The Hong Kong Palace Museum started off on the wrong foot, amid political tensions and suggestions the costly project was foisted on city by mainland China. Then its original opening date of July 2, meant to coincide with this year’s 25th anniversary of the handover of the control of Hong Kong from Britain to China, was disrupted by a typhoon. Despite these setbacks, the museum’s opening this past weekend attracted an enthusiastic local audience eager to see the vast amount of Chinese national treasures on display for the first time in the city.
And while it might share a name with the historic Forbidden City institution, the $450 million Hong Kong museum is far from being a mere satellite branch of the Palace Museum in Beijing, which houses China’s Imperial Collection. Instead, newly created multimedia works by homegrown contemporary artists are shown alongside valuable ancient works of art on loan outside of Beijing for the first time, forging an entirely distinct identity for the new space.
“The exhibition of our works is very important to this new museum,” Chris Cheung, one of the six local artists featured in the museum’s opening show, told Artnet News. “It allows Hong Kong artists to express their thoughts and interpretations of traditional ideas and cultural treasures while establishing the differences between the Hong Kong Palace Museum and the Beijing one.”
More than five years after it was first announced, the Hong Kong Palace Museum opened to the public on Sunday, July 3—a day later than its scheduled inauguration, since the city was hit by Typhoon Chaba. But the opening was not marred by the delay, according to officials, and the museum has reported an overwhelming response from the local public, despite an ongoing Covid quarantine that continues to discourage international visitors from traveling to Hong Kong.
Since the opening, more than 115,000 tickets—priced around $6 for adults and $3 for concessions—to visit the museum during its first month have already been sold. The museum also offers free admission on Wednesdays, but all those tickets throughout July have also been snapped up. “The opening of the HKPM marks another important milestone in the development of the District,” said Betty Fung, chief executive officer of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, which runs the mega arts hub.
Enthusiastic early visitors, including those who donned costumes in the style of the Han dynasty (which ruled China from 202 B.C.E to 9 C.E., and again from 25 to 220 C.E.), said they were enchanted by the national treasures that were taken out of the vaults of the Forbidden City for the first time. The display in Hong Kong is the largest ever loan by the Beijing museum since it was established in 1925, after the last emperor of China was evicted from the palace, which served as the imperial court for the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties.
A total of 914 pieces, out of some 1.86 million works in the collection of Beijing’s Palace Museum, are now on view in Hong Kong, spanning 25 categories, including paintings, calligraphy, bronze, ceramics, jade, jewelry, and costumes. Among them, 166 pieces are classified as grade-one national treasures.
Among the highlights are a dragon robe worn by the Qing emperor from 1736–95, a Ming era porcelain flask dating from 1403–1424, and a rare Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) brush washer from the Ru kilns. (Another Ru brush washer was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for a record price in 2017.)
The Palace Museum has a complicated history. The institution in the Forbidden City was founded during the Chinese Republican era after the Qing dynasty was overthrown during the 1911 Revolution. But many of the works from the imperial collection were brought to Taiwan after Kuomintang, the ruling party of the Republican era, lost the civil war with the Communist Party and fled to the island in 1949. The National Palace Museum was then established in Taipei in 1965, while the museum in Beijing continued to operate after the Communist Party took over mainland China.
The Hong Kong Palace Museum was not originally on the drawing board for the West Kowloon Cultural District, which is home to a range of major cultural facilities, including M+, the museum dedicated to Modern and contemporary visual cultural which opened last year. The Hong Kong Palace Museum was an addition announced just before Christmas in 2016, when the city’s former chief secretary, Carrie Lam—who just stepped down last month after a five-year term—inked a secret deal with Beijing.
The much criticized decision bypassed the local legislature and public consultation, with the initial funding for the project sourced from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the city’s biggest charity and funder for the arts outside of the government. Local architect Rocco Yim was appointed to design the site without tender, and public consultation only took place after the project was decided.
