Cover A miniature model of Central market (Photo: courtesy of Carmen Poon and the artists)

Egg tarts, temples, the Blue House—there’s nothing these Hong Kong miniature artists can’t make, as they immortalise the city’s disappeared sights as teeny-tiny models

For the month of July, the top floor of Central Market was turned into a wonderland in which everything had shrunk. There was a miniature Wan Chai Blue House with real-life details as intricate as the numbers and symbols marked on the wooden staircase and a criss-cross network of electrical wires mounted on the building’s exterior; a downsized Wing Wo Grocery on Wellington Street with more than 100 tiny bottles of vinegar, soy sauce and rice wine; a toy shop selling plastic “watermelon” footballs found in the 1970s; the now-closed Kam Kee Bakery, which used to sell old-style Chinese pastries; and the King of Kowloon with his calligraphy.

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These are only a few of the 100 pieces featured in the city’s biggest miniature art exhibition, An Art Journey into the Past and Present Urban Reinvention, which captured the modern and old sights of the city’s 18 districts from a 12:1 to 750:1 ratio. The exhibition, currently in Tokyo, will tour to Seoul before returning to Hong Kong in November for another showcase for two months.

Carmen Poon, founder of the Joyful Miniature Art Association, which organised the exhibition, thinks that miniature art is a great way to promote Hong Kong’s cityscape and culture to the world. “In the 100 steps from one side of the exhibition hall to the other, you can get a brief introduction to the city’s history, food, transportation and everything,” she says.

Miniature art isn’t new. European royals and elite families in the 17th century, particularly in Germany, the Netherlands and Britain, would commission carpenters to make dollhouses, a move which indicated their elevated social status. In Asia, Japan is home to netsuke, one of the earliest forms of miniature sculptures, also dating back to the 1600s.

Today, there are miniature collections, exhibitions and museums around the world. Poon has noted that most of them focus on major global tourist attractions and famous fictional scenes. She gives the Miniatures Museum of Taiwan as an example: it exhibits models collected from Europe and the US, such as one of Buckingham Palace and another showing scenes from classic fairytales such as Jack and the Beanstalk.

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When miniature art came to Hong Kong a few decades ago, Poon, who was a publisher at the time, observed that artists here were keen to localise the style and subject matter. She says, “We have cha chaan teng, grocery stores and food streets, which are very local and [relatable].” She adds that the level of detail and combination of architectural and geometric considerations with fantastical designs is very impressive.

Take, for example, the Blue House set created by artists Tim Kwok-tim Ho and Ian Choi Piklung, who captured seemingly random historical details of the grade-I listed building. Ho says that, before flushing toilets were commonplace in Hong Kong’s tenement buildings, numbers were written on the wooden staircase, and each household would place their waste bucket next to their corresponding number. “There used to be a ‘nighttime fragrant lady’, whose job was to clear the buckets,” he says. “Obviously, everyone wanted to make sure that they got their own buckets back.” As for the Wing Wo Grocery set, Ho explains that only the bestselling items would be placed at the front of the store, something he replicated in his model. “The shop’s layout and arrangements were a result of the shopkeeper’s experience and wisdom. It is with tiny details like these that you can make out what life was like in the past.”

Recreating a set with historical accuracy is no easy feat, but the artists have a bag of tricks to help them. Ho and Choi are civil engineers accustomed to working on scale models; Ho likes to find offthe- shelf materials such as correctly proportioned buttons or beads to mimic plates and balls, while Choi uses a 3D printer to create the more complicated pieces such as the faces of the tiny people who populate some of the models. Vivian Lee, who runs a studio where she teaches art and made the Kam Kee Bakery model, is an expert at moulding intricate clay shapes, which she paints with oil paint and nail polish: tiny roasted geese, Chinese New Year candy and pots of tangerine trees. Other artists use technology to add to the visual effects, such as an LED panel of fireworks in a mini Victoria Harbour.

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These elaborate sets would make their creators a tidy profit if sold as home decor or to collectors, but most of the pieces in the exhibition are not for sale. They are a true labour of love: as well as taking months or even years to make, these miniature artworks are more a means of bringing back childhood memories than making money. Ho, who is in his 50s and lived adjacent to the Wong Tai Sin Temple for 30 years, says he combined the current Wong Tai Sin Temple’s design with memories of an almost disappeared bamboo forest and a hawker stall in his model of the temple.

Lee, whose speciality is making miniature food, says that miniature art is a more tangible and therefore better way to preserve history than other art forms such as painting. She enjoys seeing grandparents huddling over her teahouse model, telling the younger generation about the disappeared treats they loved. “It’s a great conversation opener across generations,” she says. “Miniature things catch your eye, regardless of whether or not you’re an artist.”

Twenty years ago, before Lee became a miniature artist, she was window shopping when a miniature cake in a shop that sold bric-a-brac caught her eye. The trinket cast a spell on her, so much so that she started taking classes and moved into miniature art as her profession. Today, Lee and Poon’s miniature art has the same magical effect on VIPs as well, such as the former chief executive Carrie Lam, the consul-general of Japan in Hong Kong Okada Kenichi, and Japanese photographer Tatsuya Tanaka, who each bent down to appreciate the sets and seemed spellbound by the exhibitions. Poon recalls, “It’s like they forgot their positions and immediately became children.”

These days, apart from organising exhibitions, Poon also hosts miniature art workshops specifically designed for children, elderly people, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities, including one in July on the day of Tatler’s interview for a group of about 15 elderly people who live alone. The oldest participant was 89. Marvelling at the size of their materials like schoolchildren a fraction of their age, they kneaded the fluffy clay dough into cha siu buns the size of a fingertip, fit the buns into mini bamboo baskets, and gingerly set them next to tiny teapots and pea-sized Chinese teacups. As well as a creative avenue, the workshop also offered a chance to bond over shared nostalgia.

While the pieces Poon focuses on are tiny, the impact of her work is on a far greater scale. As she puts it, “My purpose is to bring people joy.”

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