It’s nine o’clock in the evening when Wing Shya answers the phone. The time is no bother for the acclaimed photographer, who has worked with just about every Hong Kong celebrity in existence. “I usually stay up very late,” he says. Besides, there isn’t much else to do: he is on day eleven of a two-week quarantine in Shanghai.
Wing is there to film a television commission, but first, he must undergo the ritual that has become an unfortunate part of travel during the Covid-19 pandemic. “They put you in a hotel and you can’t choose it,” he says. His room is small—about a hundred square feet—and the floor is covered in plastic sheeting. Every day he is served the same food: some pastries for breakfast and hot meals for lunch and dinner.
“It’s the same taste every day,” he says. “Some rice, a little bit of vegetables, some potatoes, a little bit of meat. These last few days I haven’t really eaten. I’ve tried to do some fasting. It’s a good challenge for me. Just to try to clean up my body. I’m feeling good.”
Of course, that’s something Wing would say. He comes across as preternaturally good natured, with a streak of happy-go-lucky good fortune that has propelled him from wayward design student to one of Hong Kong’s most recognisable creative talents. His work as a set photographer for film director Wong Kar-wai thrust him into the limelight and his bold, colourful style of photography captured the attention of fashion magazines and galleries around the world. His latest exhibition, Happy Together, is a 20-year retrospective of his work at Blue Lotus Gallery in Sheung Wan. It has become so popular that the gallery had to hire security guards to control the crowds that have come to see it.
And it all started by accident. Wing was a teenager in the late 1980s when he became interested in graphic design. He enrolled in a local college, but he wasn’t happy with the experience. “Hong Kong was kind of stuck in art and design – I found it very behind,” he says. “So my dream was to just get out of Hong Kong. I was 18 or 19 when I looked for another school. But I had very bad English, I didn’t study well and I didn’t really have a budget. My family tried to [offer] support but it wasn’t enough.”
Then he found a school he could actually afford: the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver. “I thought it was so cheap it wouldn’t be good, but it was really, really good,” he says. “Everyone was crazy. The tutors. The students.” He remembers one student who came into school one day, announced that he was a bird and moved into a cage. “That was his project. People were so creative.”
Wing has especially fond memories of one professor who announced at the beginning of the semester that he wasn’t going to offer any instructions. “We could do whatever we wanted,” he says. Wing ran into him in the school’s darkroom one day. “I asked, ‘Why are you doing this? Why aren’t you teaching?’” The professor replied that he wanted to give students a chance to discover their own interests. “‘The school is providing all the facilities to you, so find your own way,’” Wing recalls him saying. “I thought, ‘Wow. I’ve never heard of this in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is all about what grade you have, what score you got, it’s very competitive. Vancouver helped me grow as a person.”
It wasn’t just art school that helped Wing. He learned how to hustle in Vancouver. “The first place I went after I landed in Vancouver was Chinatown, to read the newspapers and find work,” he says. He got a job as a karaoke DJ, changing laser discs when customers wanted to play new songs, and he worked as a waiter, cook and delivery man for Chinese restaurants. On the weekends he cleaned houses and tended gardens for rich Hong Kong families who had bought houses in Vancouver but didn’t actually live there. After work, he went back to school. “The school was open 24 hours, so I went there at midnight, 1am, 2am. Everybody was still there. Sometimes I brought food from my restaurant to share with them. It was difficult but it was amazing.”
Wing was all set to stay in Vancouver after graduation when he had an epiphany. “One day I went to Chinatown to have dim sum with my classmates,” he says. “I bought Ming Pao Weekly and looked at all the advertisements and they were so bad. Design in Hong Kong is so bad. So I said I’d really like to go back to Hong Kong to do something about it. Within one week I sold everything I had and was back.”
Things didn’t work out quite the way he expected. Soon after arriving, he was offered a job at a design studio for HK$6,000 per month – nearly as paltry in 1991 as it would be today. He declined the offer and went to work for a toy company before landing a more lucrative gig as an assistant art director for multinational advertising firm J. Walter Thompson. Then he was unexpectedly handed an opportunity that changed the course of his career.
“I didn’t tell anybody I was back in Hong Kong, but an old classmate saw me on the street,” says Wing. That classmate was Jan Lamb, a singer, actor and DJ for Commercial Radio. “He was already famous,” recalls Wing. “He said, ‘Give me your phone number.’ The next day, the president of that radio station called me to ask me to work for them.” He said yes. “I quit advertising because I didn’t really like it—I yelled at the clients—and the radio station offered better money. But I had to do everything.”
Wing was a jack of all trades, designing studio sets and newspaper advertisements for the station, as well as producing an in-house magazine. “I started photography because the magazine had no budget to hire a photographer,” he says. “I shot backstage at concerts, and when famous people came to the radio station I had to shoot their portraits. I met so many singers when they were promoting their records.”
