From Fo Tan to Fotanian


2011 marks the
10th anniversary of open studio hold in Fo Tan. One of the event founder, Hong Kong artist Lam Tung-pang wrote about the early phrase and development of this major annual event in the local art scene.
From Fo Tan to Fotanian
Dai Pai Dong.
Fo Tan is famous for its Dai Pai Dong (A Hong Kong Style Restaurant), which is disappearing in Hong Kong now.

You can find the Hong Kong style restaurant open till 2am but not the much-criticised giant canopy, a winning design by architect Lord Foster, here in Fo Tan. In contrast to the billions dollars West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) project, which is a 40-hectare waterfront site with three theatres, a performance venue and 10,000 square meters in size art exhibition centre, there are around 20 self-funded studios by local artists in Fo Tan in 2005 and now increase up to over 70 artists studio. Fo Tan is a remote coastal settlements in Sha Tin before 1950s

[1]. In 1970s, Fo Tan was planned to develop into one of the four light industrial area in Sha Tin when it was undergoing new town development. Different from other light industrial area, Fo Tan also has residential areas to the east, alongside the railway , and in the mountains to the west. In 1980s to 90s, the rent of a 100 square meters factory was about USD$1500, estimated value around USD$ 350,000. One of the earliest artists setting up studio in Fo Tan included Warren Leung, the first artist representing Hong Kong in the Venice Biennale[2].
In 2001, a fire took away one of the five studios in the Department of Art in the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).  The art students had to cram into the four remaining studios to create their artworks.  Eight of us[3] then decided to look for a studio in some factories in an old industrial area. We were really desperate for space; the same thing that I suppose that every big city people desperate for. For me, I believe the studio space was essential to keep working after graduation. That is the beginning of an artist’s career.  Whenever people asked how long I have been an artist, I answered since 2001, the year I had my first studio.

Local artists meet and dinner in
PIC 2 Fo Tan, a busy industrial area in Hong Kong

In that year, the rent for the factories in Fo Tan and Tsuen Wan were cheaper than the other industrial areas in Hong Kong.  We chose Fo Tan, due to its proximity to the library of CUHK, which holds a good collection of Art Books, to establish our studio - 318 studio located at suite 318 in Wah Luen Industrial Centre, the farthest away from the train station. It was the cheapest at the time with a monthly rent of HKD$3,800 (USD$490) for 100m².  The building had a spacious high ceiling and an industrial-sized elevator, which enabled the creation and transfer of large pieces of art.  Many people thought that the phenomenon of establishing art studios in Fo Tan was due to the relatively cheap rent as a result of the stock market crash in 1997.  Interestingly, if we looked at the introduction of Fotanian in newspaper / art magazine, it often began with “the migration of Hong Kong industries to China” or “the economic recession in Hong Kong.”  While this evidence was correct, it did not convince me as the main reason for the settlement of the artists in Fo Tan.  This argument neglected the psychological and social aspects of the city at the time.  The depression of real estate in Hong Kong was not new; the rent of the factories had shrunk since 1997.  Yet the rapid establishment of studios did not happen until 2001. I believe this phenomenon was a reflection of the belief and desire of the new generation toward the future of the society and the style of living.  But what do the new generation really believe in and look for?  How can we better understand it?

[4]. There was no involvement of the media. Most visitors were friends and classmates. Yet several famous artists in Hong Kong, including Gaylord Chan and Mok Yat Sun, came over.  The open studio also brought a lot of attention in the field of art.  In fact, because of the limitation of space, the crowd could not see much in this exhibition.  Yet most visitors found it innovative.  After the event, we, as the graduating class, often promoted the concept of 318 studio to the students of CUHK.  In addition, Mr Lui personally purchased two suites in Wah Luen Industrial Centre.  Since then, Fo Tan became a popular place in the Fine Arts Department.  Lots of undergrad and graduated students started setting up their studios there, mostly at Wah Luen Industrial Centre.  Later, with the support of Jerry Kwan, who also set up his studio in Wah Luen Industrial Centre, many his students from Hong Kong Art School followed.  One year later, the original eight members from 318 Studio were split into two groups.  Five of them, including Gordon Lo, Lam Tung-pang, Tony Ma, Tozer Pak, and Sam Tang, established another studio named Mr.221.  The other three members Castaly Leung, Amy Lee, and Joey Wong set up their studio in the same building.

