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Bouie Choi Yuk Kuen 蔡鈺娟

By John Batten /

Bouie Choi Yuk Kuen reminded me that we first met when she and fellow Chinese University of Hong Kong fine arts students were invited to use empty units of the former Police Married Quarters in 2008 to show their work before its closure for renovation into PMQ. This was a touching memory; the battle to save the historic PMQ was one of many campaigns to save Central Hong Kong’s heritage buildings in which I was involved. After its closure as residential quarters for the police, the PMQ units were decrepit and had seen no paint or repair for decades: perfect for artists to use and fill with sound, lights, videos and found objects for their installations – or, as Choi did, hang paintings on dusty walls of ripped wallpaper. Hong Kong’s old colonial city also plays an underpinning role in Choi’s recent work, the physical remains of the past under attack.

Bouie Choi face-masked during Covid-19 social restrictions, Pottinger Street, Central, Hong Kong, 29 September 2020. Photo: John Batten

After Choi’s early experiences with the unrenovated PMQ, and later seeing that site and its modernist buildings conserved, she was a community worker for six years for local charity St James’ Settlement on a similar heritage preservation project: the historic Blue House, a rare colonial-era terrace building in Wan Chai. Choi mixed with the local community and businesses, many of them car repair shops, and organised community activities with local kaifong and community associations, drawing on her art skills, friendly personality and calm understanding of others.

The Blue House adopted a classic community work approach: Choi and her colleagues facilitated events and activities together with the local community. These years were a defining time and Choi understood that she wished “to give to society” and that “I needed to be good to myself, to be able to give back”. She broadened her knowledge of Hong Kong history, its diverse present and unique culture. She was personally enriched hearing residents’ stories and becoming close to the local community. Especially happy were sessions with young mothers and their children organised by Choi, which also included anyone else visiting the Blue House at the time.

Before that solid stint of full-time work and after graduating from CUHK in 2009, she completed graduate studies in London in 2012. She recalls: “That time was all white, a blur. I did public performances: a waste of time – it confirmed for me that I wanted to be a painter.”

The fallen petals by Bouie Choi, Hong Kong orchid in acrylic clip, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Grotto Fine Art.

As a painter, she has exhibited at Grotto Fine Art on average once every five years. Always prepared around her other work, her art has evolved over these years. Known in the past for carefully beautiful paintingsdepicting animals and insects, often in symmetrical formations with a fantasy-like ambience, her current work is “multiple 

layers of me; violent and tender”. She particularly has put into practice the advice of her former CUHK teacher Chan Yuk Keung that art should have “physicality, cultural significance and spirituality – to ensure that art is differentiated from, say, design”.

Her latest exhibition at Grotto, borrowed space _ borrowed time, takes its title from the book published in 1978 by the ebullient Australian journalist Richard Hughes, The Times of London’s long-time Hong Kong correspondent, whose sculpted bust stands sentry in Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club and who is immortalised as the doughty journalist Craw in John le Carré’s spy thriller The Honourable Schoolboy. Hughes wrote: “Hong Kong is a borrowed place living on borrowed time … [and] is an impudent rambunctious free-booting colony, naked and unashamed, devoid of self-pity, regrets or fear of the future.” Hughes describes the city’s gritty, indomitable spirit, popularly known as the Lion Rock spirit, of business savviness, an ability for hard work and long hours, in an anything-goes capitalist economy.

By 2019, many living in Hong Kong were missing out on the opportunities offered by the city’s relentless free-wheeling economy. Generations of the elderly, disabled, sick, new immigrants, and the city’s many low-skilled, low-paid workers have been overlooked by success. The government’s Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report 2018 indicated that 20 per cent of the city’s population, or 1.5 million people, live below the poverty line. The Hong Kong spirit, evolved under British colonial rule, now also embraces greater political and social awareness. The drive for self-betterment remains strong, but now understood are the inequalities between rich and poor, government protection of business monopolies and anger about the lack of real universal suffrage guaranteed under the Basic Law and an unelected, executive-led government.

Choi’s careful planning for this exhibition took an unexpected trajectory. After leaving her job at the Blue House, the second half of 2019 was to be devoted to full-time painting. However, amid controversial extradition legislation and public demands for the government to deal with a host of domestic economic and political issues, Hong Kong imploded with increasingly fractious anti-government protests and violence. The city also became caught in international geopolitics and escalating trade tensions between China and the US.

It was an unprecedented and highly charged time. Every corner of Hong Kong was hit by the tension and drama of months of protests. It felt as if daily life was on hold. Choi says she was “paralysed” during these months. She had no ideas for new paintings. She did not paint.

The mountain city by Bouie Choi, Acrylic on wood with vintage frame 41 x 32 cm, 2019. 
Courtesy the artist and Grotto Fine Art.

