1888 is an outdoor mural (8 metre by 5 metre) which I created for London, to celebrate the heritage and vibrance of its Chinatown. It was unveiled on 18.08.08 (18th August 2008). Today, it is 3 years old!
It is composed of 1888 photos which are related to Chinatown, donated by the public. ‘8’ is a good figure in Chinese numerology – it symbolises fortune, so a triple eight is especially good. The number one, in Cantonese, sounds like the word for ‘every day’. When I created the mural, I wished that it would bring good fortune to Chinatown every day.
It started as an art competition, which I only discovered 6 days before the submission deadline. Even though I am an architect, I have never really entered anything like this – but I felt strongly about it and the ideas just kept coming. 1888 combined my passions (food, photography and event organising) with my attachment to Chinatown. The final idea came to me very quickly. And I won!
Here is a video showing how 1888 was created:
I felt that I, alone, would not be good enough to represent Chinatown. Chinatown is made up of communities from different parts of Asia. Together, our stories make Chinatown special. I love photography and photographs are a great way of telling stories. It was ideal to invite the public to donate photos taken in connection with Chinatown.
I was looking for an image to symbolise Chinatown, and it occurred to me that the reason so many people come to Chinatown is for food – either to visit restaurants or to buy ingredients. Rice is the main staple food among a lot of Asian communities. It enables us to appreciate a huge variety of tastes when they are put next to it. It is a simple but essential, just like Chinatown is to us.
I enjoyed the challenge of photo collection- how much can one person’s voice be heard? I raised the awareness through flyers, posters, talking to people on the street of Chinatown, and visiting 4 of the largest Chinese community centres in London. What started as just a photo contribution appeal turned out to be a fantastic collection of memorable experiences. For example, I was touched by the stories I heard when I talked to different elderly groups about the project. I was amazed how curious and supportive they were about the artwork!
All the photos were put together using Photoshop, one by one. Scanning and organising the photos required tremendous patience and care, especially I know some of them held precious memories of their owners. I did not know my friend’s family used to owe one of the supermarkets in Chinatown until I saw the photos! Through the photos I saw the family of an old hair-dresser, who used to run a salon there many years ago, grow. I felt that I l have developed a new insight about Chinatown through the making of 1888. Looking at the mural 3 years on, it still puts a smile on my face.
It was interesting to look back on the creation process to realise how much it represented me, without even noticing it at the time. For example, I created the design and worked with a contractor. To ensure quality delivery, the project was organised with a programme and cost plan that even covered contingency- just like an architect usually does in a construction project! This worked out perfectly in the end, even when I had to condemn the first print after it was mounted, as part of it was too green! That is the beauty of art in a way as each piece is unique to the creator’s background. Give it to someone else, like a professionally trained artist, it would have been handled in a different manner, and most likely delivered a different piece!
If I were 1888, the photo below would have been the view I am seeing: (Photo taken some the cherry picker while inspecting the work)
The enjoyment of 1888 is a journey of discovery – for a start, its location is not obvious from the busiest area of Chinatown, although you can get a glimpse of it when you are walking from Gerrard Street to Shaftesbury Avenue. According to local business, the public was quite often drawn towards the Horse and Dolphin Yard, where the mural is, as they were curious to see the bowl of rice surrounded by a golden glow. When they walked towards 1888, different stories began to unfold through the photos. Each photo is about the same size as a regular photograph and their details can easily be seen from the ground.
The mural was originally set to be up for only 2 years. It was such a great success that the Commissioner decided to keep it for even longer! It was also satisfying to know from local business that 1888 has become a must-see spot for tour groups around Chinatown!
If you would like to go and see 1888, here is the address:
Horse and Dolphin Yard, London W1D 5AZ- just off Macclesfield Street