On Saturday mornings I attend a painting class. I learn Lingnan style Chinese painting, an ink and watercolour style popular here in Hong Kong. Lingnan is a modern school of Chinese painting developed by artists in early 20th century Guangzhou (Canton) who used China’s long pictorial heritage to revitalise painting in an era of radical change. Many Lingnan painters have come to Hong Kong, probably the most famous being Professor Chao Shao-an (1905–1998).
Lingnan art by Henry Wo Yue-Kee
At first, my teacher, Allan Chung, had his studio in an apartment building near mine. I followed up an ad in the local supermarket a few years ago and started taking lessons with him to get some insight into Chinese painting and culture. Allan has since moved from that building and I now travel to an apartment where he lives with his wife and one of his adult daughters. Allan is a slight and spare man of about 65.
A retired civil servant, Allan has been painting for 35 years. His teacher was a student of the famous Professor Chao and he shows me faded colour photos of himself, his teacher and the Professor from the 1970s. They are sitting on a sofa. Allan has Beatles-style long hair. He’s wearing bell-bottoms and looks quite groovy. The Professor, then in his 70s, wears a suit, collar and tie.
A short minibus ride from the Lai King underground station, Allan calls his home the High Wind Studio. It’s a very small two bedroom apartment on the 28th floor of one of a pair of apartment buildings perched on a hill-side above a huge container terminal. The road to the studio from the station winds and cuts through steep hills; high-rise apartments take off from the steep concrete-sided slopes above the road. There’s still a tangle of native green jungle covering the hills between the blocks of buildings. But Lai King is mainly grimy concrete high-density housing, typical of Hong Kong’s urban landscape.
I often run into Allan’s wife at the bus stop outside their building, or coming out of the apartment when I arrive. She always has a chirpy ‘good-morning’ for me. Sometimes the adult daughter wafts out of her bedroom during my lesson. She’s in marketing and travels quite a lot, she tells me one day when we catch the lift together. There’s a small photo of another daughter in academic dress on a sidetable in the crowded living room where Allan teaches me. I haven’t been formally introduced to Allan’s wife or daughter.
We don’t talk a lot. Allan doesn’t speak much English and I have less Chinese. Teaching is a strictly practical master-apprentice relationship. From my reading about Chinese painting this seems to follow traditional practice. Allan demonstrates and I copy. In fact during my lessons I usually watch him paint. Occasionally he makes comments about how to dilute ink, mix colours, hold brushes, which paper to use things like that. After a lesson the floor is covered with paintings and exercises.
Allan comments on my homework at the beginning of each lesson. He looks at my paintings. Sometimes he congratulates me; ‘well done’, he says and smiles when I’ve done OK. Often, though, there’s silence and he picks up his brushes and corrects my renditions of birds and flowers.
Once, I asked Allan about landscapes. He said he was a bird and flower painter and recommended that I buy a book if I wanted to learn landscape painting. But we did paint some landscapes subsequently. Another time, I showed him Neville Cayley’s Australian Parrots and Cockatoos. He promptly painted a fair copy of an Orange Breasted Parrot, but we didn’t paint any more parrots.
Chinese painting is difficult. I put that down to my not being used to brush and ink. All Chinese painting seems to come from the calligraphic tradition. The techniques of mixing the ink, holding the brush and applying varying pressure when forming characters seem to apply directly to Chinese brush painting. ‘Chinese painting is written’, suggests TC Lai in Understanding Chinese Painting.
Chi, the energy that flows through the strokes of the brush, is harder to learn. Allan’s chi seems pretty good to me. My chi is tentative. Allan often urges me on. ‘Faster, faster’, he says as I cautiously emulate his work. As he says, it’s not that the painting should look exactly like the bamboo, birds and flowers we paint, but rather a painting should give an impression of them. The secret is in the painter’s stroke.
Notwithstanding its limited range of subjects, some of which seem kitsch, Lingnan style painting may be a form of tachisme or action painting. Paintings are made on fine absorbent paper which demands control of brush, ink and colour, but the flow of ink and colour is often facilitated by wetting the paper to achieve spontaneous effects; erasures are impossible and corrections are limited and every stroke may be read for its merits or defects.
Allan slows down and explains what he’s doing so that I learn the ‘procedure’ as he calls it. He’s very clear about the procedure. There’s a correct way to construct an image. ‘The procedure must not be incorrect’, he says. Allan’s at pains to teach me the correct procedure.
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