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Melancholy and Wishfulness in Historical Records

Melancholy and Wishfulness in Historical Records:
Lee Kai-chung’s solo exhibition ‘I could not recall how I got here’

Text: Vivian TING

Hong Kong is a city of amnesia. People would let historical monuments be pushed away by urban development because what they care most about is making a living, resulting in the destruction of relationships and communities built over time. Due to the lack of an archives law, the Hong Kong government has destroyed documents that would have been more than 130,000 metres long if they were lined up. Departments responsible for preserving memories, like the Government Records Service, always show a reluctant attitude towards any requests for archival records because of the official order, trying to draw a veil over their work. If all documents regarding Hong Kong vanish bit by bit, will we be able to recognise ourselves and remember what made Hong Kong the way it is today? What historic events can the archival records tell us about?

The word ‘archive’ connotes all kinds of ‘historic evidence’, including commercial contracts, legal papers, maps, building plans, oral historical records, news videos, three-dimensional architectural models and many more. In archival studies, ‘data’ of various materials and different kinds are sorted, organised and catagorised to preserve the memories frozen in time. The collection, cataloguing and documentation of data must comply with the regulations on work of the institutions they belong to and follow the logic of their academic fields. The attempt to get hold of the past in a disorderly myriad of things could show us the direction that we seem to understand and feel comfortable to move in.

However, a number of archivists point out that during the process of collecting documents, organising and cataloguing information and preserving records, it is not possible for the participants to take an objective stand, and therefore the records that are kept are definitely not conclusive ‘historical facts’ or simply ‘facts’. In recent years, there has been increasing concern about how the general public use the records in archival studies and about how archives have evolved into places dedicated to the production of knowledge and meanings. At the end of the day, if we just store materials and leave them in archives, what we keep is nothing more than meaningless disjointed information and all we have are merely superficially unrelated memories that we cannot probe into.

Lee Kai-chung thrust his head into piles of documents and studied them in an attempt to connect people and stories of different eras and to find out what the past means to us in the present. Sharing a similar aspiration as the historians’, the artist aims to understand the linkage between the past and the present through his study and reshape the narrative around a certain historical event. Nonetheless, he does not follow the practice of historians, who try to get close to the “historical truth” to comprehend the context of things that have changed and of those that have remained the same. The artist is in pursuit of the feeble glimmer of time—the sounds of life, hidden in the gap of time, flowing around the edge between memory and oblivion, unclear and puzzling, and yet implicitly expressing emotions and desires. After all has been said and done, he tries to capture fragments of the old times, recounting in his own artistic language the stories of ordinary people who struggled to survive through times of distress. His solo exhibition ‘I could not recall how I got here’ recollects the vicissitudes of life in wartime Hong Kong by comparing and contrasting the different fates of the Japanese War Memorial and the bronze statues of Queen Victoria in the 1940s, sharing his reflections on how to deal with the times and the collapse and malfunctioning of the system.


Who do Hong Kong archival records belong to? They certainly do not belong solely to experts, academics or researchers, but to anyone who wants to learn about Hong Kong. Some of these people were born and bred here, some are enthusiastic about the past and the present of this former British colony, and others probe into the intricate history out of astonishment at this city’s strong vitality. Lee’s creation reclaims control over the interpretation of archival documents with his own artistic language, capturing a wider imagination of documents and the history of Hong Kong. He says,

‘The “people” from history have disappeared, but the traces they have left behind on the “things” can feed the creative process, because they are the best evidence we have for the existence, speech, and behaviour of the “people”.’

Perhaps stories of ordinary people do not matter enough to be written down in history, but the artist believes that everyone’s experience can reflect different aspects of the times and debunks the myths that we have about the past, shaping the established narratives of history. By sorting out documents like historical photos, military papers and posters, he made a three-channel video to look back on how people overcame turmoil and how they understood the times they lived in, through the eyes of a military general from the British garrison in Hong Kong, a Japanese soldier’s wife and a tomb keeper of the Japanese War Memorial. His artwork, developed on the basis of negligible personal feelings and expanding to collective emotions of society, walks the fine line between fiction and reality as it provides alternative ‘historical text’ to discuss the dark age of Hong Kong, which is gradually disappearing into oblivion yet we dare not forget.

The artwork starts with a private letter written by a British army officer. The letter tells of how the secret information of the loss of the Queen’s statues in Japan did not match the local news report. The general had urged the military to open an investigation into the missing statues again and again, but yielded no results and had to let the truth descend into nothing. Indeed, only very few people can call the shots when facing the currents of time. A Japanese soldier’s wife who came to Hong Kong to visit her husband, just had to watch apathetically as her people were gripped by the fever of militarism while surmising the visible and yet unattainable distance to her husband. Left all by herself, she gradually learned to enjoy the cruelty of her surroundings. She would rather be ‘engulfed by the charcoal darkness, and it brought along a sense of intimacy with the fear.’ The keeper of the Japanese War Memorial, who was also living in the darkness, tried to convince himself that time is something that needs to be rapidly depleted. There is nothing wrong with being caught by the Japanese army and forced to perform hard labour; his labour served as proof of his usefulness. Nevertheless, he had no clue about what was worth safeguarding in the tower and could not understand the point of this violence and destruction.

