When Wing Chan was a young boy, walking to school in the mornings meant having to pass by drug addicts who lived in his building, nervously averting his eyes while noticing with curiosity the foils and spoons they used to prepare their substances. This was 1960s Hong Kong, where the graphic designer and artist grew up as the son of a couple who owned a noodle factory. Chan and his family lived in a gritty eight storey walk up, a stone’s throw away from the infamous Kowloon walled city, the hive of interlinking high rises that was once one of the most densely populated place on earth, with over 33,000 people living in a massive complex of 300 buildings that existed from 1950 to 1994.
The iconic complex, which was pulled down nearly 25 years ago, existed as a kind of lawless twilight zone, with triads, gambling and brothels that took advantage of the Walled City’s odd situation – technically a part of China, Britain had no sovereignty over the enclave. Even as Hong Kong police began patrolling the city in the 1970s, it was renowned as a fixtures of working class Kowloon, a dense warren of activity rife with shady characters and families surviving on a shoestring. “There were a lot of reverse role models where I grew up. I knew I had to work hard not to end up like them,” says Chan.
Chan has come a long way since his childhood years squeezed into a tiny flat alongside his eight brothers, watching airplanes soar above their heads from the nearby Kai Tak airport, and putting in long hours at his parent’s noodle factory from the age of five to help keep the business afloat. Now an internationally-recognised commercial designer who has worked for the likes of Armani and American Express, Chan has also broken into the world of fine art with an arresting series of Hong Kong-inspired photomontages. He says that while he left that part of Kowloon life a long time ago, it lives with him and informs much of how he interacts with the city as with the world. “I often joke that I earned my MBA as a kid,” he says, by which he means that having to balance school and work, while learning how to help run his business, were prematurely earned skills. When recollecting on his time as a sleep deprived (but not unhappy) child, he is not bitter about the experience. Times were hard, he admits, but that didn’t faze him – and today he says he is thankful for learning early how to run a business while committing to the work of pursuing your dreams.
With a love of drawing, Chan managed to wedge in between his homework and hours in the factory enough time to be taken under the wing of photorealist artist Michael Wong, a locally recognised artist who trained in Paris and taught Chan to make montages with newspaper clippings. Developing a camaraderie that Chan likens to the dynamic shared between the young Salvatore Di Vita and projectionist Alfredo in Italian movie Cinema Paradiso, Wong fostered in Chan a love of the arts, teaching him from the age of twelve onwards. They met after Chan’s cousin had noticed a fondness for doodling and suggested she give him a call – which he did and which turned into lessons that opened a window to the world of contemporary art. Through Wong, Chan accrued a deep understanding of art history, developing a love of cubism, Picasso, and de Kooning that finds its way into the thoughts and impressions that make up his art today.
Chan excelled in his studies and took on a year-long foundation course in Tennessee, where he soaked up the atmosphere of the American South, an experience that can still be heard in the faint twang that sometimes finds its way into his speech. A year later, he earned a scholarship to prestigious art school of Pasadena in California, moving afterwards to New York to work in commercial design and later starting his own graphic design business.
A Chinese expression, “falling leaves return to their roots,” sums up Chan’s reason for returning to his native Hong Kong in 2011, when he came home to be at the side of his mother in the final years of her life. This bittersweet homecoming period saw Chan experiment more with fine art projects inspired by his native city, though he had always pursued fine art alongside the commercial. Inspired to capture the less opulent side of the city, Chan wanted to snap elements of the grittier Hong Kong he grew up around.
This period also saw Chan wanting to experiment with his own artistic vision, taking snapshots of the city that would later serve as the wellspring of images that feature in his large scale photomontages today. Chan’s indefatigable spirit and love for his city in all its complexity can be felt in these works that show Hong Kong’s grittier corners in ways that highlight their energy and vivacity. Construction workers perched on bamboo pools feature in a neatly assembled, grid-like image that bring a sense of order to the chaos of our restless city.
Images from the MTR, constructed in a spiral that is both satisfying to look at while expressing the visual noise and mayhem of public transport — an arrangement that feels slightly like being given a bird’s eye view of the Tower of Babel — creates an engaging, if disorientating window into Hong Kong life. Seas of umbrellas offset by yellow crossings capture the furore of street crowds on a rainy day. Part of what he enjoys about the project are the riots of colour he can play with, a pleasant departure from the greys and blues common in commercial design.
Now living in serene Hunghom, where he takes a walk along the harbour most nights, savouring time to himself in nature, Chan has come a long way since his days in gritty, topsy-turvy 60s Kowloon. But its lively disorder, frenetic energy and mesmerizing charm still weaves its way into his vision of Hong Kong today, just as the riotous spirit of old Kowloon lives on in the hearts of those that once called that wild corner of the world home.
Wing Chan’s work is on show at the Affordable Art Fair from May 19 to May 21, 2017