Fallen leaves are often dismissed as trash on the busy streets of Hong Kong, but local artist Teresa Chan has brought them back to life with her exquisite designs that invite viewers to see trees as key witnesses to historical events in the city.

Teresa Chan leaf art
A leaf art showcasing the outline of the iconic Lion Rock Peak in Hong Kong. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

From the contour of Hong Kong’s symbolic Lion Rock peak to the profile of Cantopop icon Leslie Cheung, Chan delicately cuts from crispy leaves to create images that she saw as reminiscent of Hong Kong, and the Wan Chai neighbourhood in particular.

Titled “When Trees Cry in the City,” Chan’s exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre explores the emotional connection between Hongkongers and roadside urban trees, which she describes as “living together with us for a long time to witness what is happening in the city.”

Teresa Chan leaf art
Leaf artist Teresa Chan. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The nine-day exhibition also includes a map for touring trees in Wan Chai, a commercial district that has a “rich heritage manifesting the collective memories of Hong Kong.”

“People come and go while the trees stay,” Chan wrote in her exhibition summary.

Teresa Chan leaf art
A leaf art showcasing the shape of a human heart to remember a secondary student who was killed in a bomb attack during the 1967 Hong Kong riots. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

On a leaf from an Indian almond tree, Chan carved out a human heart to mark the death of a student who was killed in a bomb attack in Wan Chai in October 1967, when the city saw large-scale riots against the British colonial government.

Teresa Chan leaf art
A leaf art showcasing a battleship to remember the historical Fenwick Pier in Wan Chai. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Another piece of art features a battleship cut-out from a traveller’s palm leaf to remember the historic Fenwick Pier in Wan Chai, which welcomed as many as 50,000 US Navy sailors a year in its heyday. The six-decade old building, which evokes Hong Kong’s colonial past, is being demolished. The site will be handed over to the Kong Wan Fire Station.

Chan, a Wan Chai resident who studied ecology and anthropology, only began experimenting with using leaves as an art medium last year, after coming across impressive works on social media by artists based in Japan, Spain and South East Asia. She said the “low cost” of using fallen leaves as an art medium made it easier for her to take the first step towards branching out into the art world.

wan chai tree map
Wan Chai tree tour map. Photo: When Trees Cry In The City screenshot.

Most of Chan’s work is dedicated to her beloved neighbourhood, which has lived through a number of historical developments in Hong Kong. It was also the scene of several violent confrontations between police and protesters during the 2019 anti-extradition bill unrest.

Wan Chai’s hustle and bustle may leave people with little time to appreciate its vibrancy, the artist said, but she discovered a completely different side of the hectic commercial heart when she took late night strolls in the neighbourhood.

Teresa Chan leaf art
Different types of leaves commonly found in Hong Kong. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“At night, you would only see trees swaying in the breeze. At that moment, I realised there were creatures bearing witness through thick and thin,” she said.

The perishable nature of leaves has put a time limit on Chan’s work, which she estimated would decompose in several years, despite being encased. She also has no plans to retain the art pieces mounted, saying she would hand them out to visitors on the last day of the exhibition on Sunday.

Teresa Chan leaf art
Leaf artist Teresa Chan. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

But the artist hopes that the ephemeral art form could play a part in keeping the stories about her neighbourhood and the city alive for generations to come.

“I think storytelling from one generation to another is similar to a decayed leaf becoming part of the soil,” she said.

leaf art Leslie Cheung
A leaf art showcasing a profile of Cantopop icon Leslie Cheung. Photo: Supplied.

Since the exhibition launched last Sunday, Chan has met more than 300 visitors, many of whom had worked or lived in Wan Chai. Among them was Waiwah Yee, a Hongkonger who emigrated to the US in the 1960s and has been staying in the city with her husband since late 2020 owing to the travel restrictions amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Teresa Chan leaf art
Leaf artist Teresa Chan. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Staring at Chan’s work about the 1967 riots, the New York-based Hongkonger said it reminded her of why her family decided to leave Hong Kong during the tumultuous years.

“My mom [who was already in the US] asked whether we were coming or not, and my father said maybe we should as well,” she recalled.

Teresa Chan leaf art
Leaf artist Teresa Chan (left) and visitors Waiwah Yee and Jason Yee. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Listening to stories from visitors like Yee and interacting with the crowd was why the leaf sculptor said community art was “essential” in Hong Kong, as the city kicked off its art week with the prestigious Art Basel 2022 showcasing works from 130 local and international galleries, as well as the Asian-art focused cornerstone Art Central 2022.

The major art fairs happening a little over a kilometre from the Arts Centre would present a very different atmosphere compared to Chan’s small-scale exhibition, the emerging artist said. Some people may feel “nervous” as they stepped into the vast event halls at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, she said, adding the shows may manifest a certain degree of “elitism.”

Teresa Chan leaf art
Leaf artist Teresa Chan speaks with visitors. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Chan said her collection may be “too informative” and lacked the “wow factor” the art industry looks for in a whitewall gallery. Her primary goal, however, was not to meet “industry expectations,” but to allow visitors from diverse backgrounds to absorb the message of her exhibition and pass it on to their family and friends.

Teresa Chan leaf art
A pile of leaves with hand-written messages. The one at the top reads: “Writing down secrets on a leaf feels like they will disappear with the leaf. That’s very good!” Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“After getting to know the art industry, I could sense that this is not what they see in an exhibition,” Chan said. “I can’t really grasp what the ecosystem is like. I could only say there should be a hundred products to cater a hundred customers.”

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.