In the same year 2001, 318 Studio hosted the first show titled 318 Studio Opening Show, it’s the first ever open studio in Hong Kong.  At the same time, one of our classmates Lee Kit hosted his first solo exhibition at Mr Lui Chun-Kwong’s studio (now Yiliu Painting Factory)


PIC 3aThe first Open Studio in Fo Tan– 318 Studio Opening Show and solo of young Hong Kong artist Lee Kit

Visitors’ signatures, including established artists, Gaylord Chan and Mok Yat Sun

The year 2002 open studio was delayed to January 2003.  It was titled Fotan Gathering[5]. The title in Chinese which means ‘old fire’ and ‘new charcoal. It is according to the show including both established and young artists.  The exhibition started to catch the eye of the media and the public[6].  In the end of 2003, Hong Kong Museum of Art invited the Fo Tan[7] studios to be a Fringe Activities in the Hong Kong Art Biennial. This is the first time the Fo Tan open studio targeted on general public.  The Title: Fotanian[8] refers to the artists who have studio in Fo Tan old industrial buildings to work and is the title of the open studios.  The event included exhibitions of 30 artists previously from 18 in 2002. The open studio started to catch the media. One of the earliest publications about Fo Tan was an article called “Factories Turned Artists’ Village?” published in Sing Pao Daily News on Dec 5, 2003.  In the meantime, Mr.221 planned for the future open studio and decided to attract a wider range of artists to join the opening, hoping to include musicians and performing artists.  We would also like to get the involvement of designers and other arts administrators outside Fo Tan.  This idea became the cornerstone of the popular open studios in 2004.

PIC 5 Jerry Kwan is a well-established Hong Kong Artist setting up studio in Fo Tan. Photo taken on 2005 Mr. 221[9] tried to invite outsiders to collaborate and organize the 2004 open studios in Fo Tan.  This action turned out to be controversial among the artists in Fo Tan.  However, to develop and advance the open studios into an organized public event rather than a party for the artists themselves, we needed to involve administrative and diplomatic professionals.  More importantly, the development of Fo Tan would be an essential chapter in the history of contemporary art in Hong Kong.  Without proper documentation, it would be a disaster in the study of contemporary Hong Kong Art in the future.  Because of this reason, Ms Leung Po-shan joined the 2004 open studios project[10], in which she actively contacted the media and directed the publication Fotanian2004—Open Studio. Her effort led the open studio to the next level.  This event indeed attracted the mass media, from local newspaper and broadcasting to international art magazines such as Art Review[11] from London and Asia Art News[12] in Asia[13].  Because of the collaboration with Hong Kong Museum of Art in 2003, the introduction of various professionals into the projects in 2004, and the participation in the 2005 Hong Kong Fringe Festival, Fo Tan open studio attracted the audiences from different levels in the city.  This project was perhaps the most popular and well publicized event in the history of Hong Kong Art.
[14], “the idea of open studio would get bored after several visits.  Yet if the exhibitions focused at certain themes only, it would underplay the core idea of the unique and creative space contained within the studios in the factories.”  In my opinion, emphasis on both theme and space are essential for the future.  Both ideas are necessary to satisfy different demands by the public and professionals.  I believe the ideal situation would come when every studio has its unique plan and theme and, more importantly, put in their collaborate effort in the open studio.

Fo Tan open studio was innovative to many newcomers.  But would it attract people to come again?  According to curator Oscar Ho


With over 100 artists and 28 Studios in 2007, a map is essential for visiting Open studios.

To the media and general public, Fo Tan seems to be very organized.  Yet it has its own challenges.  Every year, individuals from each studio come together for the sake of the open studio.  However, only several artists are responsible for the administrative tasks while, at the same time, maintain their part- or full-time work to make a living.  This is a major obstacle for the open studio and, often, for local art to develop into its full potential.  Should Fo Tan develop a more organized structure or continue to count on the voluntary effort of several artists?  This question remained unanswered.  On top of this problem, Fo Tan faces a bigger challenge that does not exist in the studios in other countries that encourage art initiatives.  In these countries, many of the studios are supported by the government in a way that certain districts or areas are reserved for artists’ studios or offices use only with a long term fixed rent guarantee.  In addition to the government support, many private organization and cultural fund sponsor the studios.  In contrast, the artists in Fo Tan do not have a common goal to develop the strategy for protecting the studios or the initiative to solicit sponsorship.  With the expansion and popularity of the Fo Tan studios, the artists also have to worry about increasing rent. 

