Long-distance call

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 November, 2009, 12:00am

Artist Jonathan Tse Chun-hung's Portrait of an Australian was inspired by a box of old family photographs and designed to look like a passport. Throughout the screen-printed book there are photos and anecdotes, some of them written as if by Tse as a child, telling of the often-demanding process of making a home in a new country. Instead of the word 'Passport', the title emblazoned across the front is 'Immigrant'.

The artist arrived in Australia as an eight-year-old in 1975. His father, former professional racing-car driver John Tse Tak-man, who competed on tracks in Macau and Japan, and mother, primary-school teacher Ma Shuet-yip, had taken up an offer by petrol company Esso to move from Hong Kong.

'We came from a very crowded place to a place that was almost rural - there was no one around,' says Tse of his first impressions of Brisbane. 'We could play on the street and you would not see a lot of people. We were the first Chinese students at the school. We were quite a novelty with the other kids at the time - there was only a small Asian community.'

After winning an art prize at primary school that awarded him weekly lessons at the Queensland Art Gallery, Tse became increasingly interested in the subject. Now, his work adorns the walls of public galleries around the country as well as institutions in the United States and China. In recent years, his work has toured the US, Europe and Hong Kong. But one of the most meaningful displays was in an Australian tourism exhibition of 'national treasures'. Amid items such as legendary crick eter Don Bradman's bat and colonial-era bushranger Ned Kelly's iconic suit of armour sat 'immigrant' Tse's passport.

'It was an exhibition I never thought I would be in,' he says. 'It was just an amazing exhibition. I still think the book has relevance ... for anyone who has experienced transitional change and settling into a new country.'

As well as teaching at the Queensland College of Art, the self-confessed 'avid toy collector' is working on an A$8 million (HK$57 million) redevelopment of Brisbane's Chinatown mall. He is one of a number of artists creating a new gate on Ann Street - and they plan to make it one of a kind.

'Brisbane could have the first contemporary Chinatown in the world,' he says. 'This structure will be primarily glass and will have a number of integrated lighting effects programmed into it. There is a Chinese dragon silhouette, which will appear randomly inside the structure during the evenings, and a pagoda that will light up and change colour. This gate is one of the many refinements of the new Chinatown, where distinct traditional elements are expressed through contemporary design.'

Tse salvaged some 'lucky cloud' carvings from the old gate and plans to use them on Australian eucalyptus trees in another work. 'I think of myself as an Aussie but the Chinese in me is still very much a part of who I am.'