Photography & art / December 2017 (Issue 38: Writing Hong Kong)

Over the Ocean

by Kingsley Ng, text by Stephanie Cheung

Note: "Over the Ocean" was presented at Chater Garden in Central on 23–25 November, 2017 as part of Lumieres Hong Kong. It is a site-specific sound-and-light installation by interdisciplinary artist Kingsley Ng and a team of cross-disciplinary practitioners. Stephanie Cheung collected the five true stories that inspired the work.

Chater Garden is a loaded site. I think of it as a place filled with the chatter of Filipino overseas workers who unwind there once a week. Browsing through history, the mourning of parents protesting for their children's right of abode vaguely reverberates. It is almost poignant that, coincidentally, the garden was named after a man who also parted with his family, migrated and eventually built a legacy in foreign land—Sir Catchick Paul Chater, who founded The Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company and Hongkong Land. Allegedly, he sailed on a sampan in Victoria Harbour for depth soundings. Praya Central was subsequently reclaimed to become present-day Des Voeux Road.

Our site, more specifically, is a pond in Chater Garden. Wind from the harbour finds its way there. Gently, it sets off waves across the water, in memories of those who have drifted to, from and around our shores.


Alex suggested meeting at the Kowloon City Pier. In 2010, he fled his home in Iraq because of war. Wandering from the Middle East to South East Asia, he heard en route that Hong Kong was a promising destination: the city was safe, had minimal visa restrictions and offered a "salary" to asylum seekers. Without looking deeply into it, he made his way here. Three and a half years have passed, and his Hong Kong experience is far from his expectations. The subsidy given by the Hong Kong government is a meager allowance of $1,200 per month. Previously, it came in the form of food coupons. Lately, it has become a grocery card, which only allows purchases of human food and necessities at PARKnSHOP. Alex wants to work, but employment is illegal for asylum claimants; he wants to build relationships, but the women he's met have been concerned about his residence and employment status. He shares a room with a friend and a cat. Buying cat food, however, is always a problem.

Mrs. Li

A day after hearing of Alex's impasse, I visited Mrs. Li in her suburban house. The well-kept backyard led to an immaculate living room, adorned with ornaments of love. Mrs. Li was born in China during the Cultural Revolution. Her proprietor parents were persecuted, but luckily the family was able to leave the Mainland for Macau. On Rua de Cinco de Outubro, they owned a grocery store. It was the time of the Great Famine; their foodstuffs were sold to migrant workers toiling themselves to support families in distress. In 1966, martial law was declared during the riots. Traumatised by the Cultural Revolution, her father smuggled himself into Hong Kong. The family reunited with him the next year, and ran into the leftist riots of 1967. At that time, the Nationalist Government in Taiwan was eager to attract Chinese immigrants. The family migrated again. As a teenager, Mrs. Li witnessed the "Taiwan Miracle." She later met her future husband and relocated back to Hong Kong to build her own home.

Among all the places she has resided, Hong Kong is Mrs. Li's favourite. "There are opportunities everywhere. If you are willing to work hard, you can definitely achieve something." She testifies to an era when border controls were not stringent, and those in exile could find their footing and start afresh. Alex, like millions of refugees in contemporary exodus, unfortunately lives in a harsher time. "Hong Kong is both good and bad. It's good because it is safe, but when it comes to human rights, it's bad."

It always baffles me that, for all these years, hardly any comfortable space has been made available to Southeast Asian workers during their only day of rest. These women have contributed so much to this city—they have relieved mothers from their domestic chores and enabled them to join the workforce; they have raised generations of children, while their own were left behind. 


Brigette flew to Hong Kong from Butuan, in the Philippines, when her son was one and a half. It was a tough decision: back then, the accounting graduate was working in a hotel; the salary of a domestic helper in Hong Kong was three times more. The couple reckoned that this was what they had to do. It was eighteen years ago. She still gets tears in her eyes when she recounts how she cried every time she heard her son's voice on the pay phone, and how he could not recognise her when she returned for the first time. It took years for the boy to understand that Mama was not working abroad to leave him, but to give him a better future. He is now a computer major in college and will graduate next year. Brigette plans to go home. Her employer, who is on very good terms with her, asked, "Do you have enough money?" She knew her priority well. Door-to-door delivery is never a sufficient conveyance of love.


Brigette's sojourn is enduring. With perseverance, she is about to realise her life-long dream. In a very different set of circumstances, the Highfields' voyage across both hemispheres was also propelled by a dream. Ever since he was a child, Arni has wanted to sail around the world. As a young man, he crossed an ocean with the merchant navy. An adventurous spirit brought him to Hong Kong, where he served in the police force for over thirty years. Upon retirement, he teamed up with his family to pursue the dream of his life. For four years and eight months, they sailed over 30,000 miles. His two daughters, aged six and four at the beginning of the journey, grew up at sea. "When we were children, we did not think growing up in such a way was anything special," said elder sister Molly. "Looking back, the most significant difference is the exposure. We are very lucky to have experienced what most children have not even imagined." "It's about different possibilities in life," concluded Cam, a courageous mom who later founded EDiversity to make liberal education accessible to more children.

