Artists bring Hong Kong’s past to life in miniatures

Hong Kong (CNN)Tony Lai remembers visiting Hong Kong’s Lamma Island as a child. Laundry hung from balconies, fishermen perched on the cliffside and dim lights illuminating rust-stained shacks.

These images left a deep impression on the artist. So, years later, Lai decided to recreate the scene in minute detail. His miniature artwork forms part of a project that hopes to preserve memories of the former British colony’s disappearing past.
“I took a lot of time researching, finding old photos, interviewing, sourcing materials and talking to people who used to live [on Lamma Island] to make sure we got everything right,” Lai says in his new Hong Kong workshop, which he shares with fellow miniature artist Maggie Chan.
    Earlier this year the two artists opened TOMA Miniatures, a small studio where they offer classes and collaborate on new artworks. Miniatures of a barbershop, an old village and an herbal tea shop are on display alongside workstations littered with cutting boards, rulers and knives.
    As the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China nears, many Hong Kong residents have been recalling their homeland’s past with a sense of nostalgia. But others fear that the city’s heritage is disappearing, with historic sites being destroyed to make way for shopping malls and commercial high-rises.
    This sense of nostalgia — and mourning — has been a boon to artists like Lai and Chan.
    “Recently our work has become more popular, domestically and abroad,” says Chan. “We think it’s because Hong Kong is changing too fast. People feel that something is slipping away.”

    A detailed history

    For each project, the two artists divide the work between them. Lai, an architectural model maker, manages the infrastructure and electrical components. Chan, who has been studying miniature models since high school, focuses on smaller items, like household appliances and food.
    A single miniature can take months of work, as the two artists recreate meticulous, life-like replicas. No detail is spared, from the rust stains on the side of the famed Woo Cheong Pawn Shop (as it was in the 1950s — the space has since been transformed into a trendy bar and restaurant) to tiny loaves of freshly baked bread in the window of a street cafe.
    “We see a lot of elderly people at our exhibitions,” says Chan. “When you see the expression on their faces, it’s like they’ve returned to their childhood. You can see their joy as they retell stories to us, their friends and their grandchildren.”

    A work of patience

    Lai and Chan’s work is attracting attention beyond Hong Kong’s art world. They have recently completed a commission for Kevin Wong, managing director of one of Hong Kong’s oldest bakeries, Kee Wah Bakery. Wong wanted a slice of history in his new shop, and he sought out the artists after seeing their work at an exhibition.
    It took Chan and Lai four months to complete the commission, which includes a one-twelfth scale miniature of Kee Wah Bakery’s first Hong Kong store, opened at the end of World War II. The artwork also includes a one-fiftieth scale miniature of the Shanghai neighborhood in which the bakery was founded.
    Everything from shopfronts to bridal cakes etched with Chinese characters was painstakingly recreated. “It takes me three hours to make just one cake,” says Chan, who uses needlepoint tools to shape each object.
    “Their work looks so real, especially on a little cake that is just six millimeters in length,” says Wong. “They managed to etch in four Chinese characters.”

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