Wandering in the Mall Scholars
The Wandering Scholars are a four-member collaborative loosely connected to the Umbrella University, the organization responsible for mobile classrooms and lectures at the pro-democracy occupation sites in Hong Kong in 2014.
Under the Umbrella University banner, The Wandering Scholars have begun to organize events that address Psycho-Geography, a method that tracks the mind, as well as the feet, when taking directed or aimless walks around the city.
The Wandering Scholars previously convened a symposium at Chinese University in May 2014 (documented in a booklet available here as a PDF) but their next event “Take a Festival Walk” took one step beyond the confines of academia and moved into the ill-defined public/private spaces of the Festival Walk mall in Kowloon Tong.
Regardless of the stated political aspirations of the pro-democracy occupations in Hong Kong in 2014 (variously titled the Umbrella Movement and/or Revolution), the socio-economic and cultural conditions of Hong Kong were also on the minds of many Hong Kongers during those heady days.
The ubiquitous Hong Kong mall, as a prime driver of escalating retail rents payable only by the most high-end of brands and as an across-the-board decimator of older neighborhoods and architecture, can well represent all that is wrong with the top-down oligarchic mentalities of Hong Kong.
To this end, on Saturday May 30, 2015, The Wandering Scholars undertook a walk-through, micro-lecture, mini-occupation of the Festival Walk that would see nine different designated speakers address various social and cultural problems inherent in the mall’s organization, structure and ownership. The talks were held in the so-called “public areas” outside or next to actual stores, and thus did not directly interfere with “private property” while tacitly questioning what the private citizen could do or not do within this nebulous region.
The event had been promoted on Facebook and 70 people had indicated that they would attend, but perhaps because of the unique and not-easily-classifiable nature of the event (not to mention the possible legal ramifications) a much smaller audience assembled in front of the mall shortly before 2pm. Nevertheless, mall security had engaged in their own internet surveillance and/or had been alerted by some factions antithetical to The Wandering Scholars or the Umbrella University. From the start, ten identifiable mall security persons (and at least one undercover agent) were monitoring The Wandering Scholars movements. During the presentations security personnel made their way through the audience, taking photographs of the presenters and making copious notes.
But amusingly, as the event progressed, and in recognition of The Wandering Scholars non-aggressive attitude, mall security became more relaxed and even began to negotiate about which areas the event could occupy. Security protocol even came close to being breached as one security member became engaged in the presentations and at times defended the mall or interacted with one or another of The Wandering Scholars.
The event moved vertically (step by step, escalator by escalator) through the mall, starting at ground level with local artist KY Wong critiquing how the corporate mall appropriates “art” for its own purposes, which for the most part denies payment or full credit to the artist as they (“the corporation”) offer the individual artist “free publicity”. The artist is compromised, packaged, sanitized, and indeed, caged.
Next up were Wandering Scholar members Ian Fong and Katrien Jacobs, who pointed to the questionable connection between the Festival Walk and City University of Hong Kong, which is directly accessible to the by way of a connecting corridor. This corridor has a series of “inspirational quotes” written on the walls, quotations that in many cases have been cut off from their original context or source. The audience was given a bookmark on which one of these quotations was written and then invited to find the citation in the corridor and to write their own response on the back of the bookmark.
Following this the group moved to the front of the Page One bookstore where another Wandering Scholar’s member, Yang Jing, critiqued the way books are corporately distributed, a situation that limits the variety of expression, especially for smaller or dissident publishers; yet the speaker also encouraged the individual reader by asking the audience to mark on an MTR map (the Hong Kong transit system) the locations of independent bookstores that they frequented and places where they read freely and copiously.
Local designers, Kitchen Adi, represented by Mr and Miss Lee gave a talk close to a branch of the multi-nation clothing store H&M (see video) called: “Surviving in Real Estate Hegemony as Local Designers” that addressed how the independent designer/entrepaneur can survive in the climate of Hong Kong’s prohibitive rents.
Louis Lo moved the Wandering Scholars to the ironically named (but not intentionally so) ice skating rink (a field of ice in a sub-tropical disaster area): “The Glacier”, and after deciding to move the lecture’s location (the ambient noise in the mall was overwhelming) and having a sympathetic security person aid in that move, Louis began to lay out (in parallel to KY Wong’s chat) a critique of the mall’s cynical appropriation of “open space”, i.e. “natural space”; the open sky and two rivers, which had been substituted with an ice skating rink and the intersection of two MTR lines.
Perhaps in amore prosaic and nostalgic mode, Chan Ka Ming, discussed (in front of the mall’s movie theaters) the social interactions he experienced in the various movie theaters that he had attended in his past, which was contrasted to the ways people now experience and interact with the mall’s mega-plex theaters. In addition to his lecture, the speaker also presented archival images (on his tablet computer) that showed old movie theaters, seating arrangements and tickets.
The last presentation finally and decidedly crossed the line from lecture to performance, as artist/activist Clara Cheung met the audience in the mall’s food court dressed in the generic employee’s white coat of any one of the mall’s cosmetic stores. But Clara, though offering “free samples” on a tray hung in front of her (as any one of the generic employees might do), was engaged in the messy process of grating garlic, the smell of which permeated her surroundings. The “free samples” consisted of a clove of garlic attached to a red string so that this talisman could be worn around the neck. Clara explained (verbally and through a slip of paper included with the “free sample”) that in Chinese culture garlic is used to induce or enhance memory, and while the food court offered cheap, heavy (and smelly) meals as a way to conclude the mall’s cycle of forgetful consumption, the garlic was meant to remind the aimless consumer that far before the mall usurped this piece of land, something (a person, a place) existed on that very site.
As a whole, this event was quite experimental and daring; it prodded or tested the limits of the Festival Walk’s boundaries while existing on the kind of footing that will defuse any potential legal consequence. The speakers themselves took their assignments to heart and cogently laid out well-prepared statements that deconstructed the mall down to its most base intentions. On the other hand, and in line with other critiques of modern capitalism, the event itself was swallowed by the mall’s cacophonous flash and the incessant ant-like movements of its shoppers, though this kind of marginality (or camouflage) was inherent in the Wandering Scholar’s project as it demanded a savvy and watchful audience, one that is not easily distracted (but in fact – bored) by the mall’s spectacle.