The loud banter and cheerful laughter among the fishmongers are some of my unforgettable memories of visiting the Billingsgate Fish Market with the artist Pat Wingshan Wong during an early morning in 2020. Having to arrive at 5 a.m. four days a week doesn’t deter Pat as, despite not being a big seafood fan, she loves Billingsgate for its strong sense of community and close-knit interactions. 

Starting as an early exploration of individual and communal identity, Pat has documented the fishmongers’ stories with her sketches since October 2019, and she has since invited me to visit the market together. Through interacting with those working in the market, we can clearly feel that they are a big family and the market is full of rich history and memorable moments. However, the City of London Corporation recently announced a relocation plan, which will relocate the market to Dagenham in the next five years due to the rapid urban development at Canary Wharf.

With a deep interest in socially engaged practices and community-led projects, I have since worked with Pat to provide curatorial support to her idea of constructing an online archive that involves the fishmongers’ participation to document the market’s collective memory over nearly 40 years. The archive engages with the idea of bartering both physically and symbolically. It includes 3D-scanned memorable objects such as working boots, porter badges, paring knives, etc. ‘bartered’ by Pat using her observational drawings of the happenings in the space, as well as video interviews transcribed by myself that document the many stories and vivid memories of the Billingsgate inhabitants.

An observational sketch of a family of traders in Billingsgate Fish Market by artist Pat Wingshan Wong

Once the barter has been done, the artist will conduct a 15-minute video interview with the fishmongers. The memorable objects will be returned to the owners after 3D scanning.

As a curator from outside the Western world, my practice aims to bring a voice to the unheard narratives of the marginalised communities. Through ongoing conversations on the development of the project, we hope to provide a new perspective to conventional institutionalised archives that prioritise tangible objects over ephemeral stories and affects. Therefore, for Barter Archive, Pat engages with the fishmongers and incorporates their voices into the works based on transparency and mutual trust in order to give visibility, respect and compassion to the invisible or marginalised communities in our society.

Barter Archive connects with a community who may not otherwise engage in archiving, denoting a bottom-up and grassroots method of documenting history. I have worked closely with Pat in interviewing the Billingsgate traders, and have their stories well structured and clearly presented both in digital and written form. It is also my role as a curator to produce press releases for publications and promote the project to all members of the public through an online interactive platform where they can explore the meaningful objects of the participating fishmongers and their interesting stories behind them. 

Our aim of this project is to bring the archive to our community and to do so, we have sought support from media, the local council, community groups, art and culture institutions and even property companies at Canary Wharf. We also wish to use the exhibition as a medium to explore its possibilities as a shared space offering a common ground for solidarity. With the ambition of producing a physical exhibition down the line, the project is now in the process of securing spaces to showcase Pat’s highly personal sketches and 3D-scanned sculptures stemming from the fishmongers’ lived experiences and invite the public to view.

Artist Pat Wingshan Wong was ‘bartering’ her observational sketches with memorable objects from a Billingsgate trader.

Pat Wingshan Wong is a visual artist from Hong Kong, currently pursuing MA in Illustration at Royal College of Art. Her practice lies in the intersections of architecture, memory and identity. The emotional significance of an architectural space, its relation to personal memory and the collapse of time are the central themes of her works. Her illustrations that portray community stories, which range from people to landscapes and objects from her surroundings, are evocative meditations on urban development and its public and personal significance. She published her first illustration book The Scenery of Old Shops (2016) and the second book Once Upon a Time in Tai Kwun (2018). She has collaborated with various arts organisations including Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Art, Hong Kong Museum of Art, West Kowloon Cultural District, M+ Museum and Hong Kong Science Museum. She held an exhibition 100 Faces of Tai Kwun (2018) in Central, Hong Kong and her artworks have been included in the collection of the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Wan Yi Sandra Lam is an independent curator and writer based in London. She holds an MFA in Curating from Goldsmiths, University of London. Her curatorial research examines the politics of aesthetics and investigates how curating can contribute to an understanding of contemporary discourses, focusing on activism, migration and the environment. She works closely with contemporary artists to develop a socially engaged practice that addresses questions of identity and belonging. In London, she has initiated and co-curated a number of independent public events and exhibition programmes that involves local communities in social interaction, including Home is wherever I’m with you (2019) at Enclave Lab, By the time we are gone (2019) at Safehouse 1, The Second Umbrella (2019) and We are all in the business of fighting for air (2019) at Chisenhale Studios. She has also organised workshops, performances, talks, film screenings, roundtable discussions, and contributed writings to various publications. 

“I have been using as my own website since the start of my career as an independent curator and writer in the UK. This platform allows me to present my curatorial practice and communicate with artists directly, with an online interactive portfolio of my previous exhibitions and projects. In our increasingly digitally-mediated world, .ART provides me with a unique and engaging platform where I can connect with artists and creatives in the community and interact with different audiences and media. As my second article published, it demonstrates my commitment to introducing Hong Kong artists to new geographies and bringing them to the international stage.”

Barter Archive is a community-led archive constructed by artist Pat Wingshan Wong’s observational sketches in exchange for memorable objects of the fishmongers at the Billingsgate Fish Market at Canary Wharf, London. It preserves the collective memory of the Billingsgate community and challenges the domination of capitalism, highlighting and questioning the ways value is assigned through culture and society. This project is supported by Tower Hamlets Council Arts, Parks and Events Team.

Project Director | Artist Pat Wingshan Wong

Project Curator Wan Yi Sandra Lam

Creative Technologist  Kachi Chan

Documentation Jimmi Ho

Website Design Max Kohler

For more information about the project, please visit their website and follow our Instagram: @Barter_Archive