RICE AND EASY I was born into a Chiu Chow family in Kam Tin, in the New Territories. My father died when I was young. As the youngest of five children, I wasn't really burdened by anything. My best talent was dodging school. It wasn't that I disliked learning - I actually loved reading books and could finish one a day, but at school it took a year to read just one. My favourite thing was the mobile library and when it came to my village I would borrow bulky books such as Shakespeare and Western philosophy translated into Chinese. My father left us his rice business and I enjoyed making deliveries on my bike - I had more freedom than I could have asked for. This secluded life helped to keep me simple. When delivering rice to people living in the mountains around Kam Tin, I was awed by the magnificence of nature. Once, during a typhoon, I thought of an old lady living in the mountains and became concerned about her food supply, so I braved the wind and rain to take her some rice. This made me realise that nature is neutral and it's human action that makes it meaningful. That experience taught me what romanticism is all about. While studying in Paris some years later, I got into an argument with some students about the meaning of romanticism and I used that experience as an example. I was trying to show that romanticism must have a human factor and that art is life, not just a job. I won the debate.


ANOTHER REALM I spent seven years in France doing a master's degree at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University and at Ecole Regionale des Beaux-Arts de Besancon, studying Western plastic arts (such as sculpture and ceramics) and design history. I didn't have an initial degree but received an exemption after an intensive interview and an examination of my works. These included essays and images which told my story, including my love for the nature around Kam Tin. I visited Italy, Greece and Egypt as I conducted research for my thesis on Western culture and art. When I visited ancient sites which had survived thousands of years, I learned that true value lies beyond the physical realm. This goes against the conventional view - for example, look at skyscrapers, about which people think, the taller, the better. I also came to appreciate religious arts, which are solemn but enjoyable. They constitute an eternal value which their creators conveyed through a medium that best reflected their era. A hymn sung in a medieval church, for example, is one such medium that has been handed down through the centuries. That is the human touch I believe in. When I returned to Hong Kong in the late 1980s and started teaching art and design at Polytechnic University, I tried to convey this to my students.


UNIVERSAL PROPORTIONS I also taught at the Institute of Vocational Education and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts but these positions were not full time. This gave me the freedom to conduct cultural research. On a trip to Shandong, I examined a lot of old architecture and gained an appreciation of the differences between Chinese and Western architecture. In the West, structure defines space. For example, when I draw an apple, the line shows the apple against the space surrounding it. Chinese architecture, on the other hand, explains space. A cow, for example, is almost as a rule positioned against a larger universe, such as a mountain. Structure carries little significance in Chinese architecture - it's the context that counts. From there I developed some concepts about Chinese architecture and, in 1999, I compiled them into my first book, Beyond Chinese Wooden Architecture. In 2002, I published a book about Chinese painting and then two years later I released my book about Along the River During the Qingming Festival, a huge painting dating from the Song dynasty (AD960-1279), based on research conducted at the Palace Museum in Beijing.


FOOTSTEPS OF EMPERORS While doing research at the museum, I became increasingly moved by the palace compound, which housed the rulers of China's last two dynasties, the Ming and Qing. Late one summer, I walked from my hotel to the palace at 4am. There was no one on the street. A cool autumn breeze was in the air and I thought to myself, "This would have been the time of year the emperor would have been returning to the Forbidden City from the summer resort in Chengde." I haven't looked back since. I'm now in my 10th year of working as an adviser to the museum, and the palace's leading advisory body has appointed me chief planner of projects, which include a 100-episode series on China Central Television. I have also advised the museum about its cultural exchanges with the Louvre in Paris, the National Palace Museum in Taipei and the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which is hosting an exhibition called "The Secret Garden of Emperor Qianlong". The best thing about the job is having access to restricted areas of the palace. When I first stood on the roof of the 28-metre-high Hall of Supreme Harmony, the main building in the compound, I stopped to think about how a boy from Kam Tin had made it all the way there.


"A Lofty Retreat from the Red Dust: The Secret Garden of Emperor Qianlong" is showing until October 14 at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2721 0116.