The Short But Extraordinary Life of Artist Tseng Kwong-chi

The late artist Tseng Kwong-chi grew up in a three-storey, three-block mansion perched on Hong Kong’s winding Kennedy Road. On one side, the house had panoramic views over the city’s famous harbour. On the other, it bordered wild, subtropical forest that stretched up Victoria Peak. 

“Kwong-chi was quite a rambunctious child. He was the leader of the gang,” says Muna Tseng, Tseng’s younger sister, an acclaimed dancer and choreographer, and now the director of his estate. “He’d lead forays into the woods. And we’d throw water balloons from the terrace down to lovers kissing on Kennedy Road who had come up to Mid-Levels for the view.” 

That mischievous attitude remained with Tseng all his life – through the rest of his childhood in Hong Kong, his late teenage years in Vancouver, his university studies in Paris and his career in New York. He became one of the key figures of the East Village scene in the 1980s, making radical art of his own while also documenting the lives of his fellow artists, taking intimate portraits of luminaries such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in their studios. 

Tseng’s most extensive collaboration was with one of his closest friends, fellow mischief-maker Keith Haring, the activist and pop artist whose squiggly stick figures remain some of the most iconic artworks of the 20th century. Tseng created the world’s largest archive of Haring’s work, photographing him more than 20,000 times between 1979 and 1990, when they died from AIDS complications only one month apart. Tseng was just 39.  

It was New York where Tseng made the art that defines his legacy today, but it was Hong Kong that first shaped his identity. He was born in the city on September 6, 1950 to Ronald Tseng, who was an executive for Worldwide Shipping Group, and Stella Woo Tseng, who later became a teacher. The couple first met in Shanghai in 1944, when most of the city was in chaos following the Japanese occupation, although a handful of wealthy residents were still living the high life. Ronald and Stella were among those privileged few: they met at a party hosted by the Sassoons, a Baghdadi Jewish family who were some of the city’s richest citizens. “My parents were living a rather glamorous life in the French Concession,” says Muna. “At one party the sky lit up and someone said, ‘Look at the fireworks.’ But they quickly realised it wasn’t fireworks – it was the Japanese bombing another part of Shanghai. It was such a divided world.” 

The pair’s lives came crashing down when Mao Zedong’s Communist Party came into power in 1949. “My parents were on the proverbial last boat out of China.” says Muna. The couple relocated to Hong Kong, where they settled in the Kennedy Road mansion that had been built by Ronald’s father, who was a merchant living in San Francisco. But the couple did not have the place to themselves. Ronald’s father had three wives each of whom was given their own block of the mansion. (“The American government did not know this,” says Muna, laughing.)

Between them, the three wives had 19 children, many of whom regularly moved in and out of the sprawling house, sometimes only staying for a few days, sometimes for years. One of the other residents was an aunt who was widowed when her husband died in a Japanese bombing of Hong Kong. Another memorable resident aunt was a retired Beijing opera singer. “She would get all dressed up and go into the garden and sing arias. She was a diva,” says Muna. 

It was in this privileged and eccentric milieu that Tseng grew up. From a very young age he expressed an interest in art, which his parents encouraged by providing extra-curricular art lessons with He Qiyuan, a famous painter. “Tseng did brush calligraphy and ink painting,” recalls Muna. “He could copy very well, but he always had that rebel streak, so if he was painting a crab, for example, he would add more legs than ten.” 

Tseng attended St. Joseph’s College, a prestigious Catholic all-boys school that is popular among the city’s elite. “I was recently looking at some school photos where Tseng is standing with some other boys in the school uniform and he had an attitude,” says Muna. “You could tell that he was a little bored and he wished he was somewhere else, like in art class or running around in the woods.” 

Tseng devised plenty of ways to inject some fun into school life. Sometimes he would refuse to eat at the cafeteria and slip out to the lunch buffet at the Hong Kong Hilton, which was just down the road. He’d put the meals on his father’s account. “And after school, Tseng and I would run down the hill to Wan Chai and eat wonton noodles. There was a lot of running around,” says Muna, who was two years younger than her brother and remained close to him throughout his life. “I have very fond memories of Hong Kong, as did Tseng. Hong Kong was rather idyllic at that time.” 

It did not last. Anxiety was bubbling in the city as Mao’s policies on the mainland became increasingly extreme over the course of the 1960s. “China cut off the water supply, the Bank of China was threatening to close accounts, people were lining up to get their money out. There was a kind of fire sale of properties,” says Muna. Her parents decided to emigrate once again – this time to Vancouver. 

“Some people now call Vancouver Hongcouver because there are so many Chinese people living there. But when we arrived, in 1966, it was a very different picture,” says Muna, who was 13 when the family moved. Tseng was 16. “It was quite racist. We couldn’t buy properties in certain areas—’No Jews and no Asians’ [people said].” (Canada was historically hostile to Chinese immigrants, banning them outright from 1923 to 1947. Race-based immigration quotas were only lifted in 1967, the year after the Tsengs’ arrival.) “I really wonder about my parents’ psyche because they had to leave Shanghai and then they felt they had to leave Hong Kong for the sake of the children and they settled in Canada where they were, I think, not happy. But that’s the immigrant story, right?” 

