Artist returns for another brush with Shangri-La

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 September, 2003, 12:00am

For Malcolm Golding, retouching his hotel mural is paradise regained

Malcolm Golding is back where he was 23 years ago, putting the final touches to his personal vision of the imaginary paradise of Shangri-La.

The Lamma-based artist is restoring four large murals he painted in the lobby of the Kowloon Shangri-La. For six months before the hotel accepted its first guests in 1981, Golding worked on his concept of the mystical mountain enclave made famous by author James Hilton in his book Lost Horizon.

Golding's version of Shangri-La is a lush tropical valley hemmed by startling mountains, with colourful birds and huge flowering plants surrounding a stylised Chinese palace.

Repainting the expansive murals brings them back to exciting, vivid life.

In recent weeks, Golding and his work have become a tourist attraction. Hotel guests sipping tea or a glass of wine watch as he clambers up and down a bamboo scaffolding and goes through the patient but exhausting work.

The four murals, in steel frames and on layers of marine plywood, each weigh more than two tonnes.

'It's funny, but as I paint over the scenery, I can remember making the brush strokes in the original version,' he says.

Golding is enjoying the journey back into his artistic past. 'My style and skills have adapted a lot since 1980,' he says.

Since the age of six, when the boy from Essex decided he wanted to spend his life painting, he has been enthralled by art. He left school at 14, taught himself to paint, worked for no pay doing stage scenery at the London Palladium and got his first big break when a friend asked him to be art director for a movie on the life of Buddha being made in India.

That was 35 years ago. He's been in Asia ever since: 12 years in India and the past 23 in Hong Kong.

Commissioned by Indian hotel companies to create murals and by maharajahs to decorate their palaces, he explored Indian art disciplines. One work he remembers well is a small painting of the Hindu elephant god, Ganesh; it was commissioned by the late Indian politician Rajiv Gandhi, a friend of the artist, for his mother, the former premier Indira, just before her assassination.

It was while he was living in New Delhi that architectural designer Don Ashton contacted him.

'He was decorating and designing a new hotel in Hong Kong,' Golding recalls. 'He asked me for my concept of Shangri-La and I did two paintings. The client liked my ideas. Don asked me to come to Hong Kong and do the murals. I asked when he wanted me to start and he told me to get on an aircraft that day.'

When Golding arrived in Hong Kong, the Kowloon Shangri-La was still a building site on newly reclaimed land in Tsim Sha Tsui East. The painting and the hotel construction both finished on schedule.

What does the mythical kingdom of Shangri-La mean to the artist?

'It's a hidden soul. I think because of the years I lived in India, I got the idea of people looking for their own Shangri-La - a place of serenity and peace.'

His personal real-life Shangri-La is on Lamma, where he has lived since he arrived in Hong Kong.

'When I was a schoolboy, my headmaster told me I was useless, that all I could do was paint,' he laughs. 'Well, that's enough for me. I'm very lucky. I make a living from my dreams. Restoring these murals, bringing them back to life, gives me a sense of the surreal - it's revisiting the past.'