Painting the town
by Margaret Sheridan
WHEN you coax Kong Kai-ming to talk about Hong Kong as a source of visual nourishment, the painter begins, wide-eyed, like a first-time visitor. He ticks off the familiar, historical landscapes - the Man Mo Temple, Pottinger Street's precarious granite steps, the hulking bronze of Queen Victoria in her namesake park.
''There are no landmarks that I haven't painted,'' explains the 59-year old watercolourist/illustrator, who has been at the forefront of art and art education for over three decades. To date, he has published 30 books on art and technique.
The city where he grew up remains a bottomless source of inspiration, followed by China, and, most recently, Northern Europe.
When asked for opinions on the gleaming monuments of glass and steel - the Lippo Centre, the Bank of China, the Hongkong Bank - the animation pales. He switches into neutral and reins himself in. ''They have their merits, but I prefer the Chinese style.'' Even though architect I M Pei was Shanghai-born, he points out, Pei has lost his Chinese spirit ''living so many years in America, and studying in Germany under the Bauhaus Movement. It is no surprise that his designs are more simple, a characteristic of American style''.
Kong believes a painting or any work of art must show time, culture and the personality of the artist. He laments that many young Chinese artists are painting in the Western style and sadly lack any essence of their Chinese heritage.
A question about artistic freedom and 1997 pushes him to take shelter behind a screen of politeness. ''That's a political question and I have no interest in politics. A real artist should have no relationship with politics.'' But Picasso? ''He used politics to achieve his purpose. Once he became famous, he quit the [Communist] Party and withdrew into art.'' Widowed three years ago, Kong lives in a breezy studio on Tin Hau Temple Road in North Point, his home for 10 years. Scattered over the floor are paintings waiting for their frames. The walls are hung with about 60 works painted in diverse styles. Identifying their creator becomes perplexing.
One study of a green vegetable is so detailed, it belongs in a botany book. Another portrait of a dreamy-eyed girl has potential in the greeting card industry. But it is the Hong Kong scenes - the squashed neighbourhoods, laundry licking a window sill, the maze of ramshackle squatters huts, a lone sailboat in dry dock - that unravel the artist's personality.
Where is Hong Kong most visually appealing? In his memory. ''Mongkok where I grew up. I can still see the fields and the vegetable gardens.'' He is sailing through these golden years with energy, thanks to good health.
''A painter's best years are between 40 and 70. After that, the body wears down. The eyesight weakens, the hands, the brain.'' Now that his full-time teaching commitments are over, except for one day a week at Chinese University, he can devote all his time to art. And visiting his daughter, a graphic artist here.
His most pressing concern is getting his framing finished. In August, 50 works will go on display in Lost Walls, Stolen River, his solo exhibition at the Gallery Cafe, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.
There will be no oils, however. ''Those need lots of space and room to dry. Hong Kong and my studio are not suited for oils.'' Nor for artists in general. ''Hong Kong isn't a good environment for artists. It is a commercial city, one for money. I advise my students to stay in contact with nature, do not pursue money or status. Lead a simple life and don't demand too much.'' Lost Walls, Stolen River, a collection of Kong Kai-Ming's new works, will be on display throughout August at the Gallery Cafe, Level Six, Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre