The MTR is one of the most impersonal places in Hong Kong.
Commuters don’t mind each other. They try to avoid each other’s eyes. They would rather play games on their smartphones or look elsewhere, and definitely they will not talk to each other unless they are acquainted.
Their only concern is to be able to get on the train and get off at their destination.
Siddharth Choudhary, a visual artist from India, finds the situation a bit odd and too detached for his taste.
In his hometown, it is not uncommon to see train commuters sharing snacks with strangers sitting next to them.
In Hong Kong, the MTR speaker blares: “Your attention please: Eating or drinking is not allowed in the paid areas of stations or on trains.”
And so it occurred to Choudhary that he should make use of art — the universal medium of communication — to facilitate interaction between people.
Born in Samastipur, India in 1976, Choudhary has been living in Hong Kong with his wife since 2013.
Back home, he had been a Bollywood artist, taking up roles in movies, TV dramas and even commercials.
He later became a full-time painter. Most of his works reflect pop culture and Indian traditions.
After earning a master’s degree in visual arts at the Hong Kong Baptist University, Choudhary incorporated more elements of social participation into his artworks.
His latest project is called “A Sweeter Journey”, a documentary film incorporating elements of reality television, social psychology and cultural investigation.
It takes place in underground trains in four cities — Hong Kong, Mumbai, Zurich and Hamburg.
“I would like to compare my experiences in these cities,” he said.
The projects sees Choudhary offering sweets to total strangers on trains.
He captures their reactions on camera, and then depicts the expressions in their faces on canvas.
To his surprise, people’s responses are largely universal. Those who accept his small offerings return a polite grin.
His choice of sweets also serves as a way to remind people of their childhood when a piece of candy could be a source of joy.
“People often become friends by the end of a train ride in India, as they usually have shared food or some personal experiences, or even exchanged contact numbers,” Choudhary said.
“You are assured as you get to know one another. Thus, I found it weird that in Hong Kong people sitting side by side do not even bother to take a look at each other.”
His project, though straightforward enough, didn’t run as unimpeded as the trains where the social experiments took place.
In Europe, handing out sweets to children without any reason is often seen as inappropriate.
One lady also reminded Choudhary that if he himself offered the candies, the commuters might think he was a beggar asking for some money in return.
In order to make the experiment as neutral as possible, he tapped the assistance of locals to administer and explain the project to the passengers.
In one episode of the MTR project in Hong Kong, Choudhary said, no one refused his sweet offers, except for one person, an Indian lady.
In Hong Kong, local commuters tend to put up a stern or indifferent countenance, but once he takes the first step, he almost always receives an enthusiastic reply or offer of assistance, even from elderly people who speak little or no English at all.
The language barrier doesn’t stop people from communicating with one another, Choudhary said.
Though he hasn’t been able to master Cantonese yet, he feels at ease in the company of locals.
During his student days, for example, his classmates would volunteer as interpreters during Cantonese lectures.
“That’s very sweet, and I feel like I am so readily accepted by the community. In France, if you don’t speak French, you simply get dumped,” Choudhary said, speaking from his experience of living in Paris.
Though he has lived in Hong Kong for only three years, he feels great sympathy for the local people as they face the sometimes turbulent changes sweeping the city.
He also expressed great admiration for the way Hong Kong people fight for democracy. He said if such large-scale protests were to take place in India, you could expect violent clashes and burning cars.
But nothing like that was seen in Hong Kong. “The local teens staged the protest peacefully. They even managed to keep the occupied grounds in good order by making their own rubbish bins. It’s incredible and beautiful.”
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 22.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
[Chinese version 中文版]
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