In the past when we read about Hong Kong under Japanese occupation, almost only generalised descriptions like ‘devastation’ and ‘people were living in misery’ were used in the books to describe this dark gloomy period lasting three years and eight months. We still remember Japanese troops slaughtering thousands of civilians, people eating corpses and practising cannibalism due to severe famine. Forests were also cut down and copperware at home was seized as a result of the lack of supplies… And yet the artist chose to depict thoroughly unimportant people who were unable to defy time, contemplating how a single person could find a place in this abnormal world and live a ‘normal’ life despite the collapse of the system. The protagonists in their stories want to seek the truth, or yearn for a loving intimate relationship, or merely get hold of evidence to prove their usefulness. These humble wishes are just normal desires that make humans human, but in tough times they seem impossible and unrealistic. The three stories show the considerable impact society has on an individual’s experience, and it is hard to define what each individual experiences—loss of balance, helplessness, oppression, coldness, confusion and unease—all these cannot be explained by rationality and yet express the individual’s and even community’s emotions of life.

After all, works of art are different from historical accounts. Lee Kai-chung’s work can be taken as a modern-day fable, apart from being seen as an alternative kind of document. Scenes of a stopped clock, of the vast and boundless ocean and of overlapping shadows of flowers flash by in the video and imply that the perception of time varies wildly between individuals. During the passage of time, how are we supposed to make sense of our times?

The war made the Japanese soldier’s wife adapt to difficulties and disrupted the tender moments she had with her husband. She asked a mirror maker to engrave her husband‘s likeness on a mirror so that she could always see his face. However, the soldier had become estranged from her, and she could only wipe her mirror again and again, trying desperately to find the warmth that she used to feel when they were physically close to each other. As the reflection in the mirror replaced reality, what she saw was just an illusion. She no longer had the strength to return to reality and recognise the real situation. It seems that she had walked to the end of her small world even before it began. Just as she said, ‘I thought that flowers wilt slowly. And now I realise, they can die in an instant.’

The intriguing thing is that the tomb keeper read out aloud the newspapers that were still in print to pass his time, coldly watching the violent conflicts between countries. He had been confronted with dead people, seen the brutality and violence happening before him, and suddenly figured out that ‘when a system collapses, there will not be any difference between the good and the bad.’ Once the distinction between right and wrong is eliminated, the immanent order of a civilisation will become meaningless. Perhaps what he could not stand was neither the war nor the loneliness, but the long bleak life in which nothing was worth fighting for.

From the helplessness of the British military officer to the numbness of the tomb keeper and the desolation of the Japanese soldier’s wife, Lee’s video work collects fragments of autocratic violence during the Japanese occupation and of the perplexity of displaced people from his personal disjointed perspective. The monologues of the characters appear to be a chaotic mess, but they reflect the tedious monotone of the historical narratives on Hong Kong under Japanese rule with simple individual voices that penetrate grand narratives of national interests or the global politics. With the use of artistic imagination, the video recollects memories from the past with today’s experiences. So long as the story plots and recurrent scenes can be regarded as allegorical fables, the audience are free to assign contemporary meanings to the work based on how they understand the times and how they use archival materials. Perhaps this is the comfort the artist gives us. Time will pass, whether it is good or bad, but can we stand up for the values we believe in and respond to the challenges of our times? Although the war has been over for a long time, the tangle it created—how to deal with authoritarian oppression and how to comprehend the despair and resistance triggered by violence—is yet to be untied.

To meet the challenges of postmodernism, archival studies gradually shifted from work focusing on searching information to contemplating how to turn archives into sites for producing knowledge and meaning. What is the future for archival studies? Canadian archivist and scholar Terry Cook states:

Postmodernism requires a new openness, a new visibility, a willingness to question and be questioned, a commitment to self-reflection and accountability. Postmodernism requires archivists to accept their own historicity, to recognise their own role in the process of creating archives, and to reveal their own biases. Postmodernism sees value in stories more than structures, the margins as much as the centres, the diverse and ambiguous as much as the certain and universal.

The academic profession of archivists has emphasised the systematic collection and organisation of knowledge. In the postmodern era, special attention has been given to reflecting on the logic of the system, different narratives formed based on the data, and even dialogues with communities from different times.

Nevertheless, archival studies belong to communities. The ‘imagination’ that comes with archival records is not just about whether the building of archives involves different participants. Whether the building process can shed light on our thoughts depends more on how the contents of archival records assist readers in discovering the sense and sensibility of civilisations, and on the new interpretations added over time. Lee Kai-chung’s approach of using archival records does not only record stories of Japanese occupation, but also makes known his wishes for the future: searching for diverse voices of historical documents and stretching the imagination of Hong Kong and ourselves in the past. We look for information from the past, most likely because we want to find ourselves and recognition of what we have done. Thrown into a reign of terror, how should Hong Kong people recollect the past? How do we interpret our past to seek motivation to change the present?

Vivian Ting @ Art Appraisal Club
October 2019