SUPPER AT EMMAUS, 2014, photo installation, 142.4 × 177.8 cm. All images courtesy the artist. 

SHANGHAI STREET, 2011, enamel paint on canvas, 180 × 200 cm. 

Citizen HK

Chow Chun Fai

Hong Kong
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

It’s good to know there’s an artist like Chow Chun Fai in Hong Kong, who invariably deals with the city’s ever-changing identity head on. It is as if you know someone who’s always got your back—a friend you can always count on. Because, for Chow, existing in the art world is not a matter of choosing either a commercial or a grassroots approach; rather, it is a matter of inhabiting a transitional space in order to mediate between these two, often oppositional, poles.

Of course, this position reflects a number of things about Chow. At once an artist and a provocateur, he is also a community representative and organizer. For one, he is the chairman of the Fotanian Artist Village, which represents the numerous artists and designers currently residing in the Fo Tan industrial zone in Hong Kong’s New Territories, where Chow has kept a studio since 2003. He is also a member of the Factory Artist Concern Group, which speaks for artists living and working across Hong Kong’s industrial zones. Indeed, in 2012 he ran for a seat in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (Legco), through which all primary legislation is enacted. This was a controversial yet awe-inspiringly savvy move on his part—because, as he told me recently, “What I try to fight for is a general public cultural right.”

This fight manifests itself in a multidisciplinary practice in which battles are fought on numerous fronts—an approach that evolved out of a number of factors. The first is that Chow, born in 1980, belongs to a generation of artists who grew up with the discourses around both the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China. The second is that he was born in a city traditionally known as a gateway between the East and West. And the third reflects a change in Chow’s life when he was a student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), where he earned a BA and an MFA from the Department of Fine Arts. In 2001, his father became ill, leading the young student to take on the former’s taxi license and work in addition to his studies. 

In September that same year, he staged “Joint Funeral of Chow & Kwan” alongside Kwan Sheung Chi, his contemporary at CUHK, at 1A Space in the newly opened Cattle Depot Artist Village, a restored slaughterhouse that is now home to some 20 artist organizations. In this performance, the artists set fire to some of their older works—in Chow’s case, this included sculptures of a computer monitor, a red guitar and masks—so as to mimic a funeral. The reason? In a funeral, Chow explains, the person who dies is celebrated through imagination and remembrance, just as in a gallery the artist exists merely as a specter haunting the objects themselves. As such, the performance was a bid to make the artist visible: a statement on the status of the artist in Hong Kong at the time. 

This theme of visibility would become even more pronounced in Chow’s later work when he entered the political arena more than a decade later in 2012. Yet, during this early period, his focus turned to portraying the Hong Kong landscapes he witnessed as a taxi driver, a job he continued right up until 2007, resulting in his series of paintings “Hong Kong Taxi” (2003–05) and “Hong Kong Street” (2004–05) rendered in either enamel as well as oil on canvas or board. The former series depicts red taxis—a quintessential Hong Kong icon—at various hours of the day, usually in closely cropped shots of the front, side or rear end. The latter are mostly wide-angled cityscapes of Hong Kong—some during the day, others at night—rendered in a kind of socialist-realist noir style evocative of Edward Hopper and David Hockney, not to mention sumptuous brushstrokes of Liu Xiaodong. There are street scenes from the dense old blocks of Mong Kok to 1970s developments in Tai Po; a study of aging public housing blocks in Shek Kip Mei; the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront promenade at noon; and a view of Hong Kong at night from Chater Road featuring the iconic HSBC headquarters, the Legislative Council building (previously the Supreme Court), the Old Bank of China Building and the current Bank of China tower. 

Of this formative period, Chow tells me that he was younger and more romantic, and was working through his own reality. The taxi business allowed him a view of Hong Kong that was, as he defined it, “really grassroots,” and he applied this visual experience to his work. Rendered in a matter-of-fact style (Chow describes them as “simple” and “academic”), these paintings elevate Hong Kong into a subject in its own right—a landscape worthy of a painter’s sensitive eye, and not an advertiser’s savvy billboard—and were not intended “for the market or for contemporary art.” “Of course,” he adds wryly, “when this work went into galleries, it was interpreted as Hong Kong iconography.” This statement is probably aimed at those who criticize Chow’s work as being too commercial, or pandering to a kind of fetishized localism. 

