Peel back the layers of time

Among the soaring buildings in Central, Peel Street used to be marked by the 19th-century building Tong Lau, and wet market vendors, making a signature scene that showed the simple and ordinary life of the older generation.

However, the Urban Renewal Authority Peel Street and Graham Street redevelopment project, declared in 2007, has affected at least 37 buildings in the area, turning most into commercial residential buildings.

A newly open creative venue on the street, a refurbished Tong Lau, has brought a touch of nostalgia to the busy spot, conveying the warmth of traditional craftsmanship.

Opened last month, Crafts on Peel is a non-profit gallery in the historic walk-up, providing a platform for communication and cooperation between traditional craftsmen and contemporary artisans, aiming to preserve and pass on the traditional culture.

“Growing up in Hong Kong, I cherish the city’s traditional culture, customs and the old community,” said Yama Chan, the founder, and also the owner of the building. “Therefore, I hope to preserve Tong Laus so they are not constantly being demolished and becomes fewer and fewer.”

When she got the opportunity, she bought the building and renovated it into an art space.

Intending to preserve tradition, the renovation kept most of the Tong Lau’s features and combined them with new decor. For example, the entrance was built with a shutter gate, of the same old store-gate design, while the stairs, brick walls and windows were mostly retained with only modest renovation.

Highlight of the renovation is the living space on the third floor, maintaining the structural characteristics of the original building.

“In the past, the families who took care of the shops lived on the upper floor of the shop, so we followed this function — the lower floor is the exhibition space, while the third floor is the space for sleeping and resting,” said Chan.

The living space is provided for the artists selected for the year-round artisan-in-residence program.

This is not the first time Chan has refurbished Tong Lau, but it is the first time she has used it as an art venue. Her previous projects have been for rental housing.

Chan said people have begun to care about local culture and history in recent years so that there is a lot of media coverage and discussion. But most of them only record and cannot truly inherit the culture.

“I think only by letting young people learn can we inherit the traditional craft,” Chan said.

The opening exhibition, Crafts Interwoven: Past and Present, shows works from six artists who have spent a year learning with local traditional craftsmen to explore how traditional crafts and techniques can be reinterpreted in a contemporary artistic context.

One of the large exhibits is Reborn Merman by bamboo craftsman Cheung Foon and fashion designer Jinno Neko, depicting the Hong Kong half-man, half-fish mythical creature by using the traditional bamboo framework and papier-mache technique of “binding, paper-mounting, painting, assembling.”

The work has two components: a Lion Head by Cheung and a Fish Tail composed of six modular pieces by Jinno, which transformed the traditional craft into a conceptual idea, using bamboo crafting as a framework and injecting contemporary elements of water marbling and hand painting into the papier-mache.

Exploring practical usage instead of just art exhibits, the exhibition also presents tea trays, namely Emerald Lotus, by copperware craftsman Luk Shu-choi and Luk Keung-choi from Ping Kee Copperware and metalsmith Anthony So.

Following So’s dialogue with the Luk brothers, he employed the traditional metal forging technique combined with the craft of enameling and produced hexagonal tea trays to match Ping Kee’s tea sets.

Another practical collaborative artwork is Pavo console by interior architect Dylan Kwok, inspired by his research with birdcage maker Chan Lok-choi.

In a bamboo birdcage, the force of the bamboo emerges at the top where the pressure is held by the hook. Extracting from the architectural elements of a birdcage, the console is held by pressure only, without any glue or nails. The legs of the console are 96 six-millimeter bamboo sticks, where the force is transferred to the ground and held together by brass brackets.

The cooperation was an incredible journey that the contemporary artists cherish. It allowed them to be equipped with a specialized skill that they can further use to enhance their work, said Crafts on Peel’s creative director, Penelope Luk.

Running until March 29, the exhibition also presents artworks inspired by bamboo steamer crafting, Canton porcelain and Chinese knots, with more cooperation projects and exhibits in the future.

(This article was published at The Standard on February 21, 2020. Link not available.)

Peel back the layers of time

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