After decades of working as an artist in Hong Kong, Chu Hing-wah has a habit of showing up ahead of his exhibitions bearing fruit for the gallery staff. Brandishing guavas grown in his little garden in Yuen Long, he spends hours at Hanart gallery, telling stories about his life and providing a presence every bit as tender and nourishing as the works for which he has garnered acclaim.
Now in his eighties, with white hair and a kindly demeanour, Chu cuts a frail figure. He is hard of hearing in one ear and has had to temporarily put his painting to one side while he cares for his ailing wife – his childhood sweetheart, whom he has known since his school days. Despite his slight weariness, however, he’s just as generously communicative as ever. Talking about art enlivens him. And he is especially eager to discuss the works that now hang in the gallery in a solo exhibition that spans decades, and which will culminate with the release of a new book on Chu’s art.
While some art is divisive by nature, it is hard to imagine anyone unable find some degree of pleasure and connection in the gentle and varied beauty of Chu’s art, which depicts scenes of conviviality in groups of people or the quiet melancholia of solitary subjects. The exhibition itself goes under the title Living in Compassion, which very much reflects the love that emanates from each work, some of which depicts his grandson and his daughter with facial expressions, disarming postures, control of mood and composition that speaks to their complex inner lives – something to which Chu is deeply sensitive.
Chu is recognised for his singular colour schemes, delicate shapes and perspective contortions, in which mollifying purple skies might meet mustard yellow hillsides, and cerebral figures appear to stretch weightlessly into the air or seem dream-like, misty-eyed and enigmatic. The magic of his oeuvre is its hitting the sweet spot where empathetic expression feels sophisticated and distinctive while steering clear of sentimentality or cloying expressions of cuteness.
This is what makes his depictions of Hong Kong particularly enduring. He depicts life here with a singular eye that makes staring into his work a disarming, enriching and intimate experience. He encourages his viewer to look upon the city — and its humanity — with a tenderness that can so easily elude us as we go about our day to day lives. He encourages us to dispense with our cynicism and petty gripes, and see people for what they are: complex, impenetrable, strange, vulnerable, distant, but ultimately deserving of empathy and connection.
Chu arrived in Hong Kong in the 1950s as a child of working class mainland Chinese parents. He describes himself as a child with artistic inclinations who didn’t have the opportunities to express them until much later on in his life. He left school at 13 to work at an electric light bulb factory, until a friend of his grandmother’s found him a job as an usher at the Queen’s Theatre, the historic but now defunct screening house. That experience had a profound impact on Chu, as he became fascinated by European life as depicted on the silver screen.
Buoyed by the dream of living in Europe, he resolved to learn English, committing two hours every day to the study of the language that might one day enable him to experience a world he so enjoyed seeing through the dark, echoing cinema chamber. An advert looking for trainee nurses to travel to the UK piqued his interest. “I thought ‘Crikey, it’s no harm to try,’ and when I found out that I was accepted I thought, ‘That’s impossible.’ I was so happy,” he recalls. He ended up posted to Saint Charles Hospital in London in 1961.
He remembers his arrival in the host city vividly. “I was dropped off with all my luggage at Victoria station, and it felt like another world,” he says. “The weather was nice and cool, and it was evening time, and I took a taxi to the hospital, and someone was waiting for me, they took me up to my room, but they didn’t give me anything to eat and I was very hungry. I liked the atmosphere outside my window. It was very grey and moody. Artists like that.”
Life in nursing gave him pleasure. He enjoyed getting to know patients and aiding in their recovery. On his days off, he would wander the city and enjoy its numerous museums and galleries, taking along sketchbooks with which he tried his own hand at recreating works of the masters. Among his idols he counts Vincent van Gogh, John Constable and William Turner, though through his oeuvre one can also very much see the influences of the hazy, pastel-loving and dream-tinted Impressionists, alongside the peculiar, somewhat voyeuristic and destabalising proximity of the Austrian Expressionists’ figurative art.
Traditional Chinese influences also rear their head, with several paintings produced in ink, on xuan paper, containing a sense of movement, composition and shape that speaks to influences closer to home. After a few years as a general nurse, Chu shifted his expertise towards the realm of mental illness and psychiatry. He returned to Hong Kong in 1965 and worked in psychiatry while also undergoing training as an artist.
Understanding the inner worlds of his patients — worlds so rarely explored and a community so often held at arm’s length — set Chu out from his peers as his painting became more widely recognised. Even today, he is one of the only artists who depicts mentally ill patients, and he does so in a way that strives to pierce through the barrier of “us” versus “them” while keeping the dignity of his subjects intact.
“I enjoyed getting to know the inner world of patients is quite different from our own, but they are not abnormal, they just have a different brain structure,” he says. “Understanding psychiatric patients is very interesting. Their body gestures as so dramatic, the way they talk to themselves, their sensations, the way they see the world. I feel very fortunate to have worked with these patients. They are an inspiration to me.”
Chu has since retired, but he feels a strong attachment and a sense of duty to the world of psychiatry, and he feels particularly strongly about the lack of understanding wider Hong Kong offers the mentally ill. “In Hong Kong there is still a barrier,” he says. “We talk about mental illness, but people still don’t understand it, we don’t have to treat these people like they are mad.” He is frustrated by the extent to which discussion about mental illness is still a taboo, and by the widespread failure to empathise with the mentally ill.
Retired life saw Chu focus his artistic attentions on his family, depicting scenes of life in Yuen Long, which he laments is changing faster than he can keep up with. “The ladies dress so differently now, and the shops are changing, and sometimes, I want to go and buy something but I don’t know where to find it,” he says. “A lot has changed, but what can you do?”
His grandson is one of his many muses, alongside his daughter; depictions of both are rather striking additions to the exhibitions. Recently, he has had to put aside his paintbrush to care for his wife, returning to the nursing role that used to be so much a part of his life. It has taken some time to adjust, but he doesn’t resent his new role. “My wife and I get along well,” he says. “We have to. We have been together for so long, it’s an easy relationship.”
But art is still very much close to him, as his desire to carry on creating. “Art makes life easier, more enjoyable,” he says. “It helps us release tension, emotions, express our love and what not. It makes life better. And my wish to carry on painting is still burning in me. I will paint until I can not paint anymore. Life will accompany me until the end of life.”
Living in Compassion runs from December 8, 2017 to January 20, 2018 at Hanart TZ Gallery.
Divided into two parts, the first half of the show runs from December 8 – 28 and covers the themes of Psychiatry and Landscape.
The second half covers Love and Cityscapes, and will run from January 3 -20.
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