The hypocrisy of Hong Kong’s status as an arts hub

That time of year.
That time of year.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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Hong Kong

In the weeks before Art Basel rolls into town, as it will again on March 29, Hong Kong goes into a sudden arts frenzy. Galleries unveil their best shows for “art month,” hoping to catch the attention of jet-setting buyers, while universities and cultural centers hold more talks than anyone could possibly attend.

Overlooked amid the hubbub: What it’s like to be an actual artist in Hong Kong. I can shed some light on that. For nearly a decade, I’ve made ceramics while living in the city. Trying to find a space in which to operate has given me direct knowledge of how challenging life can be here for those wanting to pursue their artistic passion.

The main problem, of course, are the famously sky-high real estate prices. For a typical artist, studio space is simply not affordable. One might assume the government, well aware of the problem, would step in with strong support for the art scene—it welcomes Art Basel, after all. Sadly, though, there isn’t nearly enough assistance. While Hong Kong is becoming a hub for buying art, making it here is another story.

Heavy burdens

The city does sponsor some art spaces and initiatives, enough to look good on the surface. But a deeper dive reveals that most of these are not up to the task. For example I tried the Visual Arts Centre, which hosts facilities for ceramics, a couple of years ago.

A work by the author.
A work by the author.
Image: Ilaria Maria Sala

Sitting atop Hong Kong Park, the center is spacious and full of natural light, with tables, big sinks, and potter’s wheels, plus a machine for making slabs of clay. Feeling hopeful, I applied for a space—and ran smack into Hong Kong’s bureaucracy. I was asked to send in a CV, a recommendation letter from a ceramics teacher, a cover letter, and two samples of my pottery work. I was also asked to hand over an original certificate of my university degree. What if I didn’t have a degree, I asked. I was only there to make pots. The person behind the counter told me to just bring it, as the application form asked for it.

Then I was called in for an interview. Then came the waiting. By the time I was approved and able to book the publicly owned ceramics space, six months had passed. (London, by way of comparison, has high rents of its own but also plenty of private co-working spaces where you can walk in, pay a fee, and start working.) I was shown around the ceramics area in greater detail, and was told that since it is a common space, I was not allowed to leave anything on the premises.

“Not even a bag of clay?” I asked.

“No,” came the reply. “It’s a public space. You cannot store your own things.” The rule applied to anything: tools, a bucket of glaze, even an apron. “If you do, nobody will take responsibility for it. Your materials or work might be stolen, or thrown away by the staff.”

Most bags of clay weigh about 10 kg (22 lbs), and working on the potter’s wheel with it will produce a few kilos of wet clay that requires drying and recycling. I didn’t quite see myself carrying heavy earth to and fro on the bus, with another bag full of tools and glaze (secured in waterproof containers) slung across my shoulder. I never used that space.

It isn’t just the Visual Arts Centre. The Hong Kong Arts Development Council also offers spaces for independent artists, but it, too, prohibits the storing of personal items on the premises. That’s a problem if one works with oil paint, which needs days or even weeks to dry on a canvas. Carrying around a large wet canvas, and trying not to smudge it, makes little sense, especially on public transportation. You could stick to working in your flat, but the paint fumes would likely get overwhelming. And most Hong Kong apartments are so small that accidentally touching a canvas would be far too easy.

Meanwhile if you’re a sculptor, or an installation or textile artist, you are basically stuck. For musicians or performance artists, for whom rehearsal space is essential, the situation can be even more dire.

I was discussing such hurdles with another Hong Kong ceramics maker, who told me he had also tried using the Visual Arts Centre. In the end, he said, he decided to just buy a potter’s wheel and bring it home. I confessed to being a bit jealous, as I wasn’t sure I could fit a wheel in my home. He replied he thought the same thing initially, but then he had gotten rid of his dining table. “I can eat on a chair. I don’t really need a dining table,” he said.

Of course, a potter’s wheel is just one part of the equation. You also need a kiln. There are various stages to making a ceramic pot on the wheel: First, you prepare the clay and throw it. Then you leave it to dry until it is “leather hard,” meaning hard enough to handle, turn the pot upside down, and fix it on the wheel so that you can clean up, or “trim,” the base. At this point you may want to decorate it with “underglaze” colors. Then you “bisque” fire your pot, meaning you put it in the kiln at a temperature of around 800°C (1,472°F) for the first transformation by heat. Next, you can apply the glaze, and put it back into the kiln for high-firing, which involves even higher temperatures. For this craft, you need big space and serious equipment.

But regulations in Hong Kong can be stifling, too. No wood firing is allowed, for example: Even pizza restaurants rely mostly on electric or gas ovens, since stringent fire and anti-pollution laws make other options impracticable. In the city’s pottery scene, artists exchange hushed heating tips: “There will be a raku firing at such and such a place,” they tell each other, referring to a traditional Japanese lower-heat way of firing ceramics in small pits or metal burners. Then they gather at the specified spot with dried pots in their bags, feeling like witches at a covenant while huddling around small fires.

Getting creative

For most of my time as a potter in Hong Kong, I used the space of a private ceramics school. But then it stopped renting out “studio hours” because the number of pots being produced made the place too cramped, and the minders too busy. After that, I decided to splurge on a small studio space of my own, on the basis that creative fulfillment mattered more than my financial health.

There is one gray-area solution that artists have been moving toward—but here, too, the government has been intervening in ways that do not bode well for them. As Hong Kong has left behind its industrial past, old industrial buildings have been turned into residential spaces, small manufacturing centers, or minor-assembly laboratories. Some have been taken over by artists enchanted by the high ceilings and vast, unencumbered halls. But while there is a little leeway in the bureaucracy for those who are producing something—such as ceramics—this too is not considered entirely legal, due to zoning and fire-safety regulations.

I know someone who has opened a shared artists’ space in one of these facilities, but she is still wary of making it more largely known, lest authorities decide it’s not fully within the legal constraints. And despite the regulatory uncertainty, such facilities don’t come cheap: A private space in Chai Wan, one of Hong Kong Island’s transitioning industrial areas, goes for about HK$16,000 a month (US$2,040) for 65 square meters (700 sq ft) of usable space. Further afield, in areas close to the border with China, like Fotan, it can be a few hundred dollars cheaper, but those spaces are running out fast, and the government is eyeing them for redevelopment.

Learning where to get good art material, meanwhile, can feel like joining a small cult. Due to the high rents, no major art-supply store, at least any that I know of, sits at street level. Large shops are scattered around the city on various floors in commercial buildings, and every time I hunt for tools or other supplies, I worry that the store might succumb to rent increases and no longer be there in a few months.

After Hong Kong’s 2018-19 budget was published in February, a local headline read, ”Arts, culture facilities get HK$20bn for upgrades.” Skimming readers might have been left with the wrong impression. Only a very small percentage of the amount will go toward artists, and it won’t be for independent projects. Much of it will go into building new cultural facilities, and expanding upon existing ones. Also benefiting will be local artists who take part in exchanges with counterparts in southern Chinese cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen—as part of a push for greater integration between Hong Kong and China.

For independent artists not gutsy enough to attempt gray-area space rentals, getting rid of the dining table might remain the best option. Meanwhile, forgive them if they seem a bit grumpy during “art month.” The city might welcome the money side of the art world this time of year, but it does not, they know, care much about local artists.