ONE NITE IN MONGKOK, “SO MANY PEOPLE OUT THERE,” 2007, enamel paint on canvas, 100 × 150 cm. 

But why shouldn’t his work be about Hong Kong iconography? The city is, after all, Chow’s subject and muse—an effective space with which to explore deeper issues pertaining to identity and agency in the 21st century. This exploration is especially evident in the case of his most characteristic series, the “Painting on Movie” canvases, which Chow started in 2006. These are painted stills from either the Hong Kong New Wave cinema of the 1970s and ’80s, or the movement that followed (and which paid homage to its predecessor), including Choh Chung-Sing’s Fist of Fury 1991 (1991), starring comedy legend Stephen Chow, Ann Hui’s Love in a Fallen City (1984) and Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs (2002). In one painting based on Infernal Affairs, Chow depicts actor Tony Leung sitting on a ledge overlooking one section of the Hong Kong skyline, with subtitles in English and Chinese that read: “I want my identity back.” 

The movie painting series encapsulates the intricacies of a local culture that is defined by Hong Kong’s colonial history, its success as a financial hub in the 1980s and ’90s, and its eventual return to the mainland. It plays on a number of themes that run through Chow’s work: translation and mistranslation, whether cultural or linguistic; and the conceptual and perceptive distance that exists between an articulation—a painting, for instance, or a political act—and its reception. 

These issues all relate to Hong Kong as a space of cultured—and political—chaos: a commons of confusion and negotiation. Reflecting on the “Infernal Affairs” paintings, for instance, Chow comments on how the particular genre of this movie—gangsters, police and undercover cop stories—is wildly popular in Hong Kong and reflects something of the city’s anxieties. “It is because of our own identity; we are more than one-sided portrayals of cops or mafia. We are always both.” He adds that the genre really became popular in the 1980s during the buildup to the 1997 handover: an era that was all about what he calls an “unclear identity.” Perhaps this is why these paintings are rendered loosely; features are not fully sharpened on faces, for instance; details are smoothed out; there is a texture to his brushstrokes that recalls the grain of film. 

INFERNAL AFFAIRS, “I WANT MY IDENTITY BACK,” 2007, enamel paint on canvas, 100 × 150 cm. 

Yet, for Chow, the uncertainty surrounding identity extends beyond Hong Kong. As part of Prudential’s “Hong Kong Eye” exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery in 2012, Chow presented a painting from the 2010 martial arts movie, Legend of the Fist, emblazoned with the following subtitle: “China is not ruled by Chinese anyway.” Other works within this strain include two 2007 paintings from Love in a Fallen City and Fist of Fury 1991, with subtitles that read  “I can’t claim to be a real Chinese” and “We are Chinese,” respectively. The purpose of these works, it seems, is to point to the same kind of uncertainty that is depicted in the “Infernal Affairs” series. The question posed in all these works, which challenge the notion of culture, is simple: what is identity? 

Indeed, it was this question (or misconception) of a pure identity—something Hong Kong has grappled with for decades—that first helped spawn the movie paintings. When Chow was in Rome in 2005, an Italian friend told him how he loved that “Hong Kong movie” about “a guy with a sword flying in the forest”—referring to Taiwanese-American Ang Lee’s Hollywood production, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). This was the movie from which Chow made his first movie painting, in 2006, “because of the mistranslation that happened in terms of a misunderstanding of identity.” After all, this was not a Hong Kong movie. 

For Chow, the exploration of these misunderstandings—and producing responses to them—also lies behind his ongoing “Photo Installation” series, begun, as Chow recalls, around 2005. For these, he restages famous works of Western art, often capturing them as photographic collages, several meters high and up to eight meters long, made up of hundreds of individual photographs, which are used to build the picture. Chow then presents the works as installations featuring original source material, including books and texts. 

LEGEND OF THE FIST, “ CHINA IS NOT RULED BY CHINESE ANYWAY,” 2012, enamel paint on canvas, 244 × 488 cm. 

RIDES ON A SOLITARY JOURNEY, 2008, photo installation, 240 × 203 cm. 

