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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Do You Speak Chinese?

There are many different Chinese languages with up to 200 dialects, and most of them are mutually intelligible. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

With Beijing’s growing influence, its dialect, Mandarin, also known as Putonghua (the common language), has become the most dominant Chinese language. But this wasn’t always the case, not according to the speakers of other Chinese languages.

In the late 80’s, my family moved from Japan to Taiwan. This was just a few years after the Taiwanese government finally lifted the martial law. I was six years old.

Let’s quickly revisit Taiwanese history and its languages: Historically, at least up to the 1940s, most people in Taiwan spoke Hokkien, which is a version of a southern Chinese language from Fujian province, where many Taiwanese people came from during the 1700’s. During the Japanese occupation, some Japanese words and expressions were integrated into the Taiwanese Hokkien language. I remember clearly my grandparents speaking this Japanese-fied version of Hokkien.

When the Kuomintang (KMT) took control of Taiwan, they made Mandarin the official language and forced everyone to learn it.

I spoke neither Hokkien or Mandarin.

This is me as a Kindergartener in Japan.

Regardless, my parents threw me into a local school.

During class one day, I needed to use the toilet. Unable to communicate with the teacher verbally, I stood up and made my way towards the washroom. I only made it halfway down the hall when my teacher caught up with me, led me back to the classroom and sat me back down in my little wooden chair at my desk. A few moments later, I got up again and made another attempt. The teacher got me again and scolded me as she led me back to my seat.

I didn’t know exactly what she said, but I understood that she was displeased with me. I didn’t dare to get up again. Instead, I sat in my chair and concentrated on holding it in.

Eventually, a warm stream trickled down my legs and created a large, dark stain on my pleated navy blue skirt and a yellow pool around the legs of my little wooden chair. I burst into tears—I was powerless without speaking the language.

This sad little story is a segway to discuss the power of language, and specifically, the Chinese language. Spoken Chinese is organized into five main groups, Mandarin, Yue, Min, Wu, and Hakka. These languages are mutually intelligible.  Within those groups, there are hundreds of dialects, limited to small geographical areas.

Mandarin is only one of the hundreds of spoken Chinese languages. The Beijing dialect is the most common, spoken by approximately two-thirds of the Chinese population. At 55 million speakers, Cantonese, which is part of the Yue family, is the second most common Chinese language.  Hokkien, a language that is common in Taiwan and other countries where Fujan ancestry is common, is part of the Min language family.

How did Mandarin become “Putonghua,” the common language of China?

When Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Beijing became the capital of the new China. After some debating, the leadership decided that Mandarin is the official language of the new republic (This is strange because Dr. Sun and many of the leaders of the new republic are from Guangdong Province, and their mother tongue would have been Cantonese).

In Taiwan, Mandarin is known as “Guóyǔ”, literally translates to “the national language.”

During the occupation, the Japanese didn’t force the Taiwanese people to learn the language of their colonizers.** However, when the KMT arrived, they did. Baba told me a story of how his classmates were punished for speaking Hokkien at school. They had to wear a humiliating sign that said, “I spoke Hokkien” for the whole day for speaking the “uncivilized” tongue.

Here in Hong Kong, 97% of the population speaks Cantonese. If Beijing had their way, they would eliminate Cantonese completely. However, that would create an outcry that Beijing is not prepared to deal with. Instead, they slowly influence the educational curriculum in Hong Kong, to teach the next generation their version of the history.

The truth is, Mandarin is already common in Hong Kong. When my parents passed through Hong Kong in the early 90s, they said people didn’t speak Mandarin and yelled when spoken to in Mandarin. Thirty years later, the majority of people still speak Cantonese, but I can now get by speaking Mandarin if English fails.

Hmm. I wonder what the common language will in Hong Kong in another thirty years.

**As it turns out, The Japanese implemented an imperialist movement during their occupation. It was an assimilation initiative that forced Taiwanese people to adopt Japanese names and learn to speak Japanese.

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Is Taiwan Part of China?

A crash course on modern Taiwanese history. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

In my last post, I pondered whether Taiwanese people are ethnically Chinese. The answer to that is complicated and requires a crash course on Taiwanese history.

Taiwan is an island off the east coast of mainland China. Historically, it was part of the Middle Kingdom territory up until the Qing dynasty. My ancestors and many other people immigrated to Taiwan in the 1700’s, mostly from the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong.  Most likely, they intermarried with the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan, who are a part of the Austronesian ethnic family, which are related to the peoples of the Philippines, Malaysia, and other South East Asian countries.

In 1895, the Middle Kingdom lost the First Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese Empire demanded control of Taiwan as a part of the peace negotiation. As a result, the Japanese occupied Taiwan for the next 50 years, under the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

The Japanese made huge impacts on the Taiwanese psyche during their occupation. They modernized Taiwan by developing its infrastructure,  building roads, government buildings, hospitals, and schools. Furthermore, their language and culture also permeated Taiwanese culture–many Japanese words were absorbed into Hokkien, which was one of the main languages of Taiwan.

Meanwhile, in China, Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and established the Republic of China (ROC). His political party, Kuomintang (KMT) became the official ruler of the new Republic.

The world turned up-side-down for many nations in East Asia in 1945. The Japanese Empire fell when they lost World War II. They lost all their colonies and returned the control of Taiwan to the Republic of China. At the time, Chiang Kai-Shek was in charge of the KMT in mainland China. He set up a provisional government in Taipei, in order to gain control of the island and its populace.

The KMT eventually set up the official government of the ROC in 1949, when they were defeated by the People’s Communist Party (CPC), led by Mao Zedong. The Taiwanese suffered greatly during the transitional period between the end of Japanese occupation in 1945 and when the KMT officially took control of the island.

The transition between Japanese colonialism and KMT rule was bloody. The KMT government enforced martial law in 1947 after Taiwanese people rebelled against inflation. This is the start of what is known as the White Terror– the KMT government arrested, imprisoned and executed dissents who opposed them.

Many Taiwanese people who opposed the KMT government were arrested. This image is from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film A City of Sadness, in which Tony Leung’s character was imprisoned due to his friends’ political activities. .

The martial law was finally lifted in 1987. A couple of years later, my parents moved back to Taiwan from Japan. I was six, and my brother Davis was four.

My family history is intertwined with Taiwan’s.  My ancestors moved from Fujian Province in the 1700’s. Also, we are a product of Japanese colonialism: Both sets of my grandparents spoke Japanese fluently; my parents and many of their siblings were educated in Japan; I was born in Japan.

Taiwan’s history is complicated and this is why there are so many debates about whether Taiwan is part of the PRC. Depending on who you ask, you will get a different answer.

To answer my own question, I suppose I am mostly ethnically Chinese (my ancestors may have intermarried with the aboriginal people of Taiwan), but I am Taiwanese through and through.

However, the more interesting question is whether or not the Chinese ethnicity is one ethnicity. That’s one more complicated question for another time.

Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

 

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