Arty policeman's arresting village views

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 December, 1998, 12:00am

WHEN Chung Kin-san was a 10-year-old in a Fanling village, his father gave him some sticks of chalk. The boy started sketching images on the courtyard paving stones.

A quarter century later, the amiable Chung can still be found in old clan settlements along the border, drawing images of houses, trees, gardens and stones.

By now, however, he is one of Hong Kong's best-known and most respected artists, his works displayed in major exhibitions and in the private collections of people ranging from European royalty to former Governor Chris Patten.

Standing on the rooftop of his home in Ting Kok Road, near Plover Cove, the artist looks for inspiration out over the placid waters of Tolo Harbour towards Ma On Shan. New homes sprout from the paddy fields and across the water, 25- storey blocks tower in the shadow of Horse Saddle Mountain.

Chung finds little inspiration there. His subjects are more mundane - the minutiae of village life, the little aspects of familiarity. He likes painting pictures of doors or walls, of the quiet corner of a hamlet garden with lines of cracked flowerpots sprouting weedy herbs or flowers.

'I look for the hidden aspects,' he explains.

He has been regularly painting those facets of country life since he was 13. Teachers at Hsin Ch'eng Middle School in Fanling encouraged his talent. So did his father, a rural policeman.

Chung struggled to find the best way to express his art. He attended the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, studied under professional masters and tried many techniques and mediums.

Finally, he decided that watercolour on paper best captured the spirit of the New Territories. He perfected his strokes at a two-year extramural course at Chinese University and by 1992 his work was hung in the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Exhibition. Since then, he has been shown widely, including in one-man exhibitions.

Being an artist is an excellent way to starve, and while he studied and painted, Chung earned his living as a policeman. Today, he is a sergeant attached to New Territories North headquarters in Tai Po.

On the beat along the border, he admired the crumbling old villages, some of them abandoned, some still vibrantly alive. After work, he would return to them, carrying an easel and paintbox instead of a baton and pistol.

The result of these years of work is a collection featuring some forgotten corners of rural hamlets. Chung does not go in for huge landscapes, but for the tiny detail: one of my favourites shows the roots of a tree growing through an old stone and brick fence, pot plants teetering next to a ragged old wire fence. You can almost smell the mildew.

Rusty old windows, the proud but craggy stone doors of clan villages, unkempt old gardens and the overgrown facade of a brick wall; all images are so familiar that it takes a certain type of genius to think they are worth painting. Only when they are captured on paper do you realise the charm of such modest everyday sights which are usually once seen, quickly forgotten.

One painting shows the creaky old outer screen doors of a village house, almost fallen off the hinges, with the inner doors bearing the faded images of protective gods. Once again, it is such a common sight in the old hill villages that most people would never look twice; in Chung's painting, the commonplace comes to life. Listen to this painting - you can hear the doors banging in the wind.

'With traditional values, I am at once reverent and rebellious,' he says. 'But as I grow older, many of my former views have turned into compromise and obedience.

'I had doubts about the validity of tradition, but they are now like knots that are difficult to untie.' Not all his efforts focus on the past. When Chek Lap Kok was declared officially open, there was a brilliantly coloured brochure produced which mixed lion dances with jumbo jets and whimsical airships. That, too, was part of Chung's New Territories vision.