He soon branched out into shooting photos for album covers, beginning with a record by singer Cass Phang—now a megastar but then up-and-coming—who was not coincidentally Jan Lamb’s girlfriend. “After that I shot over 100 albums,” says Wing. He ended up being hired as the creative director for a record company. It was the tail end of Cantopop’s golden era and there was no shortage of work. “There were so many singers, so many albums – we did 10 albums a month,” he recalls.
And it was because of that job he ended up working for Wong Kar-wai. Wing’s boss at the time was collaborating with Wong, and in 1996 he asked if Wing wanted to work as a set photographer on a commercial that Wong was shooting for Japanese fashion designer Takeo Kikuchi. “Honestly, my photos were not so good,” says Wing. “I did something experimental and weird. But I collected all my weird photos and schoolwork and showed Wong Kar-wai. I don’t think he understood. But he said, ‘Okay, I’m going to shoot a commercial, come over and take some photos.’ Just like that.’ I think he was strong enough he could control anybody, so whatever your style was, he would guide you to the right track.’”
Wing is self-effacing to a fault, and to hear him describe it, he had no idea what he was doing on set. “I made a lot of mistakes – sometimes I forgot to focus, I got so many blurred photos, I got overexposure, underexposure, I didn’t have a light meter so I only used automatic, but when it was too dark the automatic got everything wrong,” he says. But he was an art school kid, after all, and he had a clear vision for the kinds of photos he wanted to produce. “When I came back to Hong Kong, I found the photography was too quiet. It was trying to be too normal and realistic. Because I studied fine art I did so many experiments with form, a lot of cross-processing, trying to make colours stronger, blurred like a dream, do things that were unclear, moody. When I shot for that commercial I tried to push the colour to the extreme.”
It suited what Wong Kar-wai was doing with his commercial, which was more of a short film than an ordinary TV spot. Titled wkw/tk/1996@7’55″hk.net, it ran nearly eight minutes long and it starred Hong Kong actress Karen Mok and Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano, with cinematography by Wong’s frequent collaborator, Christopher Doyle. Takeo Kikuchi liked Wing’s photos enough that they were used in the ad campaign’s posters. And Wong liked them enough that he invited Wing to join him on the set of Happy Together, the romance he was filming in Argentina with Leslie Cheung and Tong Leung Chiu-wai.
Wing says he still didn’t have much confidence in his work. “I was so nervous,” he says. But, on the advice of a crew member, he kept a close eye on what Doyle was filming. “I think he was so amazing, his movement, how he treats the shot from wide-angle to close up,” he says. “It was so cool and contemporary. I learned a lot from him by looking through the monitor and following his camera angle. This movie changed me a lot. When I was in Canada, every photo was very still, people standing and looking at the camera, it was very stiff.” His work on the set of Happy Together was just the opposite: expressive, fluid, emotional.
Wing’s photography and graphic design took front stage in the film’s promotional material. That set off a flood of offers from Japan and elsewhere, turning Wing into something close to a household name. He photographed fashion models and celebrities, and worked with Wong on his acclaimed 2000 film In the Mood for Love.
Then Wing began making films himself, thanks to another bit of happenstance that saw him collaborate with screenwriter Paul Chan on a romantic comedy, Hot Summer Days, that was released in 2010. Wing now has four films under his belt, with a fifth that is expected to start production in Shenzhen early next year. He says he likes romantic comedies because they don’t take themselves too seriously. “To do an art film – I have no confidence,” he says. “I never studied movies. I don’t read that much. I don’t understand much about the philosophy or language of movies.”
He pauses for a moment. “I try to do them like a TV commercial, not so deep because I don’t know how to control the actors,” he says, laughing.
It’s a typical understatement from someone whose talent clearly exceeds his professed insecurities. And it’s that quality that resonates most in his photography. In 2017, after mounting an exhibition of Wing’s work in Shanghai, curator Karen Smith said his appeal lies in his ability to follow instinct, not just instruction. She recently curated One Light, Different Reflections, another exhibition of Wing’s that is currently on show at the Kyotographie photography festival. “In China, we see a lot of artists who are technically proficient,” said Smith. “They are trained to get things ‘right’ all the time. But creativity comes from going down the wrong path occasionally. That’s the great quality of Wing’s work. He’s not afraid of mistakes.”
Wing is now thinking of what mistakes he might make in the future. After his quarantine ends, he will be plunged right into filming his TV commercial, after which he plans to stay in Shanghai for some time to explore opportunities for some other projects. Then it will be back to Hong Kong – where he will undergo another two-week quarantine. “I don’t mind it,” he says. “I enjoy being alone for two weeks. I can really think.”