TSE MING CHONG. METAPHORICAL COMMENTARIES
by Sheung Yiu


© Tse Ming Chong by Sheung Yiu

‘Photography is an “ancient” medium,’ said Tse Ming Chong, a photojournalist, artist and experienced visual educators in Hong Kong. In our one-hour conversation, the image maker repeatedly pointed out that the singular perspective of photography goes against human instinctual curiosity. Modern audience is no longer satisfied with truth told through one photograph.

Tse’s works are visual metaphors of the relationship among space, representation and reality. In Hong Kong 94, He put negatives on a glass window and let ambient light dictates their appearance. He presented architectural photographs of Central Plaza in Central Plaza. In his more recent work, ‘The Road’, he photographed empty roads from both sides of footbridges during the Umbrella Movement and presenting them in groups of diptychs. According to the artist, the extra viewpoints symbolically give audience a more ‘complete picture’.

In his latest portfolio book ‘chrono’ (記述), launched in May, Tse attempted to include his thoughts on photography and a 25-year documentary of Hong Kong, from 1989’s colonial Hong Kong to 2014’s post-handover Hong Kong. Tse always search for meanings in the most banal daily scenes. ‘Horse Race Will Continue in Hong Kong’, a photo series shot at the time of handover, reflected social and cultural transition through portraying gambling activities at Jockey Club Horse Race Betting Branches across Hong Kong. His documentary photography, much like his image-based installation, is an allegory with an underlying social and political subtext.

To the big question: ‘Is Hong Kong photography behind its time?’. The seasoned photographer replied ‘The city has not transitioned to Postmodernism.’

© Tse Ming Chong, Hong Kong ’94 – Central Plaza, 1995. Colour transparency. Exhibited at Central Plaza, Hong Kong, 1995.

© Hong Kong ’94 – Central Plaza, 1995. Colour transparency 

What do you think about photo manipulation? To my knowledge, there are two main intentions when it comes to postproduction. Some use it to enhance the visuality of photographs, others use it as framing device for metaphysical concepts. Hong Kong photographers, amateur or not, are particularly obsessed with the visual aspects of photographs. Do you think pictorialism dominate the photographic mentality in Hong Kong?

Tseu Ming Chong (TMC): I agree some photographers manipulate their photos to achieve a certain standard of beauty, but this mentality goes way beyond photography, it stems from the elemental value orientation in Hong Kong. In the past 30 years, photographers has explored a wide range of photography, from salon to documentary to pure conceptual. But the majority of audience and hobbyist photographers are still stuck on a singular standard of beauty. I would even go as far to say Hong Kong have not entered postmodernity. We still believe in authority, We continue to follow a herd mentality when it comes to art. Postmodernity celebrates diversity, but Hong Kong still holds on to a sole aesthetic standards and sensibilities for art and design. It is a problem of taste and visual education. 

This is especially true for Photography because the medium is so visually impactful, it is easy to internalize and reproduce a photograph. In a society where the majority lack a basic understanding of the medium and an ‘immune system’ to commercial images, consumerism dictates the standard of beauty. And with the internet disseminating and replicating the same type of image over and over at an exponential rate, the society is more prone to the homogenization of aesthetics. Unfortunately, most people are oblivious of what is happening. When an image goes viral, people copy. Eventually, society recreates a so-called objective beauty. Compared to the wide range of photography in the international scene, Hong Kong has a much more limited scope.

© Tse Ming Chong, Tiananmen, 1989

Is there any Hong Kong post-modernist photographer?

TMC: If we look at Hong Kong from the international scope of postmodernism, I would say there is none. Postmodernism is about open interpretation. it celebrates endless possibilities, different approaches and techniques. From my experience, the majority of discourses among Hong Kong photographers still lies within the imagery itself. It is rather obsolete compared to the contemporary discussions surrounding the medium.

Out of all local photographers, I think Ng Sai Kit work is interesting, especially his latest show in Osage Gallery ‘Meta-landscape’. He challenged the way of seeing, the limitation of the medium, the concept of reality and illusion, distance and proximity. His work is perplexing, yet thought-provoking.

What do you think about the lack of photography audience in Hong Kong?

TMC: Drawing from the 8-year experience of running Lumenvisum (one of the few existing gallery specializes in photographic medium in Hong Kong), I would say the audience is slowly growing. In the past seven years, we tried to advocate a contemporary interpretation of photography. Slowly but surely, we are seeing changes.

Being a visual art educator for years, what did you learn about photography student in Hong Kong?

TMC: Most students came to art school with almost no knowledge of the medium whatsoever. After 12 years of spoon-fed primary and secondary education,  I would consider it an accomplishment if the students are able to garner an appreciation of photography after a mere two years of formal art education. Children in other countries grow in a much more nurturing environment which integrates art into student’s life. Hong Kong, on the other hand, emphasizes on a superficial understanding of art, advocating a formal ‘art training’ or an ‘artful lifestyle’. Visual education in public schools mainly covers famous painters and paintings, very vague and superficial. But I am still hopeful. As increasing number of Hong Kongers learn more about the medium, a demand for quality photography will eventually appear.

