Native of London, UK and currently residing in Hong Kong, George Major holds BA (Hons) in Fine Art and Philosophy from University of Reading, (2006) and a MFA in Art Writing from Goldsmiths College. (2012) His work approaches epistemology and historiography, and has been presented and performed at Chisenhale Gallery (2011), Whitechapel Gallery (2012), the ICA (2012), and the Barbican Centre (2013). In 2014, his collaboration with artist Maru Rojas, Urban Myths of the Near Future, was shortlisted for the Camaradas award, presented by the Mexican Embassy in London; as well, their Moby Dick Murder Mystery (bilingual) Floating Participatory Theatre featured at the Dieppe/Newhaven Art Festival. From 2008 until 2012, he was director of the itinerant gallery Squid & Tabernacle. S&T staged exhibitions, live events and film screenings in a variety of spaces including a disused tailor’s shop, a shipping container, art festivals and studio complexes. Between 2011 and 2015, he was a prominent member of the free alternative arts education initiative AltMFA, who as a group, exhibited widely, appearing at London’s Art Licks Weekend and Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn.
George used to run with an athletics club when he was at school. He has always liked the idea of doing an ultra long distance running race although while living in London, he had barely broke into a jog in 15 years. Instead, he would walk everywhere, imaging the streets as a kind of palimpsest document of stories, myths and history, appended with literary references and creative possibilities. He developed an intimate relationship to his own city through walking, a source for many ideas for his art practice.
It was two years ago when he moved to Hong Kong that running suddenly came back to him; he entered a 50 km mountain race and since then, he has ran four 50km races, a couple of mountain marathons and so many shorter races that he has begun to lose track of them. He has explored more of the territory’s countryside, passed through more backwater fishing villages and isolated hilltops than many Hong Kong born people – to a point that he toyed with the idea of declaring that his artistic practice is now chiefly concerned with running.
George’s on-hiatus residency at RFAOH might be directly related to his obsession with running (an obsession his girlfriend finds “unhealthy”.) He will train for and run a 100km race as well as aim to beat his previous times in each of the other races he has done. Whether he will finally come to declare that “running”=”his art” or not, he hopes that his on-hiatus activity and its documentation as a creative exercise will be a chance to reflect on the impact of what he’s choosing to do, and reawaken his practice. He also wants to get to know his new city, a bit faster this time, than the 30 years he took for his hometown, London.
I haven't thought much about art-making over the past year. At the start of the residency I was thinking about parallels between my hiatus activity and being an artist. Both, I think, require a similar mindset; bloody mindedness, ability to derive satisfaction from something that is not always fun and that can be hard to explain to others. Distance running is very much a lonely, solo pursuit where your main opponent is your own self-doubt. Yet it is also something that is done in big groups much of the time. This dichotomy may have some equivalence to being an artist. There is an unspoken rule at races that people congratulate each-other on their performances no-matter how badly they've done, there's a general camaraderie. I've never quite been able to work out how this compares to being an artist in a social setting around other artists.
Speaking of social activity. The past season of running I have become far more involved in the social side of the activity, but I've had increasingly little interest in writing about it, posting pictures on social media and so on. As far as running in races has gone - I had moderate success to start with. But, as I've written before, I overdid it and it stopped being fun for a while. I'm now really looking forward to when the racing season starts again, but as for art-making...
I quit teaching at Christmas to concentrate on writing (I'm now editing magazines for a living), and that has opened new avenues for me. Over the past month I have got to know the city's art galleries a lot better than I did before. I think the gallery scene in Hong Kong is far less accessible than in my native London, had it not been for my writing work, I don't think I would have been able to make any gallery contacts. Not that I'm looking at getting a gallery show or anything. A vague idea has been knocking around in the back of my head though.
I've loads of bits of writing I've been sitting on for ages. I need to finish one or two of those. I'm doing some work for Hong Kong Art Gallery Association, so I'm really glad to be getting involved with art in HK at last. And I'm still running, I'm signed up to a 168km race in December and a few between now and then.
