Hong Kong Cafe -- Russell Hart
Immigrant communities make themselves comfortable by creating a cultural infrastructure that borrows from, or even resembles outright, the remembered environments of their native lands. Yet this practice, whether religious or secular, private or commercial, ritual or visual, rarely results in a pure expression of “home.” The old world is mixed, by necessity, with the new.
Some of the best examples of this curious fusion can be found in the restaurants of immigrant communities. Ange Ong’s Hong Kong Cafe is a brilliantly subtle photographic study of this manifestation.
Originally from Hong Kong, Ong grew up frequenting the city’s colonial-era cafes; when she arrived in America and visited its cities’ many Chinatowns, she was struck by the ways in which restaurants had attempted to recreate the character of these cafes. For someone who knew the real thing intimately, they were mere approximations, adulterated directly by American styles of interior design (often outdated) and indirectly by the very different nature of materials available for building, decorating, and furnishing.
Rather than simply photograph these commingled interiors, Ong chose to recreate them—but as a sort of paradigm guided by her own memory. She meticulously constructed small “sets,” much like an architect would create models for interiors or buildings, then made highly detailed, close-up photographs of them. The interiors of Ong’s models, though, have been pared down to almost surreal essentials. They have pristine, unblemished surfaces—laminated tabletops, tiled walls, stainless-steel appliances—that are still imperfect in their fit and finish, like the originals. (This imperfect note, which requires some scrutiny to find, gives away the artist’s secret.) Their colors are impossibly pale and pastel, evoking a mid-century modern palette but taking it to a timeless, ethereal place. And while the figureless cafe scenes they depict are fragmentary—abruptly cropped and tightly seen—they are punctuated by the familiar appurtenances of Chinese restaurants, from molded plastic soda-fountain tumblers to the waving cat that greets customers, symbolizing the proprietor’s wish for good luck and good business.
Beyond their cultural references, the images have a visual sophistication that reflects Ong’s background in art history. Aided by extensive post-production work, their colors are tautly controlled; their surfaces are subtly skewed, sometimes tilted up toward the picture plane like a Matisse still life; and their composition is daring. This visual refinement bolsters the Hong Kong Cafe’s ambitious purpose, but at the same time makes this unique body of work a purely visual delight.