It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly Yeung Tong-lung wanted to become an artist. Could it perhaps be when he was four, when he watched his dad make a few sketches on his huge desk and decided to start doodling himself? Or was it when he nabbed a coveted position in one of Hong Kong’s many art factories in the 1970s?
Chatting with the artist, one would think that he just stumbled into art as a career. Yet he is one of Hong Kong’s most dedicated painters, paying no mind to new artistic mediums or the various art trends that have surfaced over the last four decades. “I’ve accepted that there are limitations to life, even if society would tell you otherwise,” he says. “I mean, if life is full of possibilities, our society would have vastly improved, but has it really? I don’t think so. I set certain boundaries for myself, but I also see these rules as a challenge. I’m constantly trying to beat them.”
Yeung is sitting inside the Foo Tak Building’s ACO art space, where his solo show, Cuts in Synchronicity, is open until 31 March 2019. Does his show have anything to do with Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity, which describes two or more events that appear to have no relationship to each other, but together form a detectable pattern?
“About the title…” he begins, shaking his head and then smiling. “I think I need to mull a bit more over it. The word [synchronicity] means something very specific in academia, but I’m not sure…”
Further questioning yields little result, but the clue to Yeung’s creative process also lies in the art itself. Featuring seven large-scale paintings and a few smaller ones, the ACO show is distinctly Hong Kong, with one painting featuring a sampan, and another the Star Ferry. And yet something is also askew. The people, backdrop and objects are familiar; yet when they are put together, the composition becomes slightly surreal, like two puzzle pieces that fit together, but don’t match.
Born in Fujian in 1956, Yeung began drawing at an early age, taking inspiration from whatever was in his line of vision. It could be home trinkets or sailors returning home from sea. “I loved their blue and white uniforms. They looked very smart,” he recalls. The Cultural Revolution put an end to the family’s carefree days. As Maoist fervour swept through China from 1966 to 1976, destroying anything seen as traditional or bourgeois, Yeung had to hide his creative ambitions. “We had to give up a lot of materialistic goods,” he says. “I had no drawing pads, so I started drawing on posters, and any scraps of paper I could find.”
In response to the instability, Yeung’s dad moved the family to Hong Kong in 1973, when Yeung was 17. He still speaks Cantonese with a slight Fujianese accent. As he speaks, he has a pen and paper at the ready, and whenever he lost confidence in his ability to pronounce certain words properly, he writes them down with meticulous care, just to make sure he is perfectly understood.
After arriving in Hong Kong, Yeung capitalised on the city’s burgeoning toy industry and snagged a position as a product designer. He called it quits after four years — “I got bored,” he notes nonchalantly — and got a position as a painter in one of Hong Kong’s many bulk art manufacturers, which created generic art for hotels, offices and restaurants all over the world. While the job didn’t call for creativity, it allowed him to earn some quick money. “I’d do 20 — sometimes 30 — eight-by-ten inch paintings every day,” he recalls. “It was around HK$10 per painting. I was making HK$7,000 every month. A job at the bank would pay around HK$4,000 every month. This was back in the 1970s – it was very good pay!”
Many might have considered that a dream job, but Yeung quit after four years. “I guess I didn’t feel like I was going anywhere,” he says. Soon after, he embarked on a full-time career as an artist. “I don’t think I realised I was making art back them. I was only painting,” he says.
Does he consider himself an artist now? “I think I’m making art,” he says, but then seems to reconsider his answer. “But ‘an artist’ is just a label that society gives you, isn’t it?”
As a self-taught artist, Yeung quietly occupies a respectable place in the Hong Kong art scene. You would be hard-pressed to find his work in a blue-chip gallery, but when you do see it at a venue like the Hong Kong Art Centre or ACO, its off-kilter perspectives give you pause.
“Actually, an art professor would find a lot of fault with my paintings,” says Yeung. He walks towards a painting of an old man lying on a red chair, his eyes directed either upwards or out of the frame, depending on where the viewer is standing. “I think he’d say that I didn’t draw the chair properly, the tiles are all smudged here, the proportion isn’t right, and the perspective is all wrong.” He chuckles quietly.
But Yeung feels his approach, however unconventional, is more true to life. “In order to have a so-called correct perspective, you need to view the thing from every angle possible – basically you need to be omnipresent,” he says. “But real life isn’t like that. The perspective shifts when you shift. Everyone has a different perspective.”
He gestures towards a painting of a shop interior stuffed to the brim with stuff: figurines, beer cans, lamp shades, a camera, a traffic cone, photographs. “This is quite an interesting shop down my place. It’s basically a mini museum,” he says excitedly. Everything in the painting is rendered in black and white, except for two figures: a man, who appears to be peering out at the viewer, and a woman who is sitting on a stool.
Yeung says he was thinking about whether there were any black and white paintings before the era of photography. “Before that, there was no reason for paintings to be in black and white – our eyes can see colours!” he exclaims.
Colours, perspectives, proportions: these are the basic elements tying together all of Yeung’s paintings. It isn’t about the people nor the landscape – it’s the act of painting, and through that, the act of depicting life. “I’m not trying to tell any stories about anybody. I just want to talk about painting,” he says firmly. “Painting is an ancient art, so it’s got a very well-developed language. There are a lot of rules, but if you treat these rules as a challenge, then there are a lot of things you can play with.”
He then offers another insight. “At the end of the day, what is art about?” he asks. “It’s about breaking rules. It’s also how I see life, I suppose. What is an ideal society? For the Chinese government, it’s stability, but does that alone make an ideal society? In reality, it obviously doesn’t. Art makes us realise this.”
Cuts in Synchronicity, a 2018 retrospective exhibition of Yeung, lasts until 31 March 2019 in ACO Art Space. The exhibition will be companioned by a closing gathering two days before it ends. More information is available here.