For a city of its size, Hong Kong is very lacking in art museums. I've a vague notion of doing a sort of HK reworking of Broodthaers' Musee d'Art Moderne Departement des Aigles - although I'm hesitant. I don't want to create a snarky/internet meme/bantz piece of work. I've not had much contact with London-based artist friends and former collaborators so far this year - although I did write a text for a publication by a group I used to collaborate with, in which I tried to sum up why I wasn't making art at the moment. I've reproduced the text below:
THERE’S NO HOME WITHOUT A HAUNTING
I am a sub-urbanist, I have gone out looking for the city’s grand narratives along my own nondescript residential street. For years I never looked further than I could walk in a day.
I was in London most of my life; a city of one thousand and one villages that have merged over time to create a single conurbation. On my tours of mundane suburbia I became interested in the origins of place names. Many places, according to various local myths, got their names during the black death. But in almost every case, the folk etymology was demonstrably wrong. Still, that the same untrue grand narrative was repeated so frequently suggested that the trauma of the second bubonic plague pandemic is still echoing around the collective subconscious even after centuries have passed.
I moved to Hong Kong. For two years I enjoyed life in a ballardian high-rise apartment. The city seemed strangely familiar, but when I wandered my new local streets looking for stories, I found none.
Later on I moved to an older part of the city. My new apartment was a little run-down but surprisingly cheap, given its central location and large size. I joked that maybe something terrible had once happened there. Hongkongers are generally very wary of potentially haunted houses. You can bag a real bargain by checking the database of addresses where murders and suicides have occurred. I decided it was best not to look up my new address on the database.
Just this week I learnt that when the third bubonic plague pandemic reached Hong Kong in 1894 the outbreak was centred on the village of Tai Ping Shan, which stood metres from where my apartment was later built. I learnt that my neighbourhood played an important role in Franco-Swiss scientist Alexandre Yersin’s discovery of the plague-causing bacillus.
According to the story I heard, unclaimed corpses were left in the local temples during the outbreak. I had already noticed that during the Hungry Ghost Festival in August, when offerings are burnt in the street to appease restless spirits, my new neighbourhood became very active and the air filled with smoke.
Tai Ping Shan Street is now home to a mixture of hip coffee shops and traditional coffin workshops. The area is popular with young French-speakers. But back in colonial times it was an overcrowded, unsanitary slum. When the plague arrived the British burned the village to the ground. (Hong Kong, 3 November 2016)"
I set out to learn the final part of a race I’m doing in a few weeks called 9 Dragons. It’s a 50/50 race, meaning there is a 50 mile race on the Saturday then 50km on the Sunday. I’m only doing the latter, but a few people I know are doing the two back to back. Nine Dragons is the literal translation of the name Kowloon; the part of the city to the north of Hong Kong’s harbour. Legend has it that Emperor Bing of Song was travelling through and saw the eight mountains surrounding the area, so he decided to call it Eight Dragons. But one of his aides told him, no, it should be called nine dragons as the emperor is the ninth dragon. I sincerely hope this aide’s sycophancy was rewarded with a promotion to the rank of eunuch.
My route began at Golden Hill, AKA Monkey Mountain. The place is overrun with macaques, thousands of them. They have totally lost all fear of humans, or moving cars for that matter. They are fast with sharp teeth and claws and there are loads of them. Don’t let them see you with food.
Anyway, the reason I showed you the map of my route is that it coincides with the line of defences built to defend Hong Kong from Japanese attack during the second world war. The first time I was up in these hills I had no idea all this existed, so I was surprised to stumble upon a series of tunnel entrances, each of which had the name of a London street written above it.
Here is Shaftesbury Avenue:
Called Gin Drinker’s Line (after Gin Drinker’s Bay, which lies at it’s western end) the defences were modelled on the Maginot Line, constructed to defend France from German attack. The fortifications were expected to be able to hold out against a Japanese land invasion for at least three weeks. However, the British didn’t think that the Japanese were likely to launch any kind of surprise attack, so the Gin Drinker’s Line was left massively undermanned overnight.
On the night of December 9 1941, a single team of ten Japanese soldiers made a sneak attack. It seems that they were as surprised as anyone when the attack succeeded. Not having expected to break through the defences so easily, the Japanese had to call in more forces to chase the British back to Hong Kong Island.
