WYNDHAM STREET IN Central has all the features of a typical Hong Kong street: it is a narrow, steep, winding road bustling with activity. Heading up towards where it joins Hollywood Road, the street gets even more crooked, the sides of this famous section lined with shops selling curios and collectibles from all over the world. Toward Pedder Street at the bottom of the hill, where the Pedder Building looms overhead, are the world-famous Gagosian and Lehmann Maupin contemporary art galleries, as well as renowned Chinese contemporary art dealer Johnson Chang’s Hanart TZ Gallery. This street forms the intersection between the traditional and contemporary art districts. Yet just half a century earlier, it was a secret avenue for transforming the economic and cultural resources and communications of two opposing ideological camps during the Cold War.
With China’s recent need for huge amounts of capital to fund construction projects, artworks and cultural artifacts have become a preferred new medium of foreign exchange, with the works’ artistic and educational functions subordinated to their economic value. In 1958, dealer Tsi Ku Chai set up shop on Wyndham Street, taking up the long-awaited task of facilitating the sale of traditional Chinese antiques, paintings, calligraphy, and handicrafts to collectors between Hong Kong and the Mainland.
Hong Kong served as a window to the exchange of foreign currency and goods, and after the 1967 Hong Kong riots and social revolution, as well as the Cultural Revolution on the Mainland, the city’s status and function were cemented.
The other “free” nation just across the water, Taiwan, also wanted to maintain communication with the Mainland. However, under American pressure, Taiwan was coerced into abiding by international copyright agreements. In order for Taiwan to continue to expand their market for publications that were legally restricted to distribution in Mainland China only, while at the same time avoiding making deals with the “Communist thieves,” it was only with the help of Hong Kong as the impartial third party that Taiwan was able to receive authorization to continue to distribute the materials. In this way, individuals and organizations in Hong Kong played a decisive role in the flow of information and resources between Taiwan and the Mainland. In 1976 Hong Kong art collector Hui Lai Ping established the Philosophos Society Limited, assisting Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University and Taipei’s National Palace Museum select and purchase Mainland books. They successfully applied to the Taiwan Garrison Command for a permit to import restricted books from Communist China. On another occasion, the Taiwanese wife of a consular agent at the United States’ Hong Kong consulate helped bring books to Taiwan and even mailed publications to Taiwan’s former Defense Minister Yu Ta-wei.
The isolation produced by the Iron Curtain during the Cold War led to a flourishing industry around meeting new demands for exchange and the flow of cultural resources. The colonial political environment and the approving nod to Chinese culture lead Hong Kong’s Chinese population to take on a transformative cultural role. Changes in the market for the distribution of culturally significant artworks signaled a subtle yet perceptible sense of an even larger impending shift in the political culture.
In 1987, England invested its National Rail workers’ pensions in artworks in order to dodge the worst effects of the stock market crash. News of the excellent returns they received on their investments soon spread to Hong Kong, generating enormous interest in painting and calligraphy. At that time, the Mainland painting and calligraphy market was still far from taking off, but Taiwan was flush with cash. A volume of famous Mainland Chinese painting and calligraphy works collected and published by Hui Lai Ping, Han Mo: A Magazine of Chinese Brush Art, was promoted and popularized in Taiwan, with the first issue selling 20,000 copies in its second printing. Then came the flourishing auction houses in Hong Kong in the early 1990s such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and others, who all sold Han Mo on-site.
Also during this time, Hanart TZ Gallery held a worldwide touring exhibition titled “China’s New Art, Post-1989,” which ran for nine years starting in 1993.
Over the next decade, Hong Kong became Asia’s auction capital and catalyzed the Mainland art market’s rapid development, which in turn spurred the formation of Hong Kong’s local contemporary art market.
Near the end of the Cold War, Mainland China, Taiwan, and various other Southeast Asian countries burst forth onto the contemporary art scene, their art featuring in more and more media outlets and often described as the harbingers of the future cultural development of Far Eastern nations. These initial forays convey the unrestrained yet unfinished nature of Asia’s contemporary art at that time; today, however, it is more reliant on standards imposed by the Western contemporary art world, creating an aesthetic that is bound by both internal and external expectations. Thus when considering the materialization of artworks, one can only really rely on Hong Kong auction records and the flow of commodities to find the true correlation between social realities and these works.
By this time Hong Kong was already serving as a hub for trade and the uninhibited circulation of goods. But in order to achieve an even greater degree of freedom, Hong Kong’s consciousness of its identity has to awaken, stirring its culture to grow and become more than merely the window to the world for the Old China Hands there. It remains temporarily locked in a zero-sum game for so-called international and local resources, trapped under the enormous societal pressure brought about by the unequal distribution of economic resources on the island.
Taking “contemporary” art to mean only “current” art is to dismiss the differences in style between traditional and contemporary works. Looking at these works from a visual cultural angle, we discover a deep, complicated relationship between their narrative strength and the process of societal development. The artworks originate from economic factors, regional politics, societal relationships, historical consciousness, and cultural resources carried out in a mutually transformational medium, while at the same time critiquing the characteristics that constitute the relationships between these same cultural resources.
Every era’s “current” art provides a window into the myriad factors of a society’s art. Pausing at this vantage point to observe Hong Kong’s society and culture from all angles, we gain perspective on the issues that interweave to form the background of Hong Kong society, and we can sense the shape into which “current art” is being molded. (Translation by Caly Moss)
Note: This article takes its title from the Hong Kong blockbuster film Infernal Affairs, and also refers to the original meaning of infernal affairs, which in Chinese means “the unceasing path” and is rooted in the concept of Avīci. In Buddhist stories, Avīci is the most horrific of the eight hells.