Spirit of Hong Kong

City is canvas for artist with a giant heart

Evelyna Liang-kan has used her talents to make Hong Kong a better place for decades, giving a voice to those society has forgotten

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 12:19pm

In her studio in Wong Chuk Hang, artist Evelyna Liang-kan has an interesting chair "cover" - it is of an elderly woman with big arms, so you can sit on her lap and wrap her arms around you.

The cover is based on Granny Li, an elderly blind woman Liang-kan met during her art workshops for people with dementia or Alzheimer's disease. She asked Liang-kan to sit on her lap, thinking the artist was a young girl, so Liang-kan did. The woman began to sing an old fisherman's song in Cantonese.

"These elderly people with late stage dementia are often forgotten," Liang-kan says. "It's like they don't exist anymore, so I want people to remember the elderly. Even if they have lost their own memories, if you ignite them they will give you their being."

Liang-kan's art interventions in seniors' homes have led to her giving papers on the subject at City University's psychology department and at symposiums abroad. She also worked on the Grandpa Grandma Memory Boxes, a project supported by the Art Promotion Office and involving the JC Rehabilitation Centre home for the elderly in Wong Chuk Hang.

The artist, now 64, has used her artistic gifts for the community for many years. She has long been known for her Art in Hospital project, working with patients and volunteers to create murals in hospitals to make them less frightening, particularly for children, and on art projects with long-stay patients.

These days, she says, she is less involved due to stellar work by Grace Cheng, her longtime collaborator.

Liang-kan has another project - Art for All - that involves her working with women suffering from depression, getting them to express their thoughts through patchwork and other media.

She took Art for All to Beijing to help migrants and their children, whose rapid life changes often have a significant psychological impact. "They were farmers before," she said of a group of migrant families she worked with.

"Their land has been used for a railway and some of it was used to build villas. Now the original farming women work in those homes as domestic helpers. They are so downgraded that they don't know their own worth. So I'm using art to teach them about self dignity, to show them: 'No, you are still worth something'."

Liang-kan also treasures the time she spent with the migrant children, "helping them voice their love, their hate, their fear" and finding a sponsor to decorate their school.

"I gave them my heart," she says, and in return they called her "grandma".

Five years ago, Liang-kan moved from her premises in Soho to Wong Chuk Hang, and suddenly realised that she had 200 pieces of art from Vietnamese boatpeople, and some were starting to deteriorate.

"I thought: 'This is a part of Hong Kong's heritage and must be preserved.'"

The work was from Liang-kan's Art in Camp project in the 1980s, when thousands of boatpeople flooded into Hong Kong on rickety boats to escape the political situation in Vietnam in the 1980s. When Liang-kan visited High Island and other camps, she was aghast at the conditions, particularly for children.

"Everything was so stark, white, bare," she says, "with barbed wire on the fences."

So Liang-kan set about bringing some colour into the refugees' lives. It was also a chance for some adults and teenagers to create poetry about their situation. Once again, Liang-kan was giving people a voice.

The artwork was exhibited at Lingnan University and drew a lot of attention. While many of the refugees headed abroad to new lives, some remained in Hong Kong, and the artist is still friends with some of the ones she first met as children.

"There's one very successful case," she says proudly. "He became a chef. Another boy became an accountant. I'm still in contact with them."

Liang-kan is contemplating restarting the Art in Camp project for Hong Kong's asylum seekers.

As Liang-kan begins packing up at her studio, she mentions her businessman husband. While she does some teaching for pay, it is his work and pay that allows her to do her art projects.

"Fortunately he really likes my cooking," she laughs. "So I'll go home and cook for him."