The occupation that followed was an extremely dark period of Hong Kong’s history, encapsulated by another site I came across yesterday. On a section of the trail I haven’t explored before, I came across a cave that didn’t look like part of the defences, really just a roughly dug-out hole in the hillside. It turns out that this was an ambush tunnel dug by Japanese forces during the battle for Hong Kong in 1941. I’ve done a little research onto what this tunnel was and how it was used. The tunnel was barely big enough to hold five or six attackers, their job would have been to ambush and inflict as many casualties as possible on a much larger group of soldiers. With no escape route and massively outnumbered, the attackers would have known they had very little chance of survival themselves.
After last month’s post about exploring abandoned villages I want to tell you a little bit more about opportunities for urban exploration in Hong Kong. When I first arrived in the city I found it a real challenge to engage with the history of the place. My ballardian high-rise apartment just wasn’t conducive to doing psychogeography. But since moving to an older (tattier) flat in another part of town I have been coming across all sorts of interesting local history. I recently discovered that the area just behind my new flat was the site of a village where the third bubonic plague epidemic arrived in Hong Kong in 1894. The British occupiers burned the village to the ground to stop the spread of the plague, but not before the Franco-Swiss scientist Alexandre Yersin had arrived and become the first person to successfully isolate the bacillus that causes bubonic plague.
A distant folk-memory of these events seems to persist in local coffin workshops and temples and during the annual hungry ghost festival in August, when offerings are burnt in the street to appease restless spirits.
Anyway, there are a couple of very easily accessible sites for exploration that I discovered early on in my time in Hong Kong. The first is Kowloon Walled City Park.
At its height in the late 80s, Kowloon Walled City was home to around 33,000 people inside a plot measuring just 210 x 120 metres. Its reputation is one of lawlessness and squalor, but the walled city’s population formed a close-knit community, surviving with apparently little or no external government support.
Over the decades more and more buildings were crammed into the small space, around 350 buildings packed in, around and on top of one-another, reaching up to 14 storeys high. It was possible to traverse the city from end to end through its dense network of passageways without touching the ground.
In the 1990s the whole place was demolished and a park built in its place. Some of the foundations of the walled city can still be found there, along with this bronze model of the city as it once was:
Not far from Kowloon Walled City Park is the old Kai Tak Airport. Kai Tak closed in 1998, but in its day it was notorious as one of the most difficult places to land as a pilot, and most terrifying as a passenger. Approaching Kai Tak’s runway from the north, planes had to fly low over a range of hills and make a dramatic last-second turn to avoid the skyscrapers of Kowloon and reach the runway.
Today, what appears to be a newly built but empty airport terminal building stands on the site of the old runway:
It is, in fact, a cruise ship terminal, big enough to accommodate thousands of passengers, but vacant for the majority of the time when no ship is docked.
Last weekend was the second round of King of The Hills. Here are the hills in question:
This time last year people were freaking out because Hong Kong was experiencing frost for possibly the first time. There were pictures in the news of people tobogganing, which raises questions; where do you buy a toboggan in Hong Kong? Where in your tiny Hong Kong apartment do plan on storing that toboggan until the next time it gets cold? It wasn’t even snow, just frost and people were trying to toboggan on it. Maybe I imagined the whole thing…
I digress. This year, unfortunately for Hong Kong’s toboggan owners, winter forgot to arrive. So this King of The Hills race took place on an unseasonably hot day.
While billed as a mountain marathon, the race was forced to take a shortcut as one of the trails that it would otherwise have followed was closed while maintenance is carried out on the cable car that runs above it.
My nice fast trail racing shoes had developed a hole in the upper and the sole was starting to fall apart. Luckily, the shoes held out until the end of the race, but left me with the biggest and ugliest blister I’ve ever had. I made it to the finish in a satisfying tenth place.
I cannot afford to continue destroying running shoes at my current rate, so will be switching to another brand.
Anyway, after taking Monday and Tuesday to recover I set off on a challenge I’d been planning for myself for a couple of weeks.
I wanted to visit every peak taller than 400 metres on Hong Kong Island in a single run. For the sake of neatness the run would start at Chai Wan, the easternmost terminal station on the island MTR (subway) line and end at Kennedy Town, the westernmost station.
Here are the peaks in question.
