Hong Kong Modernist Cheung Yee Looks Back at Four Decades of Art

Hong Kong appears to be in the thrall of the Circle Art Group artists. A month after the opening of Hon Chi-fun’s retrospective at the Asia Society, Galerie du Monde is showing The Early Years, a look-back at the first four decades of Cheung Yee’s artistic career.

Like many artists from his period, Cheung’s sculptures, paper casts and works on paper are a mishmash of Chinese traditions and Western modernism. But they also hark back to prehistoric times – especially his wood pieces. “If you look at nature, you see a lot of curves,” says the octogenarian artist. “For me, curves implies sensibility, it implies a natural state, a state when one is being true to oneself. For me, straight lines, which are created by man, denotes artificiality and damage. You look at these old African masks – they are very direct yet dominated by curved lines.”

Chatting over the phone from his home in California, Cheung is in good spirits. It’s hard to imagine that he was recently placed under a travel ban by his doctor, preventing him from attending the opening of his fourth solo show at Galerie du Monde. “My doctor said I’d better not,” he says, surprisingly chipper. “He said I’d have to lug a huge [oxygen] tank onto the plane. Oh well. I sent my wife and daughter to represent me.”

Cheung is a dream conversationalist but a challenging interviewee. He is frank yet knows how to humour his audience with a good tale, yet his propensity to go off on wild tangents also makes it hard to follow. He has taught art at a handful of secondary schools, and two Hong Kong universities, and he count artists Ho Siu-kee (whom he calls “rebellious”) and Jaffa Lam (“very talented”) among his students.

The artist’s memory is pristine, whether he is recalling life events or Chinese proverbs he learnt as a child – except, perhaps, for the brief period he spent in Guangzhou during World War II. Born in 1936 in Hong Kong, Cheung spent the first half of his childhood in Hong Kong, the other half in Guangzhou, though he insists that he has no memory of the latter. “My childhood memory was all in Hong Kong,” he says. “I remember living on Lee Tung Street in Wan Chai. I remember running around in my mum’s bing sutt. I remember my great-grandfather. I remember leaving Hong Kong in a haste when the Japanese invaded. But I don’t remember what happened in Guangzhou.”

Cheung Yee

‘The Early Years’ installation view. Image courtesy of the artist and Galerie du Monde

After the war was over, Cheung and his family returned to Hong Kong. His favourite school subject was, unsurprisingly, art. He credits Ding Yanyong, an artist who taught at the now defunct Tak Ming College in Tsim Sha Tsui, as his first mentor. “From him, I learnt how to draw bananas, fish and crab,” he says.

In the mid-1950s, the self-proclaimed “bad student” enrolled at the National Taiwan Normal University. “Taiwanese universities were easier to get into back in those days,” Cheung says sheepishly. Taipei was also where he found love: his wife, who attended the same secondary school in Hong Kong, was also a student at National Taipei University. “I’ve known her since we were 14, 15,” he says. “But you know, we were so young. You can’t say there was anything between us back then…” he trails off, suddenly shy.

The year 1961 was a turning point for Cheung. He exhibited at City Hall’s art gallery, the predecessor to the Hong Kong Museum of Art, in the inaugural group exhibition Hong Kong Art Today – and subsequently sailed off to New York on a one-year art fellowship, courtesy of the Institute of International Education’s Young Artist Project.

It’s clear that Cheung’s art is very much influenced by early 20th-century sculptors. While “Four Eggs,” a sculpture composing four pieces of bronze reliefs, brings to mind Moore and Brancusi, “Column,” carved from a slab of white granite, has a touch of Lipchitz. Yet these sculptures are also rooted in Chinese traditions. “Cliff Form” presents a modernist interpretation of traditional Chinese landscapes, while “Head” is a wood sculpture inscribed with Oracle scripts. “Of all the materials I have worked with, I’m particularly drawn to wood,” he says. “The grain, the pattern – there is so much life in wood.” 

