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Melancholy and Wishfulness in Historical Records: Lee Kai-chung’s solo exhibition I Could Not Recall

By: Vivian Ting

Translated by: Caddie Lau

‘Beauty does not last long. Before you realise, it is gone.’ (Note 1)

Hong Kong is a city of amnesia. People would let historical monuments be pushed away by urban development because what they care most about is making a living, resulting in the destruction of relationships and communities built over time. Due to the lack of an archives law, the Hong Kong government has destroyed documents that would have been more than 130,000 metres long if they were lined up. Departments responsible for preserving memories, like the Government Records Service, always show a reluctant attitude towards any requests for archival records because of the official order, trying to draw a veil over their work. If all documents regarding Hong Kong vanish bit by bit, will we be able to recognise ourselves and remember what made Hong Kong the way it is today? What historic events can the archival records tell us about?

The word ‘archive’ connotes all kinds of ‘historic evidence’, including commercial contracts, legal papers, maps, building plans, oral historical records, news videos, three-dimensional architectural models and many more. In archival studies, ‘data’ of various materials and different kinds are sorted, organised and catagorised to preserve the memories frozen in time. The collection, cataloguing and documentation of data must comply with the regulations on work of the institutions they belong to and follow the logic of their academic fields. The attempt to get hold of the past in a disorderly myriad of things could show us the direction that we seem to understand and feel comfortable to move in.

However, a number of archivists point out that during the process of collecting documents, organising and cataloguing information and preserving records, it is not possible for the participants to take an objective stand, and therefore the records that are kept are definitely not conclusive ‘historical facts’ or simply ‘facts’. In recent years, there has been increasing concern about how the general public use the records in archival studies and about how archives have evolved into places dedicated to the production of knowledge and meanings. At the end of the day, if we just store materials and leave them in archives, what we keep is nothing more than meaningless disjointed information and all we have are merely superficially unrelated memories that we cannot probe into.

Lee Kai-chung thrust his head into piles of documents and studied them in an attempt to connect people and stories of different eras and to find out what the past means to us in the present. Sharing a similar aspiration as the historians’, the artist aims to understand the linkage between the past and the present through his study and reshape the narrative around a certain historical event. Nonetheless, he does not follow the practice of historians, who try to get close to the ‘historical truth’ to comprehend the context of things that have changed and of those that have remained the same. The artist is in pursuit of the feeble glimmer of time — the sounds of life, hidden in the gap of time, flowing around the edge between memory and oblivion, unclear and puzzling, and yet implicitly expressing emotions and desires. After all has been said and done, he tries to capture fragments of the old times, recounting in his own artistic language the stories of ordinary people who struggled to survive through times of distress. His solo exhibition I Could Not Recall How I Got Here recollects the vicissitudes of life in wartime Hong Kong by comparing and contrasting the different fates of the Japanese War Memorial and the bronze statues of Queen Victoria in the 1940s, sharing his reflections on how to deal with the times and the collapse and malfunctioning of the system.

‘Eventually we learn to forget. Being evil doesn’t need a reason.’

When the audience set foot in the gallery, what they see is a projector creaking, and slides of grunge and damaged images pop up: A house stands at the peak. The room is crowded with beautifully dressed people, who are joking with each other. Bricks and tiles crumble to the ground, sending a plume of smoke and ash into the air. On the right side of the projection, the four black-and-white photographs capture the key moments of the video — under a grey sky a crowd is watching the tower fall...... The white space left behind creates nothing but emptiness.

