Earlier this year, in the last few days before the heat of summer, nearly 50,000 people visited the Hong Kong International Art Fair, a 65% jump in attendance over last year. It's another step up for the aspiring capital of Asia's art market, a city where auction houses sold $502 million in art last year alone. But while collectors flock to Hong Kong to scoop up works by popular mainland Chinese artists such as Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang, Hong Kong's real artistic vanguard can be found 40 minutes by train from the city center, in the grimy industrial area of Fo Tan, where artists work next to sausagemakers and metalsmiths in hulking, derelict factories. For years, manufacturers have been fleeing to cheaper pastures in China, so Hong Kong, notorious for high rents, has had a surplus of vacant industrial space. The result has been an explosion of creativity.
Fo Tan's pioneering artists arrived in the early 2000s, when a sluggish economy and the SARS crisis sent rents tumbling. Now there are more than 200 in the area, many of them graduates of the nearby Chinese University of Hong Kong. While there's nothing new about artists setting up shop in obsolete industrial areas it happened in New York City's SoHo in the 1960s and Beijing's Dashanzi in the 1990s its impact in Hong Kong has been profound. There are now more full-time artists than ever before and they're catching the eye of both local and international publics. In January, more than 10,000 people flocked to Fo Tan's annual open-studios event.
The district has given "a lot of people space and a community that wasn't there before," says Tobias Berger, a German curator who worked at Hong Kong's Para/Site Art Space during the years of Fo Tan's emergence. He and other curators helped draw attention to the district's artists, and since then a number of them have made a mark at international events like the Venice Biennale and in galleries as far afield as Sydney and Stockholm. "And it's not only Fo Tan," Berger says. "There's more happening now in other parts of the city too."
Kacey Wong, 38, has seen the transformation firsthand. Trained as an architect, he began working on conceptual-art installations in the 1990s. Last year, Wong dressed up as a skyscraper at the Subvision Festival in Hamburg, and in 2008, his installation Wandering Home, a miniature Hong Kong apartment set atop a tricycle, was shown at the Venice Architecture Biennale.
"Usually, the artist grows in scale to the studio," he says, recalling how he started off working in his mom's living room. "I was making this 20-ft.-long crocodile out of corrugated cardboard. It was a huge mess. Suddenly, I heard the keychain jangling by the door and it was my mom coming home. I froze with such a feeling of guilt. That's when I realized I needed my own space." Like other local artists, Wong had long carried with him the stigma of working in an inscrutable profession that was rarely lucrative or even feasible. "Before, people were just doing art at home and getting yelled at by their parents," says Wong. "These days, a fresh graduate from art school can share a studio for HK$1,000 [$130] a month. It's a system that allows people to grow as artists."
Casper Chan is hoping to do just that. After graduating from Chinese University's art school two years ago, the 25-year-old painter spent some time renting a studio with former classmates. "My work wouldn't have been so large if I hadn't had a studio," she says. (Her series of Hong Kong teenagers rendered on big wood panels stands in testament to that fact.) Being in Fo Tan also gave her a shot at greater exposure. "A lot of gallery owners came to the open-studio days and talked to me and invited me to have a show," she says.
Some artists have gone a step further, using their studios to market themselves and each other. Last year, photographer Quist Tsang joined up with two friends to open Hidden Culture in another run-down industrial district in east Kowloon. The venture serves as a work space and exhibition venue for emerging artists. "We are not popular, we are not famous, but we have passion for the things we do," says Tsang.
Since studio space became more readily available, Hong Kong artists have grown more sophisticated says Tang Ying-chi, herself a mixed-media artist and the editor of the coffee-table volume Oasis: Artists' Studios in Hong Kong. "Their work has become more complex than 10 or 20 years ago, when there were more watercolors and Chinese ink paintings. Now they use everyday materials in their work. It's more closely connected to the city they live in."
But they aren't the only ones to have noticed the potential of old industrial premises. Property developers are keen on putting them to use too, and they have successfully pressured the government to make it easier to convert former factories into apartments, offices and even hotels. Rents are already skyrocketing. Last month, Chan was evicted from her studio after her landlord sold it. At the same time, the bigger the arts community becomes, the louder its voice gets. Artists' complaints about rising rents have caught the ear of a government keen to address the charges of philistinism historically leveled at Hong Kong by fostering the development of local creativity. More subsidized space for artists is in the pipeline so is a study to determine just how many artists are out there. If the phenomenon of Fo Tan is anything to go by, the answer could be higher than anyone supposes.