, in the theatre, which allows Dewey and the other people watching to immerse themselves in Cao’s imagination.

Dewey recognizes the prison office where the poet-prisoner is getting yelled at by a crude, mango spewing guard. She becomes excited that the exhibition is coming together through this film. The open file she saw during her last visit must belong to this poet-prisoner.

In another scene, she notices that the prison architect is slicing her mango carefully in her modern Hong Kong apartment, and placing them in a bowl. Later on, there was the poet-prisoner, holding a half-peeled mango.

She wonders about the mangos.

Dewey has her Eureka moment in the scene that takes place in a starkly white room that looks familiar. There are three ghost-like prisoners with painted faces that are spinning around the poet-prisoner as if trying to suffocate and swallow him.

“Oh! That’s in the same room where the Roomba cleaners are!” She shouts inside her own head, “the robots might be a representation of the prisoners prowling in a random yet cognisant way.”

Dewey feels pleased about making this connection.

The rest of the exhibition doesn’t interest Dewey Punk Pickles as much, now that she feels like she’s figured it out. She walks down the grand staircase and notices fake mangos dangling.

At home, Dewey tells Mean Dean about the exhibition and what she figured out. Then she remembers the mangos.

“What is up with the mangos?” She asks.

Mean Dean tells her that there used to be a massive mango tree in the Victoria Prison complex, and the guards used to eat the sweet, meaty fruit from it.

How does Mean Dean know this? Dewey has no idea.

A Solo Exhibition by Cao Fei, A hollow in a world too full @ Tai Kwun, Central, Hong Kong. On view until December 9, 2018. 

 

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The Secrets of Nikah, the Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part II

*** This post is a part of a series. To get caught up, check out “The Secrets of Nikah, the Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part I” 

I agreed to participate in nikah without knowing what I was getting myself into. Illustrated by Ahmara Smith.

“This is not part of the deal,” I shouted, shaking my head. The pins keeping my lavender headscarf in place pricked my scalp. “You promised that I didn’t have to convert if I go through the nikah!” I glared at him; my gaze was accusatory.

“I’m sorry I didn’t know,” Gökhan muttered, “You don’t need to go through with it if you don’t want to. It’s completely up to you.”

Is it up to me? No, it’s not up to me! I started to cry. Gökhan looked at me with his thoughtful eyes. He handed me a tissue. I dabbed my eyes, blew my nose, and continued to sit on the bed and cry. I looked up and saw myself in his mother’s vanity mirror. My make-up had smeared, my lavender headscarf had fallen off, and my face looked like the damp, soggy tissue in my hand. Gökhan fidgeted next to me, occasionally patting me on the shoulder and repeating the phrase, “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”

Don’t you fucking understand? I shouted inside my head. From now on, we can never be truly happy together. If I don’t convert, your Mom is going to hate me forever, and I am going to feel lousy making you choose between her and me. However, if I do convert, I will resent you for as long as I live. I kept my head bowed because I couldn’t stand looking at the helpless expression on his face. I couldn’t utter a word because I knew that if I tried to verbalize what I was thinking, I would either start wailing or screaming.

I liked the fact that Gökhan added to my multi-cultural identity.

If I had known what I know now, I would have walked away—a marriage cannot be built on coercion and compromised integrity. Part of our attraction to each other was the fact that we came from such different worlds, which was intoxicating to explore. Also, I was his ticket out of Denmark and his parents’ house. For me, I liked that he added a layer to my multi-cultural experience and the idea of an exotic boyfriend who had grown up in completely different cultures than mine. I bragged to friends that between the two of us, there are four passports. I have spent my whole life crossing borders and adapting to different cultures, and I thought I was ready to cross a new one with Gökhan.

I was wrong.

I wept for an eternity, shed enough tears to fill the Bosphorous. On the other side of the door, the imam was waiting for me to change my wicked, wayward ways and his entire clan was expecting us to profess our undying love and commitment to each other. I cried and cried. I didn’t know how to get out of this mess.

Out of nowhere, Gökhan’s father walked into the room. He was smiling. He closed the door behind him and started laughing. I gave him a look of bafflement as he spoke rapidly in Turkish. He paused and nodded his head. Gökhan looked at me and interpreted what his father had said, “My dad said you are taking this whole thing way too seriously.”

His father grinned at me, said a few more words and nodded again. Gökhan translated, “He said it’s totally fine if you don’t want to go through with it. But you could also put on a show by pretending to convert, which would make everybody happy.”

