Fill In / 填充 #3: reimagining Hong Kong design history

Hello again, and welcome to Fill In / 填充 #3. Much has happened since the last newsletter in our two localities (HK and UK) as well as on a global cultural scale. Since our last notice, we have had the year anniversary of the Anti-Extradition bill, the global rise of anti-racism after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minnesota Police, returns to lockdowns and further arrests. 

It’s difficult not to cross-compare these experiences of racism and social injustice, but each context has its own histories of division. Hong Kong’s own relationship with Black and Brown folks is filled with its own racialised tensions, perhaps mostly clearly shown in recent years in the city’s relationship with migrant domestic workers. It’s with this current context that we should take extra care in what we do. However, there are many ways in which we can come together in solidarity to share strategies and crossovers, and many are doing so already with great criticality and dynamism.

So where do we, as design practitioners and Hong Kong Design History Network, fit into this? It’s important to us that we share that this has been on our minds as we confront our own assumptions of culture and practice amidst the current climate. Our intention with this network has always been to complicate and diversify ideas of Hong Kong history and design history overall by deconstructing colonial or postcolonial narratives of this city, and we believe that design history can push beyond traditional means of writing history. But we realise in this time that this needs to be pushed further, in ourselves and in our various disciplines: What is design? Who gets to design? Who gets to write about design? These are questions we have always asked ourselves, but we have much more to say in our words and actions in the near future. While we know this cannot be achieved in one newsletter, we thought we would share some specific articles related to decolonising and deconstructing design in Hong Kong, and hope this can spark more thoughts and discussion. This network is only at the beginning but we still strive to do better in our practice, and endeavour to engage in the discourse of race and power in design history.

_Notice_ _啟事_

We’ve been noticing the continued driving force for social justice in Hong Kong. Still, the fight has become increasingly difficult to practice today, especially with the implementation of NSL. However, we’re already seeing a shift in how people express themselves as more statements become illegal. The world has noticed the creative use of objects and images throughout this time in Hong Kong, and recognise the way this visual and material language, also finds ways to subvert alongside spoken and written Hong Kong Cantonese. Replacing the mantras of the last year are the absence of words, with blank Post-its, blank paper held above heads and silence, and after the constant production of images over the past year, it’s the glaring space where something new can be expressed. This follows suit from experimental public art movements, a part of Hong Kong’s history for many decades. Over the last two months, Wild Art Festival’s annual public call was around this theme ‘Art Guerilla Anytime’, inviting artists ‘to think about regaining sovereignty in space with art.’ Artists pasted prints on public walls, shone rainbow lights on public buildings, released drawings into the wind, glued eyes on public toilets, continuing these ideas about traces and symbols, and what is left unsaid in everyday life.

June was also Pride month, and while Hong Kong remains without marriage equality, queer rights and histories have become more visible with further grassroots gathering, making and distribution. Pink Alliance, one of Hong Kong’s LGBT+ non-profit organisations founded in 1999, recently put together bibliographies and information sheets on HK LGBT culture.They have also updated a huge reading list of Hong Kong LGBT Works. Activism in the 1980s and 90s, in the form of nightclubs, papers, organising and social groups, were crucial in the fight against discrimination; This work continues today with a new generation of artists, activists and collectives, including Queer Reads LibraryThe Gamut Project and others, with many advocating for Trans and non-binary inclusiveness. QRL talked about their work sharing queer zines in Hong Kong and their interview with activist Connie Chan about her LGBT zine collection in an article on AIGA last year.

Just in the last week, a small Hong Kong start-up Prenetics/Circle DNA has brought about the return of the beloved Premier League providing swab tests for all twenty clubs by collaborating with British laboratories. As the UK becomes an even messier playing field with sporadic lockdowns and arbitrary do’s and don’ts, and likewise Hong Kong sees an unprecedented spike, joy and care has become reliant on the ethics of small groups and their efforts to reach out and be part of a global network of exchange. This has also been happening on the ground in Hong Kong, with makeshift dining areas in car parks and bus stations as the (now retracted) dine-in ban spotlighted the hostile environment in Hong Kong public space for the lowest-paid workers. There’s a further realisation that Michael Wolf’s profiles of stray chairs and appropriated planters as urban furniture are not simply a quirk of the culture, but intertwined with an environment that is aching for some sense of comfort. 

_Read_ _ 閱覽 _

Emotion and empathy has increasingly been embraced as a way to address these times of collective grief. Many curators have been challenging norms in curation that centre the distant, art historical judgement of the work and ideas of greatness, but it seems even more urgent in the current landscape. In the process of curating the Hon Chi-fun exhibition at Asia Society last year, Kaitlin Chan asks ‘while we were celebrating Hon as an artist, how might we ground his practice in the stakes of his lived reality? How could I prevent myself from freezing his life in amber, hiding behind art-historical jargon that reified him as a “subject” and myself as an “academic”?’ As we lean into this global change, awareness of our position and power as storytellers and history writers means caring for those subjectivities in emotion – what (and who) have we missed by only following the norms of our practices?

