The Artlands of Hong Kong [Issue 1]

Into the Art-lands of Hong Kong

[Искусство не живет здесь больше.]


Oli Johns & Ersatz Kwan


I meet up with Ersatz Kwan outside one of the exits of Shek Kip Mei MTR station. She is taller than I thought she would be, and a smoker too. She smokes quickly and leaves her cigarette on the ground then tells me to follow her. Apparently there is a sorry excuse for an artists’ colony nearby and that is probably the best place to start.

The thing we are starting isn’t so important, not to me at least. I get the impression it doesn’t matter much to Ersatz either.

She is a local poet I met a few nights earlier, the first poet I have met in Hong Kong actually, and after a few drinks together and some reading of her poetry, I walked myself into a story on how Hong Kong was bleeding the life out of art. This was the way Ersatz put it, showing her teeth a little to make sure I knew she was enraged. It worked, and here we are.

She doesn’t talk much about art or poetry as we walk down the road, round a corner, up a hill, past the Jockey Club and into a small, slummy looking estate that is the art colony. We talk about the media and Japan. She is very curious about Japan.

“I heard there was a big scene over there…where was it…somewhere kinda near Tokyo, but not Tokyo, y’know? It was Shimo something, I think…you know it?”

She means Shimo-Kitazawa and I tell her that it is more a place that artists hang out, not do their work.

“Are you sure about that?”

“Yes, fairly sure. I lived there for three years.”

She considers my credentials for knowing about art and artists for a moment as we walk past a monster made entirely of wire, crouching and snarling at the entrance to the estate.

She turns to me when we reach the stairwell.

“No, that’s definitely where they work. Shimo-Kitazawa, yeah, I’m sure of it. I think you probably heard wrong.”

I don’t argue with her, she seems so sure.

We walk up to the eighth floor and then descend the estate, doing circles around each floor. Most of the doors are closed and the lights inside are out.

She tells me that the place is dead. She also tells me that this place isn’t a serious place for art.

“The problem is that it’s government funded. Any artist who comes to live here is selling out, really.”

I ask her why.

“It’s an internment camp, that’s why,” she half-shouts. “They want us here so they can watch us and see what we’re doing.”

I ask her how the Government is supposed to help.

“They’re not, they’re supposed to be against us. Art is creation and innovation, right, you understand that? The Government is there to control the market and there are no new ideas or innovation in the market, so real innovation has to come from the edge, and the only support they get has to be either nothing or just a few early adapters. It can’t be popularized at its inception, you understand?

I get most of it. I tell her that her English is very good.

“Yeah, well, I write in English mostly. Remember the poem I read the other night, in that bar?”

I do. She read it to me from memory and I can remember enough of it to read it back to you.

‘Alone in the night.


 The City holds the night.


 The birds are left with only two breeds

 Because no one remembers, no one learns

 The other names of the other birds.

 And they fly around.


 The string that outlines the city limits


 The City holds the night.



I didn’t have a clue what it meant. She told me it was ‘visceral surrealist’. I didn’t know what that meant either. She said it was a movement that wanted its listener to understand yet, at the same time, retain a nascent state of confusion. It’s very esoteric, she said that night. No one really gets it.

On the fifth floor we find an open door and two people, a man and a woman, very professional looking, fiddling on a computer.

I ask them what they are doing.

They smile and start to explain in fairly skilled English something about design and landscape and the use of public space and how it’s becoming more regulated which is-…

Ersatz walks out and I have no choice but to follow after her. I apologise to the two artists, but they have already gone back to their screens.

Ersatz is outside smoking quickly again.

I ask her what’s wrong.

“Fucking pretension. I can’t stand it, Neil. I can’t stand anyone here.”

She drops her cigarette on the ground outside the studio of the artists she can’t stand and tells me that it’s time to get out of there and try somewhere else.

We take the bus over to a group of warehouses in an area I’ve never been to before. I think it’s somewhere near Ho Man Tin, but I can’t be sure. I consider asking Ersatz but she’s been quiet since we left the colony and only speaks to herself in short bursts, something about wives and selling out and Sean Penn. I suspect she’s forming a new poem in her head but I don’t ask.

Outside the first warehouse, she stops and lights up another cigarette. That’s seven she’s smoked since I met her two hours ago.

