Interview with Chu Hing Wah

The artist Chu Hing Wah tells former AAA Head of Research Phoebe Wong about his intuitive entrance into contemporary art, the evolution of his work, and his recent Lunar New Year project for M+


Phoebe Wong (PW): How did you first become interested in art?

Chu Hing Wah (CHW): I have no idea at all. I believe that is something latent. In hindsight, when I was very young, I always enjoyed doing things that I would not then call or regard as art making. I naturally found great pleasure in carving figures with pieces of chalk, or doodling on broken roof tiles that I picked up in debris. 

I spent my childhood in my hometown in Guangdong while my father went to Macao and Hong Kong to make a living. I reunited with my father to live in Hong Kong in 1950 as a teenager. Back then we lived on Temple Street in Yau Ma Tei. During that time, I stopped going to school; and I once worked as an apprentice in a light-bulb factory. Though there was the hardship of life in 1950s Hong Kong, I was always very content, and there were a lot of good memories of living in Yau Ma Tei. I recall that there was a gambling parlour on the ground floor of our place; peeking through the glass doors, it was simply fascinating to look at people gambling inside. What I am saying is, under these conditions, art never occurred to me as something I consciously would have engaged in or pursued.  

PW: You are a Cantonese opera fanatic; I imagine you would have enjoyed the Cantonese opera taking place on Temple Street.

CHW: Honestly, street Cantonese opera on Temple Street was not my cup of tea. Later, I would find ways to patronise Cantonese operas featuring notable artists such as Sun Ma Chai (新馬仔), Fong Yim Fun (芳艷芬), and the like. Indeed, I have been a fan of Fong Yim Fun’s all these years. I am truly convinced that Fong’s virtuosity and sensational singing makes her the ‘Queen of Female Principals’ (花旦王). Second, she is a charming character. Third, she paints too – she paints traditional Chinese motifs of flowers and birds. It is the last reason in particular why I admire her so dearly.

PW: Life seemed lacking a sense of purpose, though you went with the flow.

CHW: Life indeed made a turn when I landed a job as an usher at the Queen’s Theatre in Central (in mid-late 1950s). It was such a gratifying time. The Queen’s Theatre was a classy cinema that screened Hollywood movies – the English-speaking movies. I watched a lot of them for free. My favourite movies at that time included East of Eden starring James Dean, A Star Is Born with Judy Garland playing the female lead, etc. They are great stories, great scripts, and wonderful acting. During the time that I worked in the cinema, I started night school and took up English with immense interest. That was also when I started to manage my own life. 

After a few years, I craved going abroad though my finances suggested otherwise. When I learned that one could get paid to study psychiatric nursing in London, I set my sights on that. I seized the opportunity and subsequently left for London around Christmas in 1960. That was a decisive move in my life.

PW: I understand that you turned yourself into a self-taught amateur painter when you were in London. What led to that?

CHW: The mere fact that I was in London, a city of art and culture. My leisure time was spent frequenting museums such as Victoria and Albert Museum, National Gallery, and Tate Museum – you know, there was free admission then! Museums were my ‘tutors’ so to speak, my fertile ground. I drew or painted by studying attentively the masters’ works on display in the museums. I also went around as a lone ‘Sunday painter’ of landscapes; I have painted landmarks such as Hyde Park, St Paul’s Cathedral, and Bayswater in London, and the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre in Paris. During those years, I underwent various stages through practice, from figurative to expressionistic, from following masters’ to searching for my own expression. For instance, there was one landscape to which I applied Van Gogh’s type of bold brushstrokes, yet the sentiment still pertained to an Asian style, more introverted. 

PW: How would you describe this self-taught period?

CHW: Well, I would not say that I did it because I understood it as ‘art.’ I did it because I was interested in doing it, so I simply followed my instinct. I was very engrossed. That said, I have to admit that I never visited any exhibits in Hong Kong after I had returned from the UK, nor did I engage in the local art community until I began formal art training in 1972.

PW: What made you decided to take up formal art training then?

CHW: I put painting behind me as I concentrated on my job – working at the Castle Peak Hospital as a staff nurse (beginning in 1968). Out of the blue, one day a colleague of mine told me about an evening course of art and design run by the Department of Extra-Mural Studies at the University of Hong Kong. We both enrolled (but he dropped out and gave up). Perhaps, there was the desire deep down in me to pursue art that had never been prompted until then.

That was a very intensive three-year evening course – four hours an evening, four evenings a week. I was so proud of myself that I never missed a class, while at the same time working in psychiatric wards. That was a great course offering proper art training with theoretical and practical work, covering a wide range of classes to include art history, 2D, 3D, life drawing, print-making, sculpture, painting, psychology and the like. This was the time that I came to terms with 'art', finally.

PW: Who was on the faculty?

CHW: There were quite a number of faculty members indeed: Tao Ho, Hon Chi-fun, Jon Prescott, Martha Lesser, and Irene Chou, to name a few. Martha Lesser, being the principal tutor of my class over the three years, was a full time faculty member and taught oil painting and drawing. In oil painting class, we set out to paint at home with given topics, and followed with critiques and analyses of formalistic techniques during class hours. These critiques and analyses were the key to the success of the course. I was especially grateful to Lesser for her tutoring; and I trusted that we enjoyed this tutor-student relationship mutually.

PW: It seemed your study centred around Western media. Did you learn ink painting during your studies? And how did you move on to Chinese media?