In many of these compositions, Chow is a central figure, as is the case in his versions of Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (c. 1666) and Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus (c. 1605–06), the latter of which was presented as part of “Light and Shadows – Caravaggio: The Italian Baroque Master” at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center in March 2014. Speaking about The Supper at Emmaus, Chow explains: “I’m using my Asian face in a European painting that talks about a story from the Bible—which is not actually from the West either, so you get back to this idea of origins and originality.” He also draws a parallel to his “Painting on Movie” works here, noting that “both series are about identity and the so-called mixing of cultures. 

But he is quick to add that, in general, his work is not simply about East and West. Other photo installations reflect on his perspectives on cultural remix by overlapping recognizable Western works with traditional Chinese stories. These include Rides on a Solitary Journey (2008), a collage of 432 photographs that recreates Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps (c. 1800), with Napoleon rendered as a red-faced, Kuan Kong-like warrior out of Lo Kuan-chung’s 16th-century epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which first appeared in print in the early 16th century. Then there is the Conversion of Monkey King (2007), which uses the compositional frame of Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saint Paul (1601) (and a giant Lego horse) to illustrate a scene from the 16th-century novel Journey to the West, in which a Buddhist monk travels to India to retrieve sacred sutras at the behest of Buddha himself, meeting such legendary figures as the Monkey King along the way. Through this series, Chow plays on cultural uncertainty as a true representation of contemporary culture—the assemblage of readymade images effectively expresses larger, interwoven histories. As he notes, the images appropriated for these works are taken from magazines and history books, “so there are a thousand interpretations of one work already within other contexts, and mine is just another of those interpretations.”

There is something inherently political about this kind of congealed worldview. This is reflected in a Hong Kong movie that Chow has been working from recently as part of his “Painting on Movie” series: a science-fiction comedy-thriller by Fruit Chan, based on a web-novel by a 25-year-old Hong Kong writer who goes by the name “Pizza.” It chronicles a group of people who take a minibus from downtown Kowloon to Tai Po and find themselves transported to a dystopian Hong Kong after having passed through the Lion Rock Tunnel, an old passage in the New Territories. As Derek Elley wrote in Film Business Asia, “What kind of Hong Kong they’ve ended up in, is actually of less interest than what happens to the passengers as they panic, argue, combine forces, turn on each other and face up to a kind of apocalypse during the next 24 hours.”

The question of what happens when a motley crew finds themselves facing a catastrophic situation feels similar to the question of how one might establish and nurture a kind of social unity for the sake of survival without the crux of the mono-cultural myth. Comparable issues were raised when artists across all disciplines—music, visual arts, design and fashion, for instance—who had moved into Hong Kong’s failing industrial zones in the early millennium, suddenly found their safe havens in the sights of Hong Kong’s developers. The debate around these spaces has been raging alongside wider controversies surrounding real estate in Hong Kong, in particular the ever-dwindling access to affordable space in a city dominated by powerful (and commercial) interests. 

In response to this threat to artists living in the industrial zones, the Factory Artist Concern Group, which was established to provide a platform for disparate and diverse local communities, nominated Chow in 2011 to stand for the “Sports, Performing Arts, Culture and Publication” functional constituency in the following year’s local elections for Legco. In Hong Kong government, “functional constituencies” serve professional or special-interests groups. In so doing, Chow stood to represent—as Robin Peckham wrote in the Art Newspaper in 2013—“in theory if not in practice, the culture sector.” 

There are a number of reasons why Chow was the man for the job. Returning to his period as a taxi driver, Chow credits holding down a job while pursuing an art career as being an important factor to his growth as an artist. “I managed to earn a living before I graduated, while many of my peers were busy finding work or thinking about how to take care of their families,” he reasons. As such, he knew it would be possible for him to work as an artist and survive in society at the same time. In fact, when I ask why he ran for the Legislative Council, he states quite simply that he was privileged enough to be able to do so as an artist who survives off his work: “Almost all my artist friends have other jobs or have no ability or even interest in politics or political issues. But I had the ability and the opportunity to engage.”

CONVERSION OF MONKEY KING, 2007, photo installation, 240 × 177 cm. 

