A Quiet Comeback

Asia, East, Hong Kong

The newly-renovated Hong Kong Museum of Art

If you google anything about Hong Kong these days, most results will probably show the territory’s number of COVID-19 cases, although compared to the rest of the world, Hong Kong seems to have managed to flatten the curve.

And if months ago you also googled about the territory, the results would most likely show the prolonged protests, triggered by incidents that have been perceived as Beijing’s increasing interference in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs, a violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration which guarantees the territory’s autonomy for 50 years since its handover to China in 1997.

These unprecedented series of events have hit Hong Kong hard, especially given its status as one of the world’s financial centers as well as an important aviation hub in the region. Its economy contracted by 1.2% in 2019 and is expected to further shrink this year. Meanwhile, Cathay Pacific, one of Asia’s most reputable airlines which is based in the territory, as of the first week of April 2020, only flies to four destinations, each served by two flights per week. This dramatic turn for the 73-year-old flag carrier, which a few months ago still flew to almost 80 destinations in more than 30 countries around the world, is attributed to the Hong Kong government’s decision to ban foreign travelers not only from entering the territory, but also those transiting through its airport to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

I couldn’t have visited Hong Kong at a better time: toward the end of last December, just when the months-long protests had decreased in intensity, and before COVID-19 started to wreak havoc.

*   *   *

One morning when the weather is nice, albeit a bit hazy, James and I take the MTR from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon, on the opposite side of Victoria Harbor. We’re eager to visit the newly-renovated Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMoA) after its reopening following a four-year overhaul that the city’s first public art museum badly needed. James recalls its outdated façade which looked similar with that of the adjacent Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Despite standing in this prime location since 1962, the former had been eclipsed by the architecturally more arresting cultural center as well as the oddly-shaped planetarium nearby. However, in the middle of ongoing protests in the city, at the end of November, HKMoA quietly reopened to the public with little fanfare.

I am pleasantly surprised with what I see. A modern-looking structure covered with a textured façade in a metallic gray tone stands next to a beautifully-manicured garden. Along its approach from Salisbury Road, art installations rise from the ground with their smooth, undulating surfaces reflecting the morning sun. While waiting for the museum to open, we stroll down the recently reopened Avenue of Stars – that famous seaside promenade with a statue of Bruce Lee from which people can see the iconic skyscraper-studded skyline of Hong Kong Island across the harbor.

With the uninspired and old-fashioned tiles along the walkway replaced by brighter and modern-looking ones, the refreshed seaside promenade looks polished and spacious, with the addition of greenery here and there making it feel welcoming. On this particular morning, especially, some locals are making the most of the warm temperatures running or walking while tourists take lots of selfies for Instagram or to share with their families back home. We walk the length of the avenue, past a golden cube designed by starchitect Rem Koolhaas which is called, well, Kube, and a new mall with an interesting living wall (a green wall where real plants are grown). We also come across a shiny statue of McDull, a popular cartoon character a lot of young adults in Hong Kong grew up watching.

After seeing the statue of Bruce Lee himself, which had been moved further away from its original location before the renovation, and that of Anita Mui, a Cantopop diva who was known as Madonna of the East, we return to the museum to see what’s inside. A young staff member at the entrance talks to James in Cantonese, which he translates to me moments later. “There’s an exhibition from the Tate Modern which we have to pay for. But for the permanent collection it’s free.” As we go upstairs, one floor after another, it becomes clear that the money allocated for renovating this museum was really well-spent. Every part of it looks elegant and up-to-date, with large windows affording views of Victoria Harbor complementing the museum’s stately appearance. Each of its well-curated sections comes with a specific theme, including classical Chinese art as well as modern art in Hong Kong. While these are undoubtedly interesting, I find some of them especially fascinating for their background stories.

A corner of HKMoA with the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in the background

The city’s planetarium right across the street from The Peninsula, one of the city’s oldest luxury hotels

A fresh new look for Hong Kong’s first public art museum

The museum is located on Victoria Harbor, facing the city’s financial center

The Avenue of Stars with the view of Hong Kong Island’s skyscrapers

It’s still one of the most impressive city skylines I’ve ever seen

Can’t take my eyes off the harbor

A wide and clean promenade encourages people to be more active

Rem Koolhaas’s Kube with a mini cacti garden

Kowloon’s skyline with the Hong Kong Coliseum in the far right

McDull, a popular cartoon pig in Hong Kong

Metal trellises that will one day be all covered with vining and climbing plants

Back to the museum’s grounds

Near the main entrance to the museum

Inside HKMoA with a magnificent view of Hong Kong Island

A small painting depicting a cascade which is believed to be the one at Waterfall Bay Park on Hong Kong Island’s western shore is in fact one of the earliest visual records of Hong Kong. Made in the early 19th century when the island had not yet become a commercial hub, it is now placed in a purposefully dimly-lit gallery focusing on early artworks of Hong Kong. In another part of the museum, the Chater collection section showcases the paintings rescued from destruction in the past thanks to the selfless acts of individuals who saw the true value of the artwork beyond mere money. It’s a sobering reminder of the threats – wars, neglect and economic crises, to name some – the world of art constantly faces.

