Migration Season 移民季節
約翰百德 (John BATTEN)
at 0:00am on 19th August 2015
1. Elva Lai, She dropped his door keys into a river from a bridge nearby 告別, 2015, inkjet print on matt paper, glass, blue glass, h. 77 x w.50cm. Photograph: Elva Lai.
2. Elva Lai, From a Coastal City to Another Coastal City 由一個海邊城市到另一個海邊城市, 2015, inkjet print on matt paper, glass, paint on wall, blue glass, h. 77 x w. 50cm. Photograph: Elva Lai.
3. Elva Lai, Memory Space (Furnace) 記憶的空間（化寶爐), 2015, charcoal, coloured aluminium paper and inkjet print on archival paper, h. 90 x w.60cm. Photograph: Elva Lai.
4-5. Still images from Isaac Julien's Ten Thousand Waves, 3-channel video version, 2010 (collection of M+, Hong Kong). All photographs by John Batten.
(中文版請往下看 Please scroll down to read the Chinese version.)
Coinciding together in April 2015 were Elva Lai’s solo exhibition at Artify Gallery; Moving Images, a large M+ organised international exhibition; and, a series of Hong Kong International Film Festival movies - each focused on Chinese migration.
Screened at the Film Festival was the film version of Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet, whose book is one of the best depictions of the Hong Kong immigrant experience. A newly married Hong Kong couple moves to London from their New Territories village in the 1960s, and quickly adapt to living in Britain. However, this hard-working couple fails to decisively deal with the consequences of an unpaid gambling debt to thuggish triad enforcers from London’s Chinatown. Rather than taking a ‘modern’ approach to the problem (dealing directly with the debt, visiting the police), the couple individually and inadequately resort to ‘old-style’ Hong Kong social avoidance and tradition – leading to a violent outcome. In contrast, a younger sister, seemingly immature and naïve, embraces London’s opportunities and soon sees great success.
In a fascinating selection of videos and films, the Moving Images exhibition by M+ depicts a range of emotions around immigration by artists from around the world. Chinese immigration has been widespread for centuries and has seen generally successful assimilation with local cultures (as in Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines), and as an often temporary or dislocated experience, as in the USA and Australia, that had, until the 1970s, strict, predominantly “whites-only” immigration laws.
Elva Lai uses her own migration from the mainland to Hong Kong to poignantly map a multi-layered story in her Sorry, it’s fragile, a photography and mixed-media exhibition. Lai’s father leaves the mainland first, arriving in Hong Kong in the 1970s. The rest of the family is eventually reunited in 1997 after many years living apart, meeting only at brief get-togethers at festival times - a familiar story for many Hong Kong families.
Lai weaves a historic tone into her exhibition by firstly depicting images of the Tung Wah Coffin Home in Pofkulam. Since the 1860s, Tung Wah has provided a unique burial service for China’s far-flung Diaspora: if a person died while overseas, Tung Wah would, if requested, arrange the return of their bones for burial in their home village in China. It was a service provided for thousands of emigrants until quite recently.
Within this historic backdrop, the death of Lai’s father is remembered. Her distraught mother, grieving and upset, threw all physical reminders of her father away: gone were clothes, photographs, and personal objects. Lai best captures the distress of losing her father and of these physical memories in a set of three works (see above), each framed as a view looking out from the old KCRC train’s rectangular windows. Seen from the train are views of the sea, firstly from the mainland and then as the train approaches her new ‘home’, from the Hong Kong seashore.
It is into this same sea that her frustrated mother threw her father’s keys after his death. Locked pain. The pain of not knowing; not knowing (any)more about your father. It is raw and tender, fragile, to remember a missed father. It pricks like a rose thorn and Lai literally covers her photographs with these prickly symbols of grief.
British artist Isaac Julien’s fifty-minute three-channel Ten Thousand Waves in Moving Images is similarly multi-layered. Little Flower, a prostitute, walks the streets of colonial Shanghai alongside trams and coolies, while the sea goddess Mazu (below, played by actress Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) floats above the same streets. A series of scenes builds stories of travel and estrangement across generations, history, places and characters.
Still image from Isaac Julien's Ten Thousand Waves, 3-channel video version, 2010 (collection of M+, Hong Kong). Photograph by John Batten.
Then, in a terrifying denouement, a lament for lost souls is recited while the surging, cold swell of an in-coming sea-tide covers Morecombe Bay in northwest England. Stranded on sand bars are immigrant Chinese cockleshell pickers – twenty men die in this 2004 tragedy. The ‘live’ infrared black-and-white film footage of a sole survivor waving and shivering for help is juxtaposed with a floating Mazu overhead - and drowned, floating corpses below.
Isaac Julien sees death far from home. Timothy Mo envisages distant hope, success, trust, and failure. Elva Lai remembers loss in Hong Kong. There is requiem in all their stories.
'Elva Lai: Sorry, it’s fragile' @ Artify Gallery, Chai Wan
'M+: Moving Images' @ Midtown Pop, Causeway Bay & Cattle Depot, To Kwa Wan
A version of this review was originally published in South China Morning Post, 14 April 2015.
Chinese translation: Elva Lai
Issac Julien 在遠處看見死亡，毛翔青探索遠方的希望、成就、信任及失敗。賴明珠的作品紀錄香港的失去。安魂曲在他們的作品中奏起。
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