A trove of forbidden treasures

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A trove of forbidden treasures
A woman takes a closer look at an ancient painting on display at the Hong Kong Palace Museum on July 3 (XINHUA)

Located at the western tip of the West Kowloon Cultural District and adopting an innovative curatorial approach, the Hong Kong Palace Museum opened its doors to the public after five years of planning, designing and construction.

More than 900 treasures from Beijing's Palace Museum collection, housed in the capital's former imperial palace, are on rotating display during the inaugural exhibitions. Some of the pieces have made their way into Hong Kong for the first time in history.

Spanning nearly 5,000 years, the artworks range from paintings, calligraphy, bronze, ceramics and jade, to costumes and textiles, jewelry, rare books and architecture. About 160 are classified as national-level treasures.

"The culture of the Palace Museum is the carrier of our five millennia of Chinese civilization," Louis Ng Chi-wa, Director of the Hong Kong Palace Museum, said. "We are applying new technologies and creating new interpretations to explain these cultural relics so that they can resonate with contemporary audiences."

In less than 1,000 days, Ng and his colleagues built a brand new museum. The documentary Witness the Hong Kong Palace Museum has recorded how they achieved this architectural miracle from scratch, as well as the actual stories behind the design, construction and transportation arrangements of the museum.

The resume of Zhou Bing, the documentary's principal director, also boasts the famous documentaries The Forbidden City (2015) and When the Louvre Meets the Forbidden City (2010). The filmmaker believes that in addition to the cultural significance, there is also the consideration of presenting traditional art and culture with Chinese characteristics to the world through Hong Kong, in its capacity as an international communications platform. 

Whether it's the cultural or historical details, Zhou's filmic undertakings are feasts for the eyes. But with Witness the Hong Kong Palace Museum, he opted for a different stylistic approach. "I chose not to pay too much attention to the lens as a technical tool, but focused on the reality in front of it," Zhou told Beijing Review. "I hope that when people watch this film 10 or 20 years from now, they will still see and understand what this group of people did, what efforts they exerted, to design and build such a museum," he said.

A trove of forbidden treasures
Visitors take photos of a white porcelain pillow in the shape of a recumbent child from the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) on display at the Hong Kong Palace Museum on July 3, the day the venue opened its doors to the public (XINHUA)

Rebirth of a relic 

Surrounded by the sea on three sides, the elevation plan of the Hong Kong Palace Museum shows a trapezoid-shaped structure with a wide upper section and narrow base.

There are nine exhibition halls and three atriums connect the different floors of the museum vertically, representing the Beijing Central Axis threading though the former imperial palace.

A demonstration of Hong Kong's modern architectural temperament, the institution's art installations integrate the concepts of up-to-the-minute technologies and contemporary art, but maintain the undisputable aesthetic and spirit of the Palace Museum.

"Someone asked me why Hong Kong needs a new museum," Carrie Lam, former Chief Executive of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), explained in the documentary. "I think, in a way, the museum had the right team in the right place at the right time."

West Kowloon Cultural District already has a modern museum—the M+, Asia's first global museum of contemporary visual culture. "And so now, we also have another museum displaying ancient cultural relics, which can have a complementary effect," she added.

The story of the new venue started in the autumn of 2015. The Palace Museum in Beijing welcomed a group of guests from Hong Kong. Lam, then Chief Secretary for Administration of the Hong Kong SAR Government and Chairperson of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, was among them.

Shan Jixiang, then Curator of Beijing's Palace Museum, asked Lam: Is there any land in Hong Kong? Can we cooperate and set up a museum project in Hong Kong?

"My answer was yes," Lam recalled. "We will take the 40,000-square-meter land in West Kowloon near the sea, and turn it into a cultural district."

"The Palace Museum holds the richest collection of Chinese cultural relics in the world," Shan said. "This is an important feature in enhancing Hong Kong's cultural status, and making Hong Kong's energy shine brighter worldwide."

As a global financial center, the SAR is seeking a new direction of development, transforming the West Kowloon Cultural District into an international arts and cultural community, sitting right next to the international financial center and close to Victoria Harbor.

So, at the beginning of 2016, the West Kowloon Cultural District established a team of five experts for this purpose, and they started preparing for a grand architectural "rebirth." In December 2016, the SAR Government officially announced in Beijing that the Hong Kong Palace Museum would become another cultural and artistic landmark of the region.

Inherit and innovate 

The design process was one of trial and error.

A well-known architect in Hong Kong, Rocco Yim has designed many works, including Hong Kong landmarks like the Central Financial Center and Kunming's Yunnan Provincial Museum which houses an exhibition centered on Yunnan's ethnic minorities. In 2017, he accepted the assignment to design the Hong Kong Palace Museum, a new challenge in the field of cultural institution construction.

Yim considers the new museum a modern venue reminiscent of China's vast historical and cultural heritage.

"But we all know that the design and construction periods are intense. A museum can only have five years from design to completion, which is really rare," Yim said.

To make sure the new building would have the staying power to become a future classic, he visited the original in Beijing.

"The Palace Museum in Beijing is an exhibit in itself," Yim said. "As a 600-year-old building, it possesses eternal value." If the museum in Hong Kong wants to keep its value both in the contemporary era and in the future, it needs to have an image that arouses association, namely, the suggestion of traditional Chinese visual art culture, Yim explained. 

Yim wanted the new museum to be a reinterpretation of the original in Beijing, not its replica.

The Hong Kong version, for example, doesn't feature the traditional brick and tile elements typically seen in ancient Chinese architecture. Yet by mixing and merging modern architectural techniques and traditional design concepts, the new building's classical Oriental charm remains palpable.

Zhou agreed with Yim's vision. The collection of the Beijing museum not only inspired the architect's design, but also brought the film director a whole new cultural production format. "I could feel the elegant layers, their flow and order, like a work of calligraphy; the unique texture and color in the tiles; the subtle shimmer in the porcelain," he told Beijing Review. "The old is reflected in the new."

In addition to channeling the art and philosophy of the Palace Museum in Beijing, modernity, safety, practicality and environmental protection are all factors to consider when constructing a new building. 

"Architecture is part of the city so, for me, a design can never be self-centered and must take into account its urban impact. Plus, buildings are made for people to use and in this case, how a visitor experiences the architecture determines the museum's permanent value," Yim said.

The Hong Kong Palace Museum team hopes the venue can help this generation of talent in Hong Kong create more space to express themselves.

"It is a museum of Chinese culture and art," Ng said. "We hope to bring cultures from all over the world to China and present our Chinese legacy to the world."

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