Light falls at Dutch angles upon stairs winding endlessly into a distant vanishing point. A child clenches his teeth, toiling under the gaze of a single eye and struggling under a heavy load. In the gloom the same figure assumes a foetal position surrounded by his tools: paintbrushes and spent tins of emulsion. This nocturne depicts the early career of Jimmy Keung. “It is my life, as though in a movie,” he whispers, barely audible under the shimmering notes of the Blue Danube Waltz, which plays in the warm glow of the artist’s Chai Wan studio.
Padding about in soft house shoes, Keung places his portfolio on a coffee table. Inside, Chow Yun-fat brandishes a shotgun while Rambo’s muscular frame gleams in the light of explosions. The hero walks away, aloof to the mayhem while Tom Hanks smiles knowingly – a child inhabiting an adult’s body. These are just a small sampling from Keung’s life work as a cinema billboard painter.
It will be surprising to many that until the mid-1990s, hand painted billboards were common in Hong Kong. Before cheap industrial printing and large cinema chains, the city was rich with independent cinemas and many were graced with hand rendered advertising befitting the glamour and sense of occasion that accompanied a trip to the movies.
It was one such billboard that captivated Keung when he was a withdrawn and dreamy child. “My father loved the movies. He always used to take us,” he recalls. “I didn’t speak much. I felt I had no voice. But the billboards made communication seem so easy. I knew who was good, who was the villain. I knew this was the hero, this was the king. It was a language that I understood. I loved drawing and I loved movies.”
At home, Keung began cutting images out of magazines to create collages and rudimentary compositions which would form the basis of his later work. By his 15th birthday, his father, a chauffeur who moonlighted as a movie extra, had accepted that Keung would never take up a career behind the wheel. Using what industry connections he had, he secured his son an apprenticeship.
In 1973, Keung began working at Peacock Advertising, one of Hong Kong’s four main cinema billboard painting companies. “The industry was very small and numbered no more than 100 people,” says Keung, who reels off the other agencies’ colourful names, including Wong4 Gam1 (黃金, “gold”), Je5 Maa5 (野馬, “mustang”) and Ng4 Daat6 Jyun4 (吳達元).
Keung lived and worked at Peacock, doing hard menial labour. His sifu was a seasoned commercial artist who designed both billboards and movie posters. The year Keung joined Peacock, he observed his sifu rendering the ferocious mien of Bruce Lee in an iconic poster for the martial artist’s final completed film, Enter the Dragon.
Apprentices were not directly taught and were left to learn whatever they could through assisting their master. “We’d carry heavy billboard panels up narrow stairs to the studio,” says Keung. “Each of those panels was six by four feet. We’d repair and paint them white so that they could be reused. We’d also deliver sketches or do setup work.”
Installing billboards was backbreaking work. “We’d start at 5am and wouldn’t get home until two or three in the morning,” he says. “We’d plan our route for the day because we serviced about 10 cinemas scattered across Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories. We’d do about five or six a day.”
But there were perks: in exchange for creating an original poster, the cinemas would give Keung and his colleagues a sneak preview of the film. For a cinephile like Keung, this was a major bonus. “We would be among the first people in Hong Kong to see many films!” After the preview, draft sketches would be created and approved. “We’d split the drawing into a grid and enlarge it proportionately. Each panel had a number that corresponded to the sketch. The colours would be set so that they would be uniform across the entire billboard.”
Working within Peacock’s small studio presented many challenges. “The workshop could only accommodate four panels at one time,” says Keung. “We’d work in a production line. Two panels would be completed and taken away for installation then two blanks would come in.” The process from drafting to painting and laying out text took four to five hours for a large piece. “But painting took about an hour for a smaller one. We had to work very fast.”
Final touch ups would be done during installation as panels were hoisted up. “We’d blend the connecting points but since the billboards were to be seen from far away, we left things quite rough. If you blend too well it looks flat from afar.” Operating in this way, Keung estimates that he and his industrious colleagues might have painted five to six thousand billboards in their time.
Days were for labour, but nights were for learning. Keung and his fellow apprentices practised painting eyes in particular. “They are extremely important,” he says. “Eyes are how you communicate. Our sifu made us paint eyes with completely steady hands. No corrections can be made. It has to be completed in one shot like dotting the eye of a dragon,” says Keung with a smile, referring to the Chinese aphorism “waak6 lung4 dim2 zing1” (畫龍點睛). “To capture eyes you have to strike quickly and with precision as though capturing a venomous snake.”
