Slow art master’s old-school Hong Kong paintings find a growing audience, and new show is worth the wait

Yeung Tong-lung, 60, switched to figurative painting so his daughter could understand his work. His oil paintings of Hong Kong life, big and with a striking freshness, humour and directness, are at last being recognised

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 October, 2017, 1:16pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 October, 2017, 2:19pm

There’s a building in Kennedy Town with a sufficiently odd address that it doesn’t register on Google maps. The entrance is so narrow you’d walk past it in a second, on your way to more gentrified locations. The steep white stairs are studded with black bin bags. Not so long ago this was subdivided-flat territory and it retains a transient air; but it’s where Yeung Tong-lung, who came to Kennedy Town in the early 1990s, has had a studio for many years.

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He’s been painting for even longer, ever since his teens in Fujian when he was obliged to create Cultural Revolution propaganda. If you’re a Hong Kong art connoisseur (or historian), you’ll know his name. He arrived here in 1973. He was a co-founder of the Quart Society, the city’s first artist-run cooperative, which reigned on Coronation Terrace between 1990 and 1992. It was ahead of its time. Only later did the city begin cultivating its image as an art hub, and by then a different generation – both locally and internationally – had begun to find figurative painting hopelessly quaint.

But still Yeung, 60, paints his oils on canvas. He doesn’t have a gallery and recent shows have tended to be sporadic. As he can’t earn a living solely from art, he’s often created backdrops for film studios, photographers, commercial premises.

When he did the murals in Michelle Garnaut’s former restaurant M at the Fringe, which opened in 1989 at the Fringe Club, he was hired by the designer, Paola Dindo. But the location was already familiar from his other life: in those days, Hong Kong artists used to paint on the Fringe Club’s roof.

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Through the sculptor Lee Man Sang, he met another designer, Debra Little in the 1990s. She began bringing people to his studio and in 2011 and 2014, she organised small solo shows in DeeM, her (now closed) design shop at the end of Hollywood Road.

The 2014 show was held during Art Basel so, in terms of media attention, it was like a starfish waving from the far side of the Great Barrier Reef. But anyone who saw it will remember the freshness, the humour, the directness of those depictions of Hong Kong life. They were – to use a word you don’t hear so much at Art Basel – painterly.

Now Little, as Yeung’s agent, has arranged another show, this time in Wan Chai. The level of public recognition is shifting. Since 2014, 11 of Yeung’s works have been acquired for the collection of Hong Kong’s M+ museum of visual culture, now under construction; Sotheby’s has sold three (at an average price of HK$170,000 [US$21,800]) and William Lim, architect of the forthcoming H Queen’s and avid art collector, commissioned a piece called Wong Chuk Hang – Industrial Building and A Portrait.

“He’s a rare artist who stays true to his art and is well respected by museums and curators,” says Lim.

“Each one of his works is a gem – thoughtful, meticulous, beautiful, funny and sad at the same time.”

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One of the works in the 2014 show was a lovely, bare interior of the Kennedy Town studio. In 2010, Yeung and his Shanghainese wife, Janice Sze Yuen, herself a former painter, and their teenage daughter, Joan, whose asthma wasn’t helped by the constant smell of paint, moved to Shau Kei Wan. Since then Yeung commutes across the island every day, from 9am to 8pm, six days a week except at Lunar New Year. And here he paints, very slowly. “It took him a year to produce the work,” Lim says of his commission. “It’s hard to get hold of them as he produces so few.”

His two-metre-high canvases are certainly labour intensive. For five years after he arrived in Hong Kong, he worked in a North Point factory colouring toy soldiers with lead paint; he’s kept one finger-sized Napoleonic figure as a reminder.

Perhaps the scale of his work is an antidote to those cramped hours. He says (he doesn’t speak English but Sze – who rarely visits the studio now and looks around with evident interest – translates) that he likes to paint big because it makes the viewer move around and, in moving, the perspective shifts.

Spinal degeneration, however, is making such activity harder. A row of much smaller watch-face paintings is arranged across one wall of the studio. Yeung has been doing these since 2007 although none of them is in the new show. Still lives, explains Sze. Then she adds, “It’s a punchline! Time is not still. Basically, he is a naughty playful person”. (Tick tick, murmurs Yeung, with a grin.)

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You can see that in the work, which somehow manages to be both larger-than-life and oddly poignant. Residents of Kennedy Town and Shau Kei Wan may recognise certain corners – a bauhinia bloom, a specific tree – although the painted characters, occasionally eyeing you up in return, come from Yeung’s imagination. He has not, for instance, seen a woman about to give birth on a tram, as depicted in a huge diptych entitled Tong Shui Road Tram Terminus.

A pile of intensely worked sketchbooks sits on his desk, already waiting for the next show, whenever that will be. The collaboration with Debra Little has brought new impetus to a passion lived, mostly, under the radar.

He says the last exhibition he saw was at Para Site, a contemporary art centre in the city’s Quarry Bay neighbourhood which, founded in 1996, has lasted rather longer than Quart; but he rarely goes to gallery openings.

“As I told you, he’s very disciplined,” says Sze. “He thinks painters should devote time to painting. He knows his artist friends understand this.” Tick, tick.

One of the reasons he turned to figurative painting from abstract was so that his daughter, now 21, could grasp his work. But, despite the bookshelves of art theory in the studio corner and the animated discussion with his wife about Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, he’s not one for intense analysis of his own creativity.

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What does he want the viewer to see? Yeung laughs. His answer, as it happens, is also the title of the show: “Just painting.”

Yeung Tong Lung – Just Painting runs from October 12 until October 22 at L3, Comix Homebase, 7 Mallory Street, Wan Chai