How do you say goodbye to a beloved city institution where you can get the best wonton noodle soup this side of Hong Kong?
If you're Joni Lee and Jia Luo, you turn part of the cavernous space into a pop-up art gallery where artists can farewell a place that may be only 25 years old but, in that short time, has become iconic.
On October 31, Mercury Plaza – once home to a thriving food court, hairdressers, amusement arcade and the Gum Sarn Asian Food Supermarket – will close so the building can be demolished to make way for Karangahape Station, part of the $4.42 billion City Rail Link.
Since 1994, visitors have come to eat authentic Asian-style dishes like char kwey teow, Hainanese chicken rice, har mee or the famed wonton noodle soup from Chinese Cuisine – an original tenant of the plaza. It was one of the few places in Auckland where homesick migrants, students, visitors to New Zealand and lovers of real Asian food could go to enjoy a taste of home.
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Now, as it comes to the end of the line and just a handful of businesses remain, Lee and Lua are determined it will go out in style. They've transformed the vast ramp access area and a large wall by the building's carpark into a temporary gallery where 16 Asian creatives can display work in the exhibition Mercury Plaza: Origins + New Beginnings. Pieces include wall art, printed on large-format adhesive vinyl, video installations and paper mache balls designed by Lee but decorated by artists and filled with objects that express each one's take on the origins and new beginnings theme.
Lee, who, during his student years, worked at the Gum Sarn Asian Food Supermarket, discovered papier mache when he lived in Mexico. The third generation Chinese New Zealander was pleasantly surprised to learn that pinata – frequently vividly decorated papier mache works that are smashed and broken open to reveal lollies or other small treasures inside – came from China, not Mexico or Spain.
It's thought Chinese farmers used to make clay animal figurines that were filled with seeds then broken open, so the seeds would scatter, at Chinese New Year. The tradition arrived in Spain via Italy and was then taken to South America during the Spanish conquests. Harking back to its roots, the Mercury Plaza artists that filled and decorated the papier mache balls will be able to break them open at the two-week long exhibition's closing event.
Meanwhile, graphic novelist Ant Sang will bring his trademark comic book style and wry humour to illustrations of Asian food as it was served – so he's been told – in the 1960s and 70s. "I've heard about the introduction of Chinese food to some restaurants in New Zealand where dishes like chicken fried rice were served with buttered bread on the side and tomato sauce on the table," says Sang. "It's like a bird's eye view of the food and how it evolved into the newer more authentic kinds and the variety that we can get now."
Luo has made a text work which uses two lines from a Chinese story about a rebellious princess who enjoys adventures but wins over the hearts and minds of those at court who try to keep her behavior in check. An Elam graduate, Luo says the idea is to celebrate the Chinese women throughout history who have helped to make the world what it is but whose names have been sidelined or forgotten. That includes, she says, early Chinese migrants to New Zealand who have worked tirelessly – often long hours in food-orientated small businesses – to give their children greater opportunities.
Mercury Plaza: Origins + New Beginnings until Wednesday, September 14.