the facade of Fringe Club (photo taken by Lexie Ma Xiaochi)
A Walk Down Central
Central is credited as the heart of Hong Kong in many senses, be it financial, commercial or culinary. Bankers and investors work their magic on the international stock market and global capitalist network; shoppers and fashionistas indulge themselves in the blend of latest haute couture dresses and fine jewellery items; and tourists and gourmets soak in the SoHo and LKF gastronomic vibes emanating from a wide array of authentic cosmopolitan cuisines and creatively crafted cocktails.
the night view of Central streets (photo sourced from Hong Kong Tourism Board)
Of all the intrigues you get to experiment with and of all the elements Central predominantly embodies, chances are that arts and history may not present themselves in the most straightforward fashion, let alone fused into an integrated whole. While the thought that Hong Kong prides itself not only in its economic achievements and ethnic diversity but also in its artistic appeal and historical richness lingers in the port city which inherits a colonial past, more and more of its urban populace is taking ownership on both fronts of creative genius and cultural heritage consciously and pragmatically.
A Fusion Between Contemporary Arts and Historical Heritage
Here enters Fringe Club, an old landmark building in a classic Victorian architectural style residing on the Lower Albert Road corner right around Central’s iconic LKF area and housing a multitude of contemporary art forms including visual arts, performing arts, ceramic arts, culinary arts and so on in their various genres.
Fringe Club’s Anita Chan Lai Ling Gallery (photo taken by Lexie Ma Xiaochi)
Nowadays featuring as diversely as one gallery, one black box, one theater studio, one live music venue, two restaurants, one café and one rooftop garden where organic herbs are grown to cater directly to customers there, the non-profit organization actually has its historical roots planted more than a century ago. Originally built as the low-rise Dairy Farm cold storage warehouse in 1892 and later expanded to offer more space for selling dairy products, smoking meat, storing ice and providing residency for staff members in 1913, the building had previously functioned as the Dairy Farm headquarter until it relocated in 1970s.
the old Dairy Farm depot on Lower Albert Street in 1890 (photo sourced from Fringe Club)
After going through a series of major renovations, the then abandoned building has since been acquired by Fringe Club and reinvented into a vibrant contemporary arts space without losing its unique vintage touch. Its blood and bandage brickwork exterior, wooden blinds and amber chandelier are among those decoration sparks serving to preserve an old-timey Hong Kong style. The successful metamorphosis has earned Fringe Club a Hong Kong Heritage Award in 2001 and the building itself has been categorized as a Grade I historic site.
An Intimacy Shared Between Fringe Club and Artists
As introduced by Liu Suk Man, Catherine, the project director of Fringe Club’s Cultural Heritage Project, the organization operates quite distinctively from other art galleries in its vicinity, PMQ in particular. Instead of renting spaces out for artists to display their works, Fringe Club invites exhibition and performance proposals from painters, photographers, musicians, theater performing groups and other passionate arts lovers, and supplies platforms and lends publicity support for their inspiring brainchildren to reach a wider audience upon approval.
two artists discussing painting techniques at Fringe Club’s Anita Chan Lai Ling Gallery (photo taken by Lexie Ma Xiaochi)
As emphasized by Liu, Fringe Club upholds the principle of freedom of expression, and that freedom shall not get hindered, not by political constraints or by financial barriers. And no news is greater than this to budding young artists who long to witness their creative pieces materialize and leave an imprint in the heart of the city.
local artist Yiu Chu Tung drawing on Fringe Club postcards with visitors during an Open Day workshop (photo taken by Lexie Ma Xiaochi)
Wu Chun Yin, Aries, a local artist whose paintings are currently on display at Fringe Club’s Anita Chan Lai Ling Gallery in a joint exhibition entitled View echoed Liu’s stance. To him, while the vanguard city of Hong Kong never surrenders its political freedom and democratic pursuits without a fight, Fringe Club clears financial obstacles out of aspiring artists’ way and offers a treasured opportunity for them to establish a name for themselves. “I used to do my artistic work in Cattle Depot Artists Village and it’s all the way up in Ma Tau Kok,” said Wu. “So I was truly delighted to learn that I can exhibit my paintings here in Central.”
