When asked about what he would say to students who wish to join the art industry in Hong Kong, artist Chow Chun Fai responded almost without thinking, “Don’t come”. It might seem like a light-hearted joke to cause some laughter, but behind it all there is certainly a heavy-hearted side for Chow.
The first thing to notice the second you step into Chow’s studio which is located in an industrial building in Fotan, the New Territories, is the ceiling-to-floor bookshelf. Looking through the bookshelf filled with history and art books, you might imagine Chow as a tame scholar with an artist apron covered with several shades of color. However in reality, Chow is a slightly tanned, sturdy man dressed in black, who sits behind his laptop while waiting for university students to interview him. Speaking in a steady manner, making some subtle jokes along the way, Chow is definitely not like those indifferent artists you see in the movies.
Other noticeable items include a sofa placed on top of a rather high platform, a fist in a bowl, traditional Chinese furniture, brushes, stacks of newspapers, wine, champagne, kitchenware, and pasta – you’ve probably guessed it right, the studio is literally a home to Chow.
Stepping further into the studio, models, artworks, and license plates of taxis come into sight. Being a taxi driver was his part-time job during college after his father had a stroke and could no longer work as one. This experience strengthened his local experience and is the reason the famous red Hong Kong taxi became the subject of many of his works.
From matte to glossy texture on canvases, Chow has used mixed media on his work. Besides the typical media like acrylic and oil paint, Chow has picked up something handy in an industrial building to use – enamel paint. He emphasises his desire to experiment with a wide range of media and his adventurous attitude to try.
If anyone has heard of Chow, they have probably heard of him through his most recognized artworks – the movie stills. He has recreated many stills from movies by hand painting them, even including the subtitles. They look so realistic that you would not know they are paintings unless you look from a few inches away. What Chow is creating is a reverse in the process of movie making. Normally, a storyboard artist draws the storyboard, then it gets made into a movie; but Chow extracts from a ready-made movie, then depicts from there. Most of the subtitled quotes that Chow selects are not particularly significant or well-known, and sometimes the meanings twist when the quotes are displayed without any context. However, bringing universal resonance is clearly not an intention for Chow. “Someone says music is a universal (language), it is not true,” Chow believes that there will always be a translation barrier, no matter whether literal or semantic, because language is essentially based on one culture and one culture only, thus the significance will always be up to the audiences’ own interpretation. “When I am creating an artwork I am not trying to deliver a message, but I leave hints, and the audience will discover those hints…it is important for me to have accurate hints in the world because interpretation starts from the creator,” for Chow, self identity constitutes a significant part of the work he creates.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Chow has established a huge sense of local identity. Living in a public estate is one of the strongest collective memories many 80s children share because during then, without much technology, children were engaged in the tight community of an estate.
Chow wanted to become an actor or director and so applied to the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts and got an offer. Later, he changed his mind but his thoughts of expanding in the field of arts still lingered, which made him think – what kind of artist can I be if not a performing one? His ambitions to become a more introverted artist drove his decision to do a degree in Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Being taught about interpretation from various angles, some graduates get their first jobs at galleries, others who are bound by reality might decide to transfer to more financially lucrative industries for good. Chow was struggling at that time about which route he would take, but during his graduation exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, he was given some insight from his professor. Comic artist Jiang KangQuan, locally known as Kongkee, was concerned that Chow would give up his painting career, and he encouraged him to further develop in this domain.
Continuing his exploration into the art world, Chow has definitely taken on a new role as an artist, gaining insights on multiple aspects. “As a business, it makes more sense in Beijing than in Hong Kong,” Chow said. Living in Beijing from 2007 to 2010, the experience opened up Chow’s perspective on the art industry. Owning a 1000 square feet studio in Hong Kong is considered a luxury, but in Beijing, 3000 square feet is minimal. Also, artists in Beijing have multiple assistants, but it made Chow question whether an artist should have work done by an assistant. Chow also faced censorship issues during the period. In June 2013, he was invited to give a talk in GuangZhou. However, he got sent an official memo from the Chinese government not long before his talk about the restriction of speaking rights of Hong Kong and Macau citizens in public spaces in China that June. The fact that the restriction was specific to June made many in the special administrative region wonder whether the Chinese government still feared that their people would be one day be exposed to the controversy caused by the Tiananmen Square incident on June 4, 1989. Although the condition of Hong Kong is not as severe as in the mainland, suppression of artistic expression is still a key issue artists have to deal with. Culture takes time to change, sometimes decades, sometimes centuries, but it is without doubt that artists based in Beijing are able to reach certain standards financially.
The experience in Beijing led Chow to run as a legislative council member in 2012 because it made him realise that no department under the Hong Kong government cared about culture. There are around 500 artists who set up their studio in Fotan, and it is a well-known artistic community. However, they have only got one vote in the district council, and they have even been asked to vote under the education development and not the culture department. The scheme of Revitalization of Industrial Building, which started in 2010, was considered useless because not even the Hong Kong Arts Development Council has any say in the domain, not to mention it is in fact illegal to use factory space for art. For the past few years, Chow has become an active participant in the ‘Fotanian – Open Studio Programme’. Even so, he believes that to change the community, just opening doors won’t do, and the influences should not only be within the artist circle. As for now, Chow is focusing on his research about professional audiences, which include those who are paid to cry in either mainland singing contest television programs or news stories concerning the North Korean leader, Kim Jung-un. With the subject being professional audiences, Chow looks forward to raise controversial issues that soundly lie within our society.
Surviving in the art industry in Hong Kong and having to deal with controversies over political and sociocultural issues only made Chow more inspired to create artworks that portray his own interpretation. Along with that, he also emphasizes on the importance of remembering the reason you started, the initial intention or force that has driven you all to way to where you are now.
He may try to brush questions about art off with the “don’t come” response, but it seems like the joke is more black than surface humor.
Writer: Harriet Lai
Copy Editor: Yoan Jin Soul Lee
Editor: Joy Chung