In Hong Kong, opportunities abound for the fortunate few. The global trading hub is home to over 7.5 million residents of mixed nationalities and boasts a blossoming free market economy, despite a recent slowdown in growth. It is also a city with eyewateringly high property rents, soaring living costs, and an expanding wealth gap that belies its glittering skyline.
It is fitting then that the theme of “opportunity” is the focus of this year’s much-touted WMA Masters programme – an annual competition for professional photographers. The contest is one of five initiatives hosted by the WYNG Media Award, which includes a research grant for photographers, image-based competitions open to the public, a documentary film project, and a student essay-writing contest.
The theme of the exhibition, which closed its doors last Tuesday, is delicately expressed by WMA Masters winner Sharon Lee in her piece The Crescent Void – a multi-media collection of sundry grocery items, moulded into concrete, then recast as negative photographic images. “Half-moulds-half-specimens,” Lee calls them.
At first glance, the installation presents nothing more than a series of mundane items: a plastic bag, a tin can, a row of packaged Yakult drinks. But the piece, Lee says, is less about what is there than what isn’t – the things lost in consumer progress. “An uncanny presence against change,” she adds.
A worn-out photo
It began with a worn-out photo, which Lee plucked from her grandmother’s belongings. The faded image depicted her grandparent’s old Chai Wan-based grocery store in the 1970s. Curious about its fate, the artist decided to revisit the site opposite the Chai Wan train station, only to find that the once intimate family store had been replaced with a concrete wall.
“It was cold, industrial, and bulky. It had replaced the whole store,” she told HKFP.
The discovery inspired her to create a photography piece on urban change, using items similar to those sold in her grandparents’ store, recast in the concrete, and photographed. “[The concrete] is kind of like photography, much of the information is lost but the form and the texture [are] still there,” she explained. “You lose these elements in society.”
Lee graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art, formal training which must have served her well over the months it took her to assemble her complex, multi-dimensional piece. Reflecting on its meaning against the backdrop of the theme, she explained: “What is ‘opportunity’ to me? In photography, you’re always capturing the present. I’m trying to see what photography can do if you want to capture absence – what is lost in ‘opportunity’.”
What is ‘opportunity’?
WMA Masters’ finalists’ exhibition hosted seven photography installations that touched upon the theme of opportunity in various ways.
Cheung Nga-ling’s installation Alike… was a visual tribute to her mother, who she said bore a striking resemblance to her, leading to her nickname “mini-me.”
Jolans Fung dedicated his piece Opportunities everywhere?! to the city’s limited social mobility: “Hong Kong is known to be a land of opportunity… but perhaps it is just some kind of an irony,” he writes.
Pierfrancesco Celada, however, takes a different approach by exploring the “modern fortresses” or shopping malls in his piece Where It Never Rains.
Beatrice Wong created a self-portrait series in No Opportunities (for Beatrice) to “celebrate” her battle with depression and anxiety, featuring images of her in a room grappling with different stages of her mental health.
Saskia Wesseling tackles Hong Kong’s education sector, in Time to tame the tigers? – a visual manifesto that addresses her confrontation with the pressure to be a “tiger mum.”
And in Yip Kin-bon’s The day you put me on, the artist puts together newspaper clippings of criminal suspects, many of whom are wearing clothing embellished with slogans of peace. “What people wear in everyday situations, which may or may not intentionally express certain messages, creates an embarrassing tension,” he wrote.
In preparation for the exhibition, WMA project organisers held focus groups with Hong Kong residents of different age groups, including a dim sum event where participants were invited to discuss what “opportunity” meant to them.
Vivian Fung, WMA project director, told HKFP the purpose of the focus groups was to facilitate discussions on local issues. “We want to look at how opportunity relates to them, how are they tangible and how can we act upon them,” she said. “At the exhibition, we try to cross-pollinate these kinds of discussions.”
Lee was chosen as the winner by a panel of seven judges, four locals and three foreigners, representing a variety of art and NGO bodies.