The Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMoA) is marking its 60th anniversary this month. When it came to planning the celebratory exhibitions, director Maria Mok thought long and hard about the multi-layered stories that art can tell. “Art and culture help people define a city. HKMoA is very lucky to be a representative of Hong Kong, to have the chance to tell Hong Kong stories,” she says. “HKMoA reflects the creativity of the city — the people who are making art — but it also reflects the collecting legacy of the city.”
The legacies of some of the city’s major collectors are front and centre of two of the new exhibitions HKMoA is opening on December 9. First, the museum is opening an exhibition of paintings by the late Chinese artist Zhu Qizhan in the new Jingguanlou Gallery, a space dedicated to showcasing the more than 1,100 works donated to the museum in 2021 by the doctor and photographer Leo Wong Kwai-kuen. Alongside that, the museum is opening Eternal Enlightenment: The Virtual World of the Jiajing Emperor, which is a collaboration with another patron, Anthony Cheung, who has donated more than 230 items to HKMoA since 2018.
Wong, who turned 90 this year, first became interested in art in the 1980s. “I first took up photography as a hobby to relieve the stress from being a medical specialist,” he says. The hobby led him to research art in all its forms as he sought inspiration for his photography.
He became particularly fascinated with the Shanghai School, a revolutionary group of artists who emerged in the late 19th century soon after the city opened to foreign trade. These renegade artists began to fuse Chinese and Western artistic styles for the first time, transforming traditional black-and-white ink paintings by adding bright colours and dramatic brushstrokes. By doing this, the artists hoped to encourage viewers to focus on the power of paint itself, rather than on the symbolism that was historically most prized in Chinese paintings. “A friend at the Shanghai Art Museum introduced me to the masters of Shanghai School such as Zhu Qizhan, Xie Zhiliu and Chen Peiqiu,” says Wong. “I was impressed by their distinctive artistic styles.”
He began collecting their paintings and eventually befriended the artists, becoming especially close to Zhu Qizhan, whom Wong met when the artist was in his 80s. Zhu was born in 1892 and lived an extraordinarily long life, dying in 1996 at the age of 103. Zhu’s work and friendship inspired much of Wong’s artmaking. “Zhu’s painting style is based on originality, impact and simplicity,” says Wong. “He always encouraged me to maintain my personal style characterised by visual tension and minimalist composition.” Over the past forty or so years, Wong has bought hundreds of works by Zhu for his collection.
Wong has titled his enormous assembly of artworks the Jiangguanlou Collection. In Mandarin, “Jiangguanlou” means “the studio of silent viewing” and is a take on a saying by Chinese philosopher Cheng Ho, who declared “all things can provide contentment when viewed with silent contemplation.” Art has brought Wong much happiness – and now that he has donated more than 1,100 works to HKMoA, he hopes that other people will benefit from it, too. “Collecting art has provided me with creative inspiration and spiritual nourishment,” he says. “I wish to share with the public my joy in and affection for outstanding Chinese art and culture.”
HKMoA is a natural home for Wong’s collection because he has worked with the museum since the 1980s, when he joined the Min Chiu Society, a group of art collectors who promote the appreciation of traditional Chinese art and who regularly liaise with HKMoA’s team. Since 1990, Wong has been an expert advisor to HKMoA on the subjects of Chinese painting and calligraphy and, in 1994, he loaned some works from his collection to HKMoA for an exhibition dedicated to Zhu Qizhan. “I have been impressed by HKMoA’s efforts in promoting Chinese art over the decades,” he says. “By donating my collection to the museum, I believe that it will be in good hands and the cultural legacy can be passed on to the future generations.”
The bulk of Wong’s Jingguanlou Collection is 20th-century Chinese paintings and calligraphy, but it does include some other items, such as a selection of folding fans, a series of Yixing purple clay teapots with rubbings, and some of Wong’s own photographic works. The new Jingguanlou Gallery at HKMoA will host a rotating programme of thematic exhibitions featuring items donated by Wong.
