Alliance Francaise's Gérard Henry displays his work at ArtWalk

After years of championing local art, Alliance Francaise's Gérard Henry is finally applauded for his own work, writes Fionnuala McHugh

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 March, 2014, 10:20am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 March, 2014, 10:20am

When Gérard Henry draws, he often depicts interiors. He believes that what you see of where a person lives is a projection of what's inside. "If you do it well, you can guess someone's mind," he says.

So what can be deduced of Henry, looking round his Tai Hang flat?

His drawings are a revelation - intricately and obsessively detailed
John batten, artwalk organiser

There are plants, ceramics, photographs, artworks, shelves crammed with films but, most of all, there are hundreds of books.

This is a mind filled with language; Henry, who is deputy director of the Alliance Francaise in Hong Kong, is also editor-in-chief of its bilingual (French and Chinese) magazine Paroles - a French word, which itself means "words".

In that capacity, he is a constant presence on the Hong Kong arts circuit. Long before he became Paroles editor in 1994, he had stitched himself into the local creative scene.

He's been here since 1981, and his knowledge of the city runs deep. "He's amazing," says Tobias Berger, a curator at M+, the museum of visual culture that's part of the West Kowloon Cultural District. "He's been a great guide for those of us who have only come here recently. He's one of the most respected and loved people around."

If you were to write a short story about Henry's life in Asia, it wouldn't begin when he arrived in Hong Kong from France; it would start on the thirst-inducing summer's day Hong Kong came to him. Growing up on a farm in Normandy, Henry loved plants and they were going to be his life until some Hong Kong travellers knocked on his door, asking for a glass of water.

They stayed for a month, and he eventually married one of them. The work of another, her travelling companion, Yank Wong Yan-kwai, now hangs on his Tai Hang wall behind a sofa.

"It was incredible," Henry says. "Wong was having an exhibition in Caen and they'd all decided to go to the seaside.

"After I met them, I began to know the Hong Kong artists' circle in Paris and, when I arrived here, they had returned and I met them again."

The 1980s were a bleak time to be a local artist. "These people were working in Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po but nobody was interested, so it was very hard. Wong had exhibited in Paris, but not in Hong Kong. I started to write about them."

He intended to come for a year. He took Mandarin classes and began to write on culture for Voyage en Chine, the now-defunct French edition of China's official tourism magazine. Later, as editor of Paroles, he began to emphasise local culture and made the magazine bilingual.

The aim of Alliance Francaise, of course, is to introduce the world to all things French. But through Henry the French community has been properly introduced to Hong Kong. For this, he was awarded, in 1999, the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture.

In 1997, a Swiss journalist who had read Paroles came to Henry's office and invited him onto his radio show.

"Nothing had happened during the handover, so they didn't know what to do," he says, wryly. "I talked about Hong Kong artists for one hour."

On his way back to the airport, the Swiss man rang Henry and asked if he'd be his Hong Kong correspondent and file a four-minute segment every week on whatever took his fancy.

"So I decided to do these chronicles about Hong Kong people," he says. He made 230 broadcasts and eventually gathered 80 of them into a 2008 book entitled Chroniques Hongkongaises. Although he occasionally talked about political events (Falun Gong, Article 23, Tiananmen vigils), most of these sketches were reflections on Hong Kong's intangible spirit, its festivals and its traditions.

He used to record them down the phone and, because those were the early days of the internet, he never heard himself on air. That weekly exercise felt intimate but abstract until, one day, he went to Geneva.

He wanted to see a sold-out show and when he left his name on the returns list, the woman asked: "Are you the guy from Hong Kong?" Sometimes Swiss strangers would say: "I know your voice."

For a swathe of landlocked listeners, he'd drawn a coastal Asian city on the airwaves.

The Swiss journalist retired two years ago and the broadcasts stopped, but there would have been a pause regardless because in the late autumn of 2012 Henry had a stroke. He spent six months in hospital and a rehabilitation unit. His left side is still paralysed but his speech was not affected.

He's back at work and is using his ink pen again. He drew as a child and has amassed many sketches in Hong Kong.

"It is like meditation," he says. "When I draw, I'm really living in the present. I am here. I am relaxed. And it's a way to see things. You discover how something can be simple and difficult."

Photocopies of his work will be hung in Central's streets as part of this year's ArtWalk on March 12.

"His drawings are a revelation," says ArtWalk's organiser John Batten, who has known Henry for years. "They're intricately, almost obsessively, detailed."

Some of Henry's works are from far afield - Istanbul and Jogjakarta. Others chart Tai Hang's changing streets.

"This doesn't exist any more … this has disappeared … this has gone," he says quietly, sifting through his portfolio.

As a man who loves trees, he mourns the passing of the banyan that was cut down to make Fire Dragon Path, which he can see from his window.

"There was also a nullah and I liked so much that this water went to the sea. At high tide, the water flowed back and sometimes there were fish, and I always went to see them."

The nullah has been covered but deep underneath the stone, the stream flows on.

"I never considered myself an artist, more a writer who draws," says Henry. "But still I cannot forget these trees had their roots in the city. Even now, I remember every tree as if it's something alive inside me."