Nostalgic miniature artists recreate old streets

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A scene of life in the street of Shau Kei Wan, Hong Kong Photo: IC

A double-decker tram commemorating Chinese kung fu legend Bruce Lee in Hong Kong Photo: IC

At seven in the morning, housewives rushed to a shared kitchen through the open hallways in the center of “H” shaped building blocks, chatting as they made breakfast, with the sound of fire alarms being sounded by the ringing of old-fashioned kerosene stoves. background. It is one of Tony Lai’s most cherished childhood memories of the 1960s, when he lived with his family in a seven-story apartment building in Shau Kei Wan, Hong Kong’s oldest public housing estate.

As the rest of the world moves forward, Hong Kong’s miniature artists take inspiration from the past and bring it back to the present in the magical world of Lilliput.

Lai, 53, and Maggie Chan, 46, have been miniature artists for over 10 years. One is good at building large models, the other is good at making small dishes as small as nails. They “met” by email at a miniature art exhibition in 2007, before forming a perfect team.

The decades-old but endangered Hong Kong scenes such as old-fashioned barber shops, newspaper stalls, herbal tea shops, and cart vendors selling street food to the outside theaters, are their beloved diorama themes.

“Each piece of the miniature work is a love letter to Hong Kong,” Carmen Poon, president of Joyful Miniature, told Xinhua. The objects mainly relate to the daily life of Hong Kong people, who stand out from the rest of the world, she said.

Miniature art, the history of which dates back to European royal families in medieval times, condenses paintings, prints or sculptures into minimal sizes while preserving their details. Hong Kong artists, however, have found their own technique in re-enacting the lives of ordinary Hong Kongers.

Mount Davis Squatters, one of Lai’s more intricate pieces, depicts people going about their daily chores in a once dilapidated village. Lai was inspired by his childhood experience taking the ferry to Lamma Island with his father, where he saw the village’s wooden houses now demolished.

“Hong Kong is moving fast and a lot of things are gone,” Chan said. “Miniature art is more like a three-dimensional history book, through which we can keep our memories.”

The number of newspaper hawkers operating in Hong Kong has declined rapidly from peaks reached in the 1990s, according to the Hong Kong Department of Food and Environmental Hygiene. North Point’s then-iconic State Theater, once lined with bustling wagon stalls, has also closed.

Instead of just focusing on the creative imagination, Chan said that making art on something that exists or has already existed in real life can resonate with audiences by striking them with a “sense of” membership”.

“Miniature art only takes up a small space while including a much larger picture of the real world,” Poon said. Small size makes it easier to survive in Hong Kong, but for artists working full time, businesses still face constraints and challenges.

Compared to artists in other places, they face the pressures of limited space, rental costs and high living expenses, which has driven them to work in a high efficiency Hong Kong style.

“After careful consideration of the completed job, I always find room for improvement to make it more perfect,” Lai said, adding that their daily income can barely cover rental costs if he focuses too much on quality. before strict deadlines.

Without the budget to start their business, Lai and Chan sold 10 of their works in 2017 to cover the daily running expenses of the newly opened studio.

Their 100-square-meter studio in an industrial building in the Kowloon District sometimes serves as Lai’s bedroom during peak times, when he can only sleep a few hours.

While striking a fine balance, their business has always been beset by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. “Some of our orders have been canceled. You never know what will happen next year. It’s hard to do this. say, “he reflected.

Lai and Chan are two of the few full-time artisans who have survived as the profession struggles to make ends meet, despite the hard work they put in.

Although injuring his hands has become normal for Lai since entering the industry, art is no longer just about traditional craftsmanship. 3D printing has been applied nowadays, along with augmented reality (AR) technologies at exhibitions.

“We’re doing our best to replicate the things we love to educate the younger generation and give older people a taste of the past,” Chan said. “I really like it.”

Lai’s dream is to make a long, busy street stretching from the coast to the top of the mountain with shops, public housing estates and amusement parks.

“I try to work harder and hold more memories while I’m still able,” Lai said, pointing to some of her gray hair, with a bandaged right index finger.

Lai sometimes walks up to the roof of the industrial building during his most stressful times, carrying several cans of beer, where he pauses and gazes at the city, which feels great below, appearing as one of his works of art. miniature art.

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