Fill In / 填充 #4: Made in Hong Kong

Welcome to Fill In / 填充 #4. Thanks again for the feedback from the previous newsletter, and as we are getting back on track into the autumn, we’re grateful to have kept your attention through the summer!

This time we want to explore the idea of ‘Made in Hong Kong’; the term has arisen again following the implementation of the NSL and the US declaration that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China in late May, US Customs and Border Protection announced in early August that all exports from Hong Kong must be labelled ‘Made in China’ as opposed to ‘Made in Hong Kong’. The move therefore ended HK’s special trading status with its second largest trading partner. But while this political tactic puts weight on the determination of what Hong Kong is in terms of global relations, less explored in this phrase is the ‘made’ part. 

Although its history as a trading hub has always been the emphasis, things have always been made in Hong Kong – not only has there been a long history of indigenous craft and everyday domestic objects, manufacturing of rattanware, rope, sugar refining and shipbuilding were in place in the earliest colonial years, followed swiftly by cement, cotton spinning, weaving and dying at the turn of the 20th century. But the term ‘Made in Hong Kong’ is really rooted in the post-war period alongside the manufacturing boom in the 1950s. As a result, labels on garments, plastic products, packaging, sporting ‘Made in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong’ made the distinction explicit – as a British colony, Hong Kong could remain in the global market in spite of the Korean War and the US and UN trade embargo on China, and ultimately thrived economically under all these circumstances. This sent the phrase all over the world as a mark of quality and consistency. 

In the current context, ‘Made in Hong Kong’ has gained a different meaning. With the city’s manufacturing days largely left behind since the 1980s, ‘making’ in Hong Kong has returned to small-scale production, and collective skill-sharing and learning. Some of this making has never left, found in the hidden workshops and street-side shop stalls making all sorts of objects from start to finish, or totally overlooked businesses that have been run by generations. In recent years some of these have been spotlighted as hidden treasures to be protected, and legacies to be continued. But as opposed to the protection of intangible heritage, you could say ‘Made in Hong Kong’ offers something else; maybe it’s more to do with agency in knowing how to design and make, and being able to define our own identities, than preserving ‘ultimate’ objects and practices.

Sandy Choi, for the HK/SZ Exhibition at Hong Kong Design Centre, 2011

_Notice_ _啟事_
In thinking about ‘Made in Hong Kong’ in this way, we revisit one of Hong Kong’s seminal design exhibitions, ‘Made in Hong Kong: A History of Export Design 1900 – 1960’, which was opened at the Hong Kong Museum of History in 1988. It’s tricky to get our hands on the catalogue, but curator of the exhibition Matthew Turner looks back on it in a paper on M+ Matters – although the exhibition reflected a point in time where the public were re-engaging with a recent design identity, he admitted that the exhibition concluded with ‘the decline of local originality and the rise of imitation as a consequence of American influence….By contrast, local designers’ success in achieving convergence with Western design was portrayed as mimicry. Not only was our curatorial interpretation free from political deference, it was also free from deference to design.’ From his retrospective view, something being made and designed were not (and arguably continue not to be) considered together in Hong Kong. He also says that this distance was exacerbated by the term ‘Asian design’ as a way of design promotion, Asian design as ‘brand’ rather than as a process.

Designers themselves too have something to say concerning ‘Made in Hong Kong’ as a brand. Sandy Choi recollected recently on his poster for the 2011 HK/SZ Exhibition by the HK  Design Centre in a recent post ‘Our idea was based on the competition between these two cities. Today, not only are we losing our brand label: “Made in Hong Kong”, more importantly we are also losing our identity and our core values. “Is Hong Kong dead?” A friend in England recently asked. To that, I really do not have an answer.’ A lot of annialistic statements like this have been made in the media in the wake of NSL (‘Hong Kong is dead; death of Hong Kong; end of Hong Kong as we know it’) , alongside more hopeful ones. But while the ‘brand’ of ‘Made in Hong Kong’ is lost, the making still remains…and is perhaps more important than ever. Rather than ‘Made in Hong Kong’, what does it mean to be ‘Making (in) Hong Kong’ as an act detached from national/international design promotion?

Across the ocean, an exhibition by Petrina Ng, artist resident at the Textiles Museum of Canada, reflects on how a bootlegged t-shirt with an illustration by cartoonist Larry Feign caused a ripple effect for her as a Canadian Hongkonger. For Distant Water will not quench a nearby fire, Ng invited other artists to respond with their own appropriations of the image, as an attempt to take back agency of narratives of sovereignty and cultural identity.

Agency in the form of dystopian imagination and speculation of the future may also offer a scifi version of what it means to make in Hong Kong. In a recent piece for e-flux, Junyuan Feng and Alvin Li look back to the future at several Asian cities, including an underwater Hong Kong in 2098. The piece also actually references a 1998 exhibition on the myth of Lo Ting, half-man, half-fish ancestor of Hongkongers, at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, ‘Even before the Great Flood, this once-half-forgotten figure had become the symbol of the city’s solidarity.’ There’s something magical about thinking about the future in this way, reimagining what it means to be, know and remember Hong Kong in light of the unknown.

