How the artist grandmother of Olympic rower inspired generations of athletes in Hong Kong

Her mural dominated by three jumping basketball players at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium remains to this day

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 August, 2016, 7:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 12:20pm

Kitty Burns McKeon needed inspiration for a mural she was asked to create for a new sports and arts facility in Hong Kong.

The artist knew nothing about sport and wanted to find a spark. So she walked to a nearby playground and saw three girls playing basketball. She loved what she saw and took a mental photograph.

A few months later, in 1981, the Queen Elizabeth Stadium unveiled her creation, made from ceramic glazed tiles. Generations of some of Hong Kong’s – and the world’s – top sportsmen and women have since walked by and marvelled at the piece of art that greets visitors to the venue, which has hosted world-class badminton, table tennis, volleyball, basketball and snooker, among others, as well as other non-sporting events.

McKeon is the grandmother of Melanie Wilson – the Great Britain rower who was brought up in Hong Kong and is now chasing gold in Rio with the women’s eight team.

Samba Beat sat down with Wilson’s parents Karen and Patrick in Ipanema after their daughter helped the British team win their heat on Monday to move into the final.

Patrick, McKeon’s son-in-law, said: “She did not know much about sport, but she did love the movement of sport. She wanted to find a sport that was played in playgrounds around Hong Kong.

“She also wanted a sport in which there was a lot of action and movement and basketball had that with arms flying about.”

McKeon, now 91 and residing in the south of France, spent close to a decade in Hong Kong until the early ’80s and was heavily involved in the city’s art scene. She was recognised as one of Hong Kong’s leading artists and a contemporary of the city’s leading personalities such as Ha Bik-chuen, Rosamond Brown, Irene Chou and others.

“She was phenomenally talented and an inspiration,” says Karen, herself an accomplished artist also based in France. “She is the most talented artist I know. Her work did very well in Hong Kong and she was very successful. They were all sold.

“And she is a wonderful person, the life of the party. Melanie and her [older] sister Rebecca are very fond of her.”

McKeon’s QEII Stadium may be an iconic work of art in Hong Kong sport but, at the time, there was little to suggest that from within the family there was to emerge an athlete who would go on to compete in the Olympics.

“It’s just amazing,” said Karen. “It’s something that you just wouldn’t think about. Melanie is just a fantastic daughter and we are all very proud of what she has achieved.”

Both parents are convinced that Melanie’s success with the British rowing team stems from her intensive swimming lessons with Captain Harry Wright at the Ladies Recreation Club during their time in Hong Kong.

The late Wright was a legendary swimming coach in the city and produced a string of top Hong Kong swimmers, the most successful being Anthony Mosse, who won a bronze medal for New Zealand at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.

Melanie and Rebecca would be up at 5.30am three times a week for two hours of swimming training before school and twice a week for two hours after school.

Patrick and Karen reveals that Melanie was quite the party girl during her formative years and both admire her ability and willingness to make sacrifices in order to succeed in sport.

She put this down to her time with Wright at the LRC.

“You need a lot of discipline to become a top athlete and it was incredible how Melanie was able to do this and I firmly believe it was because of her time with Captain Wright,” says Patrick, who worked for HSBC during his time in Hong Kong.

“Five times a week she and Rebecca would be swimming up and down that pool for two hours and that really helped her in what she’s doing now.

“Even in family gatherings, she would not touch alcohol and she would go to bed at a certain time.”

They said that Melanie, who still maintains her Hong Kong permanent residency status and will pursue a new career in medicine in December, has a strong bond with the city forged during her time at Island School.

“Both girls love Hong Kong, they had a wonderful time growing up in Hong Kong,” says Karen. “They visit there quite often, though Melanie will probably look to Britain to practise medicine because the prospects there I think are better.”

The McKeons and Wilsons have certainly made an impact in Hong Kong, either during their time in the city or later on in life.

Even elder sister Rebecca has a sporting link. As a leading yoga instructor, she has helped several athletes, including Olympians.

“Through Melanie I got into teaching yoga at a few rowing clubs here in London,” said Rebecca. “I designed my classes to be very dynamic, so they appealed to rowers who enjoy a physical workout, but incorporated lots of poses to help increase their range of motion to prevent injury and improve their performance.

“I really enjoy teaching athletes as they already have so much belief in their bodies and what they are able to do with enough dedication. I think yoga can be quite a humbling experience for them, too, as they are so strong and that often comes with being quite tight, so many poses are challenging for them when they are used to their bodies being able to achieve most physical feats.”