Pak Leung and Lan Jei

Finally, I climbed up the stairs to the Hong Kong Fishermen's Association, a stone's throw from the Aberdeen Praya. Pak Leung and Lan Jei were already there. Both of them were born into fishermen families, but moved ashore when fishing became increasingly difficult in the 1990s. From them, I learnt that a wealth of colloquial expressions—tai fung tou, kin fung sai lei, chong pan, etc.—originated from sailing. These etymologies speak to the genealogy of this fishing village-turned-metropolis, way more substantially than the iconic junk. The veteran fisherwomen noted that recently some young people were returning to the sea. "It's so expensive to live on land. They cannot even afford their own apartments. At sea, they might have a chance." Now, to avoid chong pan, they no longer need to tai fung tou. On better equipped boats, the trade takes a modern turn and ventures further out. The waning heritage, however, is no longer found on board.

Only five stories, out of a city of seven million. The incessant waves over the ocean pulse a murmuring hum. Faintly impressionistic, in the tides there are scattered songs of sirens, like glitters at sunrise, or viscous, black currents.

We invited each of the voyagers to share a sea song:

Alex made up his own. He sang the verse in baha, and titled it "Life Runs Like Water."

Mrs. Li recalls, she came across "Little White Boat" in an electronics factory in Taiwan.

Brigette dedicates "Ocean Deep" to these eighteen years of sacrifice.

The Highfields still sing "Little Raindrops," which they sang on board, whenever it rained.

In the tradition of song-sighing, Pak Leung and Lan Jei improvised a duet.


One day before the exhibition, Chater Garden was blocked for the festival's preparations. Shortly past 6 p.m., an army of business-suited men and women marched onto our temporary platform on the pond. They crossed the barrier tape to find the quickest way out to the station. Our crew explained that our set was not an access point. Most took a detour, albeit unwillingly. A few cursed us.

Lights, in technicolour, turned the facades of the financial centre into an even flashier spectacle.

Our route began with a trail flanked by five music boxes, each playing the tune of one of our protagonists. Sound was triggered by a punch card, whose apertures set off the audio mechanics while effusing a constellation of light. The prelude led to the main installation: on a panoramic screen erected by the pond, speckles of light, patterned like the illuminated notes on the music boxes, played out a sonic torrent. Composer Charles Kwong and the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble gave the five songs a flowing reinterpretation with two violins, a viola and a double bass. Along with the soundscape, reflections of the water were cast onto the screen.

The audience could fold paper boats and sail them in the pond. The movement of the boats were tracked by a sensor. When they crossed paths with the musical score, corresponding notes were heard. We thought of them as resounding encounters.

Hundreds of visitors sat down by the pond, and slowly folded boats. It did not occur to us that folding a boat was so universal—something we all once knew, but have forgotten. Over time, the crowds changed from suit-cladded office workers to friends and families spending a night out. Some folded boats alone. Some did it in pairs. Sometimes, they complained about each other's clumsiness, but one would always light up the paper for the other.

On the deck, a lady sent off a boat and clasped her hands. I wondered what she was wishing for. Two young men thanked me for taking a picture of them together. A little girl wrote her name on the boat, and burst into tears after letting it go. Her mother comforted her for a long time.

These people sailed by one another.

On the last night, a family with two small children appeared at the line an hour in advance. "The work began with the trail of music boxes," I tried to direct them to the full experience. "We only want the boats," interjected the father. "We don't care about the rest." Were the stories of strangers still relevant?

Alex and his friend Mohammed, Brigette and her first employer, the Highfields and Mrs. Li's family of seven came one by one. Brigette was right there when an expat lady wound up her music box. They started a conversation. She'd arrived three weeks ago and listened to Brigette's story with full attentiveness. Alex was thrilled to hear his own voice from the amplifiers and introduced himself whenever he saw someone reading his tale. The Highfields would loved to have met him, but they missed one another while the family merrily went for refreshments. Mrs. Li, busy with shopkeeping and her family all these years, has never taken a leisure trip to town. When she sent off her boat, she smiled like a teenaged girl, like the one who sang along in that electronics factory, years ago in a miracle.

I looked at the rocking boats in this microcosm, and thought about the harbour, after dark. Someone told me, decades ago fishermen found a body in their fishing nets every night. So much had sunk into oblivion when the cameras flashed in front of the laser-lit extravaganza. Flickering lights, adrift on the water, stream across the stretch like an ultrasound image, of something embryonic, ephemeral, latent.

(Photographs by Cheung Chi-wai.)
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