At the same time, prior to his nomination, Chow had already been an active member of the artist community in Fo Tan, which annually stages the popular Fotanian Open Studios event. As chairman of the Fotanian Artist Village, he talks about the issues of having to manage—and effectively protect—a space for individuals while maintaining a certain level of both flexibility and, in the spirit of the creative scene, disorder. Thus, the Fotanian Open Studios never has a theme or curator, and the only thing unifying all the studios is their location. And, as the years have passed, the public—both the local residents and factory workers, as well as a wider Hong Kong audience—have embraced the event and the community it represents. But Chow has simultaneously been faced with the responsibility—and conundrum—of mediating an increasingly diverse community. 

Thus, over the course of his campaign, Chow’s knowledge and experience were applied to the new role of artist-politician—a task Chow believes an artist could and should undertake if one is in a position to do so. However, he faced a dilemma when taking on this political role. As Chow reasoned at the time: “If I declared this an art piece, then no one would take it seriously and I would not have any support, nor would people really listen to what I had to say. But if I said this was not an art piece, then people would question why an artist was standing for election. Many of my actions would be [considered] invalid.” So he stopped making art for a year and ran the election in a very serious way, never once declaring it an art intervention. 

There was, of course, a performativity to his 2012 campaign. “I didn’t agree with the idea of the functional constituency, so the first statement I made was that they should not exist anymore,” he recalls. There is a parallel with Chow’s original intention to study performing arts before enrolling at CUHK—he even applied to the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and was accepted, but realized he enjoyed small theater rather than large-scale productions, and should study fine art instead. As part of his political campaign, one of the actions he undertook was to set up his easel and paint in the streets—a performative act highlighting the fallacy of the very constituency he was running for, which caters to businesses and corporations and thus does not require public canvassing. Chow’s public act constituted, for him, “an action that presented a cultural right.”  

This returns to the question of whether the 2012 election was, for Chow, a performance, an art piece or purely a political action. When I ask, he maintains: “If I had been trying to win the seat, then I would not have run this kind of campaign. I would have just knocked on the doors of all these cultural companies. Usually artists don’t really understand or have knowledge of this political system, and I spent a lot of time reading documents and learning from politicians. But I was not really being a politician. This was totally not my intention.”

Rather, his aim was to highlight a clear and urgent need for artists to be included in decision-making. As Chow insists: “There should be a cultural concern in policy-making, too.” Perhaps then, he explains, Hong Kong might develop a clear cultural policy—one that avoids situations such as those currently transpiring at Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, where, as Chow observes, “all those other skyscrapers are built so quickly but M+ museum has not yet been completed.” 

And so, though his electoral stand was not successful, it marked a beginning. Chow’s intention was not only to critique or expose the political system but also, as in much of his practice, to regain the status of artists and bring them into society’s fold, which Chow believes might lead to more balanced development. As Chow explains: “Artists are considered to be underground.” The reason, he says, is that “in the old days we just hid in the factories because cultural activity violated regulations. But when you are considered underground you don’t have the right to bargain with other sectors of society.” When an entire area is earmarked for redevelopment—a pretty common occurrence in Hong Kong, and a prospect currently facing the land around the new Kowloon East development project—artists can easily be removed from their spaces.

As such, the way Chow conducted his political campaign, as Anthony Leung Po Shan wrote in LEAP magazine, was by simply being “himself, the artist.” Thus, he overturned the stereotypes of what an artist is and insisted on redefining how he or she might function as part of society. As Leung noted: “In political debates he was more knowledgeable and composed than the career politicians. In the end he lost the election, but this loss did not carry over into his art. He found a way to paradoxically yet elegantly unite the two.” This kind of elegant, paradoxical unity is the thread that unites Chow’s entire body of work, from his paintings to his political engagements, and it also embodies Hong Kong’s idiosyncrasies and complexities. 

This is why it’s good to know that there’s an artist like Chow in Hong Kong: one who can bring two (or more) sides together in one frame. An artist who is unafraid of exploring and challenging the image and composition of a city he describes as a political laboratory, “in which some of the rules are not very clear, and are even unfair,” where “even the people in this lab don’t know the rules themselves because they aren’t taught them.” 

In this, Chow is staking a claim for how artists might function in society should they so wish. Given that they reside at something of a border zone between the avant-garde and the mainstream, artists, according to Chow, “should have the knowledge or ability to comment on the political situation.” They are, after all, observers: painters, photographers, performers and, above all, citizens.

Chow Chun Fai painting on the streets of Mong Kok in Hong Kong during his campaign for Legislative Council, 2012.