Modernologio: Study of the Urban Quotidian in Hong Kong

Installation view of "Serendipity in the Street" at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, 2021. Image courtesy of Tai Kwun.
Installation view of “Serendipity in the Street” at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, 2021. Image courtesy of Tai Kwun.
A display of books by Kon Wajirō on modernologio at “Serendipity in the Street” at Tai Kwun, 2021. Photo by CoBo Editorial.
Observation notes made by the research team exhibited at “Serendipity in the Street” at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, 2021. Image courtesy of Tai Kwun.
Installation view of “Serendipity in the Street” at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, 2021. Image courtesy of Tai Kwun.
Installation view of “Serendipity in the Street” at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, 2021. Image courtesy of Tai Kwun.
Frank Tang Kai Yiu, Shing Wong Street, 2021, ink, watercolour, gouache, graphite, colour pencil, sign pen, xuen paper, 236 x 400 cm, installation view, “Serendipity in the Street” at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, 2021. Image courtesy of Tai Kwun.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

“Serendipity in the Street” at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, adopts a century-old Japanese study of social ethnography to examine the creativity of the city’s masses.

TEXT: Kate Lok
IMAGE: Courtesy of various

 

In the bustling Central district of Hong Kong, what do a 30-year-long hacky-sack rendezvous, salvaged potted plants hung on wired fence, a mobile library in a repurposed refrigerator, and an impromptu gym set-up off Pottinger Street all have in common? They are all minuscule details that decipher the lives of Hongkongers in the city’s financial centre. Beyond the glistening façade of skyscrapers, historic architecture, and its formidable sense of authority and affluence, Central consists of a complex labyrinth of communities, where generations have made their mark along its steep streets and hidden squares that form its unique urban fabric.

 

Installation view of “Serendipity in the Street” at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, 2021. Image courtesy of Tai Kwun.

 

An exhibition currently taking place in Tai Kwun—Hong Kong’s former police station compound-turned-arts precinct—wants to remind us of this lesser-known side of Central. “Serendipity in the Street”, part of the annual summer programming of Tai Kwun’s Heritage department, seeks to inform and pay tribute to its surrounding neighbourhood through sharing the stories of its grassroot communities. Displaying a combination of sketches, mementos, video recordings, written records, and commissioned artworks, the show is the result of months of study made by a team of “observers” and artists around the Central and Sheung Wan areas highlighting, in particular, the people’s creativity in the adaptive use of space.

The method of research utilised in this exhibition adopts the century-old Japanese urban observation practice of “modernologio” known as kōgengaku, with roots in archaeology. Essentially, the aim of this method was to capture the everyday nuances in life of a city and its residents in a scientific way. Kōgengaku was founded by Japanese architect, designer and educator Kon Wajirō in the 1920s, following his interest in investigating how the devastating 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake catalysed changes in the living environment in Tokyo’s shitamachi (downtown). Kon’s minute recording of material culture, produced through careful observations and supplemented by statistics, became an important method for detecting and comprehending the patterns of human life in times of societal change.

Modernologists’ interests were in actions rather than objects, in symbolism rather than substance, and in the phenomenological experience of the city around them. They take pleasure in recording the tiniest of details that may seem insignificant to the uninitiated

 

A display of books by Kon Wajirō on modernologio at “Serendipity in the Street” at Tai Kwun, 2021. Photo by CoBo Editorial.
Observation notes made by the research team exhibited at “Serendipity in the Street” at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, 2021. Image courtesy of Tai Kwun.

 

Brian Kwok, Associate Professor at the School of Design of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and the initiator of the research for the exhibition, shared Kon’s fascination in the banality of the everyday. “It’s the bottom-up research approach that [interests] me,” he tells me during a recent Zoom conversation with the curatorial team.

To Kwok and his team of “observers”, it was a particularly interesting time to conduct the research—which largely took place last year—observing through the time frame of the pandemic, how the cityscape and its people were adapting to various restrictions and lifestyle changes. “The whole living pattern drastically changed during the pandemic,” says Kwok. “Under these circumstances, I think [in some ways] it is quite similar to what happened after the 1923 earthquake [in Japan], which [led to] the rethink of how people change their behaviour, and consequently, if space changes our behaviour or do we change our behaviour to adapt to space? This is a foundation question we always ask during our research.”

