The Man Behind the Mask
Tatler Hong Kong|March 2020
Performance artist Frog King has entertained people around the world for more than 40 years. But who is Kwok Mang-ho, the eccentric Hongkonger who brought this character to life?
Oliver Giles

One night when Kwok Mang-ho was five years old—around the time his father was dying from tuberculosis—he set himself a reckless challenge. “I was on the street somewhere in the Times Square area, near Happy Valley,” he recalls. “Us children used to play with soda drink bottle caps. But that night I had a firecracker. I was thinking, ‘If I don’t throw it, what will happen?’ I felt a huge sound, a huge explosion. I didn’t feel pain. I just felt all my fingers bleeding. I was sent to hospital.”

Kwok, now better known as his artist alter ego Frog King, can’t quite explain why he didn’t let go of the lit firecracker. Nor can he remember why, a year or so later, he ran away from his mother on a day trip to the island of Cheung Chau, jumped into a sampan with some friendly fishermen, then, once they were out of the shallows, flung himself overboard. “I didn’t really know how to swim; I was drinking lots of seawater” he says. Luckily, the tide was in his favour—the waves tossed the six-year-old Kwok retching and exhausted on to the shore. “I wanted a challenge,” he says, almost laughing at the memory. “I wanted to do something where I didn’t know the result. I was very brave and enthusiastic to just do it, right?”

Kwok Mang-ho and his alter ego Frog King

Listening to this story in the hushed hall of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery more than 65 years after the event, I’m not so sure. Neither, by the sounds of things, was his mother, who watched the scene unfold from the beach. “She was very worried,” Kwok admits. “But this is my character—to not think about results. I explore, I experiment.”

Despite the risk of serious injury, or worse, this foolhardiness has carried Kwok far. He has been a prominent figure in Hong Kong since the late 1960s, when he stood out as brash and radical in a generation of more quiet, traditional artists. “In the 1970s, the art scene was very conservative,” he remembers. “Artists were doing impressionism and some traditional Chinese paintings. Flowers, birds, landscapes—those forms.”

Kwok had other ideas. In 1975, he won an award for an exhibition featuring charred plastic pipes—a far cry from the inks and oils of his contemporaries. Later that year, he walked into a gallery at the Hong Kong Museum of Art and poured a bag full of burned cow bones on to the floor. Kwok devised it as a piece of performance art— he titled it Splashing Cow Bone Action; the security guards saw it as vandalism. “The guards and curator came out to complain,” says Kwok. “But I made it calm; I promised to clean up. They didn’t call the police.” A couple of years later, he literally lit up the Tuen Mun Art Festival when he built a sculpture of a pyramid several metres tall, threw a mattress over the top and set the whole thing on fire. The air quickly filled with thick, acrid smoke.

All this time, Kwok was teaching: from 1971 to 1976 he taught at a secondary school, and from 1977 until 1980 at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. At the latter, one of his students was Wong Kar-wai. “I remember he liked theory—liked many discussions with students and friends” is all Kwok will say about the man who went on to become Hong Kong’s most famous film director.

Kwok was popular with students and understood the power of a good teacher. He had studied under Lui Shoukwan, the pioneer of the New Ink Movement in Hong Kong, who remains a major influence. After Lui passed away in the mid ’70s, Kwok began listening to tapes he had of Lui’s lessons. He listened to them daily for almost a decade.

But Kwok was disappointed his own art was still being brushed aside by Hong Kong’s critics and curators. “I was looked down on. I was suffering… how do you say it?” He stops to think, searching for the word—“abuse.” So, in 1980, Kwok decided to move on. “Hong Kong was a small pond,” he says. “There wasn’t enough space for me to explore.”

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