Gérard Henry lives in a lovely apartment filled with books and potted plants. A fiddle-leaf fig and a dragon tree bathe in the warm sunlight next to the window. Volumes of literature line the walls. If you’ve ever read Henry’s writing or seen his drawings, this is exactly the kind of place you would imagine he lived. There’s something quiet and contemplative about the space – a Hong Kong apartment that somehow transcends Hong Kong.
But you can’t escape your surroundings. “We may have to move,” says Henry. As in so many parts of Hong Kong, rents in his neighbourhood, Tai Hang, have been rising precipitously in recent years.
It would be a shame if he had to leave. Nestled in a small cove between Victoria Park and the hills, this old village doesn’t feel like anywhere else in Hong Kong. And it’s exactly this character that Henry has captured in many of his drawings. Dragon Path depicts the walkway between Victoria Park and Tai Hang in whimsical fashion, populated by cats and embraced by trees. In Sonia à son bureau, we see the neighbourhood from the perspective of his partner, the scholar Sonia Au, who sits at a desk lined by books, looking out on a panoply of buildings jostling for space.
This isn’t the cold, mechanical Hong Kong of Michael Wolf’s photographs; nor is it the wryly commented cityscape of Wilson Shieh’s ink drawings. It’s a vision of the city that is disarmingly naïve and good humoured. It’s the Hong Kong of an admirer and enthusiast.
Of course, Henry has no illusions; he knows the game. He has moved many times since coming here in 1982. He was all but forced out of his last apartment, on Prince’s Terrace, when his building was slated for redevelopment. “C’était toute une histoire,” he says. A real drama.
Over the years, Henry has become a quiet cultural force in Hong Kong. For years, he served as the deputy director of the Alliance Française and the editor of Paroles, a bilingual French-Chinese arts and culture magazine founded in 1982. He has been enmeshed with Hong Kong’s art community from the time it was a real counterculture, not the multibillion-dollar business it is today. His drawings, which you may have seen published in Hong Kong 20/20, or in various exhibitions around town, evokes a romantic vision of the city that resonates with anyone who loves this place.
And it was all by accident. Henry never had any plans to come to Hong Kong. He grew up on a farm in Normandy, not far from the coast and about 180 kilometres northwest of Paris. He has been passionate about plants and literature for as long as he can remember. He read and he wrote. “I was always a journalist,” he says, recalling the journal he kept when he was 12 years old. Three years later, he was captivated by the revolutionary moment of May 1968. “I wasn’t a leftist but I was interested in reinvention,” he says. In secondary school, he was part of a puppet theatre troupe. “We toured around France.”
Everything changed in 1980. Henry had studied botany and he was hired to design a garden for an old farmhouse that was being renovated near Bayeux, a town known for its Norman Gothic cathedral. “It was in a small valley. Quite idyllic,” he recalls. One day, he was standing on some scaffolding, helping a friend work on the house’s façade, when he noticed a group of people approaching through the fields.
“We thought they were Japanese tourists,” he says. Eventually, they reached the house and one of the group knocked on the door and asked if they could spare any water. It turns out they were a group of Hong Kong artists studying in Paris, and they had travelled to Normandy for an exhibition in Caen. Henry’s friend invited them to camp on the property. They spent the next week playing music and drinking cider and Calvados.
Just as the group was about to leave, a young woman who was part of the group fell off a bike and broke her shoulder. She stayed behind to recuperate. “We fell in love,” says Henry. They moved to Paris, married, had a daughter and began making plans to move to Hong Kong. Henry had only ever seen a photo of the city, so when he finally made the dramatic descent into Kai Tak Airport, he was bewildered. He remembers how the airport was filled with students taking advantage of the abundant air conditioning, which they didn’t have at home.
Henry and his family made their way to Sham Shui Po, where his wife’s parents lived in a walkup flat divided by wood partitions. In one corner, there was a statue of Kwun Yum; in the other, the Virgin Mary. They ate dinner, showered and got ready for bed – or so Henry thought. Just as jetlag was beginning to set in, everyone started filing out of the apartment. It was time for siu1 je6 (消夜) – midnight snack. “The whole street was in pyjamas,” recalls Henry. People gathered at streetside restaurants and hawker stalls for a last bowl of noodles or some fishballs before going to bed. “It was very exotic for me,” he says.
Henry had no chance of finding work as a botanist — “I would have had to have been British,” he says — so he studied Chinese at the Chinese University of Hong Kong instead. His old puppeteering hobby came in handy when he met Mok Chiu-yu, an artist who staged politically-charged street theatre performances. Henry made papier-mâché masks of Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping for him, but the police often broke up their performances. “The cops were everywhere,” he says.
Hong Kong artists in the 1980s were a cultivated bunch who had mostly studied overseas, but the city they returned to was not nearly as open-minded. “It was stuffy and colonial,” says Henry. There were few art galleries, few theatre companies and few opportunities for artists to express themselves. But they found ways to do it – and Henry was there to document it all.
After a stint as the editor of the French-language edition of China Tourism, Henry became editor of Paroles. Under his watch, the magazine became bilingual, catering as much to local readers as to the city’s then-small community of French expats. Henry helped set up the first French May festival, and he began producing weekly dispatches about Hong Kong life for Radio Suisse Romande, which were eventually collected into his first book, Chroniques Hongkongaises.
Henry continues to write about Hong Kong for Courrier international (in French). There are profiles of local cultural figures like Yau Leung and Yeung Tong-leung, vignettes of hairy crab season and musings on the many layers of the urban landscape. His writing is a bit like his drawings: quiet, contemplative and thoughtful.
For all his interest in art, Henry never intended to become an artist himself. At some point, he began buying little notebooks from neighbourhood stationery stores and drew “as a sort of meditation,” he says. “I did it for my own pleasure, to relax.” He sketched streetscapes and trees, or the interiors of his friends’ homes – a kind of portrait in absentia, a personality revealed by the space it shaped.
It wasn’t until Henry was encouraged by Zunzi, one of Hong Kong’s leading cartoonists, that he considered exhibiting his work. His largest show to date was in 2011, at the Ox Warehouse in Macau. The drawings were presented as a visual diary, but they were much more than that, offering windows into the studios of artists like Wong Yan-kwai and Suzy Cheung. With the simple tools of black ink and paper, the drawings “strip back each depicted view to a humane and romantic core,” wrote critic John Batten.
The exhibition mixed Hong Kong drawings with those from Paris, and Batten noted that “[the] drawings interchange a poignant vision of the two, reflecting the tugs of this home and a distant homely place: a not uncommon feeling for many living in this city.” But Henry doesn’t seem inclined to leave Hong Kong, even if he has to leave Tai Hang. Now that he is retiring from Paroles, he’ll have more time to focus on watching and thinking. “I’ll be drawing,” he says.