RESTLESS IN HONG KONG Painting and designing in Hong Kong over 50 years carries with it more prospects of creative upheaval than in most cities. Buildings come and go so easily. Not so long ago, the Hong Kong Club membership saved the vast mural I painted for the fourth floor, in 1990. The club wanted to remove it to help make space for an enlarged spa. And a few years ago, as the English Schools Foundation moved out of its Stubbs Road property, the three pieces of my artwork in the lobby vanished and haven't been seen since. So it is with a sense of relief that I have seen two panels of artwork reinstated in the atrium of the Academy for Performing Arts recently. They started life as the first piece of artwork in the academy but each reorganisation of the APA would see them moved to a new location and, eventually, they disappeared. Recently the panels were rediscovered. It reflects the restless state of Hong Kong in a world full of change.
SETS APPEAL I arrived in Hong Kong in August 1965, at the age of 33, from England. I fell in love with Asia during my national service in Japan, from 1951 to 52. And then I'd gone to Malaysia in 1962, where I met my wife, Moyreen. Within two weeks of arriving in Hong Kong, to work at St Georges School, a military school, I was picked to do the set design for Yeoman of the Guard, for the Hong Kong Singers. In the audience was Maggie Christiansen, of the Mandarin Hotel; Maggie appointed me as an official artist at the Mandarin. I did everything from the decor of an Indian curry festival through to a celebration of the Mandarin's third birthday, where I built a huge pond in what was called the Harbour Room. And it leaked at 2am, when I was just finishing off, and Moyreen was with me. The two of us watched the pale, Cambridge blue of the carpet turn a deep Oxford blue as the water seeped out in gallons. At that point, it was surrounded by two thousand roses flown out of London. Princess Margaret's visit was my first test. It was the Button Supper Club, at the top of the Mandarin, and Maggie just said, "We want it all to be London." I remember putting a mural of Piccadilly Circus behind the band. I was asked if I would (paint a British American Tobacco advertisement) in place of Coca-Cola. I was so inexperienced that, for the price of a nice meal at Gaddi's, I said yes.
SMELL A RAT? We had three years of relative peace where we thought nothing of staying up all hours and enjoying the social life in Hong Kong. We had three children fairly quickly, then we discovered Horlicks. All along, while running the school's art department and bringing up a family, I was doing two other things that occupied me quite a lot. First, the theatre. I made so many sets that the idea was suggested that I exhibit my stage designs in the 1970s, in City Hall. It demonstrated to me how much City Hall was, at nighttime, occupied by rather large rodents. One of the things I had to do was to sweep up the rats' criticism of the sets.
But first and foremost, I am a painter. My father was a fairly well-known landscape painter. I was one of the few national servicemen who had a great time because I was allowed to do film criticism, run an art club and do exhibitions when we were in Japan, because the Korean war was just coming to an end.
ART FOR ART'S SAKE Hong Kong's art scene has never had it so good. But now a lot of people equate the cost of a piece of artwork with its creative value. I had an exhibition fairly soon after I arrived. People working in Central would go to City Hall at lunchtime and look around to see if there's anything they fancy. Back in those days, people bought art simply because they liked it.
The shift to doing more abstract art instead of realistic art came gradually. Eventually I settled for the fact that I just do what comes naturally. Over the years, the one thing I've done mostly naturalistically has been an endless sequence of charity Christmas cards.
TROUBLED TIMES There was a fair amount of disturbance in 1967 caused by the leftist rioters. We were all supposed to get ourselves, through some miraculous process, to Shek Kong, where an RAF plane would convey us safely back to England. How on Earth could one get from Kennedy Road to Shek Kong when there was no tunnel? The youngsters with their red books were out in hordes. One of the things I got used to was driving gingerly round a marked-off area where a suspected bomb would be quite visible. Hong Kong, en masse, had the determination to face down what the communists were trying to do. In the end, of course, it was China that put a stop to the riots. As the East River water supply was turned on as agreed in October, we knew the whole confrontation was over.
When it wasn't riots it was the collapse of a hill, when we lived in Po Shan Mansions, in Mid-Levels. (In 1972) we watched, horror-struck as the mountain slid down and hit Kotewall Court. One literally watched people perish.
DINNER WITH THE GOVERNOR I was pinching myself when I was rowed out by Lady MacLehose to an island to be left on it, so I could sit and look and sketch the yacht we'd just come in - The Lady Maurine - which the governor and his wife were very fond of. The painting is still hanging on a wall (at the MacLehoses' home) in Scotland. The first time we got invited to Government House, as we drove towards it in an old car that was leaking, we were asking ourselves, "What on Earth were we invited for?" It was a very awkward table, people didn't know each other and the governor was there to jolly everyone along. He asked me what inspired me to paint. Out of the blue, I said, "Gin and tonic," and the table erupted. After that, everyone relaxed.
HOME SWEET HOME It doesn't surprise me that my two sons have settled here. We have no intention of leaving Hong Kong, even though I feel left over in terms of what happens on the art scene today. The busy period ended with 1997. I knew it would be the case as we watched the boat carrying Prince Charles and Chris Patten out to sea, back to England. I have four works in the Hong Kong Museum of Art's collection and they still occasionally think of me - for example, when they included me in their Hong Kong Art History Research Project last year. I think that sums it up - I've become part of the archives.
I love Hong Kong. I still paint. I'd love to be around for the next few years, just to see Hong Kong take off culturally. I think it already has. What it needs is a much bigger stage to show its wares. What they are planning architecturally in West Kowloon is good news. I just wish they'd get on with it.