When we move from one gallery to another, it’s not only the collection that changes, but so does the ambient music. I don’t remember any other art museum I’ve been to where visitors are not only stimulated visually, but also aurally. One particular permanent collection of the museum I find most intriguing is Xu Bing’s A Book from the Sky. At a glance, it appears to be floating long scrolls inscribed with Chinese characters. But upon closer inspection, none of those characters are real. It took the artist four years from 1987 to 1991 to invent more than 4,000 pseudo-characters, which would then be printed to look as if it was a classic text. This unreadable work of art is a critique of traditional values as well as a metaphorical way of challenging the establishment.

Contrary to other galleries within the museum building, the uppermost floor is a lofty space housing some intriguing and thought-provoking works of art. Some of them combine traditional aesthetics with futuristic shapes; others put more emphasis on social criticism with quirky twists. However, one section might stir local Hong Kongers’ emotions the most, not because of the artwork itself, but more because of the accompanying narrative. In this corner, photos of old Hong Kong are on display, looking back to a bygone era. But when one reads the printed explanation underneath each photo, some phrases and words that are used are conspicuously pro-Beijing. For instance, the founding of the People’s Republic of China is described as the “Liberation from the Nationalist’s white terror”, probably intended to antagonize Taiwan; and the 1997 ceremony where Britain relinquished its control of Hong Kong to China which has always been called the “Handover” is now referred to as the “Reunion”, a careful choice of words implying that Hong Kong’s future is firmly within China.

When the museum was quietly reopened last year, with all these ‘approved’ narratives echoing through its walls, the city still faced daily protests aimed indirectly at the Chinese central government. For the time being Hong Kongers are still able to express opinions freely as opposed to their Mainland Chinese counterparts who are increasingly being watched by Big Brother. When the locals walk through the museum’s doors, they will be welcomed by a grand modern building that houses some of the city’s most precious art collections. But they will also be presented with a glimpse of the future, of an era after 2047 when the principle of One Country, Two Systems – a main point in the agreement between the British and the Chinese governments during the handover negotiations – expires. When that day comes, these ‘approved’ narratives might no longer be confined to the walls of the museum itself. But before this happens, and after the pandemic passes, locals and foreign visitors alike can take some inspiration from HKMoA’s collections to face a future that is ever unpredictable.

Wucius Wong’s Scintillating Hong Kong Harbour

Kan Tai-keung’s work depicting the spirit of pine, plum and bamboo

Liu Guosong’s Moving? Staying?

Leung Kui-ting’s Internet, combining Chinese brush strokes with Hong Kong’s neon culture

Antonio Mak Hin-yeung’s Man Coming Out from Himself I

Visual stories of Hong Kong’s past

Wilson Shieh Ka-ho’s Hong Kong Panorama

One of the oldest paintings of Hong Kong, depicting a waterfall on the western coast of the island

Xu Bing’s A Book from the Sky

A corner dedicated to artwork by Kwok Mang-ho, also known as the Frog King

Some of Rosanna Li’s pottery figurines

Victor Wong’s Since the Beginning

Wong Chung-yu’s The More I Am Recharged, the More Hungry I Am

Natural beauties outside the museum

Posted by

Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

62 thoughts on “A Quiet Comeback”

  1. It’s so nice to see all this ART. All this isolation and sheltering in place has been a bit of a deprivation in viewing and coming in contact with other people’s creativity. Wong’s depiction of Hong Kong Harbour is spectacular and A Book from the Sky is really cool. I can’t want to revisit this city and follow your footsteps on the promenade. Thanks Bama!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I feel you, Kelly. There’s this annual art event in Yogyakarta at the heart of Java which is usually held in August. I went last year and I was blown away by the creativity. I’m a bit worried about this year’s event, though — if it’s going to happen at all. I also love that particular work of Wucius Wong’s — I love how it combines colors, crossed lines, and some of the city’s most iconic skyscrapers into such a beautiful painting.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this interesting post, Bama …

    I always enjoyed your travel stories with beautiful images and informative notes.