The artwork The Retrieval, Restoration and Predicament (Japanese War Memorial) presents a history of post-war Hong Kong — a painful memory of blood and sweat. In 1941, when the Japanese troops occupied Hong Kong, they intended to erect a tall tower representing the fallen soldiers. With its prominent location at the hilltop, the Hong Kong people would succumb to their ferocity and would be unable to lift up their heads again. To match the mightiness of the Japanese, the tower made of granite was 80 metres tall and weighed 900 tonnes according to the design plan. The Japanese army threatened the local people into supporting the building financially and used forced labour to transport and dig out stones in order to expedite the grand project. Apart from commemorating the loyal soldiers who died for the country, the tower was a manifestation of imperial glory built up by killing and forced labour. In February 1947, the Japanese War Memorial fell as a result of a British decision. This means that the British Administration destroyed the invader’s authority and wiped out the trauma of domination and oppression. Can Hong Kong step out from the shadows of the war by erasing its memory? Who can decide what to remember and what to forget?

The account of the above event is recorded on a roll of film known to very few and kept in an archival repository, but the video can no longer be played somehow. Presenting to the audience the past event with stop-motion photography, Lee seems to want to preserve this Hong Kong memory. The video clip shown in his work, however, is blurry and has coarse grain, as if it were trapped in the gap between memory and oblivion, as causal relationships of the past have always been confusing and fragmentary. The artist is not so much calling up historical memories as showing the audience the quiescence resulting when a piece of the past is lost. People who have experienced the past are destined to make way for those who do not understand history, but should we just let everything vanish from our lives?

‘He is my every-present. But what is my past?’

The demolition of the Japanese War Memorial happened to take place when the bronze statues of Queen Victoria returned to Hong Kong. The former praised and glorified death while the latter sang praises to the colonial ruler. Although the two things seem to have no connection with each other, Lee reveals that they are both — in essence monuments, based on their intertwined fates. Was the glory of the Queen not built on killing, forced labour, state-tolerated violence and rapaciousness? Were the British people not thinking about the ‘relative merits of their civilisation’ when they forced their beliefs, language, lifestyle and cultural values on Hong Kong?

In the gallery, the artist did not reproduce a familiar sculpture in classical European style, instead he cast nine pieces of fragments of the bronze statues. The replica of the bronze lion appears to be so tiny and tame without the elaborate decorations. The crown, once above all others, is now placed below eye level and has lost its royal solemnity. As the Queen is not in sight, there is no way to see the charm of such a political leader with what is left of the statue — a bronze arm that has been badly scratched. Apparently, Lee has no intention of restoring the authority of the Queen’s statue when it was standing in the City of Victoria. Despite the many years that have passed, the artist cares more about the damages and repairs the statue has gone through so as to examine the rise and fall of colonial power. The first colonial ruler left Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation and another colonial ruler took over. In response to the copper collection campaign in Japan, the bronze statues of the Queen were seized, waiting to be recast for military use. After the Japanese surrender, the allied army found the fragmentary pieces of the statues in an arsenal known to very few people and shipped them back to Hong Kong.

After having studied the statues’ list of repairs and maintenance work, Lee combined 3D sculpting and the traditional craft of bronze casting to repair the missing parts of the statues, while also attempting to preserve the story of the recovery of the statues after the war. Once a colonial ruler, Queen Victoria has always occupied a spot in Hong Kong’s public spaces. What influence did the Queen, who had never set foot on this soil, have on us? How much do we know about the colonial government in terms of exercising its power and distributing resources? The artist’s restoration project does not focus on rectifying the fragmentary statues to their original appearance but on presenting how much history fails to mention — the absence of certain archival records, our limited knowledge of the colonial rule in the past, the reshaping of local history and identity by the current government, and the obliteration of historical stories that are already few and far between. And so, looking back today, how should Hong Kong tell its own stories while finding a balance between the past and the future, between development and conservation, and between global and local dimensions?

‘If we stay too long with corpses and deadly spirits, we will gradually lose the ability to tell stories. Now that the reading fills up our imaginations, and perhaps solace to our future.’

