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How Auckland's Mercury Plaza became a site of cultural significance

The iconic Mercury Plaza sign. Photo courtesy of Joni Lee and Jia Luo.

Set in the very place which brought the dishes of home to Chinese diaspora in Auckland for 25 years, a rare exhibition by 14 Chinese artists cements the cultural significance of the soon-to-be-demolished Mercury Plaza and ponders what the future holds.

It was a Sunday at 11.30am. Let’s just say that I had a good time the night before. I was in non-descript hangover-wear and fought for my carpark before climbing the two flights of grey steps to Chinese Cuisine to drown my headache in wonton noodle soup. This ritual is called Mercs on a Sunday and one well practised, not just by me.

Today, my Mercs on a Sunday ritual has changed. Now involving children (two and five years old), Mercs is loading everyone up in the car to have Sunday lunch. Both of my kids have grown up in Mercury, developing affectionate relationships with Tony Chan and his daughter Katie from Chinese Cuisine, who know our family’s order by heart. For many people, Mercury Plaza isn’t just having something to eat, it’s like being home.

The iconic building, which sits off the back of Auckland’s Karangahape Road, hosts the New Gum Sarn Supermarket, and restaurants such as Chinese Cuisine, Maruten Ramen, E-Sarn WOK and until very recently, Sushi Bar Salmon. For many Aucklanders, Mercury Plaza holds a significant place; it’s known for the way in which it blends All Blacks, Asian and Pacific families, hipsters and construction workers.

Mercury has historic ties with the Chinese community; the owners being some of the original Chinese fruit and vegetable shop owners on K’ Road. Its place in the community points to the “deep involvement of the Chinese community in local affairs,” says artist Jia Luo, who is part of the exhibition at Mercury this month. While Pacific migrants to Aotearoa set up churches as places where they could thrive culturally in urban New Zealand society, arguably these eateries served a similar function for Chinese communities. Places like Mercury keep language, food and by extension, culture alive and well, creating microcosms of home away from home, where you can take comfort even if it’s just for one meal.

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The eatery is in the spotlight again due to its impending closure in October, with restaurant owners encountering some of their busiest days yet. It’s closing to make way for the construction of the City Rail Link’s Karangahape Station, and high-density housing for 400 residents, with ground-floor retail spaces.

Rumours of the beloved Mercs closure swirled for years before anyone actually knew what was happening – a petition was even created which gained over 2500 signatures in 2016, to “save Mercury Plaza.” Unfortunately, the time has come, Mercury is in its final months and a group of local Chinese artists are getting together to farewell the old and usher in the new. 

The exhibition, Mercury Plaza: Origins and New Beginnings, produced by Luo and another artist, Joni Lee, riffs off these changing times to commemorate both the origins of Mercury as a site of significance for the Chinese community in Auckland and also the new beginnings which the City Rail Link offers. Making use of the building’s large wall space before its demolition, the exhibition brings together 14 local Chinese artists from a wide array of creative backgrounds spanning filmmakers to architects, designers to chefs.  

Highlighting the site’s significance, the artists in Mercury Plaza: Origins and New Beginnings explore the ways in which people attach themselves to places as well as the speculation of new futures asking what might the start of a new era offer. Luo tells me that for her and Lee the transitionary times of Mercury presented an opportunity to look at these ideas and “show their chops” but also opportunity “to give ourselves a platform.”

Luo and Lee tell me of the underrepresentation of Chinese artists within Aotearoa’s mainstream art galleries. This is not a new issue; curator Vera Mey wrote in 2012 that “New Zealand’s relationship with an internal Asian presence has been ongoing since initial settlement by British colonials during the 19th century, but it is still fraught.” She says that for Aotearoa to be able to enable Asian art to flourish, it needs to “first have a critical examination of its own Asian history from within.”

More recently, artist and editor of Hainamana Amy Weng, commented that “many Asian-New Zealand art practitioners have carved out highly successful international careers, yet their critical reception in this country has been muted.” Which perhaps points to the way that Asian people and by extension Asian artists are boxed as ‘other’ within mainstream discourse.

The exhibition then, is a rare opportunity to see this many artists of the Chinese New Zealand diaspora in one place, offering a picture of issues of representation and agency.  It will also challenge the accessibility of traditional exhibition spaces and democratise the display of art for the ever-changing face of Auckland.  

For Luo, it’s important that artists have the ability to represent themselves and their own experiences rather than just accept the labels and stereotypes which are placed on them by wider society. Luo tells me, “it’s a show for us first and foremost.”

Mercury Plaza: Origins and New Beginnings opens 6pm on 14 August, with a closing party on 14 September from 5 to 9pm. 

Instagram: @mercuryplazashow

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