Hong Kong, China
February 4, 2018
I gotta hand it to the annual street art festival HKWalls for propagating art in public spaces in Hong Kong. The success of this annual event was not more evident than in Hollywood Road, the oldest street in the city. Otherwise merely a dense and aging concrete jungle, the main and intersecting streets had been gentrified by street art and murals. They rejuvenated drab, decaying buildings with vibrant colors and revitalized urban monotony with striking images.
The art promenade started with the most Instagrammable piece – a mural of old townhouses by graffiti artist Alex Croft. But where was it along this long road traversing Central District and Sheung Wan? Easy peasy. Ki and I soon found a small crowd gathered at the corner of Graham Street. There was no queue, but everybody somehow took turns posing in front of the wall art. We missed seeing actual shoebox apartments in Hong Kong; this was as good as it got.
A few paces away loomed larger-than-life murals of Hollywood legends on the façade of Madera Hollywood Hotel. Billboard-size images of Monroe, Hepburn (Audrey), Chaplin, and Sinatra gave a false impression that Hollywood Road was named after the more famous Hollywood, California. Belatedly, we learned that the road, built immediately after Hong Kong was ceded to Britain as a colony in the 1840s, preceded Tinseltown by about 30 years.
This open-air virtual art gallery crossed over to Sheung Wan. We kept on, stopping every so often for photo ops with various genres of paintings on walls. Standouts were the Uma Nota portrait of a laughing woman by Elsa Jeandedieu and the life-size mural of a retro bar in grayish sepia at the corner of Elgin Street. Some were the fruit of HKWalls initiative, others were commissioned by establishments in the area. This part of Hong Kong had ubiquitous ladder streets, stairway connections between streets running parallel on a slope. On one such ladder street, we stumbled on an artist in action, casually drawing and painting on a wall prepped with white primer. The entire art street was still a work in progress.
Hollywood Road’s affinity with art went a century back when the area was closer to the sea, i.e. before land reclamation. Even then, Hong Kong was a hub between China and Europe for merchants and sailors who traded some antiques and artifacts they had gleaned from the Far East in this vicinity of the harbor. At the corner of one ladder street, we came across a couple of dynasty-old sculptures – advertising displays of an antique shop further down the road. More than a century on, Hollywood Road still had a robust antique market and, more recently, a string of galleries for contemporary art. Alas, we had little time to stop by, only enough for a peek through glass windows.
All that art did not distract Ki from having his “humans of Hong Kong” moment. He noticed a beggar sleeping slumped on a wall of yet another ladder street. A steady stream of pedestrians could not even manage a glimpse his way. The sight melted Ki’s heart. We walked down the stairway in search of a convenience store to buy a loaf of bread for the sleeping vagrant. He had awakened when we came back. We handed him the bread; his eyes shone with gratitude. Any city, no matter how prosperous, had people that fell through the cracks. Later we saw him sharing bread crumbs with pigeons.
We were approaching the end of the road. We made it this far in the name of the most famous Hong Kong figure in history. Square Street, where his portrait was located as per the brochure, somehow eluded everybody’s radar. I asked a fellow tourist; he was just as lost. I asked a local couple; they were just as clueless. Google Map was not much help either. But I was not about to leave Hong Kong without seeing at least one image of Bruce Lee, if not his museum exhibition. The mural by Korean artist XEVA was ensconced at the top of Tank Lane, a ladder street between Hollywood Road and Square Street. It looked every inch as I expected the Fist of Fury should look – fierce and dynamic with that 1970s B-movie poster aesthetics.
Almost as a postscript, we met the former and incumbent POTUS by the roadside. Their caricatures – set down at knee level, thus easy to miss – captured their public personas with spot-on political incorrectness: A typically coiffed Trump in mid-rant scowling at immigrants and a charming Obama flashing his pearly whites at snowflakes.
This “art walk” saved the best for last – the likeness of my late Dad. How uncanny was the resemblance of the drawing to my memory of him sporting a combed mustache and carrying an attaché case. The only thing missing was his beaming smile. It reminded me of my first trip to Hong Kong in 1983. It was Dad’s grade school graduation gift for me. I never went back until this visit 35 years later, and as fate would have it, I would see his apparition at the tail end of my trip. It was as if he were saying all along, “Here’s looking at you, kid!”