New look for old threads

People are what make history interesting. The Centre for Heritage Arts & Textile’s summer program, which runs until October 11, takes a look at Hong Kong’s past through oral histories and everyday artefacts.

The journey back in time begins in the arcade. Day Measures: Stories from Former Workers highlights four former textile production workers. Their stories are told in the form of audio snippets.

Two knitting cylinders from a 1939 knitting machine, which former worker Yuen Gin-chiu cared for from the 1960s all the way to the early 2000s, take pride of place.

Now retired and in his nineties, Yuen used to recast full sets of knitting machine needles every six months to keep the production of circular knitted fabrics running smoothly.

Held as though in mid-production, both cylinders have fabric attached to their silvery needles, suspended as they would have been all those years under Yuen’s watchful eye.

Up next are cotton sliver hanks Leung Fung-yee once made. When Leung’s eight-hour shifts on the drawing frame drew to a close, she would record the number of cotton slivers she had combined from eight strands into one.

Every time the slivers became entangled and caused the machine to stop, Leung would use a metal hook to rake them out.

She had handmade the hook herself out of materials scavenged from the factory floor and it accompanied her throughout her 32 years in the cotton-spinning industry.

The final display in the arcade are of personal documents and textile products of a working couple. Kwok Hang-lin shares with the audience her handwritten notebook, which details in its columns the design, job type, quantity, unit price and total cost of sewing work she completed in one payment period – 15 days – in 1982.

In accompanying audio recordings, Kwok talks about her work and leisure habits, the fashion of the era and the work that went into making crucial parts of everyday garments – such as pleats, cuffs and shoulder pads.

Supplementing Kwok, her husband, Cheung Chi-mau, shares his experience in pressing and fabric cutting. He was a department head before going on to become a patternmaker and founding his own production house. Garment sketches he drew and used for his work as a patternmaker are on display near the notebook.

The area that marks the end of the arcade’s exhibits leads audiences naturally into the adjacent DH Chen Foundation Gallery, which showcases archival objects, vintage photos, and videos of cotton-spinning processes.

Moving into the present, Sight Unseen – Forking Paths in the CHAT Collection, CHAT’s first collection show since its opening in 2019, looks back at its previous programs.

Although most of the works are from previous exhibitions, curator Wang Weiwei said that when the exhibits are detached from their original contexts, they are unbound from time and the narrow scope of their functionality, opening the reading of these items to myriad possibilities.

For instance, the entire floor in a room is covered with black-and-white photos from CHAT’s collection, showing the working environment and labor in a textile factory, which Wang said are important for understanding urban development.

In sharp contrast to this is the work of Taguchi Yukihiro, the second artist to participate in CHAT’s artist-in-residence program, placed in the same space. Patch Pass – Umbrella uses fabric canopies from umbrellas that were broken due to a typhoon when he was in Hong Kong in 2016. He also took photos to document how the surrounding people, objects and the urban environment changed during his creative process. He later turned these pictures into a stop-motion animation, also on display.

For Wang, the room represents changes in society and its relationship with people.

“People are involved from the beginning and connect with the community, whether from the collection of materials or the place where these things happen,” she said.

The Chinese name for the collection show is Blind Chess, which Wang said resonates with her experience curating the show.

“It’s a dialogue with an array of artworks, heritage objects and texts, which probes at the limit of imagination and finds ways to communicate with them,” Wang said. “It’s like playing blind chess. You can’t see anything and everything is happening in your head.”

(This article was published at The Standard on September 4, 2020: Weekend Glitz: New look for old threads )

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