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Hong Kong's Sham Shui Po district is a shifting playground for subcultures in art, experimentation, and installation through time.

Sham Shui Po. 35mm film camera photo. Courtesy Alex Wong and Schoeni Projects.

Sham Shui Po Is Still Sham Shui Po is an art initiative launched by Schoeni Projects on 2 June as a free print map and digital archive, running until 31 July 2021. The map draws out four walking trails that encompass themes including Artisans, Cultural Encounters, Local Enterprises, and Foodie Delights. Over 60 stops are on the collective trails with each playing to the environment and culture.

Walking around the neighbourhood, one gets a sense of its history, not defined by neo-skylines, but from grimy edifices and graffiti-stained stairwells to the old-world charm of a port that once established the district.

A busy street in Hong Kong, with people standing outside a restaurant, some wearing masks.

Sham Shui Po. 35mm film camera photo. Courtesy Alex Wong and Schoeni Projects.

It is through this lens that curator Nicole Schoeni and comic artist Li Chi Tak have created a project that assembles the narratives of the community. The map is a fold-out sketch that combines expression and purpose, radiating the complex and vibrant reality that is Sham Shui Po.

Memories of the past peek through, in a community that once experienced an influx of migrants, working-class families, and labour workers struggling to survive in the 1950s. Today, we can see leftovers of that life, as well as a new breath of air.

A map is held out beneath typical Hong Kong buildings from the 1980s in the city's Sham Shui Po district.

Fold-out map for Sham Shui Po is Still Sham Shui Po. Courtesy Schoeni Projects.

Li Chi Tak expresses the nostalgia in comic sketches with pops of colour. He depicts pedestrians playing Nintendo on the street, Gundam figures, vinyl records, neon pawn signs, and lucky cats.

As seen in other Hong Kong districts that have faced the same transition—Wan Chai, Sai Ying Pun, and Kennedy Town—the road to gentrification is a battle against the city's rising real estate prices and commercial mentalities.

The layering of these 'supporting roles' and 'protagonists' on top of the black-and-white structure of street mapping highlights their contextual and cultural importance.

Detail of a map drawn in expressive black and white, with some introductions of colour, that captures Hong Kong's Sham Shui Po district.

Detail of fold-out map for Sham Shui Po is Still Sham Shui Po. Courtesy Schoeni Projects.

The characters are citizens living their daily lives, surrounded by objects of influence in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Hong Kong. This use of subtlety is not dissimilar to how the neighbourhood is slowly developing.

With pockets of new establishments grounded by an environment of urban decay, creatives are forced to balance between old and new. An alchemic act and process.

A street in Hong Kong, Thy Lane, features an outdoor exhibition of images of ghosts printed onto paper and stuck to the wall.

Exhibition view: Robert Notva, The Ghost of the Author, Thy Lane, Sham Shui Po. Courtesy Thy Lane.

On one of the trails and defining the borough is Thy Lane, a reclaimed back alley turned into a 24-hour open-air free museum in 2013. The founder, Alberto Gerosa, re-appropriated this overlooked public space with hopes that it 'empowers artists to imagine larger installations.'

Here we can see that artists are able to skirt between the commodification of creativity and cultural capital for what defines Sham Shui Po's appeal: the affordable rent.

A street in Hong Kong features an outdoor exhibition of images of ghosts printed onto paper and stuck to the wall.

Exhibition view: Robert Notva, The Ghost of the Author, Thy Lane, Sham Shui Po. Courtesy Thy Lane.

The temporality of the rotating roster of public art experiments is juxtaposed with textile suppliers and housing that have been around for generations. A block away, Present Projects, an independent art space led by Eunice Tsang, is adding to the subculture.

As a vehicle to impact the local community, Present Projects platforms emerging talent, while also acting as a store for prints and collectables. To add, the gallery and store sit atop a modern café, Colour Brown. The multi-purpose use of space exemplifies the coexistence of art and business in the area.

A painting with 'Oooof' written on its surface is held up by white-gloved hands, the figure behind it invisible apart from their feet. In the background of the exhibition space, a table with cans of beer on it is surrounded by dummies slouched on their chairs.

Exhibition view: Only a Joke Can Save Us, Present Projects, Hong Kong (14 May–4 July 2021). Courtesy Present Projects.

As seen in other Hong Kong districts that have faced the same transition—Wan Chai, Sai Ying Pun, and Kennedy Town—the road to gentrification is a battle against the city's rising real estate prices and commercial mentalities. For Gerosa, 'the Hong Kong art scene is a reflection of other industries in Hong Kong and operates similarly.' A fight between legacy and modernism.

Sham Shui Po lives through its people and places, where an authenticity for culture, memories, and history run proud, and as outsiders looking in, we are able to gain a sense of belonging and community by setting foot into the urban borough. —[O]

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