Hannah Grogan checks out Sai Kung’s fledgling art community.
Hong Kong is fast developing a reputation as an art hotspot. Major international events such as Art Basel Hong Kong, the twice-yearly Sotheby’s art sales, Asia Contemporary Art Show and the Affordable Art Fair draw art lovers from all over the world. In their wake, local artists and cultural districts – Sheung Wan, Fo Tan, Aberdeen – are attracting a lot more attention. And now there are moves afoot to create a fledgling art community in Sai Kung. This is thanks in part to the opening last year of the Sascha Camille Howard Artist Studio. Best known for ink paintings of Grumpy the bull and other local wildlife, Howard burst onto the scene last year. Except there wasn’t much of a scene to burst on to.
“When I got here it was like, ‘I’m all alone,’” she recalls. “But when you start talking to people you realise there are quite a lot of artists, very talented people quietly getting on with things. Selfishly, I like to hang out with other artists and bounce ideas around.” So she rented the studio on Po Tung Road and started actively seeking out local artists, inviting them to use the space to work and mount exhibitions. She also holds sketching and life-drawing classes and set up a monthly weekend art and craft market, all aimed at developing the local art scene. And it’s working.
“Every week, I’m meeting more artists, which is brilliant. The art scene here is developing – and it’s definitely creative,” she says. “I pay less rent here for the whole year than I paid last year in commissions to galleries, and I have complete control. That’s why I’m doing it this way and it’s worked really well. The sales are getting closer to my vision.
“I would like to have some exhibitions on Hong Kong Island, but it’s expensive. And if you want to take part in public spaces, you have to queue for a year. So I’m keen to share my space because I understand how difficult it is to find somewhere to exhibit your work.”
Among those taking part in Howard’s life-drawing classes is South African artist, Ross Turpin, a tattooist and co-owner of Star Crossed Tattoo in Tsim Sha Tsui, who exhibited his paintings last year in Central gallery Rat’s Cave. Painting at home in Sai Kung, Turpin is inspired by Japanese art and the juxtaposition of east and west.
“There’s a lot of that in Sai Kung. I really like the old town and the awkward clash between the old style and new Western restaurants,” he says. “It’s difficult to find young guys experimenting, doing art for art’s sake and making beautiful things, because rent is so high. Kids can’t take that rent. But on the other hand, people have more money so I can sell my art for a lot more.
“I don’t believe in forcing the development of an art community – it’s something that needs to develop on its own. Hong Kong Academy moving in could help. A lot more people are moving into the area and there will be a demand for more interesting things,” he says. Howard is hardly the first to run art classes in Sai Kung. For years, Australian artist Helen Boyd has been running life-drawing classes out of her Sai Kung home on Saturday mornings ($200 for 150 minutes) as well as a class at the Visual Arts Centre in Hong Kong Park every Wednesday. She previously had her own studio in SoHo, but was forced out eight years ago when it became unaffordable.
“To be honest, the life drawings to me are about fostering a community and keeping that going,” Boyd says.
Her Saturday sessions attract up to six artists of all abilities and ages from 17 to 73.
One familiar face is Tony Cheung, who works at Jaspas. He attended art school in Britain and, when not waiting tables, can often be found around Sai Kung’s coastline. His detailed pen-and-ink drawings of the shore – each of which takes 25 to 40 hours to complete – were recently exhibited in the restaurant.
“Working at Jaspas is a great way to meet people,” Cheung says. “Helen and her friend, Lori Foster [a local graphic artist], were chatting and drawing on the tables and I noticed the colours and techniques they used. We got talking and Helen gave me the details for her life-drawing classes and I showed up the next week. It’s nice to have someone to talk to with the same passion. To me, it is lacking in the community. A lot of artists don’t really know each other. I feel it’s a very Hong Kong thing where they keep to themselves. But there’s a lot of stuff happening here.”
Like Howard and Boyd, Cheung is keen to create more of a cultural community in Sai Kung and is taking steps towards organising an art event in the area. It’s early days and he doesn’t want to say too much yet, but he has been developing a few ideas with Boyd and Foster.“We would love to do a weekend of art and get all the artists to take over a part of the urban environment,” Foster says. “There’s a lot of talent here, we shouldn’t have to go all the way to the island to grab it.
“Hong Kong is coming to terms with its artistic side. It’s still very fractured at the moment. We need our own great art institutions, our own academy of fine arts. Hopefully when Hong Kong starts to develop a real arts hub – like all great cities have – there’ll be more of a realisation that we’re as much an arts city as we are a commercial city. There are fantastic artists here. It would be beautiful to walk into a massive art museum and see some of the greatest artists of China, Hong Kong and the world. I think to be a ‘world city’, Hong Kong has got to develop that. It’s got a way to go yet,” she says.
Sai Kung-based architect and artist Francis Walker arrived in Hong Kong from Britain a couple of years ago and last year held a joint exhibition with Howard and another local artist, Gary Yeung. He is fascinated by Hong Kong’s urban density – which is reflected in his art – but like Foster, is also frustrated by the city’s public museums.
“The great tragedy about the museums of Hong Kong is that the exhibitions are great but the buildings are not,” he says. “They’re not destinations within themselves. I would knock them all down and move all the cultural stuff to Kai Tak.”
Sai Kung is not immune to global trends. Old town resident Gary Yeung picked up on the Urban Sketchers trend that began in Seattle and started Urban Sketchers of Hong Kong. Teacher by day and artist by night, he can often be found leading a group of sketchbook-wielding artists around Sai Kung, drawing the streetscape to upload later onto the group’s Facebook page. The group has more than 300 members and organises regular sketching trips around Hong Kong – for free.
Yeung, who briefly lived in Kowloon Walled City, is keen to sketch the last remnants of old Hong Kong before they too disappear, and plans to release a bilingual book of his artwork, Sketching Hong Kong, in May.
“Sai Kung is a good place for artists, it’s not so crowded and has a lot of beautiful landscapes,” he says. “I really like the feel of the old town, it reminds me of old Hong Kong.”
Sascha Camille Howard