In this period of Covid, part of this change is refusal as a way of holding ourselves and institutions accountable. Artist JJ Chan recently published an essay in Asia Art Pacific, ‘Year of the Rat’, reflecting on their open letter withdrawing from an exhibition programme and at CFCCA in Manchester. The essay proposes ‘we have to ask ourselves, what’s worth preserving? […] As we start to rebuild our normalities, we need to ask ourselves what our past normalities had neglected, what they had marginalized, and what we might bring with us into the newly emerging.’ In reimagining the future, how can we further reimagine ourselves and where we can best make a difference?

Indeed, designers and makers in Hong Kong have had a resurgence in anonymity yet visibility, and like curating, we hope that this has shifted perceptions of design as a discipline and practice in the process. A piece published in 蹲點 Squatting and translated to English on Lausan documents a reemergence of unions in the design community in a bid to address labour rights in the industry. This is not totally unique in Hong Kong, as designers in the global design industry have become further united over anti-racism in education and the workplace. While activist Baby Deer writes of the complaints of ‘no status’ of designers in Hong Kong, it’s maybe a further point that the design activity of the movement might have helped to shift the competitive culture of design in the first place, as well addressing a lack of widespread understanding of what design can do. We are seeing a new way of conducting work and life in Hong Kong and the world in the face of capitalistic systems, one which we hope fosters a collective responsibility and solidarity across borders.

_Join_ _ 連結 _

In spite of these difficulties, more and more initiatives have been pushing to explore these existential questions about who and what design is for. Graphic design studio Trilingua, our collaborator for the LDB project, will be curating deTour this year at PMQ and recently announced the open call with the theme of ‘Matter of Life’. They propose that ‘as we find ourselves living in an era of profound challenges, it is time for us to rethink the matter of Life, to reimagine the fundamentals of design as well as its function and beauty, and to contemplate the role of design in the midst of ongoing challenges.’ As the title ‘Matter of Life’ suggests, there is no turning back, but it can nevertheless be a joyous moment to look into the make up, the ‘matter’, of real life in Hong Kong, precisely because it matters. 

Within research too, it is absence that can inform realities, violences, and experiences of life in Hong Kong. HKDHNet member Juliana Kei spoke about her research on San Yik camp in Tuen Mun, a ‘closed camp’ for Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s – 90s for the Society of Architecture GB symposium series Arch/itecture Arch/ves last week. Her paper is titled Almost No Archive, attesting to  a lot of the experiences of writing design histories in Hong Kong and many other ex-colonial territories asking ‘how can we use this absence to lend voices to those who have lost their agency, who have been considered as The Other in society?’ We often work with receipts, scraps, inklings and accidents, but in doing so we hope to find different avenues to monolithic ideas of Hong Kong’s history and makeup. Recordings are in the process of being shared, but SAHGB have recently started the Arch/tectures Arch/ves hub for further reading, and you can sign up for the following events here.

Design history and research as a wider discipline is also having its own wake up call, driven especially by collectives and individual academics who have been working on these topics for some time. Quickly but expertly put together by Dr. Ansari Ahmed in the days following BLM under lockdown, Ahmed has been running a brilliant syllabus focusing on the work of non-Anglo European non-white scholars and activists in relation to design history and theory. The first session surpassed 100 people joining the Zoom call and has regularly involved people from around the world tuning in. Each session has been recorded and added to the website, plus a full reading list made available for free

_HKDHNet_ _ 我們 _

For the last month we have taken a little break as our members have moved around and tried to rejuvenate for the next phase. We’ve also spent some time self-reflecting, figuring out what to do to push and safeguard ourselves while remaining genuine in our efforts. A few weeks ago, Sunnie, Juliana and Vivien joined an In Conversation with our friend and colleague Enya Moore from University of Technology Sydney. We found it to be a heartening way to look back and look forward – a transcript is available on our blog, and video highlights will follow shortly. We want you to know that we haven’t given up, and will continue to work with integrity and criticality. While many claim it’s the ‘end of Hong Kong’, the people, the city, the memories are still here – our work is not over yet. 

You will also notice that unfortunately we’re finding it difficult to maintain simultaneous bilingual content across our platforms, due to the limitations of time and manpower. Many of you know that we run all our projects in addition to full-time work and study, and we’re in the process of figuring out how to do this sustainably. With that said, we have been enjoying translating in our own unique voice and believe it to be important for access, so we will try to release both English and Chinese translations of the newsletter on our blog. It will be delayed from the email version, but we hope it can still be useful as an archive of blogposts.
One of the things we have been thinking of is about actively disrupting who designed (in) Hong Kong. As an ex-colony, it’s easy to assume that the city has been designed, created and marketed by mostly white British colonial administrators. Over time historians have debunked this dominance, but design history in Hong Kong remains focused on a few individuals, largely white and Han Chinese ethnicity, and mostly from elite classes. Inherent in the colonial, and then global capitalist condition are the crossovers of race and class, with trade, migration and travel, bringing people from all over the world to Hong Kong. But nevertheless many working-class, women, queer, ‘foreign’ (non-white, non-Chinese or otherwise) people are made invisible in the story. We hope we can be part of the shift to reframe visual and material culture towards a broader, holistic understanding of global design history and Hong Kong’s place in that, and working towards some quick research blogposts in the near future. If you have some research you want to share, we’d love to hear from you! As always you can get in touch at or our social media accounts @hkdhnet.