A Holly Lee and Lee Ka-sing online magazine
Published on Fridays since January 2019
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Hollian Thesaurus I
The High Priest of Immigration, circa 1997
When initializing the photo series Hollian Thesaurus in the mid-nineties, I was, unknowingly falling down a rabbit hole. I dwelt and investigated into issues too big to behold. But the medium I chose to work with shielded me from showing my ignorance and inadequacy to talk about such difficult and perplexed topics such as religion, politics, immigration and genetic modification. I expressed my viewpoints through photography; which is at times ambiguous, indifferent and most often, mute.
About five to ten years prior to the year 1997, my friends and relatives were already moving to live in other countries, to Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, United States, Singapore and Taiwan. The reason was clearly a historical and political one. The immigration craze continued until after the handover. The dominating power of the immigration officers daunted me, and in late 1996, a year before moving to Canada, I created the photograph “The High Priest of Immigration”.
“The High Priest of Immigration, circa 1997” is a piece from the Hollian Thesaurus series, which comprises a dozen of work. During the twenty years before the handover, the idea of immigration in Hong Kong was different, it was less pressing; the city was still a place where people could find great fortune, appealing live styles, abundant freedom and the best of everything East and West. But all these could be lost, or more precisely, feared to be lost in just over a specific date. In fact within a short period after that date, many had come back to live and prosper. The first wave of immigration was about assurance - they would return if nothing bad happens.
Hong Kong is always a place of flux and movements, the idealistic image of the West thrives and it’s always a harmless venture to live in the country of others, to experience living abroad and if unadaptable, could always return. Immigration to another country has never been easy, it depends on a lot of factors; wealth, education, family ties but the final approval rests on the hands of the immigration officials. They have the power and influence. Yet most countries in the world open their arms to the second wave of mass emigrants from Hong Kong; for it is about abandoning an authoritarian government, they dig up roots and would not return.
The photograph “High Priest” has an interesting background story. The protagonist Evangelo Costadimas is originally from Canada. He moved to live in Hong Kong and Japan in the late eighties and we met him through the photo collective Aux Yeux. To my eyes he was a fitting character for my image of the high priest. Contrary to his gentle personality his cold, authoritative look matched something I was looking for. He always wore black. On the day of shooting he came into the studio in a black long-sleeved cotton shirt, we fit a round black hat on his head and covered his shoulders with the dark velvet cape my teenage daughter made. He sat straight-back, pressing both elbows on the table with a covering rich in oriental tribal pattern; his right hand grabbing a glass globe, the big thumb flaunting a silver ring. The other ringed fingers on his left hand pressed softly over a page of a Chinese classic book - the ten Bamboo studio from our collection. A brass compass laid on the other page. We also placed a packet of Indian incense sticks, a carpenter's ruler and a compass caliper on the table. Further props included a marble pyramid, an abacus, a small tin plane, a lion head metal embosser and a golden ornamented treasure chest to his left. The background was a medieval map, superimposed after the portrait had been taken. I’d forgotten the origin of the map, and the geographical location too dark and muddy to be identified.
The portrait of the immigration officer, like the rest in the Hollian Thesaurus series, was inspired by centuries of Renaissance portraits paintings: Titian, the leading artist of the Italian Renaissance; Rembrandt, the most revered painters of the Dutch Golden Age, and particularly Jan van Eyck, an early Netherlandish painter, whose 15th Century painting of the goldsmith Jan de Leeluw deeply impressed me. The work of these masters are ageless and beyond price. I was especially captivated by the sitter’s acute, steady gaze towards the viewer, it reveals a sense of superiority, confidence, and power that could not be conveyed - if they looked away.
The High Priest of Immigration remains to be one of my favourite work in the series. The immigration system is an adamant process people who want to resettle must go through. To me, the idea of Canada is now clearer than ever, I was migrating to a country which gained total sovereignty in just as recent as 1982, hence a new constitution was born, which included the charter of rights. Only now I begin to understand what freedom is, and will not take it for granted, ever again. But after twenty some years, and pressed under the huge dark cloud I heard that my High Priest from Canada is still active in the city, still energetic and productive, he has found a way to leverage creativity with minimum frictions. Nevertheless the city is still full of adaptability and opportunities. I am also alerted that art in Hong Kong has reached a level of maturity and sophistication not conceivable a decade ago. It’s so consoling to know that; in the worst of times, some artists, without entirely compromising their beliefs, manage skillfully to move forward without moving their homes, discharging great work in this peculiar epoch, converging on big, turbulent times, in this crushing and shattering space.
A Holly Lee and Lee Ka-sing online magazine. Published on Fridays since January 2019. Published by OCEAN POUNDS and archived at oceanpounds.com
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Holly and Ka-sing currently live in Toronto with their daughter Iris, and their cat Sukimoto. Contact with email at - firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com