On March 10, artist Stephen Wong Chun-hei will conduct a virtual tour of Hong Kong’s 100km MacLehose Trail. Or rather, an online walk-through of an exhibition at auction house Bonhams’ Hong Kong showroom of his latest paintings, which condense the city’s longest hiking trail onto 10 canvases. There is one painting for each of the 10 official sections of the trail , which runs through the city’s New Territories and was established in 1979 under the then British colonial governor Murray MacLehose, himself a keen hiker. Major landmarks on the undulating west-to-east trail from Sai Kung to Tuen Mun, such as High Island Reservoir and its East Dam and Hong Kong’s highest peak , are faithfully recorded by Wong – but these are not realistic landscapes. To “greedily” cram as much as he can into the paintings, Wong says he has been creative with his distortions of the actual geography and of time – a single image contains different lights and sea surfaces seen at different times of the day. There is a bit of a rebel in me, I guess. As a student, I was discouraged from using bright colours because they were considered too ‘sweet’ and vulgar. Stephen Wong These are also landscapes of his own emotions as he spent six months fulfilling his dream of walking the length of the challenging trail, often with his outdoor painting paraphernalia in tow. “My practice is not inspired by traditional Chinese shanshui ink painting, but its concept of woyou , which means ‘wandering while lying down’, does coincide with how I want to guide the viewer through the places I have visited as well as my mental state at the time,” says Wong, a Hong Kong native, who is about to turn 36. When he was an art student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong over a decade ago, he was not excited by classes on traditional Chinese painting or the vogue for conceptual art installations. “I am a painter but there were times when I wasn’t encouraged to do what I wanted,” he says. That is one reason why his colour palette is becoming progressively bolder and more saturated. The use of fuchsia, turquoise and orange in his works is not as expressionistic as that of the Fauvist school of painting led by Henri Matisse, but nevertheless signals to the viewer that Wong’s paintings are works of his imagination. “There is a bit of a rebel in me, I guess. As a student, I was discouraged from using bright colours because they were considered too ‘sweet’ and vulgar. Now, I want to do whatever I want,” he says. Wong says his greatest influence is the Swiss modern painter Félix Vallotton, whose use of colours denotes a space somewhere between the real and the unreal. David Hockney ’s Yorkshire landscapes and John Constable’s paintings of rural England are also personal favourites. “I love them because they obtained their artistic nutrients from local sources. Their paintings are about places they are most familiar with. That’s what I am doing,” he says. The MacLehose Trail series forms part of a private sale organised by the auction house that has been forced online because of the recent surge in Covid-19 cases in Hong Kong . It is the latest example of Wong’s practice of translating real places into art during the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, he would travel vicariously by looking up places on Google Maps and painting scenes he longs to see for himself. The paintings created through this virtual experience were shown in an in-person exhibition called “A Grand Tour in Google Earth” at Gallery Exit in Aberdeen, Hong Kong (continuing its long relationship with the artist). This time, he has come back to earth and painted from his own bodily engagement with nature, but has to contend with presenting the results virtually. The painting of the first section of MacLehose Trail (from Pak Tam Chung to the High Island Reservoir East Dam) includes a moment he experienced at the end of a long day of hiking that highlights the irreplaceability of human interactions. “There are two tiny people and two green New Territories taxis on the East Dam. That’s me and a driver. I was going to call an Uber but there was no phone signal. I didn’t have enough cash on me either. Fortunately, a taxi driver was kind enough to take me to wherever I wanted to go,” he says. The work is typical of Wong’s sunny landscapes. There is no sense of impending disaster, nor a sense of the sublime common in Western landscape paintings since the Romantic period – that overwhelming feeling when we are confronted with fearful nature. Wong’s paintings are monumental in size: his 2020 triptych Jat’s Incline is 6 metres (20 feet) wide and the biggest in the present series is 2 metres wide. Their size is an assertion that the local and the banal are worthy of record, especially in a city that is undergoing a dramatic transformation. Marcello Kwan Sheung-pang, head of modern and contemporary art, Asia, at Bonhams, curated the show. He hopes to see more young Hong Kong artists receive international recognition. “This is the first time we have hosted a solo exhibition of a living Hong Kong artist. This is not an auction but a sale at fixed prices of dozens of pieces, including works on paper and smaller paintings that are also the result of Stephen’s experience of [the] MacLehose Trail,” he says. The prices of the paintings are in line with those at Wong’s last gallery show. They will be sold only to collectors vetted by the artist and the auction house, as is common practice in the primary art market. “I am aware of the need to protect artists from market speculation. At the same time, I really hope that Hong Kong art can one day fetch the same prices as what we’ve seen for mainland Chinese and Japanese contemporary art so that our artists can have a better live,” Kwan says. “Stephen Wong Chun Hei: MacLehose Trail” will be presented online by Bonhams Hong Kong from March 10-31, 2022 with limited in-person visits through advance booking. Details available on the Bonhams website and Instagram @bonhamscontemporary.