A LATE FLOWERING

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 November, 2003, 12:00am

SHE HAS HAD three different names. As a child growing up in 1920s Beijing, she was Tseng Yuho - Yuho meaning 'young lotus', so named because she was the child of a mother called Lotus. In the 1940s, when she married her professor, Gustav Ecke, and eventually moved to Hawaii, she became, more prosaically, Betty Ecke, the name by which she is still best known in Honolulu. In 1986, when she retired from academic life, she decided she was really an old lotus and changed the characters (but not the sound) of her name. Now it means 'protecting peace' - because she has seen war but believes in the goodness of human nature.


Tseng Yuho is known for her art of dsui - using handmade paper to create organic texture in her works. The word literally means 'putting pieces together', as one would when creating a quilt, and as an art form it springs from both the ancient Chinese tradition of paper-making and of mounting scrolls. It's about the evolution of layers - taking something delicate and constantly adding to it to create a statement of great lyrical power.


'I did mounting technique before coming out of China,' says Tseng, now 78, and sitting, alert and amused, in Alisan Fine Arts in Central on a Sunday afternoon. Technically the gallery is closed, but a man has wandered in to look at her exhibition, A Visual Symphony - Form, Line And Dot, which runs until mid-December. He reaches out to touch one canvas which is shimmering under the lights.


When he leaves, Tseng chops the air with her hands. 'I can put life and colour there,' she says, 'overlapping and it can cause an illusion, which is scientific, that the human eye is vibrating. It arouses the visual contact of the eye. And visual contact is timeless.'


Tseng has been an artist since she was a child, caught between the layers of old and new China. Her experiences have ranged from painting pastel portraits of film stars to amuse herself when she was ill with pleurisy, to attending a painting group run by Pu Jin, a half-brother of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China.


When she was younger, she used to put out the paper and brushes and listen to her elders, her eyes respectfully averted. Visual contact may be timeless but in those days, as a young woman, it was personally limited - 'China was getting so impossible, you could not even look at a person!' - and she was also, as her father never failed to remind her, the descendant of Zeng Shen, one of the four principal disciples of Confucius.


'All I could think of at that time was that I quickly wanted to grow up so that I could say what I wanted,' she says. Tseng got half her wish; the war brought a form of maturity but didn't exactly encourage free speech. To protect herself from marauding Japanese soldiers, she cut her hair and bought a dagger which she was fully prepared to use should the occasion arise. Fortunately it didn't, although even now she says fiercely, 'I could have killed someone. I have never in my life been afraid of death.'


Is it any wonder that the young men of her acquaintance seemed insipid? 'Nothing to say,' she cries of those forgotten swains. 'No common interests. How can you marry such people?' Instead she married her art-history professor at Beijing's Furen University, the German, Nazi-hating, royalty-loving (their only source of political disagreement) Gustav Ecke, who came to China in 1923, embraced its culture and who treated his Young Lotus, she says, 'like a duchess'.


They were married in 1945. Prince Pu Jin was guest of honour at the wedding. Her father (of whom she says, vividly, 'He never chatted - only scolded or commanded') never forgave her for marrying a foreigner. But an analyst - Carl Jung was one of Ecke's friends - might be intrigued by this choice of a much older man, an outsider, an authority figure who offered love and escape. They had no children.


At first, she stayed in his shadow. This seems to be a theme in Tseng's life, as if she has spent much time swimming up through layers in order to find herself. She had been brought up to hover in the background, having worked as a ghost-painter for Pu Quan, Pu Jin's younger brother, where learning the mounting technique that was to influence her dsui paintings involved standing and watching. 'I didn't put my hand on it, doing it, until I came to Hawaii,' she says.


That was Christmas week, 1949. Initially, she felt 'buried' in Honolulu but, in the 1950s, she dug herself out on a trip to Europe with her husband. They travelled together for nine months, then Tseng stayed in Paris for another five months, learning French, meeting Man Ray, Max Ernst, Georges Braque, Salvador Dali, and preparing for an exhibition. 'I felt truly grown-up when I was in Paris,' she says. 'Before that, I was Gustav's little wife - someone with no brain. I was accustomed not to express my feelings so everyone thought I hardly knew anything. Then, in Paris, everyone treated me as a person. Never patronising, never using baby language, never talking to me like talking to cats and dogs.'


Tseng laughs. It's surely no coincidence that her dsui work blossomed at this time. The fine paper of the mounting moved centre-stage, into the canvas itself, becoming incorporated into the paintwork. She loves the fragile, irregular quality of handmade paper and also uses aluminium foil.


As an expert calligrapher, who wrote the first English-language history of the subject (published by Chinese University Press in 1993), she knows what can be achieved by the merest breath of a brush stroke and how what is said can be read in the gaps between.


Ecke died in December 1971, but Tseng still works from their Hawaii home (which, by all accounts, is a beautiful linear construction of nine squares, with exquisite Ming furniture), and now intends to build a tea lodge for the University of Hawaii to encourage Chinese folk art, promote friendship and create a meeting place along the lines of a Paris cafe.


She loves the Song dynasty, a period on which she has often lectured. One of her recent works in the exhibition bears the title of a Song poem: Rain And Wind Sent Spring Back. 'That's what our life is,' she says. 'You go through a little dripping, then comes the spring. My late husband belonged to the 19th century but I belong to today. I'm happy to live today. I can play with my perspective and my lines. That is what is lyrical and that is life.'


A Visual Symphony - Form, Line And Dot, until Dec 13 at Alisan Fine Arts, 315 Prince's Building, 10 Chater Rd, 2526 1091. 10am to 6pm (weekdays), 11am to 6pm (Sat), closed on Sun and public holidays.