    It is really interesting to see that, photography is allowed inside the museum and I feel, it really makes people more interested make them visit it in person.

    In India, photography is not allowed in many museums.

    Through the posts of you and James, we could explore many a different dimensions of Hong Kong and I am sure I when I visit Hong Kong it will act as my guide book 🙂

    Thanks again for sharing and have a great day 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sreejith. I have been to a few museums that also prohibit photography, which is quite annoying because this rule was usually put in place because in the past some irresponsible visitors might have caused problems by doing so. I do remember visiting some places in India where photography was strictly prohibited. So now I have to rely on online sources whenever I want to look at the interiors of those places, which are not always abundantly available.

      When you visit Hong Kong one day, and you happen to be an art enthusiast, you definitely shouldn’t miss HKMoA.

      Thanks for reading, and have a nice and restful Sunday!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh wow, what a fabulous place. I wish I’d visited this museum when I was there, but then I was there in June 2018 – perhaps it hadn’t opened yet. I’m impressed with your photos both inside and out, and also very impressed with the art – especially the modern art. The only piece that doesn’t speak to me it The More I am Recharged. All the rest that I can see I know I would have enjoyed seeing in person immensely. Thanks for sharing Bama.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When you were in Hong Kong, the museum and basically this side of the seaside promenade were still closed. When you get the chance to go back to Hong Kong one day, however short, this is a place you shouldn’t miss especially given its location which makes it quite easy to reach even from the airport.

      Liked by 1 person

    • My pleasure, Cornelia. Those are only a tiny fraction of what the museum has to offer. It’s one of the best art museums I’ve ever been to, indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I hardly recognized the museum when I went to Hong Kong last May, but yes for sure, the Avenue of Stars was being closed and renovated. You had a better view compared to what I had that May. It was cloudy at day, hazy at night.

    Okay, another to-do-list in Hong Kong: shirtless jogging along Victoria Harbour on sunny morning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cloudy at daytime and hazy/foggy after sunset — that sounds exactly how Hong Kong was like on my first visit eight years ago.

      Make sure not to get ‘masuk angin’ when you do run shirtless there, Nug. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a stunning building. Your photos managed to transport me to a striking city and were just what I needed today. You were indeed lucky that you could visit when you did, Bama. Stay well.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Actually one day after we went, there was another protest just a few meters away from this museum. We were lucky with the timing! Stay well too, Jolandi!

      Liked by 2 people

    • There has been so many developments in Kowloon in recent years. There’s a new opera house, as well as the West Kowloon Cultural District which has been partially opened. This part of Hong Kong is probably what I want to see next time I’m in town.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You are indeed lucky with your timing. I loved your tour of this stunning museum and some of its pieces (I especially like the striking Moving?Staying?). Equally appealing is the gorgeous waterfront . The harbour and city views are just incredible. I’m struck by Hong Kong’s contrasting features, reading your post about this modern museum and James’s latest one about hiking above the megacity.

    Liked by 2 people

    • We couldn’t have picked a better day, indeed. As you mentioned, the fact that hiking trails and places like this museum are just short MTR rides apart from each other is one of the reasons why I love Hong Kong so much. Jakarta is the exact opposite — to go around takes a lot of time.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, John and Susan! Ha! It makes me think how much Hong Kongers love pork so much so they have a pig as the main character in a popular cartoon show.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Fantastic-looking museum! I sure wish my timing had been as good as yours. I have wanted to get to Hong Kong for so long, and I was going to finally get at least a lucky layover in February … we all know what happened to that! I’ll spin it positively by thinking that the short layover would not have been enough time to do much, and this museum should have been on a list for a visit there, so we will simply add more time and this museum to the next attempt! Like Kelly (we are kindred spirits for sure!), I absolutely love Wucius Wong’s harbor painting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the next time that opportunity comes for you to explore Asia, and you happen to be able to visit Hong Kong as well, you should stay there at least three nights so you’ll have enough time to go to its museums and cultural centers, take a ferry ride to one of the small islands, and go hiking. Wucius Wong’s painting of Hong Kong skyline has some of the things I love: order (those straight lines) meets chaos (the extravagant colors), and modern skyscrapers meet traditional Chinese technique for drawing a landscape.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow! A Book from the Sky is truly special. No wonder it took the author 4 years to complete. The view is also spectacular, especially when the sky is clear. I didn’t have luck with the weather during my trip to HK last year. I guess I have to re-visit Hong Kong soon, before the island is swallowed by he-who-should-not-be-named 🙂

    To be honest, those provocative explanations reminds me of the War Museum in Saigon in the 1990s. Back then, the exhibition was pure propaganda. They intentionally antagonised US and praised the victory of Vietnam. However, things started changing in the last decade thanks to improved relationship with the West (and probably foreign investment haha). I was surprised when visiting the museum with my German friends last year. The exhibition is more about the devastation of war, and less about the guilt of Americans.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Which season was it when you went to Hong Kong? Because I always go in winter and the weather can be quite unpredictable. The museum is temporarily closed at the moment due to Covid-19. So I guess if you go there not too long after the pandemic has passed, you’ll have the museum for yourself (and a few other visitors probably).