local artist Wu Chun Yin, Aries’s painting album and flyers for the joint exhibition entitled View (photo taken by Lexie Ma Xiaochi)
Wu believes that what makes Fringe Club Fringe Club precisely lies in its retro ambience. “The windows here are kept in the way they’ve always been,” admired Wu. “Unlike many other galleries where the windows just try too hard to put on a modern facade.” But why Fringe Club’s idiosyncratic heritage allure proves to be conducive for artistic creation and appreciation remains puzzling. Wu was quick to connect the dots and expound the link between the two. “To me, the heritage quality just exudes naturalness,” explained Wu. “And such naturalness constructs a comfortable environment for me, which encourages my artistic work.”
local artist Yiu Chu Tung’s painting hanging next to the window of Fringe Club’s Anita Chan Lai Ling Gallery (photo taken by Lexie Ma Xiaochi)
“Homey, intimate and urban. This is a bit like my second home. Every time I walk in here, I got like ‘here we are again’.” – Nicole Garbellini (drama performer and director)
the main stairs of Fringe Club (photo taken by Lexie Ma Xiaochi)
“Fringe Club is a nice place. Every time I think about it, colors pop up in my mind. I conjure up its image and fill my nostrils with its aura.” – Wong Ka Jeng (pianist)
the postcard wall where visitors share their favorate corners of Fringe Club in drawings (photo taken by Lexie Ma Xiaochi)
“Arts shouldn’t be created deliberately. When I’m in search of a place to go, Fringe Club always comes to mind.” – Mok Kin Wai, Patrick (treasurer of Hong Kong Arts Administration Association)
A Collective Memory Dedicated to the Hong Kong Society
While Fringe Club has dedicated plenty of its resources to promote contemporary arts, it also places equal weight on its heritage preservation mission. Liu shared the organization’s philosophy in answering such calling which has been steering Fringe Club’s exemplary transformation. “When we preserve a place, we have to think about the value of it”, advised Liu. “It is also very important for the operator or preserver to think how to transform the place into a more usable space today.” The repurposing of Fringe Club which has breathed contemporary vitality and new meaning into a vacant architectural vestige demonstrates Liu’s attitude perfectly.
children learning about organic herbs grown at Fringe Club’s repurposed rooftop garden (photo sourced from Fringe Club)
The value that Liu was referring to was nicely summed up by her as the city’s collective memory. Nothing is more evident in Central’s jungle of concrete than Hong Kong’s fast-paced development of materialism, consumerism and commercialization. Arts these days is regarded by many as a luxury that is only granted consideration after worldly concerns are resolved. This leaves the majority of the Hong Kong society questioning the significance or even relevance of heritage preservation.
Fringe Club’s iconic Circa 1913 sign (photo sourced from Fringe Club)
“All tangible buildings carry some memories or history of the past,” asserted Liu. “It is not necessary to demolish any of these buildings because they are old or because they are outdated.” What is worth preserving is indeed not the physical site alone. Nevertheless, a tangible existence does help put things into perspective from a historical standpoint when intangible heritage such as the collective memory that very much defines the city’s present character attempts to get across its social messages.
a music performance at Fringe Club’s repurposed live house Dairy (photo taken by Bernard Hui)
Since its inception, Fringe Club has been striving and succeeding to remain financially self-sufficient through its food and beverage income stream and through taking advantage of the low rental price of the space as offered by the government. As a non-profit organization, these financial resources have been utilized to cover not only its daily management and maintenance as well as performance and exhibition publicity and logistics, but also altogether 11 of its renovation and restoration efforts in line with its heritage preservation objective. Only recently has it solicited a sponsorship from Jockey Club to fund the 12th term of construction work.
Fringe Club’s repurposed arts bar Colette’s (photo sourced from Deals Hong Kong)
Fringe Club’s unmatched capability to overcome the financial challenge has been undoubtedly awe-inspiring, but many organizations devoted to arts incubation and heritage preservation in Hong Kong also face another common conundrum, that is, whether or not people genuinely care about such agenda.
visitors learning about Fringe Club’s past and present during a guided tour led by a volunteer docent at the upstairs studio (photo taken by Lexie Ma Xiaochi)
Liu has been in the industry long enough to be able to observe conclusively an optimistic trend among the Hong Kong populace. While much is still left to be worked on, Liu is confident in a promising future in the field of heritage preservation because she has already noticed an upbeat rise in public awareness on such issues in recent years. “Hong Kong is obviously very commercial”, conceded Liu. “But I think in these few years, the sense of heritage conservation is becoming more and more popular.”
*Interested readers are welcome to find out more about Fringe Club here. This author also wrote about an open access effort and digital tour initiative rolled out by Fringe Club here. For a visual overview of Fringe Club’s past and present, please click here.