“Ambiguously Yours: Gender in Hong Kong Popular Culture”

M+ Pavilion
West Kowloon Cultural District
March 17, 2017–May 21, 2017

Heels worn by Leslie Cheung during Live In Concert '97.

Caught between East and West, Hong Kong, with its distinctive business-fueled urban culture, has always been an emblem of the cultural hybridity of which Homi Bhabha writes. In Chan Koonchung’s words, that hybridity characterizes old Guangdong itself: half China, half foreign, neither fully ancient nor fully contemporary. In the 1980s and 1990s, Hong Kong’s popular culture—its flourishing film and television industries and its literary output alike—was no exception. Although its regional influence in Asia was far-reaching, a single-minded focus on entertainment often led to a stereotype of Hong Kong as a “cultural desert.”

M+ Pavilion’s new exhibition does not sidestep these criticisms, nor does it attempt to make popular culture elegant. Taking the notable phenomenon of gender ambiguity in Hong Kong’s popular culture as a starting point, the exhibition remains contained in size, using four distinct sections to explore experimental manifestations of boundary-crossing identities.

To emphasize Hong Kong pop culture’s golden age, the exhibition’s atmosphere takes on the lushness of the theme song in Tsui Hark’s Green Snake (1993). The splendor of singer Leslie Cheung appearing in red beads and high heels is case in point. So too are legendary stars Roman Tam, Anita Mui, Denise Ho, seen in costume with extravagant props, in multicolor scenes synonymous with Cantonese pop-music performances. The same period of film and television production further refined expressions of gender fluidity, as sexual ambiguity became a unifying feature of the scenes and stills of films ranging from Rouge (1987) to Peony Pavilion (2001). Similarly, Julian Lee and Wing Shya’s character photography, Alan Chan’s graphic design and urban periodicals such as City Magazine and 100 Most also become multivalent stagings of visual experimentation. Finally, works from M+’s collection, by artists such as Wilson Shieh, Ming Wong, Stanley Wong, and Ho Sin Tung, reflect how pop-cultural elements infiltrate contemporary art.

Strictly speaking, “Ambiguously Yours” is more than just an art exhibition: It exemplifies both M+’s ongoing ambitions to shape visual culture and its step toward adding popular culture to its taxonomy of interests. However, given that Hong Kong’s cultural identity and territorial status remain in flux, the exhibition falls short of providing multiple perspectives on gender fluidity.

Translated from Chinese by Du Keke and Dawn Chan.

— Wu Mo (武漠)