While exhibitions of traditional Chinese culture and artifacts have long been popular with the general public, speculations abounded about the political motives behind the Hong Kong museum. Since the handover in 1997, the failure of cultivating a Chinese national identity in the former British colony has long been an issue in the eyes of Beijing. Establishing a museum dedicated to Chinese culture could be seen as a way to resolve this issue.
“The new museum also showcases the unique advantages of Hong Kong under ‘One Country, Two Systems’, leveraging the city’s own cultural edge to tell a good China story,” said Kevin Yeung, the city’s newly appointed Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism, in a statement.
The museum’s seven-story building has a total floor space of around 323,000 square feet, including around 84,000 square feet of exhibition space across nine galleries. Each gallery has its own thematic exhibition.
There are shows describing the architecture, history, and everyday life in the Forbidden City, and exhibitions dedicated to specific art forms. One gallery showcases ceramics from the Palace Museum collection that can be traced back to the Neolithic period. Another presents historic Chinese paintings and calligraphy from as early as the Jin dynasty (265–420 C.E.). Portraits of Qing emperors and empresses, as well as their robes, are also on display.
There is also a gallery dedicated to the history of Chinese art collecting in Hong Kong, dating back to the late 19th century. “Grand Gallop: Art and Culture of the Horse”—a nod to the Jockey Club’s sponsorship—is a six-month special exhibition juxtaposing equine artworks from the Palace Museum collection with 13 works on loan from the Musée du Louvre in Paris. Some exhibition-goers told Artnet News that they were impressed by the narrative and the works on display in this particular exhibition.
A Hong Kong touch
What sets the Hong Kong Palace Museum apart from the institutions in Beijing and Taipei is that it offers homegrown artistic talents an opportunity to create new works and new narratives while drawing inspiration from the Beijing museum’s collection, an initiative that has been welcomed by local artists. And the outcome lives up to the pledge made by the museum’s director, Louis Ng, a veteran Hong Kong arts administrator, who has said that the new museum in the city was never intended to be a simple branch of the Beijing institution.
“Artists from Hong Kong have a very different perspective on history and historic works of art,” the veteran artist and musician GayBird told Artnet News. “Our work can show the local audience that we can look at things from different perspectives.”
One of the museum’s galleries showcases contemporary design alongside traditional crafts in an exhibition curated by artist and designer Stanley Wong (aka anothermountainman). Another gallery is dedicated to the exhibition “No Boundaries: Reinterpreting Palace Museum Culture,” in which six local interdisciplinary artists have been invited to create new works riffing on the historic collection.
The result is a series of multimedia works layered with subtle meanings that are open for interpretation. Artist Chris Cheung drew inspiration from Song dynasty calligraphy piece by Mi Fu (1051-1107), which was previously held in Japan, but was acquired by China in an auction in 2002 and then returned to the Palace Museum. The text, Cheung said, was used to teach children Chinese writing. In his work, , the artist created a robotic arm that waves a red ribbon, performing gestures of writing from the ancient script, but creating an unrecognizable text.
“The work continues with my exploration of how calligraphy and words may disappear in the future. The waving gesture can be seen as brainwaves. It can also be seen as a waving hand saying hello and goodbye,” Cheung said. “The script changes as time changes.”
GayBird’s contribution is a 31-channel sound installation titled . Inspired by the festive sound of the traditional Chinese musical instruments that were played specifically during the beginning and the end of an emperor’s touring journey around the country, the artist created a work referring to the soundtrack of the fireworks show celebrating the 1997 handover. But instead of keeping the sound of the fireworks, he replaced it with the various sound effects of balloons popping.
The work is open to interpretation, said GayBird, without revealing his own explanation of what the work means. But one thing he made clear was that he hoped the Hong Kong Palace Museum would continue to collaborate with local artists.
“This offers artists a very clear direction to create something unique,” GayBird said, “let’s hope it can become a regular initiative.”