The apprentices would paint and repaint several dozen times before finally making their beds for the night on single billboard panels propped up on paint tins. “While I slept, my apprentice brothers sometimes played tricks and surrounded me with panels from horror movies – fearsome eyes and sharp teeth, the scary stuff!” he laughs. “Those were very happy days.”
While Keung took interest in both imagery and text, it was more usual to specialise. “My colleagues studied calligraphy by copying newspapers,” he says. The text on their posters and billboards was modified from newspaper scripts and fonts, which were mostly in the kai (gaai1 syu1 楷書) and heiti (hak1 tai2 黑體) styles.
By manipulating English and Chinese text, these early graphic designers would come to innovate a unique visual style that reflected their cosmopolitan situation. “Chinese can read from right to left, left to right and up and down while English is read from the left but also up and down.” Keung explains. “Since Hong Kong’s culture was a blend of Chinese and English, our signs are special – they are ambidirectional, which isn’t a problem for Hongkongers. We’re used to it. This was our innovation in the Chinese speaking world.” Cinemas weren’t the only ones to apply this style; Keung cites another uniquely Hong Kong source of inspiration: “Posters and billboards for Cantonese operas do this too.”
In 1976, Keung was personally entrusted with an original poster design. “My sifu was going on a trip so he assigned me to The Private Eyes,” he says. Sam Hui’s slapstick classic would be a test for the young artist. Keung’s lightly caricaturish design would become as iconic as the film itself. “I observed the actors’ expressions. I imagined them on myself then decided how best to present the characters. I exaggerated features a bit to make it clearer from far away – like shouting visually.”
Keung’s colleagues showered him with praise but his sifu said nothing. “This made me very happy,” says Keung. “This meant that he approved. He never gave praise. In the old days, you would be scolded for mistakes but never praised.” Though he had succeeded, Keung knew there could be more. “I knew that it was ok but I had to be better. When I eventually started my own company, it became even clearer how.”
In 1990, Keung opened his own company, Mahatma Art Production. He struggles with the foreign word, which he chose for its associations with spiritual growth, development of civilisation and the arts. As luck would have it, Hong Kong’s Indian community was drawn to the name and Mahatma won commissions doing elaborate setpieces for shops, exhibitions, private rooms, parties and events. “I did a lot of design work for hotels including one for the Holiday Inn,” he says. “The boss was an Indian person – Harilela was his name.”
It would all prove too much for Keung, who grew disenchanted with running a business. “At Peacock, I could concentrate on painting. Sifu would calculate budgets and deal with clients. He arranged everything. I am not a businessman. I’d always lose money. Unsatisfied with the work, I’d often run over budget. Even if the client clapped their hands and said ‘Wow! Great job!’ I was unsatisfied. I needed to change my life.” In 1993, Keung painted his final movie billboard, a six-storey tyrannosaurus rex on the Kowloon Renaissance Hotel, for Jurassic Park.
For a time, Keung found new meaning in painting backdrops for the Academy of Performing Arts, and though he doesn’t work there anymore, he still gets backdrop commissions – “for ballets,” says Keung, “but also special museum exhibits.”
In recent years, the painter has gained further insight through teaching. Baulking at the bureaucracy that came with working at schools, Keung prefers to teach privately and to focus on students. “I used to be obsessed with correcting technique,” he says, “but I’ve learned that art gives insight into people. Art is a mirror. You have to work with the person and their issues, it’s pointless to fix the reflection.”
And what might someone learn about Jimmy Keung if they were to reflect on his work? “It would reveal my changing relationship with time,” he muses. “My life and paintings have had different rhythms. My early work was frantic. Now I am slow. This is the real me.”
In a world where billboards can be printed in minutes, rather than hours, slowness seems out of place. There seems to be nothing left for artists when technology appears to do everything and more than they ever could. In spite of this, Keung’s services are in high demand for the intangible qualities and authenticity that no machine can ape.
“Painting is a practice in developing a person,” he explains. “It shows you many things – how to observe, how to handle failure. By over-relying on technology we risk forgetting our own capabilities and forgoing our own potential. Technology isn’t a reflection of our abilities but it can be mistaken for that. Even though it aids us in many ways, it will not help you know yourself. It will not show you anything beyond the superficial nor will it give you deeper understanding. It saves us time but once that time is saved, what then? It would be best if we used this time for developing ourselves and being creative.”
The artist smiles, gentle but firm in his convictions, and clear in his vision. The quiet, dreamy man who was forced to work at speed and to visually “shout” has regained his natural voice. He is poised as though contemplating the precise dot of an eye and all the meaning within.