Tsuen Wan West is an unlikely spot for a world-class museum, but that is exactly what’s popped up, part of Hong Kong’s latest heritage conservation project, The Mills. Buildings that until recently sat almost abandoned, where Nan Fung textile mills once operated, now house shops, cafes, office spaces and a contemporary art and design facility called the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile—or "Chat".
It’s no accident that the term “textile” is used without an “s”. This was a conscious decision to distance the institution from a restrictive connection to a singular practice. Make no mistake, Chat is not an archive site tracing the history of fabric manufacturing in Hong Kong, nor is it a showcase for the wild array of textile arts created by artists and artisans from ancient to contemporary times. It’s your average, avant-garde, forward-thinking, agenda-pushing contemporary arts space, a white box both physically and philosophically.
“People always ask us, ‘Why do you say textile and not textiles?’ And that’s actually a huge difference,” says Teoh Chin-chin, one of Chat’s co-directors. “Textiles, people associate with a material, fabric, cloth. So if you think of textiles, that’s actually a noun that describes a material. And we actually don’t want to be restricted to that. So we are not exhibiting only fashion items or the royal gowns, that’s not our mantra. Our mantra is to explore textile as a subject matter.”
To Teoh and co-director Mizuki Takahashi, that means the thematic range could extend from sustainability to economic production, and from the role of technology to the intangible, indomitable spirit of Hong Kong’s workforce. It’s precisely what the granddaughter of Nan Fung founder Chen Din-hwa, Vanessa Cheung, wanted to do when she spearheaded the project, the seeds for which were sown many years ago.