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Miniatures artists adapt creation processes to city's rising expenses
From:chinadaily  |  2020-12-29 12:15

At 7 am one morning, women rushed to a shared kitchen in the open corridors in the center of an H-shaped housing block to prepare breakfast, with the sound of fire alarms triggered by old-fashioned kerosene stoves ringing in the background.

This is one of Tony Lai's most precious childhood memories from the 1960s when he lived with his family in a seven-story building in Shau Kei Wan, the oldest public housing estate in Hong Kong.

While the rest of the world is moving forward, Hong Kong's miniatures artists are taking a leaf from the past and handing it back to the present in the magical world of Lilliput.

Lai, 53, and Maggie Chan, 46, have been miniatures artists for more than 10 years. One is good at building large models, the other at making tiny dishes as small as fingernails.

Hong Kong's decades-old but disappearing scenes, such as old-school barbershops, newspaper stalls and herbal tea shops, are their beloved diorama themes.

"Every piece of the miniature artwork is a love letter to Hong Kong," says Carmen Poon, chairwoman of Joyful Miniature. The objects are mostly about Hong Kong people's everyday lives.

Mount Davis Squatters, one of Lai's most intricate pieces, depicts people going about their daily chores in a once-dilapidated village. Lai got the inspiration from his childhood experience of taking the ferry to Lamma Island, where he saw the now-demolished wooden houses in the village.

"Hong Kong is changing rapidly and a lot of things have disappeared," says Chan. "Miniature art is more like a three-dimensional history book, through which we can keep our memories."

Instead of merely focusing on creative imagination, Chan says making art that depicts things that exist or have once existed in real life can resonate with the audience by striking them with a "sense of belonging".

"Miniature art takes only a tiny place while including a much bigger picture about the real world," says Poon. The small size makes it easier to survive in Hong Kong, but for the artists working full time in Hong Kong, the business still faces constraints and challenges.

Artists are confronted by pressure of limited space, and high rental costs and living expenses, which have pushed them to work in a highly efficient style.

Not having the budget to launch their business, Lai and Chan sold 10 of their works in 2017 to cover the new studio's costs. Their 100-square-meter studio in an industrial building in Kowloon district sometimes doubles as Lai's bedroom during the busiest times. While striking a subtle balance, their business has still been beset by the pandemic this year.

Miniatures are no longer all about traditional craftsmanship-3D printing has been applied nowadays, along with augmented-reality technologies in exhibitions.

Lai's dream is to make a long, bustling street stretching from the coast to the mountain top with shops, public housing estates and parks.

He sometimes heads to the rooftop of the industrial building, carrying cans of beer, where he takes a break and looks down at the city which feels far below and appears just like one of his miniature art pieces.