Raymond Fung Wing-kee is an ink painter – but he’s also an architect. It’s obvious as soon as you walk into his studio in Wan Chai, which seems more gallery than workshop, a clean, minimalist space decorated by Fung’s landscape paintings. There’s a kitchen in one corner, masked by a decorative screen, where Fung makes a pot of tea and sets it down on a ping-pong table. The space where he actually paints is behind a wall, next to the window. “It’s a very narrow space but I can slide out these walls,” he says, revealing a long table topped by a work in progress. “It’s the length that’s important.”
Born in 1952, Fung grew up in Central and Sheung Wan, first in a cubicle apartment on Graham Street, then in a tenement on Hollywood Road. His father left when he was young and his mother got by as a cleaning lady. By his own account, he was never a good student: he was held behind one year, and he failed the university entrance exam, too. But he was a talented artist. He began taking ink painting lessons when he was 15, and when he finally graduated from high school, he managed to land a spot in Baptist College’s communications programme by sketching a good portrait of one of the professors.
It turned out that Fung wasn’t cut out for communications, so when he got an offer to study architecture at Louisiana State University (“which charged the cheapest school fee in the United States,” he notes), his uncle booked him on a flight across the Pacific. He barely scraped by, surviving on potatoes and expired food from the supermarket, working illegally in a Chinese restaurant and a wood treatment factory in order to make ends meet. Fung returned to Hong Kong in 1978, took the Hong Kong Institute of Architects exam three times before he passed, and finally landed a job with Tao Ho, one of the city’s most progressive architects.
Not long after, Fung went to night school to learn more about ink painting. As his career in architecture progressed, from the intellectual Tao Ho to corporate firm Wong Tung and Partners, to the government’s Architectural Services Department, Fung maintained a parallel life as an artist. He finished work at 8pm and went to see art exhibitions. “It’s important that your mind works, not just your hand,” he says. In 2011, after a long career as one of the government’s most talented architects—a rare out-of-the-box thinker in a department that had long been dominated by bureaucrats—Fung dedicated himself to painting. “Nobody can do both at the same time,” he says. That’s especially true in Hong Kong. “You’re designing to the last inch, the last millimetre of a space to make sure it’s sellable,” he says. “That kills a lot of talent.”
Though Fung has left architecture, architecture hasn’t left him. Chinese art magazine Leap situated his paintings somewhere “between art and architecture.” Fung does not depict landscapes so much as the emotional essence of the land, a kind of abstract distillation of Hong Kong’s topographical sweep, the sudden encounter between mountain and sea. Some of Fung’s paintings were inspired by the landscape around his house in Sai Kung, which he designed and built himself. Though it bears no imprint of the man-made, there is something indisputably Hong Kong about Fung’s paintings, something that captures the nature on which the city is so precariously perched. Fang Zhengxian, former director of the Shanghai Art Museum, thought Fung was longing for a kind of “utopia of the spiritual” in his landscapes.
Fung is modest about his work. Modesty in mastery is something he admires, like when he met I.M. Pei while training for a few months at Pei Cobb Freed and Partners in New York. He often found him in the firm’s basement modelling studio. “He enjoyed very much working with the model builders,” he says. Fung likes the nitty-gritty of his work, too. “Of all the different mediums, ink is the hardest to start, the hardest to control,” he says. “When you touch the brush to the paper, it can go crazy.” It’s not just about technique, though. “Chinese ink painting is not just practicing your brushwork. You have to see other art, the world around you,” he says.
This is another point where Fung’s art overlaps with his architecture. While Hong Kong’s government architecture is often derided as being mediocre, Fung was never satisfied with punching the clock. His work for the government, including the Sai Kung Waterfront Park, is among the Architectural Services Department’s most memorable, largely because of the way it combines broad-mindedness and humanism with a formal simplicity. You can see this in Fung’s studio, in the thoughtful way his paintings are arranged, the way a box of ping pong balls are arranged perfectly behind the table, or in the fact that many of Fung’s paintings are polyptychs. Fung approaches the way he paints with an architect’s sensibility.
“The piece of work always has to go with the space,” he says, rummaging through a stack of paper. He pulls out a sheet marked with a dozen or so rectangles; it’s the plan for an upcoming solo show. “Planning is the first stage, not painting.” Each work plays against the others around it. “It’s like Lego – it can always fit into something,” he says. He makes sure his canvasses are a standard size, to make them easier to ship. He pauses and reflects for a moment. “I guess this is very different from other artists,” he says.
Raymond Fung’s next exhibition will take place from January 22 to 28, 2016, 10 a.m. – 6 a.m. at Rong Bao Zhai, Room 302, 3/F, Cheung Kong Centre, 2 Queen’s Road Central. (+852) 2187 3089 .