Now 81 years old, self-taught comic artist Ah Chung’s simple ink brushwork pieces are filled with the wisdom and experience of life. His simplicity is not superficial, however – his unique style comes partly from his lack of formal training, and he commented to Varsity in 2010 that he sees this as no bad thing. “In retrospect, I am glad that I didn’t learn painting. Otherwise, I would have been affected by teachers, trapped in their frames.” While not targeted to any particular demographic, his simple paintings with their ugly calligraphy speak straight to people’s hearts, and he has accordingly become one of the most popular artists in Hong Kong.
But it was a long path for him to get there. Born in 1933 in Ghuangzhou, King lived through the horrors of the Second World War and afterwards settled in Hong Kong with his family. Unfortunately, due to his humble background he was unable to complete his studies and school and helped support his family with odd jobs. One of these jobs, delivering newspapers, would change his life. With time on his hands, King began sketching, and in his mid-20s successfully applied for an illustrator’s position at a Chinese newspaper. He remained a prominent political cartoonist for the next 30 years. “It was the best period of my career. I finally had a good life and everything I needed.”
However, King began to tire of the satirical life after a time, and became depressed, even turning to drink. Though cynically satirical before, his outlook had become more measured with age, and he found it difficult to reconcile his work with his new view of the world. He worried about the damage he could be causing to people’s feelings, and also wondered what exactly he was trying to achieve in his work. The themes of King’s caricatures tended towards freedom and human rights, and a simple black-and-white view of the world’s issues. However, he grew to believe that most political issues were man-made, and less important than simpler universal truths. Something had to change.
In 1984 he decided to leave the newspaper and take up his wife’s suggestion that the family move to Los Angeles – and the move signaled a move in King’s artistic temperament too. This was truly a defining moment for the artist – the caricatures were gone, replaced by the simple pictures, words and messages that were to become his trademark. Now in his 50s and unable to speak English, King decided to stay close to the artistic world by opening a picture-framing gallery with a friend. One day a Taiwanese gallery owner walked into the store, noticed his prints and invited King to work for him. Though he’d exhibited his works before, this was his big break – and when King became Ah Chung. With dozens of exhibitions, awards and recognition now behind him, Ah Chung’s story is a redemptive one – and instructive.
For there is some parallel between Ah Chung’s evolution and the city he lives in. For years Hong Kong has been considered something of a cultural wasteland, dedicated only to making money. If there was art to be found, it was purely for commercial purposes, many believed. However, many in the creative sector believe that local interest in visual arts is increasing, with a recent exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum (organised by the Musée National Picasso of Paris) attracting 300,000 visitors. Things appear to be changing. ‘Hong Kong is really maturing as a cultural centre,’ Magnus Renfrew, Asia director at Art Basel told the Financial Times. ‘We have all the elements of the cultural ecosystem coming together.’
While famous for its ever-growing art fair (67,000 people attended last year’s ART HK, compared to 19,000 at its 2008 inception), many hope that new developments like the publicly-funded M+ museum in the 40-hectare West Kowloon Cultural District will cement Hong Kong’s global position as an art player – rather than a mere auction base. The museum (set to open in 2017) is currently assembling a collection to rival the world’s best, include high-profile (and high-price) acquisitions such as 1,510 artworks from Swiss collector Uli Sigg’s legendary collection of Chinese contemporary art. Other non-commercial exhibition opportunities are also springing up around the city, such as the Asia Society and Oi!, a new community art space.
Not that commercial influence is always a bad thing – Hong Kong is the third-largest art market in the world by auction sales – but other forms of influence are beginning to elevate its status. The 2012 Hong Kong Eye showcase at the London Saatchi gallery (the first major Hong Kong contemporary art exhibition outside the city since a 2007 show in Shanghai) attracted 200,000 visitors over its duration, and for the show’s co-curator Johnson Chang, this is another good sign for Hong Kong’s burgeoning art scene. He told Time Out Hong Kong in 2012, “The export of art suggests influence. It builds self confidence and builds bridges of connection, which are very necessary for Hong Kong art now.”
However, also like Ah Chung, Hong Kong faces significant difficulties in achieving its full art potential. Some believe a lack of education or experience of art for the public leaves some art unattended, and without a culture of art criticism many artists are not getting the discussion and feedback that makes a truly great art scene. It’s also clear that more has to be done to foster links and cross-fertilize with the local artistic community, a key part of the art scene in London or New York. Unfortunately, in Hong Kong local artists tend to be overshadowed by their Chinese counterparts.
Compared to the rest of China, Hong Kong faces other issues as well. While Hong Kong offers more artistic freedom than the mainland, soaring rents have priced some galleries out of the city center, detracting from efforts to create a downtown arts district. Other Chinese cities, particularly Singapore are taking concrete steps to improve cultural infrastructure – but Hong Kong still has hurdles to overcome. With so much pushing against its metamorphosis, some could consider the city’s art scene permanently stalled. But if we consider the life and work of Ah Chung, we can still see the possibility of change and hope.
The first painting that Ah Chung signed off on was a man saying, “It is not that I have no mouth; it’s just that I don’t want to speak.” He wrote his new name to mark the change in his identity from his previous life as a political cartoonist, but his choice of name to mean ‘insect’ also speaks volumes. He admires insects because of their simplicity (much like his paintings), but also their great strength in survival, and happiness in harsh environments. “They are even more honorable than human beings and dragons,” he said in 2000. And if Ah Chung’s art can thrive through adversity and evolution, then so can Hong Kong’s. It might just take a while.