Peaks 1,2 & 3. Mount Parker; there are three peaks on Mt. Parker, two of which are accessible via a paved road and are occupied by radio stations. However, I chose an as-the-crow-flies route straight up through the forest.
4. Mount Butler; an easy to follow trail, which was a relief after my rugged route over Mount Parker.
5. Siu Ma Shan; I believe the name translates as Little Horse Hill, not to be confused with Ma On Shan (Horse Saddle Mountain). Don’t rely on my translations being spot-on here.
6. Jardine’s Lookout.
7,8 & 9. Violet Hill; this is where things got tricky. Like Mt. Parker, the top of violet hill is split into three distinct peaks, two of which are easy to access along well maintained trails. The trail leading to the third peak, while appearing on maps, is very hard to find and led to me getting stuck in endless, practically impenetrable thicket.
10. Mount Nicholson; After my struggles on Violet Hill I was nervous approaching this hill as the route I had planned seems to be very rarely used. It required a bit of scrambling, verging on bouldering, but turned out to be a nice climb.
11. Mount Cameron; again, a very rarely used trail by the looks of things, but some great views over the city.
12. Mount Gough; the next part of my run led through the winding roads that serve the hilltop mansions overlooking the city. There is some very expensive looking real estate sitting on the actual summit of Mount Gough so my route only came within a few meters of the top.
13. Mount Kellett; like Mount Gough, this hill is covered with mansions. With some ferocious guard dogs.
14. Victoria Peak; dodging tourists around the Peak Galleria and the Peak Tram, I headed for the penultimate summit. The very top is closed to the public and occupied by a radio antenna.
15. High West; I saved one of my favourites for last. The route down from High West is marked on Google Maps as ‘treacherous trail’, but was no problem compared to some of the other places I’d passed through that afternoon.
After a few accidental detours and and diversions, the whole route took hours longer than anticipated. Maybe one day I’ll want to go back and improve on this run. But not for a while yet.
In a previous post I mentioned that I should tell you about Hong Kong’s taxis; in short they are uniquely awkward and confusing. On the other hand they are incredibly cheap. My favourite thing about Hong Kong taxis is the phones on the dashboard; drivers will have, on average, four phones mounted on their dashboard which they will operate throughout your journey, even while travelling at speed on the motorway. Fewer than four phones suggests that your driver is something of an amateur. I have seen as many as six phones plus a paper notepad mounted above the steering wheel, almost entirely blocking the driver’s view of the road.
The first thing you need to know is that taxis come in three colours; blue, green and red. I’ve only ever been in a blue one once or twice, they are only allowed to operate on Lantau Island. It’s a large area and close to the airport. But it is sparsely populated and the blue taxis are not allowed to leave the island and take you elsewhere else. There are only fifty blue taxis.
The green ones are a little more useful. They can take you anywhere in the New Territories, a huge area taking up the whole north of Hong Kong and containing several large towns. But the green taxis are not allowed to take you to Hong Kong Island or Kowloon, where most jobs and businesses are based.
The red ones serve Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, but don’t go where the green taxis or blue taxis go and are a little more expensive. There are two types of red taxi, some serve Kowloon and will refuse to cross the harbour to Hong Kong Island (a five minute drive) some serve Hong Kong Island and will refuse to cross the harbour to Kowloon. There is a way to tell the two types of red taxi apart, but I have never worked out what it is.
I have had taxi drivers refuse to take me because the journey is too short and not worth their while and because the journey is too long and will take too much time. I’ve also had them tell me:
“You’ll have to get out here, I have lunch plans”
“I’m not going that way, but I can take you somewhere else instead”
“I can’t take you there because I don’t know the way back”
It’s totally illegal for the driver to act like this, but probably a direct consequence of the economic pressure placed on them by the city’s taxi licensing system. There are 18,138 taxi licenses in Hong Kong. The majority of these licenses are owned by investors who rent their license and car to drivers on a shift basis. The licenses change hands for millions of dollars and the cost is passed to the drivers, who pay up to $800 a day to drive the car. So the drivers become very selective about which fares they accept.
Raising fares would take this pressure off the drivers, but wouldn’t solve the problem of the price bubble around the taxi licenses. And it seems that the license owners have sufficient political clout to make sure that the price bubble won’t be burst by the introduction of new licenses.