Except for preparing The Fallen Petals and painting The mountain city in November and December 2019 as an immediate reaction to events, she did not paint until after February 2020. Then, she “tried to fix [herself] through painting”. Covid-19 had begun to spread and Hong Kong’s weekly anti-government protests had trailed off as awareness of the virus grew and social distancing restrictions were introduced. Choi’s imagery in the exhibition is dragged from the depths of those tortured, anguished months. Her emotions, however, are in a higher place. She says: “Let me explain before I start murmuring something incomprehensible: this is an exhibition about my beloved homeland; this is about the remained, the authentic, the precious.”

Setting the tone of the exhibition at the gallery entrance is The Fallen Petals, a pressed bauhinia flower, still holding its distinctive purple colour and displayed between two transparent acrylic panels angled out from the wall. The city’s flower emblem casts a shadow, like a sad, out-of-focus photograph, as if Hong Kong is a shadow of its former self. This sets a tone, but the ambience of the exhibition is better felt a few further steps in, when surrounded entirely by Choi’s paintings. The exhibition comprises paintings with thinly applied acrylic – a watercolour impression – on paper. These contrast with the major work of the exhibition, Choi’s ‘black’ paintings: waves of ominous black-indigo applied on golden-hued, varnished wooden panels. Emerging between blotches of paint, mountains and valleys is a dystopian maelstrom. Hong Kong is hit by a tidal wave, engulfing buildings, objects, lives, emotions and good sense.

The work A borrowed place on borrowed time is Choi’s largest ever painting, a six-panel landscape of the city. Bathed in shadows and light, Hong Kong’s government headquarters, the Central Government Offices, stands intact (just), but the rest of the city is threatened by the long claw of demolition. 

The city and its unique street ambience – for example street markets, low-rise tong lau buildings and neon signs – have long been threatened with physical redevelopment. Hong Kong people are accustomed to their city being a property developer’s marketplace, with their lives upended by noise, dust, inconvenience and possible compulsory acquisition. Choi’s claw is depicted physically, but its demolition is also a prelude to possible fundamental cultural changes: the city’s Cantonese language subsumed by Mandarin; a free press replaced with media restrictions; schools with an increasingly controlled curriculum.

The mountain city depicts The Chinese University of Hong Kong under siege. In mid-November 2019, all of Hong Kong’s universities experienced seriously violent clashes between police and protesters. The most serious were at CUHK and The Polytechnic University of Hong Kong, which both saw pitched battles with police firing thousands of rounds of tear gas, water cannon volleys and rubber bullets as protesters built barricades and returned fire with Molotov cocktails, stones and, at PolyU, arrows. Choi’s pall of smoke and tear gas above CUHK’s hillside, seen from Tolo Harbour, is a dramatically iconic and poignant depiction of that month’s messy confrontations.

The surf watcher personifies the challenge that Hong Kong protesters repeatedly threw at local governance, police authority and government sovereignty. Is the flaying octopus with its akimbo tentacles depicting Hong Kong people or the government during the protests? Whoever it is, a mutually destructive denouement is taking place before our eyes.

A borrowed place on borrowed time by Bouie Choi, Acrylic on wood, 122 x 274.5 cm, set of 6 wooden panels,
each of 61 x 91.5 cm, 2020.Courtesy the artist and Grotto Fine Art.

Choi’s work on paper is a counterpoint to the ‘black’ paintings. The wood-panelled paintings give a broader-brush view of the protest era, whereas the works on paper give a focused photographic intimacy and are stripped-back studies for the larger paintings. Single trees, often fallen, and groups of pot plants feature in the smaller work. Hong Kong’s trees and pot plants have a precarious existence: the wind, heavy rain, typhoons and the city’s concrete streets are tough on plants, but they are resourceful and hardy. Just like the people.

Embedded in all of Choi’s paintings are small painted details significant during the protests: a protester in an athlete-like throwing pose; stacks of ‘iron horse’ barricades; safety tape criss-crossing a painting; a figure lying on the ground; figures in windows; a fire; witches’ hats; roadside figures; two striding figures carrying a flag; silhouetted figures, actually shop mannequins, standing outside a possibly just trashed bank. There are hanging hillside trees; more pot plants; balconies; distant housing estates. The city has tunnels and hillsides and views onto rooftops and into windows and along streets and inside carparks and a glimpse of beloved Lion Rock. The details are psychotropic in their flashed-vision variety.

The exhibition’s final painting, Retournées, dating from 2017, is an almost traditional scroll painting employing Choi’s careful earlier painting style. Depicted are two boats, each holding a windswept tree, with the horizon splitting the painting into two. In its top half are wispy banyan tree roots attached to a wall; below is a calm sea. Anyone who has ever chosen to live in Hong Kong, or who arrived from mainland China during its many 20th-century upheavals, will see the city’s past hope and fragility. Hong Kong’s own upheavals and future uncertainty are reprised in this painting. This is Bouie Choi’s “beloved homeland”.

