144 smoked latex flowers 膠花, metal rod 屬擔挑, two-channel video loop, audio (22mins) Image: Zan Wimberley.
Weitou people are one of the first settlers of Hong Kong from Southern China and are considered to be its indigenous inhabitants (Puntiren). A Kingdom of Flowers for My Mother sees me working with Weitou elders, including my mother and aunties, in Hong Kong to learn about their language, songs and customs. Literally meaning “walled village”, Weitou is often considered by mainstream Hong Kong as the language of the underprivileged class who were backwards and uneducated. However, I want to challenge these preconceptions and highlight the rich traditions of Weitou people’s agrarian lifestyle. Indeed, Weitou folk music and stories are important relics of Hong Kong local culture which reflects covert forms of feminine protest. As only men were taught to write and read, women shared knowledge through oral traditions. My objective is to highlight the complexities of these social issues. I want to investigate how oppressed groups such as women and migrants deal with loss through acts of imperfect remembering and longing.
Growing up, my mother would recount stories to us from her childhood with a romanticised tone. Although they lived in poverty, she often reminisces about the simplicity of agrarian life and the importance of family unity through hardships. The anecdote which most resonated with me illustrates the arduous task of hand-making artificial flowers during the plastics boom in 1960’s Hong Kong. My mother describes the long nights during which her family and herself would gather around an oil lamp to work. Together, they assembled pieces of plastic and silk into fake flowers which were to be exported to Europe. What baffles me is that my mother’s bare hands helped build the empire of Hong Kong tycoon Li Kai-Shing, who was the largest supplier of plastic flowers at the time. My mother explains that they would receive a meagre fee only after every gross. Just how many times did they have to count to 144 for Li to build his kingdom? Li is currently the richest person in Hong Kong. My mother still remembers the callouses that developed on the ends of her young fingers.
I am interested in restaging the memories of my mother’s family in a materially soft and tender way. As Comparative Literature scholar Svetlana Boym states: “The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition.” Drawing on conversations with my mother, as well as Weitou folk songs, I wish to reinstate power and agency to her voice. As another nostalgic gesture, I have created 144 smoked latex flowers which are based not on the typical plastic products, but on the floral ornamentation of Weitou architecture. With their flesh-like texture, I hope the flowers will return the human to the artificial, whilst reminding us of the individuals’ experiences who are caught in the crossfire of cultural and economic exchange in the modern world.