Robert Ho Tung's granddaughter seeks revamp of city's art scene

A painter from a famous Hong Kong family tells Annemarie Evans how local attitudes towards art as a career choice have barely changed in the decades she has been away

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 May, 2013, 11:35am

The last time artist Wendy Yeo was in Hong Kong was 21 years ago. Since then, much has changed and this time around Yeo has enjoyed soaking up the modern architecture and vibrancy of the city.

One thing that hasn't changed, she feels, is art's low ranking on the school curriculum, as "artist" is not seen as a proper career by the Hong Kong community.

So while Yeo, the granddaughter of influential Eurasian businessman and philanthropist Sir Robert Ho Tung, has enjoyed finding artistic inspiration here, she's also keen to discuss how art could be better supported.

"Hong Kong artists often struggle to flourish in our city," says Yeo, a semi-abstract painter, who has held more than 30 solo exhibitions internationally, including two in the Chinese section at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. She was in Hong Kong recently for an exhibition of her work - some of which can be viewed at Koru Contemporary Art in Aberdeen - and to visit friends and family.

"In the school curriculum, art seems to be very much at the bottom of the list. Parents say they want their kids to have a proper profession - to be a lawyer, a doctor or an accountant.

"At junior schools, young children are always very creative. They have a natural way of creating design. At 11 years old, they get self-conscious. Even if not everyone is talented, an appreciation of art inspires people to relate to the outside world. It helps with the creativity of the mind and makes people relax."

Yeo, 76, who was elected a member of the Watercolour Society of Wales in 2007, emphasises how artists in the Netherlands, for example, are employed by the government to produce art. France also sponsors budding artists by buying works from them.

"This means not only that artists can have a livelihood, but that the art is stimulating for everybody. Art frees the mind," she says..

In the school curriculum, art seems to be very much at the bottom of the list [of priorities]
Wendy Yeo

Also, with school exams and homework putting children under such pressure here, she says, schools should teach them the importance of art - not just the painting, but history and appreciation - so they will have a broader education.

"And when they grow up, they can either use it as a hobby or become artists later and feel that art is important in creativity and relaxation."

Conscious of high rents here, Yeo urges private corporations to sponsor exhibition and studio spaces, and to free up old factory spaces for artists' workspaces. More art, she says, would enhance the urban environment and get people more accustomed to the concept of buying originals from artists rather than just prints of famous painters.

"In Scandinavia, people buy originals, so it spreads the art around. Instead of buying a print of Rembrandt, [William] Turner or [John] Constable, why not buy more original art? It would inspire more creativity among artists and give them a living."

During her stay in Hong Kong, Yeo admired some of the modern sculptures, but would also like to see outdoor murals.

A graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art in London, Yeo fuses Chinese and European influences by using a Chinese brush with acrylics. Yeo - born to Ho Tung's youngest daughter Florence and Dr K.C. Yeo, the first director of the Medical and Health Services - began painting when she was four and hasn't stopped despite her parents' best efforts to steer her towards a "proper" career.

Originally, Yeo was going to study for a science degree at the University of Hong Kong, where her aunt, Irene Ho Tung, was one of the first women graduates. Instead, she studied architecture for a year before switching to Slade.

"Being an artist, I like peace and solitude," she says. Yeo and husband Richard Holt have homes in Kingston upon Thames in London and in a hamlet in Wales.

"Even during holidays, it's so completely uninhabited," says Yeo. "We live very primitively. We just have mattresses and we haven't changed anything. My husband has his piano and he plays while I paint. I love it because it is so basic. There's only seven houses in the hamlet and I think there is a bus that goes to town once a week."

But, she adds: "I like Hong Kong, especially having been away for so long. I yearn for the bustle, the vibrance, people doing so much, the cafes, the markets and harbour.

"I love anything watery because it's got a lot of movement. It's sort of translucent but it's moving all the time. Also, the colour changes and things that reflect in water - like buildings, or rocks or light - give a very exciting vision."

Yeo and her husband, a former science teacher, met when Yeo was working as a lab technician at a school to supplement her income from art, "because artists don't earn very much money".

Yeo's son is a filmmaker; her daughter runs a hair salon "and she's earning a lot more money than I am".

Part of the reason for her long absence from Hong Kong was caring for her elderly parents in England, where they became naturalised citizens. Her father lived until 101. "And I didn't want to just dash about, but have more time to enjoy Hong Kong."

Upon her return here, Yeo fell in love with the roots of the banyan trees interspersed with the forest of high-rises, and is making sketches of them as inspiration for her paintings. "I think that will be my next theme," she says.

Yeo, however, is sceptical about the huge prices fetched at auction for Chinese traditional and contemporary art. While she admits she needs to study it more, and that some artists may be technically "brilliant", she feels there can be a lack of originality in contemporary works.

"Because China has had this long tradition of traditional painting, I think artists find it hard to have their own idea of Chinese painting.

"I feel strongly that people should ... not take it too much as a money thing. It is really important that artists do really good work and not just for mega money."

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