["Mending Years" 縫補歲月, 2023.06.28-07.12, group show, Gallery L0, JCCAC] FP writer Wai-leung Lai strolled through the Mending Years as sounds from the past collaged to invoke contradicting thoughts about the 1960s and 1970s, resisting a singular reading. He begins with Linda Lai's Domestic Moonlighting, and his associating thoughts on Wong Kar-wai's films and more. 「據點」作者黎偉亮徐步於「縫補歲月」的五人展場中，聲頻片段拼貼湊合的氛圍喚起的是矛盾不一的記憶與論述。到底上世紀六七十年代的香港是怎樣的？真能客觀定斷嗎？先由黎肖嫻的《家居副業》和王家衛等電影說起。
**feature image: courtesy of artist Linda Lai. All other images are from the artist's family album.
(English translation by Linda Lai)
Mending Years, fleeting sounds
In a small room, a young woman is sewing a rectangular bath towel into a cloth bag with a needle and thread. She is making a package, and the contents are all common things: coarse grains, omnivorous foods, tablet sugar, penicillin, health medicine... She stuffs the bag until it is bloated, and she carefully ties up the mouth of the bag with a cloth string. Sending the package to the post office first thing in the morning – extreme urgency! The package will ease the dire situation of her relatives in the mainland. Her young daughter is not idle either. She is cutting white-colour rags into squares, carefully writing the mailing address in Chinese ink with a brush – so that her mother could sew onto the package. This is a task too important to go wrong.
My mother was the lucky one who came to Hong Kong, a small island in the southern part of China, in the late 1950s. So what state of Hong Kong did she find?
As the established social and political discourses go, her home country had survived the Second World War, and was still heaving in reduced strength. The colonies in Asia were fighting for independence. Hong Kong, through with the Japanese occupation, was still in ruins, its population expanding with the new working class population as a result of the influx of refugees from the mainland. The colonial government turned a blind eye to the collective corruption of the disciplinary forces, and was caught up in the endless confrontation between the Kuomintang and the New Chinese Communist Party. Society was a miasma of anxiety and anger. These impressions are not uncommon in Hong Kong films.
Of course, the new immigrant mother's life was tough, but she still found a place with a roof, relatively free, where she would settle down. It didn't matter to her that ends barely met in the household; she would do everything extra she could to help her dear relatives back home in the mainland, knowing that they were suffering from a disaster that was borne by irrationality: a country under the rule and will of one, marred by endless political struggles, where production collapsed, and no policy surpassed one person's arrogance. Continuous mistakes put the country in total desperation, but it was only the common people who knew the suffering. The postal packages sent by my mother were no cosy expression or casual gifts to relatives and friends; they were life-savers.
It's really a long time ago, it's been sixty years. What my relatives told me, what I have experienced, and what I have read in books, I simply sigh when I think about it. And these are some of my thoughts after seeing the show “Mending Years,” an exhibition that reproduces one kind of situation in Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s.
The images and installations in “Mending Years” remind me of the black and white Cantonese films of that era, and also of Wong Kar-wai, who is obviously someone extremely attached to Hong Kong in the 1960s. The special historical circumstances gave birth to a unique social community structure, starting from the Governor of Hong Kong appointed by the Queen of Britain, supplemented by a group of expatriate officials, followed by colonial compradors such as Jardine Matheson and Swire, and the HSBC. They occupied the top tier of society and led a superior life; as for those businessmen and intellectuals fleeing China, they arrived knowing that they would not be hanging on to their middle class origin, and integrated with the bottom tier of the labor force in the population. Western governance methods and education systems integrated with Chinese elements, giving birth to a unique way of life and material culture. And we have glimpses of that in Wong Kar-wai's movies: the younger generation fashionably loves Western dances and listens to Western pop music; women will take a zinc box to buy wonton noodles from the street in their cheongsams; they will dress neatly and their hair properly waxed before going to work; ordinary citizens with low salaries will also indulge in a bit of extravagance when they receive their wages in the beginning of a month. One finds these elements with Yuk (played by Leslie Cheung) in Days of Being Wild, So Lai-chun (played by Maggie Cheung) in In the Mood for Love, and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung/Leung Chiu-wai) in 2046... What Wong portrays is the same time and space explored by the artists of "Mending Years" like a parallel world, so strange, so close. Life is like a dream. In a chaotic time, people's world of emotions, as Wong Kar-wai sees it, gives us a different glimpse of the milieu. Material life could be poor, life could still be exquisite. Complex human relationships and delicate emotions – that is, to him, extraordinarily provocative.
I was born in a poor family in the 1960s. Today, I still remember sitting on my father's lap in the cinema watching The Big Boss [Brother Tangshan] (1971, starring Bruce Lee) and Boxer from Shantung [Ma Wing Ching] (1972, directed by Chang Cheh, starring Chen Guantai). Regardless of which period, regardless of the environment, having fun in hard times is the normal thing for all struggling survivors, and it was, and is, also the only way to temporarily forget our burdens.
Linda Lai's Domestic Moonlighting [literally, the productivity of the household sideline] brings back memories and associations: did Hong Kong's struggling working class seek to help their desperate relatives in the mainland purely out of the so-called "blood is thicker than water" sentiment? Or wasn't it also out of a guilty sense as "survivors" abandoning home? Such dark thoughts often returns to me. The protagonists in Cantonese oldies [from the 1950s-60s] are all instilled with “positive consciousness” whereas Wong Kar-wai's drama focuses on relations and affective dimensions between men and women, but does not help giving us more clues about the actual Hong Kong in the past. And I have no courage to ask my relatives for proof. I suppose there will never be a perfect answer to the question of what was Hong Kong really like.
Time will pass and historical accounts could be annihilated, but memories will not, unless all those who have memories die. Linda Lai and the other four artists use memory as a "needle" and their artistic creation as “threads,” weaving records, mending the years, so that the past will never be evaded. (END)