Long-distance call

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 March, 2010, 12:00am

Life has hardly been formulaic for former calculus tutor Adrian Wong. Having left his suburban Chicago home at 14, to attend boarding school for the mathematically gifted and then a United Nations charter school that took him to Jerusalem, Israel, Wong was completing a master's degree in developmental psychology and moonlighting as a kindergarten teacher when he decided to make art for a living.

'I'm really happy that I don't know what I'll be doing in five years,' says the 30-year-old, who currently teaches sculpture and theory at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is also putting together a solo show, 'Troglodyte, See the Light,' which will tour internationally through his gallery, Osage, in July.

For Wong, who came to Hong Kong low on money five years ago and departed a sought-after artist, this city is where his seemingly disparate life experiences began to click into place.

'It was complete serendipity that took me there,' he says.

Born to Hong Kong immigrants, the Illinois native stopped speaking Cantonese when he entered preschool and was an all-American boy, down to his preferred diet of macaroni and cheese, steak and hamburgers.

Wong's parents had left Hong Kong to pursue lives away from their families. They met in Boston, where Wong's mother was working as a roller-skating waitress at the 1950s-themed Rock 'n Roll McDonald's that his father managed.

Growing up, Wong would ask about his relatives, 'but my father rarely talked about [them]. I heard some stories about an uncle of his who was a children's television-show host in Hong Kong, described as 'the Chinese Mister Rogers''.

In 2002, his last year at Stanford University, Wong spent time with a close friend who was dying of cystic fibrosis. Through their long talks, Wong discovered, 'the desire to take a more active role in deciding the course of my life, and the easiest path for me to accomplish that was via art', which led him away from science and towards a master of fine arts at Yale University.

'A lot of my early artwork plays off of the scientific, pseudo-objective context of psychology,' says Wong.

One of the subjects he scrutinised in his art was his family.

'After over a year of researching and sending out e-mails to broadcast stations trying to track down my grand uncle, Calvin [Wong Hei], I was contacted by his son Harry [Wong], who was a well-known magician and television star himself [in the 80s].'

Calvin Wong's puppet show was the first programme to be broadcast in Hong Kong when Rediffusion Television launched in the late 50s. Video and installation piece 'Sang Yat Fai Lok' (Happy Birthday, 2008; above left) - using a recreation of his grand uncle's original studio set - was, for Adrian Wong, a cathartic exploration of this newly rediscovered family past.

'Coming to Hong Kong and reinserting myself into the work really changed it and led to the practice that I'm engaged in now,' which finds the sweet spot amid local socio-cultural beliefs and fears with an unerring sense of mischief. '[After the Happy Birthday project] I stopped having to hustle for shows; curators are approaching me,' says Wong. 'I find Hong Kong to be a continually inspiring place where a lot of good things have happened and I still have a lot of inroads for more.'