Who do Hong Kong archival records belong to? They certainly do not belong solely to experts, academics or researchers, but to anyone who wants to learn about Hong Kong. Some of these people were born and bred here, some are enthusiastic about the past and the present of this former British colony, and others probe into the intricate history out of astonishment at this city’s strong vitality. Lee’s creation reclaims control over the interpretation of archival documents with his own artistic language, capturing a wider imagination of documents and the history of Hong Kong. He says,

‘The “people” from history have disappeared, but the traces they have left behind on the “things” can feed the creative process, because they are the best evidence we have for the existence, speech, and behaviour of the “people”.’

Perhaps stories of ordinary people do not matter enough to be written down in history, but the artist believes that everyone’s experience can reflect different aspects of the times and debunks the myths that we have about the past, shaping the established narratives of history. By sorting out documents like historical photos, military papers and posters, he made a three-channel video to look back on how people overcame turmoil and how they understood the times they lived in, through the eyes of a military general from the British garrison in Hong Kong, a Japanese soldier’s wife and a tomb keeper of the Japanese War Memorial (Fig. 3). His artwork, developed on the basis of negligible personal feelings and expanding to collective emotions of society, walks the fine line between fiction and reality as it provides alternative ‘historical text’ to discuss the dark age of Hong Kong, which is gradually disappearing into oblivion yet we dare not forget.

The artwork starts with a private letter written by a British army officer. The letter tells of how the secret information of the loss of the Queen’s statues in Japan did not match the local news report. The general had urged the military to open an investigation into the missing statues again and again, but yielded no results and had to let the truth descend into nothing. Indeed, only very few people can call the shots when facing the currents of time. A Japanese soldier’s wife who came to Hong Kong to visit her husband, just had to watch apathetically as her people were gripped by the fever of militarism while surmising the visible and yet unattainable distance to her husband. Left all by herself, she gradually learned to enjoy the cruelty of her surroundings. She would rather be ‘engulfed by the charcoal darkness, and it brought along a sense of intimacy with the fear.’ The keeper of the Japanese War Memorial, who was also living in the darkness, tried to convince himself that time is something that needs to be rapidly depleted. There is nothing wrong with being caught by the Japanese army and forced to perform hard labour; his labour served as proof of his usefulness. Nevertheless, he had no clue about what was worth safeguarding in the tower and could not understand the point of this violence and destruction.

In the past when we read about Hong Kong under Japanese occupation, almost only generalised descriptions like ‘devastation’ and ‘people were living in misery’ were used in the books to describe this dark gloomy period lasting three years and eight months. We still remember Japanese troops slaughtering thousands of civilians, people eating corpses and practising cannibalism due to severe famine. Forests were also cut down and copperware at home was seized as a result of the lack of supplies...... And yet the artist chose to depict thoroughly unimportant people who were unable to defy time, contemplating how a single person could find a place in this abnormal world and live a ‘normal’ life despite the collapse of the system. The protagonists in their stories want to seek the truth, or yearn for a loving intimate relationship, or merely get hold of evidence to prove their usefulness. These humble wishes are just normal desires that make humans human, but in tough times they seem impossible and unrealistic. The three stories show the considerable impact society has on an individual’s experience, and it is hard to define what each individual experiences — loss of balance, helplessness, oppression, coldness, confusion and unease — all these cannot be explained by rationality and yet express the individual’s and even community’s emotions of life.

After all, works of art are different from historical accounts. Lee Kai-chung’s work can be taken as a modern-day fable, apart from being seen as an alternative kind of document. Scenes of a stopped clock, of the vast and boundless ocean and of overlapping shadows of flowers flash by in the video and imply that the perception of time varies wildly between individuals. During the passage of time, how are we supposed to make sense of our times?

The war made the Japanese soldier’s wife adapt to difficulties and disrupted the tender moments she had with her husband. She asked a mirror maker to engrave her husband‘s likeness on a mirror so that she could always see his face. However, the soldier had become estranged from her, and she could only wipe her mirror again and again, trying desperately to find the warmth that she used to feel when they were physically close to each other. As the reflection in the mirror replaced reality, what she saw was just an illusion. She no longer had the strength to return to reality and recognise the real situation. It seems that she had walked to the end of her small world even before it began. Just as she said, ‘I thought that flowers wilt slowly. And now I realise, they can die in an instant.’

