By Joyce Wong
All the World’s a ‘Gung zai soeng’: Modernity and Cultural Belonging in the Art of Luis Chan
In the whimsical, peculiar pictures of Luis Chan (1905-95), dancers, thespians, circus clowns and magicians brush shoulders with Hong Kong everymen like all the world’s a stage. It was not in Shakespeare, though, that he found inspiration for his paintings of modern life, but in television. After free-to-air TV became available in the British colony during the late 1960s, he tuned in his “gung zai soeng”, or “doll box”, as the TV was called in old Cantonese slang, every night until the last programme finished at 2am and he started to paint. He even commented once that watching TV was his way of doing life study in modern times. While he meant that as a joke, local television did become a powerful medium through which the people of post-war Hong Kong found representation and belonging in a rapidly modernising refugee society. His theatrical depiction of daily life gave expression to the hopes and struggles of people living in the flux of colonialism and modernisation, and resonated in an era when Hong Kong’s thriving popular culture became an emblem of its progress and identity.
Born in Panama, Chan moved to Hong Kong at the age of five. His family ran a tea shop in Shau Kei Wan after relocating to the colony and were able to afford a decent education for him. After he joined Queen’s College, the first government-run secondary school in the colony, he received some lessons on Chinese art history but was not motivated to learn painting. Instead, he was more taken with decorative lettering as a teenager, from his love of movies. In his spare time, he would try to design his own film posters for fun (fig 1), and he got the chance to try his hand at professional design in 1925 when a friend referred him to create weekly advertisements for Star Ferry. As his interest in picture-making grew from the job, Chan began subscribing to foreign art magazines and also started sketching outdoors on his own. In 1927, he came across a correspondence course offered by the London Press Art School in The Studio magazine and decided to enrol. After eighteen months of learning, he acquired all the skills he needed to quickly gain a reputation in the local art scene as the “watercolour king” (fig 2).
His success as a young painter was unusual in many ways. There was first his exceptional mastery of a notoriously unpredictable and challenging medium without any formal training besides the instruction manuals mailed to him from London. Even more unusual than his self-taught talent was the fact that he won recognition from the western art circle at a time when colonial society was still very much racially segregated and racism was commonplace. Chan, however, was recognised for his talent and invited by Lady Shenton, wife of the English solicitor Sir William Shenton (1885-1967), to join the European-run Hong Kong Art Club (HKAC) in 1934. Although the HKAC did not prohibit non-European membership per se, like the Hong Kong Club or Jockey Club, he was one of only a very few Chinese members when he joined, and his entry was certainly aided by his fluency in English and affable personality.
By hosting exhibitions at the club, he was able to interact with many wealthy members of society. Among his distinguished patrons were governors of Hong Kong; Alexander Grantham (1899-1978), who served from 1947 to 1957, was a particularly fond friend, who even penned a foreword for Chan’s publication How to Paint a Portrait in 1954 (fig 3). A legal stenographer by day, Chan would not have had the opportunity to interact with the leaders of colonial society had he been a run-of-the-mill white-collar worker.
After three decades of painting naturalistic watercolours, he started to experiment with abstraction in the late 1950s as he realised that he could only innovate so much as a realist painter.He dabbled in cubism, surrealism and op art, among other styles and techniques, and submitted his innovations to the newly established Hong Kong City Hall Museum and Art Gallery in 1962. To his shock, however, his works were deemed outdated and failed to gain entry into the museum’s inaugural exhibition Hong Kong Art Today. But he took the loss in his stride and continued to experiment until he finally saw a breakthrough on the horizon. The artist eventually discovered a new way of painting that first involved creating a random monotype print on paper, then allowing the abstract ink traces to suggest “illusory images” which could be further developed into a complete picture.
Although he did not consider his works of the past as outdated, the paintings that he created using this new methodology reflect the life of a rapidly modernising metropolis in ways that his watercolours and abstracts did not. Hong Kong’s industrialisation was kickstarted after an exodus of Chinese entrepreneurs from the communist mainland relocated to the colony with their capital and technology in 1949. The century-old entrepot then further transitioned into an export-oriented industrial economy when its main source of trade was cut off by an international embargo on China upon the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. By the 1960s, these unique post-war conditions had transformed Hong Kong into East Asia’s export centre for manufactured goods. As the city flourished under modernisation, the massive influx of mainland Chinese refugees and rapid industrialisation also created structural pressures, such as housing problems, healthcare and education shortages, and stark labour inequalities. The “illusory images” that Chan saw in his monotype traces are such real-life contradictions between prosperity and pandemonium in post-war Hong Kong.
