The highly anticipated Hong Kong Palace Museum barreled past initial controversy of its political motives to open this past Sunday, July 3, 2022 in the West Kowloon Cultural District. The museum, which was a $446 million project, began construction in March 2019 and was completed in December 2021.
The originally planned opening date, July 2, hoped to commemorate the 25-year anniversary of China recovering Hong Kong from British control. However, the arrival of a typhoon, Typhoon Chaba, pushed the opening date to the day after, because of its potential deadly effect on coastlines. With persistent COVID policies discouraging international travel, a large local crowd still populated the opening, with more than 115,000 tickets sold for its first month of being opened.
What was the controversy?
Although the Hong Kong Palace Museum shares a name with Beijing’s Palace Museum, the Hong Kong Palace Museum distinguishes itself with its 900+ loaned ancient treasures and its accompanying exhibitions of multimedia contemporary and local art pieces to present diverse perspectives on history and culture.
A commonality between the museums are their shaky beginnings. Following the 1911 Revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty, the architectural complex of the Palace Museum in Beijing, known as the Forbidden City, began housing paintings, calligraphy, and ceramics of imperial collections. The civil war with the Communist Party resulted in the relocation of several of these art pieces to Taiwan by the Kuomintang, the defeated ruling party of the Republican era, with the Forbidden City moving forward amid conflict.
The Hong Kong Palace Museum’s controversy resided in its announcement of commencement, with the city’s former chief secretary, Carrie Lam, neglecting timely and thorough public consultation. Critics also cited the potential political motives at play; the displayed traditional artifacts celebrate a national identity, which might work to remedy the tension with Beijing’s urging of cultural repair in a former British colony.
The ancient exhibits and Contemporary Multi-Media
Nine galleries – spread across 84,000 square feet of exhibition space – all host their own themes, including the following: ceramics from the Neolithic period, paintings and calligraphy dating back to the Jin dynasty (265-420 CE), Qing emperors and empresses and their robes, “Grand Gallop: Art and Culture of the Horse” and the history of Chinese art collecting in Hong Kong.
Accompanying the loaned ancient arts, Stanley Wong curates a gallery of contemporary designs. The exhibition “No Boundaries: Reinterpreting Palace Museum Culture” invites six interdisciplinary artists to turn to the displayed traditional art pieces and introduce a modern lens. One example is artist Chris Cheung’s work, Waving Script, which features a robotic arm waving a red ribbon, creating an indecipherable product of calligraphy based on Yuan dynasty scholar Deng Wenyuan’s ancient calligraphy. Cheung’s comments on his work highlight his intention to explore the potential disappearance of calligraphy and written language in the future times, reveling in the inextricable links with the past, present, and future. Cheung says of his work, “The script changes as time changes.”
Another multimedia artist that investigates ancient cultural traditions by engaging multiple senses is GayBird Leung, who created an unexplained 31-channel sound installation A Grandiose Fanfare. The work includes sound effects of popping balloons to reference fireworks during the 1997 handover of Hong Kong.
The contemporary art pieces along with the loaned Forbidden City ancient works function as a mosaic of cultural life and perspectives.
Public’s reactions to the opening
Early visitors reported delight at the loaned 914 pieces, including the 166 labeled grade-one national treasures, from the Forbidden City. Some of these pieces are being revealed to the public for the very first time. Several visitors celebrated with costumes in the style of the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-9 BCE and 25-220 CE) as they examined the paintings, calligraphy, bronze, ceramics, jade, jewelry, and costumes from Beijing, admiring how the Palace Museum art memorializes the multicultural Qing court. The viewed art includes a dragon robe from the Qing emperor from 1736-95, a porcelain flask from 1403-1424, and a brush washer from the Ru kilns, all traversing through the rich cultural past, much to the support of the local crowds. The sold-out tickets in July emphasize the already-growing popularity of the museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District, which already boasts the M+, a signifier given to museums with contemporary, visual and cultural art, and other celebratory cultural spots.
Ultimately, despite the setbacks of the controversy surrounding its announcement and the unexpected impact of a typhoon, the Hong Kong Palace Museum excavates a unique position for itself within history, drawing in visitors to enter a deeply complex and rich honoring of both the present and the past.