In retrospect, the artist, who sees life in and feels a connection to everything he encounters, seemed destined to become a sculptor. It is arguably the most tactile medium. “I learnt painting, then calligraphy,” he says. “I did both landscapes and portraits.” He says he was skilled in gongbi—a type of realistic painting characterised by meticulous brushstrokes—but it was in sculpture he found the most satisfying form of expression.

“You know, there are various ways to sculpt an object – modelling, carving, assemblage and wielding,” he says, as if teaching a class. “I tried all of them. And with different kinds of materials, bronze, wood, so on. If I had no money, I’d trek to the cemetery and see if I could salvage any discarded slabs [of stones],” he says. “I think the great achievement is when you create something out of nothing. One time, I gave my students a piece of white paper. Someone complained that they had no tools to make art but I told them, you can use your hands to fold the paper, to crush it, your saliva to wet it. In my eyes, nothing is garbage. Garbage is man-made, nothing is naturally junk.”

He then pivots, his mind following an unseen course. “I’m a very sentimental person. I place a lot of emphasis on relationships – between a parent and a child, between a mentor and mentee, between man and his natural environment. Cheung’s relationship with his wife is at top of mind. “She’s stayed the same all these years,” he says. “I mean, you saw her at the opening, right? She’s still as beautiful as ever. The wrinkles she has? They’re knitted together by years of joy, laughter, hardship.”

Another relationship he treasures is the one he has with his peers. In 1963, he co-founded the Circle Art Group with Hon Chi-fun, Van Lau, Wucius Wong and a few others. “We also had Jackson Yu, who opened the Sally Jackson gallery in Tsim Sha Tsui ’s Ocean Terminal, and Kwok Man-ki, a businessman. We decided to hold these regular gatherings. We discussed art. We also published zines.” 

The group’s Chinese name—the Chung Yuen Painters Society—was a bit of a misnomer, as few of the members stuck to painting. “We welcomed a variety of mediums!” exclaims Cheung. Asked about the group’s reputation for being a rebellious bunch, he exclaims, “Not at all!” in mock surprise. “We just liked to mix things up.”

Cheung Yee

‘General No. 4’, 1985. Image courtesy of the artist and Galerie du Monde

In the 1980s, Cheung created his famous “crab” sculptures, one of which, “General No. 4,” is on display in Early Years. From one angle, it looks like one of the viperous robotic dogs in Black Mirror’s “Metalhead” episode, and a dancing crustacean from another. “General,” a drawing depicting a crab in various humorous poses, reinforces the latter impression.

Why the obsession with crabs? “You know, there is a Chinese saying, ‘The most difficult part of drawing a human is his hand, the hardest tree to draw is a willow, the hardest kind of horse to draw is one that runs,’” says Cheung. “So I thought, an insect has six legs, but a crab has eight legs. I wanted to challenge myself.”

He attributes the inspiration behind “Bird Man No. 2,” a bronze sculpture depicting a winged figure, to a poem from the Shang Dynasty (1700-1027 BC). “The tale goes that a goddess, who has the form of a bird, gave birth to the Shang Dynasty,” explains Cheung. Historically, there is some confusion as to whether figure is a man or woman, but Cheung is convinced it is the latter. “It’s a woman. I mean, the female sex is definitely the better sex,” he begins ambitiously before continuing with a platitude. “Why, we’re all here because of our mothers.” A few seconds later, he adds, “I think the work also symbolises human beings’ longing for the sky.”

Is that also his longing? “Isn’t it everybody’s?” replies the artist who wants to soar high in the skies, yet remain very much grounded in tradition and history.

At one point during the interview, Cheung speaks about his inspirations. “When I was in school, I was very proud of being a Chinese person,” he says. “In painting, we have Zao Wou-ki, a Chinese artist who’d made a name for himself on the world stage. Maybe I could do the same thing with sculpture.”

Does he think he has achieved that?

“I think I did okay.”

Cheung Yee

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