CHW: It was true that my training focused on Western media, whereas towards the end of the Course, there was a series of Chinese painting classes taught by Laurence Tam and Wucius Wong. That was all I had in terms of Chinese media throughout the three-year study. After graduation, I continued working in a Western painting style. Peculiarly, some time later, I switched to Chinese media for good. I have to say I always follow my instinct. I gradually found that the materiality of Chinese media – the ink, brushes, and colour – agrees with my temperament, and conveys my feelings and emotions about life seamlessly.

In terms of the content and direction of my work or artistic life, I would say that there have been three phases in accordance with my stages of life. Certainly the learning period – be it self-taught or formal training – formed an important stage, nonetheless they were the preludes. 

As a staff nurse working at psychiatric wards for over 20 years, patients and their everyday dramas in the hospital have been the major source of inspiration over the my life. Through close contact with patients on a daily basis, I observed and understood their psychological states and strange behaviors – out of both professional need and personal interest, and ideas for my art came without effort – they were inexhaustible.

In 1989, I mounted a solo exhibition at the Castle Peak Hospital, featuring a number of works on the patients and their worlds. It was incredibly encouraging to see positive feedback on the exhibition.

My retirement in 1992 marked the beginning of another phase of life. Works during this phase were visual diaries of my life, centred around the New Territories. I painted the fast-changing environment as the countryside was eclipsed by suburban lifestyle. Towards the end of 1990s, I produced a few series of paintings based on my travels to Europe and Mainland China.

Since 2000, I have entered a third phase. I am getting older. Philosophical matters such as death and reincarnation have begun to emerge in my consciousness, as well as in my paintings. I have also responded to socio-political incidents in Hong Kong and the greater world– such as SARS and wars; those works have turned more abstract which, perhaps is a form of emotional expression.

PW: I am interested in the art-making process of your generation of artists. Would you tell me a bit more?

CHW: When I travel, it is my habit to carry a sketchpad. I usually try to make quick sketches rather than coming up with drawings in full detail. A quick sketch will contribute to form an impression and skeleton of a future painting, and yet leave room for my own creation. I take photos occasionally (for future reference) to capture certain intricate details that the sketch not able to accomplish.

PW: What about colours? You have a propensity for using subdued colours.

CHW: First of all, I need to emphasise that, to me, colour sensibility is an innate quality. In other words, colour matching is an inborn ability that cannot be acquired. One can learn colour theory to understand colours but not to use them.

I think visually. I have these visual images – be it colours, shapes or compositions – in my mind, and I always run through them before applying them to a painting. For instance, if I select a colour for an apple, I would then match the colour of a handkerchief mentally, that is, picturing one colour after the other rather systematically in my mental palette until a ‘good’ selection arrives, then I use it on the painting.

True, I tend to favour subdued colours because they carry greater weight, just as silence suggests a lot more than sound/noise and is thus more powerful. I do not treat colours with symbolic meaning; more often, I submit to my feelings and the context of a painting as far as colours are concerned. 

PW: Lines do not seem to be a dominant element in your paintings. Why is that?

CHW: I cannot but admit that my inadequate training in calligraphic techniques resulted in the weak performance of lines. I have compensated for it in my own way. I rarely draw lines in a painting. Alternatively, I create lines by leaving a hair-like space between two adjoining coloured shapes; when I apply black ink from the back of the rice paper, a thin black line appears. I find free style lines as such can be awfully intriguing. 

PW: In your painting, the spatial organisation does not follow the rules of Western perspective; rather, it quintessentially resembles that of stage design in Chinese opera. Do you borrow your ideas about spatial organisation from the latter?

CHW: No. I would not say the spatial representation in my painting comes from that of Chinese opera stage design. As a matter of fact, I see it this way: I enjoy Chinese opera because it precisely aligns with my own sensibility. The aesthetics of intangibility or semi-abstraction as manifested in Chinese stage opera are highly evocative and imaginative. I can relate to it as I share the same aesthetic pursuit; this in a way explains why I keep my painting very simple and economical in depiction.

May I also add that formalistic qualities or techniques are important, yet more importantly, they serve to express feelings about life, without which there is no art. I am a sensitive and perceptual person, and people – their lives, their conditions, their states of being – are the major concerns in my work.

PW: You recently worked on a project for M+ (the future museum at the West Kowloon Cultural District) which was shown around Lunar New Year. What was it about? And, are there any other projects currently taking shape?

CHW: I was part of the ‘West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre’ project; together with a couple master craftsmen, I worked on the flower plaques for Cantonese operas. Otherwise, I have been pacing myself since 2010 in putting together a series about women. I tentatively call it ‘Women’s Stories’ and I am documenting interesting narratives pertaining to females.

PW: What is your take on M+ and West Kowloon Cultural Distrct (WKCD) project?

CHW: Positive. I see M+ as one step forward in further developing the arts in Hong Kong. With its cultural capital as a vibrant cosmopolitan city, Hong Kong’s art scene should have been more vigorous. The WKCD project presents an opportunity, but it depends on how determined the authorities are to make things happen.




Phoebe WONG, 黃小燕

Wed, 1 Feb 2012

Relevant content

AAA Project Space, Archiving Materials
Ideas is AAA's New Online Journal

Ideas is AAA's New Online Journal

Asia Art Archive publishes new essays, interviews, and curated journeys through the research collections

In light of the current COVID-19 situation, AAA Library will remain temporarily closed till 5 February.