Hong Kong Waters.2009/10

On 30 June 1997, the evening before Hong Kong was officially returned to China, an exhibition entitled Hong Kong Incarnated – Museum 97: History, Community, Individual was opened at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, across the street from where the hand­over ceremony was to be conducted. The exhibition addressed the issues of the identity and history of Hong Kong, and began with the statement “From the sea we came . . .”

Indeed, without the sea, Hong Kong would never have come to be as it is today. Because of the sea, Tuen Mun was already an important military port in the days of the Tang Dynasty. It served as a gateway, guarding the traffic in and out of the Pearl River Delta in the southern province of Guangdong. In the 19th century, the British decided to occupy this barren piece of land precisely because of its water; not only due to its deep sea port, but also to its abundant source of fresh water from the Pok Fu Lam area.

On another level, the sea has an additional symbolic implication specifically meaningful to Hong Kong. In 1988, as China’s economy started picking up momentum after the reform introduced by Deng Xiaoping, there was an influential documentary television series titled Wounded River, which generated heated discussions. The television series argued that the backwardness of China was a result of its “inland culture”, a self-imposed enclosure that is static and unwilling to explore anything outside of the ”Middle Kingdom”. The documentary suggested that China should move on to become an “ocean culture”, which is dynamic, diversified and outgoing.

Located on the periphery of China, Hong Kong is a prime example of an ocean culture. Its very existence relies on the fact that it is situated by the sea. The sea brought in not only opium and other goods, but also technology and new ideas. Hong Kong became a gateway to mainland China. International trading also gave birth to a comprador culture, which is characterized by its ability to oscillate between the East and the West, with a practical mind that is flexible and accommodating.

When, after finishing his Danube River Project (2005/2006), the German media artist Andreas Müller-Pohle began his photography project in Hong Kong in January 2009, the perspective he employed was fascinating: looking at Hong Kong from the sea. The water, particularly the sea, has always been an important part of the Hong Kong landscape. The spectacular view of Victoria Harbour is one of the most representative images of Hong Kong. This natural landform harbour, however, is usually viewed either from land or from a boat. The view from the sea in Müller-Pohle’s photographs provides a totally different perspective, giving the water a particular emphasis, if not symbolically, then at least visually.

Those who are not intimately familiar with Hong Kong may not be fully aware of the symbolic significance of water within the distinctive historical and geographical context of the city. Thus, the way in which the artist approaches one of the most important elements of the Hong Kong landscape to depict the city opens an entirely new perspective for the public. For those who are aware of such a symbolic association, on the other hand, it reveals yet another level of richness.

The photographs take the viewer on an aquatic journey along the coast of Hong Kong and offer fascinating impressions of its diversified landscapes. With sophisticated skills and a keen sensibility, Müller-Pohle manages to show the complex personalities of this sea-side city, and leads the viewer from the dense, concrete forest of the high-rises of Central, across the exotic Hollywood seascape of Aberdeen, to the wilderness of the remote islands unknown to most.

Müller-Pohle’s photographs are filled with visual contrasts. Not only do they depict the two different worlds between land and sea, but also the horizontal water line and the vertical cityscape, the liquid flow of the water and the concrete forms of the architecture, as well as the dynamic and the static.

Since the turn of the century, water in Hong Kong has taken on a different social implication. Great efforts have been made by the community to preserve the water of Hong Kong from contamination, caused by population growth and, most disturbingly, by the unlimited greed of land reclamation projects. The battle to protect Victoria Harbour from further reclamation, for example, has been an on-going struggle between the people and the government and developers.

At such an unusual time, Müller-Pohle’s lively, refreshing depictions of the waters of Hong Kong bear witness to the beautiful waterscape that the people of Hong Kong have been so proud of and serves as a reminder of what makes Hong Kong so lively and unique.

Oscar Ho