In fact, Fo Tan is not simply a desolate industrial area.  Many factories are still in business.  Every morning at 8:30am, thousands of blue collars rushed into the area from Fo Tan train station.  Walking with the troop, I feel like I was one of them everyday.  Around the studios are many corner stores, fast food restaurants, and the factories for some international companies.  Compared to the studios in London and old-factory-turned studios in East London, Fo Tan seems to be even more diverse and unique. 
Art has never been a popular topic in Hong Kong.  There is a barrier separating the community and art.  To remove this barrier, I believe it is important for the government not only to develop Soho areas in Hong Kong or to designate a building restricted for studio use only, but also essential to promote the culture of art and enhance the relationship between the artists and the community. How this can be achieved?  I believe direct interaction of the artists with the community (I like the artists and community in Fo Tan neighbourhood more than anything) is more effective than the artworks itself to alter the attitude of the public toward art.

PIC 7 Dinner in Dai Pai Dong after the opening, 2005



 text and photos by
Lam Tung-pang

[1] Lek Yuen is the original name of Sha Tin area of the New Territories, Hong Kong. When British surveyors first came to the area, they visited Sha Tin Wai and tried to get the name of whole area. The villagers answered the officials it is Sha Tin and therefore the officials mistakenly recorded it as the name of whole area. Sha Tin is used instead of Lek Yuen even since.
[3] Amy Lee, Castaly Leung, Gordon Lo, Jacky Cheung, Lam Tung-pang, Tony Ma, Tozer Pak, Sam Tang
[4] In 2001, two other studios were established in Wah Luen Industrial Center.  They were Sara Tse’s The Gallerymil and Chester Chu’s Chester Chu Gallery.  They did not participate in the first Open Studio.
[5] Exhibition date:  January 24 to 26, 2003.  Exhibitions included Penthouse Reminiscence , Jerry Kwan and Lui Chun Kwong  from Rm 21, 6/F, Blk A, Wah Luen Industrial Center; NEOstalgia, Lam Wai Kit, Lee Kwok Chuen, Tsang Chui Mei and Au Hoi Lam from Yiliu Painting Factory, Rm 21, 15/F, Blk A, Wah Luen Industrial Center; 1426 Showcase by Shirley Tse and Sara Tse; Chester Chu and Eva Yip from Studio 1426, Rm 26, 14/F, Blk A, Wah Luen Industrial Center; The Marching Group, Tommy Tam, Guy Cheung, Jacqueline Kwan, Pauline Ng, Sam Sham, May Lee, Clement Ngan and Julie Yuen from Unit E, 14/F, Yue Cheung Centre, No. 1-3, Wong Chuk Yeung Street, Shatin, NT
[6]  FotanGathering, Economic Journal, January 22, 2003
[7] Lam Tung-pang was the contact person with the Hong Kong Museum of Art.  He later went to London for graduate studies, the other member of the Mr. 221 including Gordon Lo, Tony Ma, Tozer Pak and Sam Tang continued to promote the Fo Tan Open Studio.
[8] The title Fotanian was used for the first time in the 2003 Open Studio.  The sign was placed in studio suite 221.
[9] Jeff Leung joined Mr.221
[10] Leung Po-shan was the executive director of the 2004 Fo Tan studio open house.
[11] The View from Here, Eliza Patten, Art Review, Vol LVI, August 2005, pp90-93.
[12] Heaven is Space, Jonathan Thomas, Asia Art News, Vol 15, Jan/Feb, 2005, pp52-57.
[13] In 2005, a Portugal contemporary art research Sandra Lourenco came to study the contemporary art of Hong Kong and Macau after reading the articles published in Asian Art News.  She is finishing her thesis.
[14] From Developing in the city, Oscar Ho, Economic Journal, pg 28, Feb 2006.