The intriguing thing is that the tomb keeper read out aloud the newspapers that were still in print to pass his time, coldly watching the violent conflicts between countries. He had been confronted with dead people, seen the brutality and violence happening before him, and suddenly figured out that ‘when a system collapses, there will not be any difference between the good and the bad.’ Once the distinction between right and wrong is eliminated, the immanent order of a civilisation will become meaningless. Perhaps what he could not stand was neither the war nor the loneliness, but the long bleak life in which nothing was worth fighting for.

From the helplessness of the British military officer to the numbness of the tomb keeper and the desolation of the Japanese soldier’s wife, Lee’s video work collects fragments of autocratic violence during the Japanese occupation and of the perplexity of displaced people from his personal disjointed perspective. The monologues of the characters appear to be a chaotic mess, but they reflect the tedious monotone of the historical narratives on Hong Kong under Japanese rule with simple individual voices that penetrate grand narratives of national interests or the global politics. With the use of artistic imagination, the video recollects memories from the past with today’s experiences. So long as the story plots and recurrent scenes can be regarded as allegorical fables, the audience are free to assign contemporary meanings to the work based on how they understand the times and how they use archival materials. Perhaps this is the comfort the artist gives us. Time will pass, whether it is good or bad, but can we stand up for the values we believe in and respond to the challenges of our times? Although the war has been over for a long time, the tangle it created — how to deal with authoritarian oppression and how to comprehend the despair and resistance triggered by violence — is yet to be untied.

‘It just meant to justify one’s existential self.’

To meet the challenges of postmodernism, archival studies gradually shifted from work focusing on searching information to contemplating how to turn archives into sites for producing knowledge and meaning. What is the future for archival studies? Canadian archivist and scholar Terry Cook states:

"Postmodernism requires a new openness, a new visibility, a willingness to question and be questioned, a commitment to self-reflection and accountability. Postmodernism requires archivists to accept their own historicity, to recognise their own role in the process of creating archives, and to reveal their own biases. Postmodernism sees value in stories more than structures, the margins as much as the centres, the diverse and ambiguous as much as the certain and universal." (Note 2)

The academic profession of archivists has emphasised the systematic collection and organisation of knowledge. In the postmodern era, special attention has been given to reflecting on the logic of the system, different narratives formed based on the data, and even dialogues with communities from different times.

Nevertheless, archival studies belong to communities. The ‘imagination’ that comes with archival records is not just about whether the building of archives involves different participants. Whether the building process can shed light on our thoughts depends more on how the contents of archival records assist readers in discovering the sense and sensibility of civilisations, and on the new interpretations added over time. Lee Kai-chung’s approach of using archival records does not only record stories of Japanese occupation, but also makes known his wishes for the future: searching for diverse voices of historical documents and stretching the imagination of Hong Kong and ourselves in the past. We look for information from the past, most likely because we want to find ourselves and recognition of what we have done. Thrown into a reign of terror, how should Hong Kong people recollect the past? How do we interpret our past to seek motivation to change the present?

Note 1: In this exhibition, Lee Kai-chung presented to the audience Hong Kong’s life under Japanese occupation from the perspectives of different people with the projection of a three-channel video, which featured personal experiences of ordinary people and provide an insight into his views on the past, the way of reading history, and the interactions between archival records and wider society. Borrowing from the narration of the how artist created his artwork, as rendered in the subtitles, this article aims to further interpret the imagination inspired by his work while at the same time discussing it and dealing briefly with topics such as the application of history and archives.

Note 2: Terry Cook and Joan M. Schwartz, “Archives, Records, and Power: From (Postmodern) Theory to (Archival) Performance,” Archival Science 2 (2002): 182.

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