‘The World Is Your Restaurant’ lends a festive air to food, fish and family banquet dinners

Hoo Fan Chon tackled fish in this little exhibition which begged deeper exploration.


Road trips to seaside towns, family gatherings or yee sang get togethers during Chinese New Year. Seafood dinners at Chinese restaurants occupy their own special space in the hall of memories of life around here, regardless of one’s ethnic background.

The desire to present artistic renditions of the Chinese banquet dinner culture is an intriguing premise in Hoo Fan Chon’s The World Is Your Restaurant. The small exhibition (the kind where one twirl gives you a glimpse of everything) presents exhibits from archival photography, painting, video and installation art.

On the left wall of the gallery in The Back Room, there is a frame of photographs from family dinners at Chinese banquet restaurants. The choice of clothing and muted sheen of the analog photographs situate the era firmly in the early to mid 1990s. Grinning children in spectacles smile next to ladies sporting a nice perm. Given that Hoo’s personal reflections of family banquet dinners were an inspiration behind the exhibition, it’s safe to assume that the photographs are from his personal collection.

Next to it is a poster of commercial pelagic fish, issued by the Department of Fisheries Malaysia, except the original pictures of fish are painted over to look like ready banquet fare, steamed and nestled in fish-shaped dishes. It’s irreverent and pleasing to see.

Then, on a mounted flat screen, a video of different types of fish in banquet plating play on loop. There is no attempt to be realistic, and the images look like something out of a video game that embraces the kitsch.

The exhibition’s eponymous exhibit is an installation made up of the familiar round banquet table with a Lazy Susan whirling mechanically in the middle. The table is set to welcome a crowd, perhaps a family. We see plates of salted peanuts, and orange handkerchiefs sit folded fanlike inside drinking glasses. A book entitled The Art of Napkin Folding sits on the Lazy Susan like an inside joke, a random prop that is welcome nonetheless.

For all the visual revelry and memories it sparks, The World Is Your Restaurant feels like a case of the actual exhibition not matching the expectation built by its write-up.

To name one example, the write-up suggests a journey across time and within the particular locale of Kuala Lumpur. It states that the exhibition invites visitors “to consider not only the visual lexicon that lends the banquet its whimsical qualities, but also the historical development of the local Sino-foodscape alongside the economic rise of KL.”

For a statement so rooted in place and presenting an interplay of economics and gastronomic development to not, in fact, be present in the actual exhibition seems amiss. The write-up conveys an expectation of a deeper engagement with urban development by way of restaurant culture, but none awaits upon arrival at the gallery.

There is also a sociological sensibility to the text, referencing class aspirations during the economic boom of the eighties and nineties, as well as waves of labour migration of chefs from Hong Kong, apart from entrepreneurs from provincial towns who entered the restaurant industry.

It felt that more dimensions would be explored, and the artist would carve a narrative that brings together personal experience with the macro developments cited. But instead visitors are greeted by a snapshot, a cross-section of images and visual clues not accompanied by deeper interrogation. And in so doing, it seemed that a richer array of artistic offerings was foregone.

The World Is Your Restaurant is on at The Back Room KL, until Dec 12. The gallery is open from Wednesdays to Sundays, from noon to 6pm.

**Featured Image on top of the page is a screenshot from The Back Room website.



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