      You know how in many countries history is written with a dose of propaganda. So it’s always refreshing to see how in some other countries history is presented as it is. I believe doing so brings us one step closer to healing and reconciliation, which in the end hopefully prevents the same thing to happen again in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was there in January last year. The weather on the first day was awesome. Then it got smoggy for the rest of my trip 😦 It was my first time in HK, so I didn’t spend much time in Kowloon as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for the stroll, Bama, hope we can all get there sooner or later. I’m not much of a modern art fan myself, but I really liked Xu Bing’s A Book from the Sky. I wonder what’s written there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hopefully, when this pandemic is over and nations reopen their borders. Actually at the time of my last visit to Hong Kong, a copy of A Book from the Sky was on display at a modern art museum in Jakarta. So I wonder if one day it will make an appearance closer to where you live.


    • Every year there’s always new places to see in this city. I myself really can’t wait when the West Kowloon Cultural District is fully completed. Then afterward, going on a hike to one of the hills on Hong Kong Island. That would be a perfect day.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m dreaming. But for the next two years I’m sure flights will be priced beyond easy reach, and countries will be restricting travel. Still, I plan to make it soon after.


  10. You are lucky to have visited Hong Kong. I almost went there in 2017 but got distracted in Vietnam, deciding to visit Hong Kong and Mainland China when I had more time. Next time around. How I long to see that skyline in person.

    I am grateful for your giving the HKMoA a little love after protests and viruses overshadowed its reopening. Your vivid descriptions and creative compositions always delight me, making me feel like I am right by your side.

    The facade and surrounds have been spruced up nicely. Decked out in its new attire, I find the HKMoA more interesting than the planetarium or the Cultural Center. That Man Coming Out From Himself I is my favorite piece seconded by The More I Recharge, The More Hungry I Am.

    But it was the accompanying narratives under the images of old Hong Kong that stopped me in my tracks with different takes on truth. Seems like there is a war over the truth raging in so many different places these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now that the HKMoA has got a facelift, it is the one that stands out among other buildings in this part of Hong Kong. That Man Coming Out From Himself I was very intriguing for me as well. In a way, it reminded me of the artistic style of Dimitris Papaioannou, an avant-garde Greek visual artist whose works I adore.

      War over the truth, what could be more worrying than that? We, as citizens, must educate ourselves, and we must know where to look for the truth and how to look for it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It really is disheartening when you know that the people who are close to you limit themselves to one spectrum only. Almost twenty years ago, I was leaning to the far-right, but a few years later I was more on the left side. Today, I identify myself more like you.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I worry about the city of many of my relatives. The recent arrests is just another sign of things to come. The last time I visited I stayed at the YMCA next to the Peninsula. I used to joke that I would take the Rolls Royce to the Peninsula Hotel and walk across. Thanks for the pictures of the art museum, it looks lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think in general the political situation in Hong Kong remains grim for the foreseeable future. Ha! That’s a cool idea. Arrive in style, but stay down to earth. 🙂 The reopening of the art museum is certainly one of the few positive things that came out of the city in recent months.


  12. dansontheroad says:

    Rejuvenated art museums are what I live for! Looking at HKMoA’s collections, they look really interesting with a world-class feel to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Then this is the right place for you! I don’t know how the museum was like before the renovation, but I was certainly impressed with what I saw last December.


  13. tanvir1988 says:

    Hong Kong is a nice place for giving trip. Your post is very nice. Hopefully i will give a trip in next year to Hong Kong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hopefully by next year things will have returned to normal so you can really explore Hong Kong.