蔡鈺娟提醒我,我們第一次見面是在2008年,當時她和其他香港中文大學的美術系學生獲邀在前已婚警察宿舍使用其中的空房展示作品,當時該處尚未改裝成元創方。那段回憶令我非常感動,活化歷史悠久的元創方是其中一個我參與的中環歷史建築保育活動。在前已婚警察宿舍關閉後,當時的元創方單位非常破舊,數十年來沒有油漆或維修過,非常適合藝術家使用並加上聲音、燈光和影片元素,以及收集裝置所需物件。又或像蔡鈺娟一樣,將畫作掛在滿佈灰塵、牆紙破爛的牆壁上。在蔡鈺娟的最新作品中,香港舊日的殖民城市亦擔當了重要角色,而過去遺留下來的實體正受到攻擊。

有了早期在未裝修的元創方的展出經驗,到後來看到該址及其現代主義建築受到保護後,蔡鈺娟在當地慈善機構聖雅各福群會從事一項類似的古蹟保育項目社區工作長達六年,項目主題就是歷史悠久且罕見的殖民地時代唐樓建築--灣仔藍屋。蔡鈺娟與當地社區和商店(多數是汽車維修店)聯手合作,利用她的繪畫技巧、友善的性格和冷靜及富同理心的態度與當地的街坊和社區協會組織社區活動。

藍屋採用了經典的社區工作方式:蔡鈺娟和她的同事與當地社區一起促成節目和活動。那幾年的時間非常關鍵,令蔡鈺娟明白自己希望「貢獻社會」,而「我必須對自己好,才能回饋社會」。於是她深入了解香港歷史,認識其多元化的現貌和獨特的文化。聆聽居民的故事令她覺得收穫良多,並與當地社區建立深厚的關係。蔡鈺娟尤其喜歡由自己組織與年輕母親和她們的小孩參與的座談會,當中還包括其他當時參觀藍屋的人。

在從事全職工作前,她於2009年在香港中文大學畢業,其後於2012年在倫敦完成了碩士學位。她回憶道:「那段時間很迷茫。我參加了一些公開展出,非常浪費時間。令我明白到我想成為一名畫家。」

成為畫家後,她平均每五年都會在嘉圖畫廊展出一次。這些年來,她一直為其他作品作準備,藝術實踐不斷發展。過去她以細緻精美的動物和昆蟲繪畫作品著稱,通常都會以對稱的形式呈現夢幻的氛圍,形容自己她現時的作品是「多層的我,暴力又溫柔」。她特別採用了前中大老師陳育強的建議,即藝術應具有「物理性、文化意義和靈性,確保藝術與設計有所區別」。

她在嘉圖畫廊的最新展覽「如是_偏安一隅」標題取材於熱情洋溢的澳洲記者理查德.休斯1978年出版的書本。休斯為倫敦《泰晤士報》長期駐港記者,他的半身像安放於香港外國記者會,更被約翰·勒.卡雷於其偵探驚悚小說書籍《榮譽學生》中描繪成強悍的記者Craw。休斯寫道:「香港是一個借來的地方,靠借來的時間……[並且]是一個肆無忌憚、自由奔放的殖民地、赤裸裸的、無愧的、不自憐,對未來沒有感到遺憾或恐懼。」休斯描述了這座城市不屈不撓的精神(通稱獅子山精神),在萬事通行的資本主義經濟中具有精明的商業才能、勤奮和長時間工作的能力。

到2019年,許多香港人都錯過了香港不斷發展的自由經濟所提供的機會。成功與老人、殘疾人士、病人、新移民以及城中許多低技能和低薪工人擦身而過。政府的《2018年香港貧窮情況報告》指出,香港有20%人口(即150萬人)生活在貧窮線以下。在英國殖民統治下發展的香港精神,現也具有更高的政治和社會意識。人們自我改進的動力仍然很強,但現在更清楚理解了貧富之間的不平等和政府對商業壟斷的保護,以及對《基本法》無法保障真正的普選權和由選舉產生的行政領導政府感到憤怒。

蔡鈺娟為這次展覽精心策劃的軌跡令人出乎意料。離開藍屋的工作後,她把2019年下半年的時間全部投入繪畫。然而,引渡條例爭議不斷,在公眾要求政府處理經濟和政治問題的情況下,香港爆發了越趨激烈的反政府示威和暴力事件,還陷入了國際地緣政治和中美貿易越趨緊張的局勢之中。

這段時間史無前例且形勢非常緊張。香港的每個角落都受到長達數月的示威活動的緊張和戲劇性局面打擊,感覺好像日常生活受到擱置。蔡鈺娟說那數個月她「癱瘓了」,她對作品毫無頭緒,也沒有作畫。

