[Sponsored] As Hong Kong closed its borders to an eerie new infectious disease that has now claimed the lives of 209 residents, ensconced artists turned inwards. Goethe-Institut Hong Kong exhibited Mask Life, a visual reflection on the uncertainties of coronavirus by Birdy Chu and his students from the City University of Hong Kong; Schoeni Project held the virtual disCONNECT HK, in collaboration with HKWalls, and WMA hosted Can’t Touch This! – a four-part look at the lessons of the pandemic.

With in-person exhibitions delayed or cancelled, the art sector faced the threat of crippled profits and stymied creative expression — starting with the postponement of Asia’s largest fair – Art Basel Hong Kong – last March. But galleries used the pandemic to cut costs and collectors turned to local galleries instead of foreign ones, resulting in an 11 percentage point increase from 2019 to 2020 in their share of sales, according to an Art Basel and UBS report.

wma chloe lai
Faces under Masks. Photo: WMA.

It was under these conditions that journalist-turned-urbanist Chloe Lai and photographer Tse Pak Chai created Faces under Masks a bilingual pocked-sized book that chronicles the stories of 10 Hong Kong residents as they navigate the realities of Covid-19. The pair document the divergent experiences of communities at the heart of the pandemic, from a domestic worker who must find a new employer to a couple trying to organise a wedding. 

“We were interested in local stories and thought to do some kind of anthropological project, [looking at] how to visualise daily lives,” Tse explained. “I think it’s worth creating some visual records of our experiences during this moment in time.”

Photo: Florence Leung.
Photo: Florence Leung.

Giving ample space to tell their stories, the book reveals the thoughts and fears of communities pilloried for allegedly causing repeated waves of infection. In one tale, a sailor reflects on the constant work involved in being stranded on a vessel for six months, after government restrictions prevented it from berthing. “Even if we had to die, we wanted to die in our own home!” he wrote, fearful that a single infection on board would turn the vessel into an incubator for the virus. 

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On land, as the city experienced a third coronavirus wave, public opinion turned against seafarers and aircrew over policy loopholes that enabled them to freely enter. The 27-year-old lamented the marginalisation of a workforce that he described as overworked and underappreciated. “The apple and lychee that you enjoy doesn’t fall from the sky, nor is it planted by Park’n Shop,” he wrote. “Perhaps people would slowly discover the importance of maritime trade — despite those who claim that it is a twilight industry.”

In another story, a full-time housewife contemplates a year of homeschooling two children, which she describes as “an extended, but joyful holiday” after the pandemic shuttered kindergartens. The family created an insular world of online learning, populated with YouTube exercise videos and animations — a break from “the chaos and instability of the world.”

Michelle Fong
Photo: Michelle Fong.

“Communication and understanding is important in building empathy… It’s important to see people as people, not as ‘others’, as if they have no stories or pain.”

Chloe lai

It is stories like these that define Faces under Masks, ones of reluctant resilience, unearthed through times of crises and strengthened by the human bonds that form as a result. The book is, in many ways, an attempt to document trauma among Hong Kong people – part of an epidemiological history of distrust in government institutions. Between 2002 and 2004 an earlier coronavirus contagion — SARS — claimed the lives of 299 in Hong Kong. “Back then, civil society had not started documenting people’s efforts to save their own communities,” Lai said. 

The outbreak spread to at least 29 countries and infected more than 8,000 worldwide, killing 774 globally. “There were community initiatives of solidarity, but I don’t recall us having civil society groups or NGOs recording its impact on people,” she added. “The trend really started after SARS.”

However, the epidemic, which reached its peak in 2003, did have a lasting effect on government institutions. It led to the founding of the Centre for Health Protection following criticism of the health system. “I hope that when a similar outbreak happens in the future, we will not find ourselves in such a mess again,” said Michael Mak, then-representative for the health constituency.

It is through this lens that artists such as Lai and Tse peer, in an effort to record and preserve a collective memory for generations to come. “This time, we should document how people respond to Covid-19 because first – it is a primary source of information in the future… It will help people remember how we got to this point,” Lai said, adding that she hopes people will prevent it from happening again.

wma chloe lai
Photo: WMA.

Lai runs the private library 打書釘 Nose in the Books, a charming bibliophagist’s nook in the heart of Causeway Bay, where patrons can spend the day consuming volumes ranging from literature to philosophy. This quiet space, seemingly untouched by the metropolis around it, is a fitting home for her latest work about the shared experience of isolation, to be read alone in quietude.

“Communication and understanding is important in building empathy,” Lai said. “It’s important to see people as people, not as ‘others’, as if they have no stories or pain.”

Can’t Touch This! builds on the book’s themes of loss and hope during the pandemic. Presenting the works of three artists, the exhibition was born out of a crisis that upended the creative industry and threw artists into a period of uncertainty after months of political unrest.

WMA Chloe Lai Faces Under Masks
Chloe Lai’s Faces Under Masks Photo: WMA.

“What makes Hong Kong different is that the pandemic took place in the midst of a protest movement,” curator Angela Su said, in reference to the months of pro-democracy demonstrations that sent public trust in government institutions to new lows after Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration attempted to enact a controversial extradition bill that would have enabled fugitive transfers to mainland China. The movement culminated in Beijing’s enactment of a national security law in the city, prompting an exodus of residents and a wider crackdown on civil liberties.

Under this shadow, the memories of the movement were felt in the community response to Covid-19: mass mask-wearing, community initiatives to distribute medical supplies such as hand sanitisers and the building of websites to track the spread of the virus — social infrastructure that had been built over the last two years.

“What happened in 2019 affected how Hongkongers dealt with the pandemic, especially in its early days,” Su added. “The bonds and solidarity that were fostered in the community during the movement, together with people’s resilience and resourcefulness, helped us survive the pandemic.”

Photo: WMA.
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