  14. Perhaps it is the trips most recently taken before COVID-19 that seem all the more precious. I enjoyed this Hong Kong visit with you, albeit virtually.
    It seems that the renovation has resulted in extraordinary results. I don’t think I have ever been in a museum where the music changes from one display to another. I’ll have to pay closer attention!
    I hope this finds you well Bama. Take care during this unsettling time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true. It’s quite surreal to think that a little over a month ago, I was still be able to go out freely, and a few months before that I was still in Hong Kong. Speaking of the museum, it really is world-class. I always love it when public can access places like this. You too, Sue! Stay healthy and safe.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Bama thank you for this Hong Kong journey. I often think about Hong Kong as a fascinating case of seeing China slowly but surely devour what was once a proud independent state. It is easy to admire the crowds of Hong Kong residents who brave the elements and the government to demonstrate against the latest government attempt at restriction of rights. This has happened now several times over the past few years and it is quite clear that it is Bejing’s intentions just to wear out the people. They push a little bit, get a violent reaction from Hong Kong’s population, retreat a little bit and if you do that every couple of years for the next twenty years it is pretty easy to conclude that the population will eventually get fatigue and Bejing will shape HK to its desire.

    I just wish some of that Hong Kong fighting spirit existed in the U.S. where the current government has so outrageously run amuck that an all hands Hong Kong style in the street demonstration that overwhelms the government may be the only solution there, in the U.S. Alas, that opportunity has passed by….

    That said, Hong Kong is always such a wonderful cornucopia of sights sounds and tastes. We were in Hong Kong not that long ago and kicking ourselves for not having known about the reopened Museum of Art. Thank you for this reminder and it is on the list for next time. Particularly like the Wucius Wong’s HK harbor work and as well the Roasanna Lis pottery figurines. Great architecture too.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ben. Your comment made me think of how the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong was like in the early years of the return of latter’s sovereignty to China. Back in 1993, four years before the handover, the size of Hong Kong’s economy was more than a quarter of that of China’s, which was one of the reasons why China agreed to keep this small territory’s autonomy. However, now Hong Kong’s economy only accounts for 3% of China’s, which probably explains why Beijing is becoming more and more assertive these days. The remaining years before the expiry of the principle of One Country, Two Systems will certainly be a time of great uncertainty for Hong Kongers. Many will stay, defending their civil rights at all costs, but some have decided to leave the territory altogether, living new lives where personal freedom is more respected, like in Taiwan.

      I’ve been to Hong Kong several times now, and every time I visit, I can’t help but think of its future, while checking out what’s new in the city. Speaking of the museum, it seems like Wucius Wong’s work really is people’s favorite.


  16. I’m glad we had enough time to visit the Hong Kong Museum of Art and take a stroll along the revamped Kowloon waterfront last Christmas; I can tell you there’s been a huge improvement on what was there before. Architecture-wise, the old museum was totally forgettable. I share Matt and Ben’s concerns about the political future of my hometown… now that the rest of the world is distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing is overtly tightening the screws on Hong Kong’s way of life and trying to silence the opposition. I can only hope that the upcoming Legislative Council elections in September will see something of a landslide win for the pro-democracy camp. Beyond that, I pray that we will see the fall of the Chinese Communist Party in our lifetimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • After reading your comment, I can’t help but think of how the months-long anti-government protests have been portrayed by Hong Kong’s largest English-language newspaper, at least on its YouTube channel. The narratives are clearly leaning on the government side, which shouldn’t come as a surprise as it is owned by one of the biggest multinational companies from China. I wasn’t aware of the Legco elections this year — definitely a highly-anticipated political event people from both sides will be following closely.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Very lucky you got to visit Hong Kong at the end of last year. That’s great you go to see the Bruce Lee and Anita Mui statues. They are both Hong Kong icons 🙂 That looks like one incredible museum with amazing art. I also haven’t come across a museum where the ambient music changes from section to section. Most museums and exhibits I’ve been too are silent as I guess these places are designed for you to observe art in silence. Hong Kong has such a history with China, its stories of it being its own city and its traditional and modern narratives. So many more stories to tell of it and maybe one day we will see more. Hope you’re doing well, Bama.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I couldn’t be luckier with the timing. The ambient music was not at every room, but at the ones where it was played it actually enhanced the experience — at least that’s what I felt. Overall, it’s a really well-done and well-curated art museum. Thanks Mabel. Stay healthy and safe too!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. OMG! The location, the sculptures, the architecture, the artefacts and so much information. Thank you for sharing, Bama. I hope you are keeping well.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Oh wow. Been living in Hong Kong for almost 7 years – I’ve never even been to the museum lol.

    Anyway glad that you had the chance to visit HK before this covid-19 situation got worse. Now I’m wondering if I ever be able to go back to Indo :’)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sheren. After being temporarily closed due to COVID-19, I think the museum is gradually reopening. But you have to check the latest updates before deciding to visit it.

      It will certainly take months, if not years, for international travel to return to ‘normal’, although that might look a bit different from what we were used to before the pandemic. Until then, stay safe and healthy!


  20. Pingback: A Slice of Kowloon | What an Amazing World!

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