Following months of roaming the streets, observing and systematically recording, the results of Kwok and his research team is a kaleidoscopic summation of the minutiae, shedding light on various creative ways of adaptive living. Ying Kwok, Senior Curator, Digital and Heritage at Tai Kwun, further elaborated on the choice of such a research methodology. “The main purpose of this exhibition is to understand the surrounding neighbourhood, its people and the culture.”

Speaking on the data collection process, Kwok emphasised the importance of keeping a distance. “We don’t want to impose our presence to interfere with [the community’s] daily lives”, he points out. “At the beginning, we try to be like tourists, and gradually we migrate ourselves into the community.”

One of the defining research principles of modernologio is not to interfere with the original state of the object or the people. Kwok, who led the curatorial team, was mindful of presenting this element of objectivity in her curation. “It’s about being objective and observing from a distance,” she explains, “That gave us very interesting statistics which became part of the major content of the exhibition.”

 

Installation view of “Serendipity in the Street” at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, 2021. Image courtesy of Tai Kwun.
Installation view of “Serendipity in the Street” at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, 2021. Image courtesy of Tai Kwun.

 

To give context to the level of scrutiny made in these observations, there was a section in the exhibition dedicated entirely to detailing the curb steps, or ramps, that are used to support market stalls on the sloped stone slab streets of Pottinger Street, Graham Street and Peel Street. From listing out the variety of materials used, to detailed graphical analysis of how cornerstones were assembled and enhanced to fit the terrain, through to the extended usage of these steps as places of gathering, resting and storage, no detail was amiss.

Another subject of study was Shing Wong Street in the mid-levels between Central and Sheung Wan, an area known for its layers of century-old granite steps, and, standing amongst them, deserted pre-war tong laus that were previously subject to gentrification. Last year, during the height of the pandemic, the area became home to a makeshift “library” consisting of a discarded refrigerator (owned by a recently shuttered neighbourhood restaurant) that had been repurposed by the residents of the area into a mobile bookshelf, surrounded by a random scattering of used chairs and tables. “It’s like they were building an outdoor living room for the people and for themselves” Kwok notes, “More importantly, there is a sense of community that is naturally, organically built.” Adjunct to the exhibition, she commissioned local painter Frank Tang Kai Yiu to respond to the findings of this particular neighbourhood, resulting in Shing Wong Street (2021), Tang’s colossal four-metre map detailing the physical and social nature of the disparate community in the area.

 

Frank Tang Kai Yiu, Shing Wong Street, 2021, ink, watercolour, gouache, graphite, colour pencil, sign pen, xuen paper, 236 x 400 cm, installation view, “Serendipity in the Street” at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong, 2021. Image courtesy of Tai Kwun.

 

Despite their diversity, the four community stories that were chosen at the exhibition barely scratched the surface of what constitutes the complex, vibrant settlement of Central. But when it came to presenting an exhibition aimed for the general public, the curatorial team wanted to make sure that these stories told are able to make a lasting impression on those who visit the exhibition. “Only when [these stories] speak to myself, when it’s connected to myself, will they give me a lasting memory,” Kwok tells me. The sense of conviviality observed in these creative uses of communal space is heart-warming, particularly to urbanites of Hong Kong, most of whom can barely remember the last time they spoke to a neighbour. “What I’m interested in is that the exhibition will awaken people’s sensitivity in observation, and how they see the city—its potential and possibilities,” she adds.

Prior to the exhibition, public engagement workshops were conducted by local architecture and design firm One Bite Design Studio, inviting members of the public from varying age and social groups, to use Tai Kwun as its departure point and adopt modernologio as an approach to re-think the use of public spaces. The abundance of open spaces at the arts precinct—considered a rare luxury in land-scarce Hong Kong—are reimagined with customisable furniture prototypes designed by workshop participants, which took into consideration the public’s preferences they picked up through weeks of observation practice. These prototypes are also displayed alongside the exhibition in Lower E Hall and in Prison Yard respectively.

While the modernologio approach to documenting a city’s grassroots does not necessarily celebrate it, it observes with an ultimate intention to understand with a critical but non-judgemental perspective. It originated from a time of crisis, and the desire of people to return themselves to life and society.

In recent years, Hong Kong has proven itself a true testament to the resilience and nimble adaptability the city takes pride in. The exhibition is a welcoming window of reflection to re-examine our pre-existing notions of the city, and shift our attention back to the most valuable asset that makes the city what it is—its people.

 

Serendipity in the Street
30 July – 3 October 2021
Tai Kwun, Hong Kong

 

 

 
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