Only second to the distinctiveness of the smell of a fart (pardon, but it is true!), the aroma of salted fish, a traditional Chinese staple and the must-have dish on the dining table of every household in the last generation, is more than the warmth of Christmas morning that the scent of cinnamon brings; or the way the smell of the ocean transports you to the beach and baths you in the joy and peacefulness of your childhood. It is not a static snapshot of memory or sudden thrust of sensation, it is a Wong Karwai-style movie of which the non-linear story lines and fastidious details take patience and sentimentality to reveal its hidden emotions; it is a documentary that tells the stories of the hardship and modesty of the older generations. Through the nose, the aroma travels all the way up to the cortex waking up long-forgotten memories, then, like coastal fog in early summer, it lingers at the bottom of our heart, so blurry yet we can almost touch it.
Growing up listening to stories of old Hong Kong from my late beloved grandmother for whom salted fish was one of her favorites, I was immediately drawn to “Revive: Salted Fish“, an exhibition curated and executed by Hong Kong designer Kay Chan and PMQ Taste Library. While the show features the century-old tradition in a contemporary context by creative designs, I found myself surrounded by the scent of bittersweet nostalgia. Assembled in the laser-cut salted fish puzzles were pieces of memory of my grandmother who always bought us the freshest food and would once in a while try out new dishes according to our preferences, yet she ate so little of those and preferred a small plate of salted fish. The inventive salted fish aromatherapy nevertheless emitted the smell of the once so familiar old neighborhood which, in the last two decades, has undergone gradual transformation beyond recognition; the wet market which my grandmother visited every day, the bakery where she bought chocolate cakes for our tea, the park and the tiny stationary shop where we lingered after school, all are reduced into faint fragrance.
Altering its traditional mundane image with creative, playful and modern elements, the exhibition is a timeworn book with a new cover, inviting us to pick it up again and let every time honored paragraph and word absorb us in the richness of history. Like the curing process that takes time and efforts, the development of Hong Kong is the results of the hard work of the older generations, and I could never be who I am now without all the time that my grandmother devoted to me.