Ha Bik-chuen had a secret. To the public, he was a self-taught artist so respected that just a month after his death in October 2009, the Hong Kong Museum of Art mounted a homage called Art of an Eternal Spring. But it wasn’t just Ha’s signature prints and sculptures using ‘found objects’ – randomly encountered bits and pieces of his life – that were on show.
‘The pictures and photographic records Uncle Ha has left behind will be an important documentation of the art scenes [sic] in Hong Kong,’ stated the press release.
That was an understatement. Ha, born in Guangdong in 1925, was apparently a man with a good sense of humour, so perhaps it would have amused him to think that what he left behind would turn out to be the greatest found object of all.
It was Ha’s secret: an apartment stuffed to its (leaking) ceiling with photographs, maps, exhibition catalogues, magazines, folders… a geological seam of Hong Kong’s 1960-2000s art history compressed into 600 square feet at the top of an eight-storey walk-up in To Kwa Wan, Kowloon.
For archivists in Hong Kong – a city that, until about a decade ago, had little time for either its past or its art – it inspired a kind of ecstatic uncertainty. What could be done with such an art history legacy?
‘The family said that Ha always retreated to it after dinner and they’d leave him alone,’ says Michelle Wong, lead researcher with Asia Art Archive (AAA). ‘It was understood by them that it was of value and this was a mission.’
The dig through the boxes, stacked deep, started in 2012. Early on, the team found some 100,000 photos of Hong Kong exhibitions, taken after Ha bought a Canon AE-1 camera in the early 1980s. Photography was a constant passion in his life: a photo of him in early 1950s Macau, where he lived for eight years before moving to Hong Kong in 1957, shows him clutching a photography magazine. But there were also thousands of cuttings, stored in yellow Kodak boxes, and piles of magazines within which he had slyly stuck additional layers of imagery to create personal collages, or ‘edited’, as he wrote briskly on their covers.
In 2015, AAA did its own editing and held an exhibition of Ha’s collection. Its pragmatic English title was Excessive Enthusiasm: Ha Bik-chuen and the Archive as Practice. Its Chinese title was taken from the lyrics of a Faye Wong song (rough translation: ‘remembering someone is a mystical feeling, like a shadow’) that conveyed tender grief for an invisible presence. ‘It was our tribute to Mrs Ha,’says AAA’s Wong. ‘The patience of the Ha family was incredible.’
Eventually, last summer, the To Kwa Wan trove was packed into 600 boxes. (Any cockroaches? ‘Just one,’ says a phobic Wong.) Late one hot July night, amid the dismantling, she thought she saw Ha’s ghost ascending the stairs. It was his eldest son. Who could blame her? Cataloguing Ha’s archive, the team found motivational notes he’d written to himself – ‘absorb whatever you can from the past to lubricate the present’ – like a sudden voice in a silent room.
Now, thanks to funding from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the collection sits in an industrial building in Fo Tan. The space was designed by Sky Yutaka, a Hong Kong architectural studio that also created the mini-map attached to each box showing exactly where in the To Kwa Wan flat it had originally been located. (Handwritten comments – ‘Mouldy, F***ing Mouldy, Heavy Heavy Heavy, High Priority’ – were subsequently added by the team.)
Within a randomly selected box – packed by Hazel Kwok/20 July 2016/Zone G – there’s a paper folder filled with cut-out images of musical instruments. These folders were used by Ha as convenient receptacles for his clippings but they, too, are from a half-forgotten age: Toronto Stock Exchange Review 1972, The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Report of the Directors and Accounts 1965.
Was the creation of such a horde intellectual or instinctive? ‘A combination of both,’ says Wong. ‘This has to be a tool of self-teaching. Ha was very ambitious. It’s driven by a desire to know.’
During this month’s Art Basel Hong Kong, AAA will host talks at its booth. The 2017 theme is ‘Under the Influence’. ‘It’s about how books and knowledge have influenced artists,’ says Wong. ‘Ha falls into that because he was such a huge collector.’
By visiting Ha’s archive Wong hopes people will fall under the influence of his impressive collection. ‘People can come to Fo Tan and we’ll make it a fantastic experience. We’ll have collage parties, in collaboration with Canadian contemporary artist Paul Butler, and videos,’ says Wong. ‘What we want to bring to this is fun.’
Visitors will be encouraged to linger. As Wong puts it (and as Ha surely knew): ‘This is something you need to invest your own time in to get to know. It’s not so tasty if it’s instant.’
The Ha Bik-chuen archive in Fo Tan will be open for viewing from 21-23 & 25 March. Visits can be booked through the Asia Art Archive. aaa.org.hk
Art Basel Hong Kong takes place 23-25 March at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai. artbasel.com