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Luis Chan 陳福善

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.

Figure 1. Poster design with decorative lettering by Luis Chan for the silent films Everybody’s Acting (1926) and The Eagle of the Sea (1926). Reproduced from the artist’s publication Decorative Lettering, Ming Sheng Printing Company, 1956. Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre. 

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.

Figure 3. Governor Alexander Grantham hosting the opening ceremony for a joint painting exhibition of 
Luis Chan, Yee Bon (1905-95) and Lee Byng (1903-94), late 1940s.
Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre. 

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.

Figure 5. Tragedy by Luis Chan, Acrylic on paper, 76.5 x 156 cm, 1968. LYC Collection.
Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre. 

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.

Figure 7. Carnival by Luis Chan, Ink and acrylic on paper, 136 x 207 cm, 1980. Private collection. 
 Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre. 

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.

Figure 9. The Nude Woman by Luis Chan, Ink and acrylic on paper, 135 x 68.5 cm, 1981. Private collection. 
Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre. 

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.”

Figure 11. Watermelon Eater by Luis Chan, Ink and acrylic on paper, 70 x 280 cm, 1984. 
Private collection. Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre. 

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)。

Figure 2. Midsea Temple by Luis Chan, Watercolour on paper, 26.8 x 37.4 cm, 1955. Private collection.
Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre. 

水彩一直被公認為最變幻莫測、最有挑戰性的媒介,而陳福善在沒有正規訓練下卻完美駕馭,自學天賦令人刮目相看。而且他更於當時依然種族隔離、歧視司空見慣的殖民社會裡獲得洋人藝術圈認可,實屬罕見。他在1934年得到威廉·山頓爵士夫人(Lady Shenton)的青睞,獲引薦加入由歐洲人成立的香港美術會。該會雖然並沒有設立如香港會及賽馬會那樣拒收華人的不成文規條,但陳福善入會時的華人會員寥寥可數,而他被接納亦離不開他一口流利的英文以及善於交際的性格。





Figure 4. Pink Nude by Luis Chan, Acrylic on paper, 74.5 x 150.8 cm, 1969. Private collection.  
Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre. 

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。

六七暴動常被認為誕生香港身份認同的分水嶺。這場社會動蕩當時受到中國大陸如火如荼的文化大革命影響加劇,而在一切塵埃落定後,港人都變得更加珍惜香港的繁榮安定,亦清晰地意識到自己與共產主義的中國大陸有所區別。港英政府及後實施改革改善民生, 同時亦著手為港人培育歸屬感,以防同樣的社會撕裂重演。暴動結束數月後,政府舉行了首個「香港週」,透過強調「香港精神」的選美、時裝秀、運動、音樂、電影及藝術展覽活動凝聚港人,慶祝社會渡過難關。其中的重頭戲就是1967年11月19日,香港首間免費電視台電視廣播有限公司(通稱無線電視)正式開台。

Figure 6. Good Neighbours by Luis Chan, Acrylic on paper, 82 x 157 cm, 1987. Private collection.
Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre. 

在本地電視台創辦前,香港的大眾媒體都少有反映本土文化。英語印刷媒體大多只為服務西方讀者,而中文報紙則多數由南遷的內地知識分子營運,以北方的文化思維主導。至於電影,戲院除了播放西方電影外,直至1970年代初都主要放映國語片,而少量的粵語片只大概地反映華南文化或以香港為空乏的故事背景。無綫電視的創立讓港人開始每日接收到反映本地生活的新聞和娛樂節目。該台首個自製綜藝節目《歡樂今宵》(1967-1994年) 是一個晚間直播節目,內容包括趣劇、音樂、舞蹈、明星訪談及長篇短劇等等。在開播前,製作人蔡和平(1946年生)花了五個月時間觀察港人的生活文化,而節目最終以輕鬆詼諧的港式幽默諷刺時弊,反映小市民的哀樂,成為深得民心的下飯節目,陳福善當然亦是「擁躉」之一。

陳福善受到本土電視文化影響,在1980年代,則香港流行文化的黃金時期,繪畫了大量與表演人物相關的作品。其中一幅最有趣的便是《一梯兩伙》(1987年),把公屋住戶刻畫成舞台演員(圖六)。畫中圓形的空間無疑令人聯想起香港建於1975年,唯一圓柱形的公共房屋大坑勵德邨,但單位房門被拱形替代,頓時令空間變得不似屋邨,更像中國戲曲舞台的「出將入相」。從1970年代開始,公屋生活經常在電視上被刻畫成現代都市的小確幸,尤其是與戰後混亂的寮屋和徙置區相比。而事實上,戰後香港整個動蕩的現代化進程亦為不少劇集提供靈感,例如深受喜愛的經典《獅子山下》(1972-2022年)、《家變》(1977年)、《親情》( 1980年)及《浮生六劫》(1980年)等。港英政府一直疏離身份認同政治,導致港人文化認同真空,輕易被本地大眾媒體填補,而當個人身份認同被戲劇化的媒體塑造、影響,自然難免令人深感人生如戲。

Figure 8. Woman Dancing by Luis Chan, Ink and acrylic on paper, 
134.5 x 68.5 cm, 1981. Private collection. 
Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre. 

陳福善縱使在1980年代繪畫了不少舞台演員、戲曲演員及操偶師等人物,但他畫筆下的大部分展演性人物都並非確切地刻畫成藝人。譬如《嘉年華》(1980年)中翩翩起舞的人物很可能只是正如陳福善一樣喜愛跳舞的男女(圖七);《舞孃》(1981年)中看似用盡生命表演的人物亦不似風雨飄渺的舞女,更似透過自主身體、掙脫枷鎖的個體(圖八)。在另一幅較隱晦的《裸女》(1981年)中, 裸體的女人凌駕於一團鬼魅幻影之上,某些面孔雖然朝她的身體不懷好意,但她泰然自若地操控著幻影,就如神秘的巫女玩弄著他者的慾望一樣(圖九)。這些鼓舞自我展演的畫作都反映了香港八十年代「馬照跑、舞照跳」的精神,而現代都會成為了所有港人在大時代變幻下尋找新氣象、新生活、新自我的舞台,身份認同亦不再規限於與生俱來的既定角色,而是一種能被各人塑造追求的自我定位。


Figure 10. Aquarium & Viewers by Luis Chan, Ink and colour on paper, 
68.5 x 135.8 cm, 1980. Private collection.
Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre. 


Figure 12. Drawing by Luis Chan dated 1988 and 1991, on Norman Rockwell’s theatre illustration for Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Reproduced from Norman Rockwell, The Saturday Evening Post: Norman Rockwell, Bonanza Books, 1987.
Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre. 

陳福善在晚年健康日漸大不如前,令他無法繼續作畫,可是他依然心繫藝術。他放下畫筆又拾起圓珠筆,開始於不同激發他想像力的物料上繪畫,例如寶貴的藝術藏書、收於相簿裡的小型畫作,以及雜誌報紙等等。他所繪畫的幻象一如既往地「盞鬼」,依舊是「公仔箱」一般的現代都市男女,而其中最後一幅隨筆,繪於美國畫家諾曼·洛克威爾(Norman Rockwell;1894-1978年)為莎士比亞喜劇《皆大歡喜》創作的戲劇插畫上(圖十二)。全世界是一個舞台,可陳福善筆下跳脫操偶師扯線的男男女女不只是傀儡,而這位香港現代藝術先驅的精神在曲終人散後,依然常存畫中生生不息,歡樂今宵。


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