In Vancouver, Tseng continued to excel as an artist, creating a mural in his school, the Prince of Wales Secondary School, that remains to this day. After graduating, Tseng, a long-time francophile, fulfilled his dream of moving to Paris, where he received an art degree from Académie Julian. 

Much to his disappointment, Tseng couldn’t stay in France after he left university. “He couldn’t get a work visa. He said, ‘The only place I can consider coming to is New York, so find me an apartment,’” recalls Muna, who was living in the East Village at the time, starting her career as a dancer and choreographer. She found Tseng an apartment on Fifth Street, just a few doors down from her own place. He moved in 1978.

Tseng was finding his feet in New York when, just a few months after he arrived, his parents visited the city and treated him and Muna to lunch at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. Men were required to wear suits, so Tseng wore the only one he had: a grey Mao suit he’d bought at a thrift store. Their parents were horrified. “But the maitre d’ took one look at him and treated him like an ambassador from Cathay, and gave us the best table,” says Muna. “At the time China was still very, very closed – only dignitaries could travel on official missions.” 

It was a lightbulb moment for Tseng, who became obsessed with the power of the suit. The outfit got him access and brought him respect that he might not otherwise have been given. But it achieved that by emphasising Tseng’s race and marking him out as a foreigner, as other. Tseng realised that wrapped up in his thrift-store suit were big ideas of race, class, identity and belonging that were ripe for exploration.

So he embarked on East Meets West, a series of black-and-white self-portraits that feature Tseng dressed in his Mao suit posing in front of monuments of the Western world. Tseng started with famous locations in New York such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, but soon travelled further afield in the US, photographing himself with the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, and at Disneyland California, among many others. He also travelled to Europe to photograph himself with European landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. 

The photographs are simultaneously poignant and playful. Tseng described his persona in the images as an “ambiguous ambassador,” turning himself into the character the Windows of the World maitre d’ believed him to be. In some images, Tseng appears out of place, dwarfed by symbols of Western grandeur. In others, it’s the Western monuments that seem absurd: one amusing image features a towering, building-sized bottle of wine that Tseng discovered in France. In all the pictures, the juxtaposition of Tseng’s Mao suit with western icons raises questions about what comes to define nations and people. 

“He was dealing with identity politics,” says Muna. “Even though he did not ever say ‘I’m a Chinese artist’ or ‘I’m a Chinese-American artist’ or ‘I’m a Chinese-Canadian artist.’ He just said, ‘I’m an artist.’ He did not want to be ghettoised. And I think that comes from the fact that our parents were outward-looking. He would say, ‘This is my art. I dress as a Chinese citizen, but I’m in the world.’” 

At home in New York, Tseng was friends with—and often worked with—people who were redefining what art could be. Haring, his closest collaborator, broke down the boundaries between street art and fine art, and it was Tseng who documented some of his earliest drawings, many of which Haring made on the walls of the New York City Subway. When they were stopped by police, which happened regularly, Tseng dodged prosecution by pretending to be a Japanese tourist who couldn’t speak English.  

Keith Haring drawing in New York city Subway, 1984 – Photo by Tseng Kwong-chi

It is Tseng’s role as Haring’s documentarian, and as someone who partied with celebrities like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Madonna, that has dominated much of the discussion of his career – and dominated family conversations when he was alive. “My parents would say to him, ‘You’re always partying! When are you getting a real job?’” says Muna. “But he had many jobs. They were all self-employment, but they were jobs. He has left behind a huge archive.” 

Over the past few years, Tseng’s art has begun receiving as much attention as his work with Haring. As the director of Tseng’s estate, Muna works with Ben Brown Fine Arts, Yancey Richardson Gallery and Eric Firestone Gallery to sell his photos to collectors and museums around the world. His images are now in the permanent collections of the Tate in the UK, the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York and M+ in Hong Kong, to name just three museums. 

M+ currently owns 21 of his photographs, 10 of which are currently on display in the exhibition Individuals, Networks, Expressions, which runs until February 2023. Tseng’s work will also be included in the Somewhere Downtown exhibition that is opening at UCCA Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing in September; a yet-to-be-named show featuring works from the Sunpride Foundation’s collection at Tai Kwun in Hong Kong in December; and in the City as Studio exhibition being hosted by K11 Art Foundation in Hong Kong in March 2023. 

Muna has also recently co-produced a new book, Keith Haring, Muna Tseng & Tseng Kwong Chi: Boundless Minds & Moving Bodies in 80’s New York, which documents the trio’s friendships and their numerous collaborations. “We have worked on so many publications and exhibitions because he was so prolific,” says Muna. “Kwong-chi had a very, very intense life. He made an extraordinary life for himself, even though it was so short.” 

All photos are courtesy of Muna Tseng Dance Project, Inc

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