Hong Kong Faces

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 August, 2009, 12:00am

Wendy Kou Wing-oi struggled over her choice of subject before going to university. She wanted to study psychology but she also loved art.

She chose psychology but later, as a research assistant, did a project on art therapy and found a way to combine her two passions while building a career. Now she practises as an art therapist, helping mentally ill and troubled people deal with their problems.

The Hong Kong-born 29-year-old completed her secondary and university studies in Canada before gaining a master's degree in marital and family art therapy at Loyola Marymount University in the United States.

Back in Hong Kong since 2005, Ms Kou uses art therapy to provide psychotherapeutic services to children, adolescents, adults, the elderly and families.

'I came back to Hong Kong as I wanted to use art therapy to help Chinese people. There is a need among families in Hong Kong for art therapy, as some Chinese are not willing to express their negative feelings,' she says.

The therapy - based on the belief that the creative process is both health- and life-enhancing - is in its infancy in Hong Kong, so Ms Kou has also been something of a pioneer. She is president of the Hong Kong Association of Art Therapists, which was established in 2002 to promote the practice. 'The development of art therapy here is just at the initial stage, so I want to promote art therapy in Hong Kong to help others.'

She describes it as a tool for communication, which also helps clients develop their own problem-solving abilities through drawing, painting and other forms of art. 'Some people who live in homes for the elderly may think they are useless. Art therapy can strengthen them by revealing their inherent abilities.'

Cases she has handled include learning difficulties, autism and bereavement. Not all have been successful. One case she still feels sad about involved a patient in a mental health centre in the US who could not interact with other people and always rolled around on the floor. After six months of therapy, he had stopped his compulsive rolling, but three months after the treatment stopped he went back to his old ways.

'I was so sad. Art therapy helped him a lot. It helped him understand the reasons behind his behaviour. But he kept it locked inside him and regressed.'

Having practised art therapy in both the West and in Chinese society, Ms Kou says there are differences, with Chinese patients less willing to accept that they have psychological problems. 'The Chinese may say 'I am not crazy. I am not sick and I don't need to take medicine'.'

They are also more impatient during treatment.

'They ask when they can stop the art therapy and when they will see improvements.'

An unwillingness to talk about family problems with outsiders also raises difficulties in treating children from Chinese families, she says.

Addressing what she describes as a common misconception, Ms Kou says: 'Art therapy is not just for children. It can be performed on anyone of any age and from any background.'

She plans to continue her studies and gain a doctorate in art therapy or another psychology-related field, and wants to learn more about how the therapy can help people.

'I love this job. I am happy to see people improve, and I find happiness and satisfaction that could not be found in other careers. This job is full of fun. I always get along with different people from different backgrounds. My job is to plant a seed in someone's mind. The seed may grow one day to enable that person to learn to depend on himself and the people around him.'