Urban Diary
未來故事 永續香港|Sustainable Future, Hong Kong Tales

John BATTEN: The Rhythms of Wong Chuk Hang


56 years old

Art critic

Lives in Sheung Wan

Set up his office in Wong Chuk Hang

“I once had a gallery in Central. I got very tired and wanted to do the gallery in a slightly different way, so I looked around. The first area that interested me was Tai Kok Tsui. It was a semi-industrial and residential area close to Mong Kok. But I also knew that the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) wanted to destroy it. When you relocate your business, you don’t spend money on something that would be destroyed in several years, which is what the URA has done. I looked again and found Wong Chuk Hang.

I found a large and cheap space in Remex Building. I realised later why it was cheap. It was on the top floor, and it got very hot in the summer. I painted the floor with the help of an artist friend. We found that the floor was very oily, and asked the landlord about it. He told me that it used to be a candle factory. The candle wax had gone on the floor and made it very oily. Remex Building has a very good view of Aberdeen and Wong Chuk Hang. But I didn’t feel it was a good place for working. I stayed for a couple of years and ran four exhibitions. In the meantime, I changed my view of what I wanted to do. I was in the gallery business for thirteen years and got very tired by the end of it. It was like pissing in the wind, but you make no effect. So I wound down my business.

For me, Aberdeen has been a very good place to run away. When I first moved in, I told everyone that this is the best place to do a gallery. I hoped that people would follow me. But it didn’t happen until the last few years. There are art galleries here but little coordination of what they do. I think it’s too late. The atmosphere in Wong Chuk Hang is now very different because of the MTR. The area is being turned into a commercial area. The galleries that are here will be forced to leave.

My present unit in Gee Luen Hing Building is very small. There is no view at all, but it’s good for working. An old man and his wife used to come every morning. They would occupy our corridor to sell noodles and toast. It was really an “illegal” breakfast stall. For many years, they did breakfast from seven to nine. They no longer come. Because it’s changed. The working men who come in early are replaced by office girls in the services sector.

There used to be many printers here. Someone printed the work, others fold and bind. Occasionally, you see a guy holding a very big guillotine blade. These guys still come. But in recent years, many printers have left. When they leave, they take away their big machines through the window. The birds also used to come because we had trees and nullah. Now because of the construction of the MTR, they are gone. The guys used to sell newspapers and pornographic magazines on the streets. They’re all gone. The industrial feel of the area has changed.

Some of the things are still around. Up on the hill, you see a hospice service by the Catholic Church, the Tung Wah Rehabilitation Unit, a beautiful monastery, and the police training centre. You can hear the gunshots when they’re practicing. Along the waterfront where the yachts are repaired, the people from Correctional Service wash all the sheeting for prisons. A group of prisoners work there every day, and carry the laundry back to prison. The funny rhythms of Wong Chuk Hang are still there. But it's a little bit different than it used to be. That's inevitable. Because of the change from industrial to commercial zoning, and also the MTR construction. Just by changing a few things, you change a whole community.”