Social Crossroads in Hong Kong

Thinking of Hong Kong down on Temple St.
Thinking of Hong Kong down on Temple St. // Kathryn Crandall

For most Americans, the city of Hong Kong evokes a glossy aesthetic — a glimmering skyline rendered even more radiant in its reflection along Victoria Harbor. We envision the hordes of brass-knuckled, Hermes-donning financiers peopling downtown, an ode to the city’s burgeoning status as the definitive portrait of wealth and glamour. But for all of these carefully ingrained motifs, Michael Sloan chooses to instead use his newest exhibit, “Paintings of Hong Kong Street Markets,” to illuminate the island’s lesser-told story.

Housed at the Yale-China Association at 442 Temple St., the collection confronts its viewers with the dominating theme of social crossroads. The paintings reflect what Sloan deems the “reality” of Hong Kong, one composed of scenes and characters found exclusively in the Tai Po and Mong Kok East street markets. He juxtaposes these locals — the butcher, the shoe shiner, the waiter — with those who often overshadow them — the tourists, the purveyors of glitz and kitsch. Sloan sketches the latter in black and white, allowing the former to take on the color he finds missing in the Hong Kong cultural conscience.

This technique serves Sloan well, translated most literally in a piece depicting a poor, local couple at the MTA station standing below an advertisement featuring a hypersexualized supermodel. Her breasts dominate the painting in size, appearing to spill out of her blouse and occupy their own space within the train station. Her lips and eyelashes have been exaggerated in a similar fashion, both voluminous and bold. But despite the poster’s physical dominance within the sketch, Sloan renders it secondary to the local couple through his selective use of color. Cloaked in shoddy garments, the couple represents quite the opposite of the bourgeoisie displayed in the advertisement, yet the artist — by decorating them in striking hues of red, blue and green — portrays their lives as likely the most meaningful of all. In stark contrast stands the poster, a mere visage of black and white.

Such makes this particular piece most accessible to viewers in understanding the collection’s larger theme. It’s important to note, however, that Sloan does not universally condemn the pomp and circumstance of the city, but instead seeks to qualify it, positioning popular culture and local realities side by side. Indeed, a sketch featuring Hong Kong’s excessive neon lights and cosmopolitan waterfront scenes is complemented by a local waiter, who waits patiently to serve the throngs of tourists soon to take their seats. Here, the social intersection is portrayed more subtly than the grotesquely exaggerated poster girl, but still sheds light on the crossroads that Sloan seeks to convey.

Organizationally, the exhibit is fashioned in a logical narrative for the viewer, but nearly fails in convincing one to continue looking. The collection’s centerpieces are found in bird’s eye views of the respective street markets of Tai Po and Mong Kok — certainly a sound starting point for the viewer, but one lacking in aesthetic punch. Indeed, the exhibit’s most gripping and telling pieces, including one portraying an elderly man crafting Chinese poetry along the sidewalk of the People’s Park, are tucked away in the back corners of the room. It thus takes some searching to find Sloan’s true gems, but despite this structural lapse, the effort is well worth it.

But Sloan’s cultural commentary is not groundbreaking. The illuminating of two separate cultural spheres — with one historically glossing over the other — is a perspective oft communicated in prominent 20th century drawings (Bill Traylor comes to mind). However, by placing his work in a fresh context — the Tai Po and Mong Kok street markets — Sloan gives this familiar narrative a refreshing sense of novelty. This, coupled with the sheer beauty of the drawings themselves, ensures that even amidst a foreign context, nothing is lost in translation.

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