Pink Nude (1969), for instance, can be read as social commentary on the dark side of modernisation (fig 4). Painted at the height of the so-called “Vietnam boom Years”, when the war in the Southeast Asian nation helped to stimulate Hong Kong’s economy, this scene of lurid revelry featuring two prominent female nudes takes a jab at the R&R haunts of US servicemen on holiday in Hong Kong. While R&R tourism became a major pillar of local livelihoods second only to manufacturing, the tidal waves of US GIs stomping the city with their reckless debauchery also incited immense social anxiety and problems. Chan’s Wan Chai home studio sat at the heart of the pleasure haven, above the topless bar Club Mermaid, and the exploits of US servicemen were a daily reality. This painting suggests that the influx and the riches it promised were more menacing than liberating. Not only is wealth personified as an avaricious God of Fortune deviously leering at a nude showgirl; two other vampiric figures are also skulking to prance on her body as soon as she decides to tempt fate.
The social ills of post-war Hong Kong eventually came to a head in the 1967 riots. What began as a minor labour dispute at an artificial flower factory grew into a large-scale anti-government protests. Although Chan did not paint the violence of the riots, he sublimated real-life suffering into the dramatic paintings of Tragedy (1968; fig 5). It was as if reality were too harsh to depict in its actual ugliness, so he distanced it using a caricature of melodramatic representation. The parallel he drew between theatre and life not only speaks to the dramatic changes wrought on Hong Kong by modernisation, but also to a desire for catharsis by giving an inchoate society symbolic visual order. His carnivalesque paintings of urban life are a satirical mirror to the reality of Hong Kong’s rosy economic take-off.
It is often noted that a distinct sense of Hong Kong identity was born as a result of the 1967 riots, which were fuelled in part by the fervour of the Cultural Revolution spilling over from across the border. In the aftermath of this crippling watershed, the people of Hong Kong gained a newfound appreciation for the stability, progress and civility of their city, and a distinct awareness that they were different from the communist mainland. As the government implemented social reforms to alleviate social discontent, it also recognised a need to cultivate a sense of local belonging among Hong Kong people, and prevent similar destruction from happening again. A few months after the riots subsided, the first ever Hong Kong Week was launched as a festival of solidarity, including a pageant competition, fashion shows, sports events, music, film and art exhibitions. Most important of all, the first free-to-air television channel, Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB), was launched on November 19, 1967.
Before locally produced television became available, the mass media in colonial Hong Kong did not reflect much local culture. English-language print media catered to a western expatriate audience, while Chinese newspapers were mostly run by mainland intellectuals whose cultural references were anchored in northern China. When it came to the cinema, besides imported western films, Mandarin films dominated the silver screen until the early 1970s, while the smaller output of Cantonese films only reflected either regional Southern Chinese culture or set Hong Kong as an abstract backdrop to general dramatic narratives. It was only with the launch of TVB that Hong Kong people started to receive daily media portraying local slices-of-life, whether in the form of news coverage or entertainment. TVB’s first self-produced variety programme opening the channel was Enjoy Yourself Tonight (EYT; 1967-94), an evening live show that included comedy, music, dance, celebrity interviews and short serial dramas. The show’s producer, Robert Chua (b.1946), first spent five months observing local life before creating the show, and its skits came to reflect the joys and woes of Hongkongers through local Cantonese wit. True to its name, EYT quickly became the city’s most popular TV show, as well as Chan’s favourite.
During the golden age of Hong Kong popular culture in the 1980s, he painted a substantial amount of work featuring performative figures that reveal the influence of local television culture. One of the most interesting pictures from the period is Good Neighbours (1987), which represents public housing residents like actors on stage (fig 6). The circular interior depicted in this work inevitably suggests Lai Tak Tsuen, the only cylindrical public housing estate in Hong Kong, built in 1975. But apartment doors have been substituted for archways, creating a set-like space that resembles the structure of a traditional Chinese opera theatre with its pair of onstage entrance and exit doors (chujiang ruxiang). From the 1970s onwards, life in public housing was frequently portrayed on TV as modern urban bliss compared to the chaos of shanty towns and resettlement estates in the previous decades. And in fact, Hong Kong’s tumultuous process of post-war modernisation served as a through line to many well-loved melodramatic sagas, such as the classic Below the Lion Rock (1972-2022), A House is Not A Home (1977), The Brothers (1980) and Gone with the Wind (1980). The British colonial government remained aloof from this kind of cultural identity-building, and the vacuum of cultural identification was easily taken up by popular media, in particular television. When one’s sense of cultural belonging is shaped primarily by dramatic representation, it’s not difficult to see life and theatre as one and the same.
While Chan painted a good number of theatrical figures in the 1980s, such as actors, Chinese opera singers and puppeteers, most of his performative figures are less clearly defined as entertainers. The joyous men and women in Carnival (1980), for instance, could be regular people having a good time, just as he himself also loved dancing (fig 7). The triumphant dancer who towers over her audience in Woman Dancing (1981) also seems less of a showgirl and more an individual owning her power by harnessing the strength of her body (fig 8). In a more cryptic picture, The Nude Woman (1981) looms over a nebulous mushrooming of faces that seem to be ogling and reaching for her naked body, but her composure and control over the phantasmagoria make her appear like some kind of peep-show sorceress commanding the attention she desires (fig 9). The celebration of self-performance in these pictures speaks to how post-war Hong Kong became a stage not only for Wan Chai showgirls but for everyone in the flux of modernisation trying to negotiate who they are through new appearances, new lifestyles and a new awareness that cultural identity can be constructed rather than assigned.