To imagine sometimes you need an interruption. HKU Architecture’s discussion series has gone online – this time on methods of engagement, and inviting practitioners from outside architecture in. They ask ‘Are there ways in which interdisciplinary approaches can help address chronic imbalances and deficiencies in the ways architecture has been historically conceived, produced, and studied?’ In October they will have artist and researcher Wen Yau on ‘Performing the Publicness: From Public Space to Public Sphere’, all the Zoom links for the events can be found here

In its most mundane sense, ‘Made in Hong Kong’ is most commonly found in clothing from the 1950s – 1970s, gracing garment labels in the clothing of Laura Ashley, Tommy Hilfiger, Marks and Spencers among others (a selection of labels can be currently found in the CHAT permanent exhibit). After visiting the Tenement Museum in New York a few years ago, I was struck to find out the connection between Hong Kong’s garment industry and the garment factories in the East Village. Family connections between the two cities helped to make sure production could meet the demands in the US export market in the 1970s, and perhaps they even kept the ‘Made in Hong Kong’ garment labels. It makes it all the more poignant for the Tenement Museum to host the book launch of Chinatown Pretty 華埠靚靚, looking at the ‘signature style worn by pòh pohs (grandmas) and gùng gungs (grandpas) everywhere—but it’s also a life philosophy, mixing resourcefulness, creativity, and a knack for finding joy even in difficult circumstances.’ A recording of their online book launch and presentation is on Youtube.

Back in Hong Kong, CHAT has released several Curator Tours of their current and past exhibitions, including Day Measures: Stories from Former Workers 一日之計:工友回憶錄 presenting their recent oral history project with past textiles and garment workers. Their experiences are structured in the exhibition with the ways this labour was quantified – numbers of hours, weights of products, their salaries. But layered with their oral history records and personal objects, like notebooks and pattern drafts, the exhibition fills out the narrative beyond final products, deadlines and costs of their labour, allowing for the intimacies of making, relationships and processes to come to the fore. CHAT will be continuing this through their Facebook and Instagram Live series ‘Makers of Hong Kong’, looking out for them over the next few weeks. Alongside this, the digital catalogue by CHAT of the Sudo Reiko: Making Nuno Textiles exhibition, the first solo exhibition of Reiko’s work in Hong Kong, expands on the exhibition emphasis on the ordinary processes behind the spectacular pieces, and can also be found online.

As social breakdowns continue under the Covid-19, food has been central to both community and individual survival and resistance (and hence why the Eat section is so full this time!). With the restaurant industry suffering severely from world-wide lockdowns, choosing to eat and shop at small local businesses are indeed meaningful. At the same time, the UK’s contentious Eat Out to Help Out campaign in August has now allowed authorities to pin the blame back on consumers and business owners. It’s clear food, and how we buy, seek, share and make it, has wider more urgent implications. But cooking at home too has had to become more central to our lives more than ever, finding ways to provide comfort and care as well as basic sustenance. Earlier this month, Clarence Kwan, aka @godofcookery shared a free digital zine Chinese protest recipes as a way to donate to BLM, raise awareness of food racism and ultimately, resist. Departing from commercialised ideas of the recipe, these recipes instead are written ‘as short descriptions, inspired by family tradition and oral history’, contrasting classic dishes with straight-forward, punchy recipe titles directly reflecting Kwan’s anti-racist agenda. Kwan has just released Chinese protest recipes for pre-order as a limited edition printed zine on Instagram, and you can read an interview and download the pdf on 032.

Likewise, the third issue of Fatboy Zine centres on Hong Kong. Both a diary and a cookbook, the issue focuses ‘on communal dishes against the backdrop of the current fight for democracy.’ One particularly intimate feature is by photographer Kenneth Lam, who visited his grandmother’s village over this past summer to record his relationship with her and their everyday routines, culminating in a series of surreal still lifes and gentle portraits. Lam shares excerpts on his Instagram, and Fatboy Zine can be bought through Antenna Books or at your local independent bookstore.

Personal food histories cross over with wider ones. An article by The Picky Glutton in Vittles newsletter remarks on the rice cooker and their ubiquity in East Asia in comparison to the Western world, and the prejudice by ‘foodies’ that using one is a kind of snobbish cheating. The article introduces the piece with the cameo of the rice cooker in In the Mood for Love, and indeed it points out Hong Kong’s special relationship with the rice cooker. As told in Yoshiko Nakano’s book Where There are Asians, There are Rice Cookers, Hong Kong was one of the primary markets for National (now Panasonic) rice cookers from the 1960s, and a collaborative effort between the Japanese manufacturer and a Hong Kong entrepreneur. In that way, Nakano expands on the ‘Made in Japan’ narrative to encompass a global story. Maybe ‘Made in Hong Kong’ can be understood in the same way – part of this bigger network of use, change and making. The latest Vittles newsletter by Sean Wai Keung on Glasgow’s Poo Choi and Hong Kong’s Munchy Box also dwells on the movement and comparison of food rituals and experiences, you can subscribe to the newsletter here.

Still, the new ‘Made in Hong Kong’ restriction has affected remaining local export businesses, including 冠珍醬油 Koon Chun Soy Sauce. Now based in Yuen Long, the factory was founded in 1928 in Kowloon City, and still remains in the family. Simon Shen interviews the fourth-generation successor, Daniel, and asks him about the very real and tangible effects of the trade law on this historic local company, and the logistics and emotions behind transitioning from ‘Made in Hong Kong’ to ‘Made in China’.

For us as it has been for many, this time has been for navigating our own lives under various uncertainties, but nevertheless we’re so grateful to be able to do this work together. As September arrives, and a return to school and work, we hope that we’ll be able to share more with you as things progress. We have been enjoying dropping in on some thought-provoking online talks and workshops, Enable Foundation, SAHGB, M+ among them, and we’re looking forward to taking part in more in the near future.

As always, our archive of newsletters is on our blog, where they will be updated with Chinese translations soon! The newsletters are sporadic for a reason…but we’re working hard behind the scenes as our deadlines come ever closer. We’re also still excited for you to join us! – if you have any ideas for collaboration or want to contribute to the blog, please do get in touch with us as usual, on @hkdhnet or