Anthony Cheung, the collector who has worked with HKMoA on Eternal Enlightenment: The Virtual World of the Jiajing Emperor, is similarly inspired by how HKMoA promotes traditional Chinese art. “I’ve been going to HKMoA since the 1970s, when the museum was at City Hall,” he says. “I admire their style of exhibitions. Over the past three years, they’ve used projection and animation, which is really unusual to see in exhibitions of traditional art. Their exhibitions do not just have the objects in a cabinet. I think young people — high school kids, university kids — like these kinds of exhibitions.”
Cheung is the first collector that the HKMoA has collaborated with on an exhibition since the museum reopened in 2019, after a years-long renovation. Cheung has loaned dozens of works to the museum for the exhibition and has also worked with the HKMoA team to produce the show, as he is an expert on the Jiajing Emperor, the 12th Emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), who was enthroned 500 years ago, in 1522, and reigned until his death in 1566.
“I’ve been interested in him for maybe eight years,” says Cheung. He is so fascinated by the Jiajing Emperor, in fact, that several years ago he went on a pilgrimage to his hometown, which is an hour’s drive to the west of Wuhan. “He is really unusual because he was not in the line of succession. His cousin was the Zhengde Emperor, who died quite young and without any sons, so his mother and chief minister went through the list and found this cousin outside of Wuhan, and went and picked him up. So he was very lucky – out of nowhere, he suddenly became the emperor of China.”
The exhibition examines the influence of the Jiajing Emperor through the art that has survived from that period. The emperor, for example, was obsessed with prolonging his life and even sought an elixir of immortality. In Taoist tradition, which was dominant in the emperor’s hometown, vases in a double gourd shape — a bulbous design that features two spheres balanced on top of each other — symbolised long life, so many ceramics during the Jiajing’s Emperor’s reign were made in that style.
Cheung first caught the collecting bug in primary school, when he began avidly buying stamps. “I like to gather things together and then make a story to illustrate a point,” he says. But it wasn’t until he had graduated from university and begun working for his family’s business, Wah Ha Realty Group, that he began collecting art, after he was introduced to Chinese ceramics by a friend, the architect and collector Simon Kwan. “At that time Simon had an exhibition of his collection at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Art Museum of later Qing porcelain,” says Cheung. “It sparked my interest in porcelain.”
His family didn’t understand his new passion. “My father never encouraged me to collect. He said it was a waste of money, that I was never concentrating on my work,” he says. But Cheung persevered and has now built one of the most impressive collections of Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain in the world. His wife is not a collector herself, but quietly supports Cheung’s hobby. “She just says, ‘Don’t spend all of your money. Watch your pocket!’” he says, laughing.
He decided to focus on Ming and Qing ceramics because he was interested in the history of those dynasties, but also because vases and bowls from that period are normally clearly labelled with the reign in which they were produced, which helps collectors accurately trace the story of ceramics through time. Also, when Cheung began collecting, some ceramics from the Qing and Ming periods were relatively affordable. “Early Ming has always been very expensive, but the mid Ming is quite reasonable, even now,” he says. “The high Qing is very expensive – now it’s outrageous prices. When I started collecting, ceramics from the late Qing period were quite reasonable. Those are ceramics from 100, 150 years ago.”
Ever since he started collecting, Cheung has regularly loaned and donated works to institutions. “I think the most important thing for a collector to do is share with the public,” he says. “If you have a good collection, it’s best to share it with others. Sharing is the most important thing.”
Mok is grateful for the support of collectors like Cheung and Wong. “A donation is a gift, a sign of friendship,” she says. “A donation to HKMoA is a gift to Hong Kong.” Whichever of the new exhibitions visitors see — and, in fact, whenever Hongkongers visit HKMoA — there is one thing that Mok hopes they feel. “Pride,” she says. “Pride in Hong Kong.”
Palette of a Centenarian: Selected Works of Zhu Qizhan from the Jingguanlou Collection is on display in the Jingguanlou Gallery from December 9 to March 29, 2023. Click here for more information.
Eternal Enlightenment: the Virtual World of Jiajing Emperor is on display from December 9 to March, 2023. Please check HKMoA’s website for updates.