© Tse Ming Chong, ‘Generation - His/Her Story’, 1996

Tell us more about your acclaimed photo series ‘Horse Race Will Continue in Hong Kong’.

TMC: ‘Horse Race Will Continue in Hong Kong’ is the first project that I started with a photographer’s intention. I got the idea of photographing a unique scene of Hong Kong that illustrates the relationship between gambling and society in the midst of drastic political transition - the *handover (*the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China). After some intensive research, I chose to photograph Horse Race Betting Branches. I spent a year, shooting all 125 of them. Whenever it is horse racing day, I will go to one branch and photograph the scenes inside and around the betting branches. 

The project attempted to answer the question: Why do human gamble? To me, the betting branch is an urban temple, a church, a symbol of hope and a site for social gathering. Horse gambling, in a way, epitomises Hong Kong culture. People bet and people go. The city is unforgivingly bustling and efficient.
(Did you observe any change before and after the handover?) Not at all. Perhaps it all comes down to an idea I read from a book suggesting that horse racing is a British mean of soft governance. The subcultural activity gives people false hopes of social mobility and deters grassroot citizens from political participation. Another interesting point is, Half of the revenue of Jockey Club, the biggest charity in Hong Kong, comes from betting, which is to say most charitable organization are funded with money from grassroot citizens, instead of the privileged and the wealthy. This is in fact an intriguing topic that is worthy of a more in-depth investigation.

© Tse Ming Chong, Ma Zhao Pao (Horse racing will continue in Hong Kong) – Korea, 1997. Exhibited at the “Members of Young Photographers ’97 Exhibition’ Taegu Arts and Culture Centre, Korea, 1997

It is interesting to look at ‘Horse’ under today’s context. ‘Horse’ shows gamblers distracted from structural social problems, but last year’s Umbrella Movement exemplified a political awakening of the younger generation who would stand up for their believes. That is why last year was a historical moment for Hong Kong. To say it is an awakening would be an overstatement, yet for the first time, youth in Hong Kong cares about social progress and politics.

© Tse Ming Chong, Ma Zhao Pao (Horse racing will continue in Hong Kong) – Arts Centre, 1999. Photo installation size unknown. Exhibited at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, 1999.

Your scheduled solo photo exhibition ‘The Road’ was called off at the last moment. What happened?

TMC: It is simple. The gallery pulled out. I am very disappointed. I have been communicating with the gallery. They know that I am showing a series of diptychs of empty road taken during the Umbrella Movement and they were fine. I was planning to launch my portfolio book ‘chrono’ in my solo show. When I started promoting the exhibition on Facebook however, they broke their promises. It is a pity that my exhibition was cancelled but what infuriates me is the growing prevalence of self-censorship in Hong Kong. In my mind, Hong Kong is a city where citizens can still enjoy freedom of speech. Frankly, the series of photos is not particularly provocative. There is no tear gas, no protest assault, I showed my work to my students and they could not understand. Some even considered it too distanced and calm for a photographer. To foreigners, these photographs of empty streets do not even worth looking at, but to most Hong Kongers, these are revealing documentation of a historical event. The photos unveil an emotional connection to a particular time and place. And that is important.

© Tse Ming Chong, ‘City Sereis II - The Road, 2014′

Can you tell us more about your use of ‘simulated three-dimensional vision’ to recreate the cityscape in ‘The Road’?

TMC: I borrowed the concept of 3D photography. Not long after the invention of photographers, people experimented with 3D photography. The pioneers tried to simulate a sense of depth utilizing parallax vision, to capture the so-called reality. Humanity were never satisfied with a two-dimensional photograph as the evidence of truth. It is human’s instinctive desire to recreate three-dimensionality. And this is what I meant when I said ‘photography is an ancient medium’ in our earlier conversation. Especially under the popularization of 3D cinema, which is a manipulation of visual parallax at its core. I philosophized on this idea. In my series, I show two perspectives from the same location side by side to give a more ‘complete picture’ of reality. In ‘Road’, I walked along Gloucester Road from Central to Causeway Bay (the occupying sites during the Umbrella Movement), I went up to footbridges whenever I came across one and took photographs of empty roads seen from both sides of the bridges, backward at Central and forward at Causeway Bay. Looking back and looking forward, retrospect and prospect.

© Tse Ming Chong, ‘Look Out From My Window’, 1998-2012

I can see how photographs of an empty street may look plain on a phone screen, compared to all the visual stimuli online. After all, imagery is just one component of your work.

TMC: That is why I encourage my student to go to photo exhibition. Looking at photos on computer screens or smartphones are okay as a way to obtain information, but are far from satisfactory for art appreciation. You need to stand in front of the art. It is hard to document art because photographs are often just part of the grand narrative. For example, my work are often a metaphorical commentary on the relationship between imagery and environmental reality, which is hard to portray in a single still image. (I agree. Installation is also an important element in contemporary photography. So, at the end of the day, it goes back to our recurring topics - the inadequacy of traditional photography.) Yes. It is how I feel about the medium throughout my career.

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