The theatre of life was all around, and Chan found it at every corner he looked. Across the street from his studio was once the New Asia Fish Restaurant, which had an aquarium on its facade with daily specials to attract customers. Chan would stop to visit these “friends” whenever he walked by, and watching fish inspired many paintings from the late 1970s onwards that were as much about aquatic life as urban life. In Aquarium & Viewers (1980), for instance, a boisterous crowd is separated from a fish tank only by a thin border, and the rainbow-coloured background underscores the people as a part of the aquatic spectacle they watch (fig 10). Chan’s tendency to treat figure and ground in uniform flatness creates a “doll box” effect in all his pictures that recalls televised images and frames metropolitan life as modern drama of the everyday.
The most interesting space of performance that Chan visualised in his paintings was, unsurprisingly, the exhibition. From his first solo show in 1935, he hosted a one-man exhibition for himself nearly every year until he retired from painting in 1987. In his late years, he painted many pictures of museum spaces, and Watermelon Eater (1984) is his largest composition that reflects on the nature of art and exhibitions (fig 11). In this whimsical scene, a watermelon rests atop a plinth like a museum exhibit, but vying for attention are a giant hanging jade ring, fantastical creatures that seem to be floating in space and, most of all, a room of exhibitionists. The only person who is looking at the watermelon is a man frowning at it from behind. Dressed in the shirt and tie so typical of Chan himself, the frowning man could be read as a disguised self-portrait reflecting on the place of artists in society: if life were no different from theatre, is there still the need to give it aesthetic representation? Against the drama of life, an artwork could be so dulled that it might as well be a bathetic watermelon; at least then it could still be savoured rather than ignored. Of course, this picture is far from existential gloom with its luminous palette and comedy. Chan never shied away from a bit of self-deprecating humour, and this painting seems rather a self-reflexive quip after five decades of art-making to keep himself on his toes. As the artist remarked in the year the picture was created, “Look out when you find things too easy; that’s when you start repeating yourself.”
In his final years, he grew too frail to keep painting like he had before, but the artist in him still could not quite let go of his pictures. He swapped his brush for a ballpoint pen and started to doodle on the beloved art books that he had collected throughout the years, his smaller paintings kept in photo albums and any other material that could pique the fancy of his imaginative eye, just as sharp as when he began painting half a century before. The illusory images that he saw were all heterogeneous faces and figures like those that populate his beloved gung zai seong and distinctive paintings of modern life. One of Chan’s last drawings was on a theatre illustration by the American painter Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) for Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It (fig 12). All the world’s a stage, but the men and women under Chan’s scribble who defy the strings of the puppeteer are not merely players. Neither was the maverick of Hong Kong modern art who dared to see himself and the world as something more.
This article is an adaptation of the essay written for the All the World’s A Stage:
The Art of Luis Chan exhibition at Pao Galleries, Hong Kong Arts Centre
from December 12, 2022 to January 18, 2023.
陳福善生於巴拿馬，在5歲時移居香港。來港後，他的家人在筲箕灣經營茶居，雖然算不上富裕但亦有能力為他供書教學。陳福善在中學時期入讀第一所由港英政府成立的中學皇仁書院，教程雖然有中國藝術的課堂，但並沒有引起他學畫的興趣。他在青少年時期反而因愛看電影而迷上鑽研美術字，在閒時嘗試自己設計海報自娛自樂（圖一）。在1925年，他得到了一展所長的機會，得朋友介紹為天星小輪每周設計廣告。他對繪畫的興趣由此逐漸萌生，不但開始自行寫生、訂購外國藝術雜誌，還在1927年從《藝宮》雜誌中得知倫敦Press Art School的藝術函授課程並報讀學畫。經過18個月的課程後，陳福善不但打好了藝術基本功，還被本地藝術圈冠以「水彩大王」美譽（圖二）。
戰後香港的種種社會弊病最終釀成 1967 年的暴動。該次事件從一場人造花廠的勞資糾紛逐演化成大規模反政府示威。陳福善雖然沒有繪畫暴動的傷亡，但《悲劇》（1968年；圖五）等繪畫戲劇悲情的作品明顯以現實苦況入畫。或許只有透過誇張諷刺的手法，他才能面對現實的殘酷，而他將人生比作戲劇，不但呼應了現代巨輪下跌宕起伏的社會劇變，亦表達了渴望透過藝術為現實賦予象徵意義及秩序，從而得到心靈慰籍的願景。陳福善畫中的顛倒世界，就像一面諷刺繁榮背後代價的照妖鏡。