除了在2019年11月準備《落紅》和2019年12月繪畫《山城》對事件的直接反應外,她直至2020年2月之後才開始重新繪畫。然後,她「試圖透過繪畫來修復自己」。其後新型肺炎開始傳播,隨著人們對病毒的意識增強和政府實施了社交隔離限制,香港每週的反政府示威活動也逐漸減弱。

蔡鈺娟在展覽中的畫作是那幾個月從那飽受折磨、痛苦難眠的深處中畫成。雖然受盡煎熬,但她的情緒亦更加高昂。她說:「在我開始碎碎唸之前,我想說,這是一個關於我最愛的家鄉的展覽。如果說偏安是『殘存』,那麼殘留下來的或許是最真實、最可貴的。」

《落紅》落在畫廊入口處,是展覽的基調。作品是一朵壓製的洋紫荊,與牆壁成一直角於兩塊透明阿加力膠片中展示,仍保持著鮮明的紫色。市花投射的陰影就像一幅悲傷失散焦的相片一樣,彷彿香港就是昔日自己的陰影。作品就這樣定下了展覽的基調,但當你走前幾步,整個展覽都被蔡鈺娟的畫所包圍時,展覽的氛圍更好。展覽展出了塗上薄層塑膠彩的水彩紙本作品,與展覽中蔡鈺娟的「黑色」主要作品形成鮮明的對比:予人不祥感覺的黑和靛藍色波浪繪於金色的清漆木板上。在油漆斑點中,山脈和山谷之間出現了反烏托邦漩渦。香港被海嘯襲擊,吞沒了建築物、物件、生命、情感和理智。

《如是偏安一隅》是蔡鈺娟有史以來最大的一幅畫作,亦是描繪城市風景的六連作。香港政府總部勉強完整無缺,但整座城市的其他部分卻受到破壞的威脅。城市及其獨特的街道氣氛長期受到重建的威脅,例如街市、低層的唐樓和霓虹燈等。香港人已經習慣了城市成為地產商的市場,他們的生活受噪音、灰塵、不便和收地而破壞。蔡鈺娟實際描繪了她的想法,但城市的破壞也可能是根本文化變化的前奏:廣東話逐漸被普通話取代、媒體限制新聞自由、學校課程越來越受控制。

《山城》描繪了香港中文大學被圍剿的情景。在2019年11月中旬,香港所有大學都經歷了警察與抗爭者間的嚴重暴力衝突,最嚴重的是香港中文大學和香港理工大學,兩間大學都與警察展開了激烈的戰鬥,發射了數千發催淚彈、水砲和橡膠子彈,抗爭者建起了路障,並以汽油彈和石頭回擊,理大更使用了弓箭。蔡鈺娟筆下吐露港所見在中大山坡上冒出的濃煙和催淚煙,是對該月凌亂交鋒的標誌性和深刻的描繪。

《無風雨,也無情》體現了香港示威者一再向地方管治、警察當局和政府主權施加的挑戰。觸鬚剝皮的八爪魚,是描繪的在抗議期間的香港人還是政府?是誰也好,都在我們眼前上演了互相殘殺的結局。

蔡鈺娟的紙本作品與「黑色」畫作相對。鑲有木板的繪畫為抗爭時代提供了更廣闊的視野;而紙本作品則賦予了集中的攝影親密感,並且是對大型畫作的精簡研究;較小的作品則經常以倒下的樹木和盆栽植物為主題。香港的樹木和盆栽植物瀕危:風、大雨、颱風和城內的水泥街道都對植物不利,但它們足智多謀,就像香港人一樣。

蔡鈺娟所有繪畫中都包含了一些微小但在抗爭中很重要的彩繪細節:抗爭者擺出運動員一樣的投擲姿勢、「鐵馬」路障、交叉在畫作前的安全膠帶、躺在地上的人、窗戶上的人、火、女巫帽子、路邊的人、兩名旗手、在一個可能已受破壞的銀行外的服裝模特兒剪影。除此之外,還有山坡上的樹木、盆栽植物、露台和遙遠的屋邨。這座城市有隧道、山坡,可以看到屋頂、窗戶、街上和停車場內的景色,還有備受愛戴的獅子山。這些細節在其閃爍的視覺效果中極具精神色彩。

展覽的最後一幅畫作為2017年的《歸去來》,作品為幾乎傳統的捲軸畫,採用了蔡鈺娟早期謹慎的繪畫風格。畫中描繪了兩艘船,每艘船上都有一棵被風吹拂的樹,地平線將畫作一分為二。上半部分為依附在牆上細膩的榕樹根;下面則為平靜的海面。任何選擇居港或在20世紀動盪期間從中國大陸來港的人,都會看到這座城市過去的希望和脆弱。這幅畫再現了香港自身的動盪和對未來的未知,這就是蔡鈺娟「最愛的家鄉」。

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