I stared at his father, shocked that he had just asked me to go out there and tell a lie in front of the whole family. It’s not that I hadn’t thought of it myself, but it felt inconceivable to make a roomful of people believe I was something that I wasn’t. He chuckled, nodded at Gökhan again and left without saying another word. What his father wanted me to do was what he had done, and also what Gökhan had done his whole life: pretend and go through the motions to make peace. I felt defeated and exhausted. I forced my gaze back to Gökhan. Oh, what I would do just to make this awful situation go away!

After taking a couple of deep breaths, I asked Gökhan to fetch my makeup bag from the next room. I cleaned my face with a fresh tissue and wiped away the black smudge under my eyes. When Gökhan returned, I smeared a thick layer of foundation and powdered my face. Then, I applied a sparkly lilac eyeshadow that matched my lavender headscarf. Staring at my reflection in the mirror, I grinned. I readjusted my headscarf. My eyes were still puffy; my smile looked pathetic but convincing enough to those who didn’t know me. I smiled again and knew that my mask was secure. I reached for Gökhan’s hand and led him out of the room.

** To find out what happens next, read the final post, “The Secrets of Nikah, The Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part III

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A Story of an Immigrant Kid: They Called Me a Banana

Banana: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

My family moved to Canada when I was ten. We settled in Surrey, which is a sprawling suburbia about an hour from Vancouver. I didn’t speak a lick of English, but luckily, I didn’t pee myself when moving to a foreign country this time.

When we arrived, Baba had to come up with new names for my younger brother and me.

He gave my younger brother the option of “David” or “Davis”. The little eight-year-old boy chose “Davis,” so Davis he became.

With me, Baba said that I should be “Kayo,” the Japanese pronunciation of my Chinese name. I wanted a fancy English name like Davis, but Baba was persuasive.  So, Kayo I remained.

However, when I got to school, the other kids butchered my name. They called me “Kay-yo” when it was supposed to be “Ka-yo”. I tried to correct them with my limited English but to no avail.   So, “Kay-yo” I became. Now, everybody calls me Kayo, even my parents.

Remember that Day-O Banana Boat song? My classmates used to sing their adapted version: “Kayyyy-yo! Kayyyy-yo! Daylight comes and me wanna go home!”  My face would go beet red and they would howl with laughter. I hated that song.

Despite that, I learned English and became a typical teenager. I met my friend Chelsea in a math and science split class in grade eight. On Sundays, we went to the flea market to look for Sailor Moon Cards. In grade nine, I bought my first CDs: No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom and Smashing Pumpkin’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I saw Gwen Stefani when No Doubt was touring with Weezer—I was a very excited fourteen-year-kid.

Back when pagers were cool.

In grade ten I smoked my first cigarette. By grade eleven, in addition to my smoking, I also had (still have) a book addiction. Remember those Scholastic catalogs we used to get from school? Mama bought me anything I ever wanted from it, unknowingly created a book-devouring monster. To pay for my smoking and book habits, I got a part-time job at the cinema that opened the same day as Star Wars: Phantom Menace. I made friends outside of school. I met my first boyfriend.

I have known Chelsea since we were 13. This picture was taken shortly after our graduation, on my 18th birthday.

Luckily, the kids in secondary school didn’t sing the stupid Day-O song. Instead, Chelsea gave me a cool nickname: Knock Out, aka KO.

Everything was trucking along in my teenage life. I almost felt cool—  until a new Taiwanese kid moved to my school. His name was Rodney.

Every time Rodney saw me walking down the hallway with my friends, he greeted me in Mandarin.  I was mortified each time. I always replied to him in English and kept the conversations as short as possible.

He reminded me of my foreign-ness, my otherness— and all I wanted was to blend in, be like everyone else.

I avoided him at all cost.

Back then, I didn’t want to be Taiwanese or Asian. I tried to minimize any perceived differences between my friends and me. For instance, I refused to bring Taiwanese food to school for lunch. Instead, I ate the mush and Jell-O at the cafeteria or munched on chips from the vending machines. Also, I wouldn’t associate with Rodney or the other Taiwanese kids.  They thought I was a snob and called me a “banana”—yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

I realize now that I’ve carried that label around for most of my life. The first time my husband Derek went to Taiwan with me for Chinese New Year’s, he asked me why I wasn’t in the kitchen learning to cook all the amazing Taiwanese dishes Mama was making. I shrugged. Now I understand that underneath the exterior of the worldly 30-something Kayo, there is a teenaged Kayo who felt humiliated by her otherness. Buried even deeper is the ten-year-old Kayo who was taunted because of her weird name.

Perhaps this why I get upset when people only see my Asian face and not my Canadian-ness.

Derek suggested that my Canadian-ness is keeping me from my Taiwanese-ness. He is absolutely right.

I will not subject myself to this “banana” label anymore. Next year, I will be in the kitchen with Mama during Chinese New Year.

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