“Do you always smoke this much?”

“I smoke when I’m angry.”

She takes an angry drag and starts to blow at my face, but changes her mind as the smoke spills out and turns her face away.

“Why are you angry?”

“I’m not sure.” She stares at the warehouse in front of us. “Them, mostly. The ones in there. But, I don’t know…I mean, I know why, but it’s too much to explain.”

“Try. I can edit it into shape later.”

She shakes her head and puts out the cigarette then marches into the warehouse, shouting back at me, “let’s just get this over with.”

There are three artists working inside the warehouse.

We walk in, my face open, curious and beaming, and move towards the nearest canvas. The artist in front of it turns and tells us to get out. I freeze. Ersatz shakes her head. The man, in his thirties, fat, messy haired from the short time I’ve got to look at him, tells us a second time to get out.

“Sorry, we’re just here to-…”

“Get the fuck out. Damnit, you ruin my moment…the flow…fucking tourist…”

He throws his paintbrush across the warehouse floor while the other two remain in their own mental space, staring at their creations.

I look over at Ersatz for help, but she’s already gone.

Outside, she is smoking again and kicking the side of the warehouse.

“I see why you’re angry now.” I tell her.

She stops kicking and tells me that it’s more than that, and then goes on to explain what it is exactly.

“It’s the space thing. The mainstream is crap, everyone knows that, even them in there…so the rest of us, anyone not in the industry, has to go find space somewhere else. We don’t want to go with the Government or anything like the art industry, y’know, so we have to be independent and look around. But-…”

She points to each warehouse on the site with an accusatory finger.

“This kind of space, not even thirty years ago, would have been where the real artists went. Krist, the whole studio thing and the warehouse, the big space, the isolation from everyone else and you know you’re doing your own thing and it seems important, and you feel it because of the space. You know what I mean? The space makes you feel the art is special.”

“I think I understand. You want to have the warehouse, not them…”

“No, not that. You don’t understand, I knew it. It’s the-…it’s completely different to that. I can’t have the warehouse now. It’s gone. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. And that’s what I mean. Everything gets found out by the industry and they take up the space, they come and they eat it up. And in this place…in Hong Kong…there’s nowhere left, there’s no space. That’s why I brought you here, to show you how it is…”

She finishes her ninth cigarette and flicks it at the warehouse.

“Fucking fakers…” she mutters.

We walk out onto the street and wait for the bus. She tells me that there’s nothing left to show anymore and I should probably go back and try and write something.

I shuffle closer to her.

“Can I ask, were you making up a poem on the bus before?”

She nods.

“Can I hear it?”

“You can, but you can’t print it.”

She tells me the following poem and calls it ‘I want to fuck Ethan Hawke’

‘I want to fuck Ethan Hawke

 I want to fuck the conversations he has,

 I want to fuck his films


 I want to fuck the ideas he makes,

 I want to fuck the criticism of his last film

 I want to fuck the envy


 I want to fuck myself

 I want to fuck the irritation I get

 When I don’t like my opinions


 I want to fuck Sean Penn

 I want to fuck the films he makes

 I want to fuck his rage


 I heard him in an interview

 Before he won his oscar,

 Which I wanted to fuck,

 He said artists liked promoting their films…different…ly

 I sense he wanted to fuck his film

 He wanted to fuck the reaction


 I want to fuck his film

 I want to fuck its ideas

 I want to pull Penn’s skin off and wear it like it was always mine.

 I want to think inside that skin

 I want to think and fuck…different…ly


 Will my thoughts be…different…ly?

 I don’t know

 All I know

 Don’t wanna fuck my wife no more.’

When she’s finished she tells me that she wishes she lived in the US. “There’s space everywhere there,” she says.

“I heard Greenwich Village is a good place for artists.” I add

“Krist, no. It’s fucking awful.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. That place got eaten up thirty years ago. I’m thinking of moving to LA.”

I tell her with assurance that LA is probably the worst place for an artist to go. It’s all industry there.

She smirks as if she knew I would react this way.

“You’re wrong. It’s the best place because it’s the last place anyone would expect to see an artist. They haven’t seen a real artist there for over fifty years. That’s where I wanna go.”

The bus comes and I get on alone. Ersatz says that she’s gonna take the next one. As I take my seat I look back out the window and see her lighting up again.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: