As a child, Stephen Wong Chun-hei had a vision of the kind of artist he wanted to be. He pictured himself standing at the foot of a mountain, sketchbook in hand, painting the towering peak before him and the fluffy clouds floating overhead.
But when he got to university, that fantasy was almost squashed. “At art school, nobody was talking about landscape painting or even painting outdoors, painting real places,” he says. “It was seen as a very old style. No one dared to do it.”
Until Wong, that is. Soon after graduation, he stopped working on the conceptual art he had been taught and returned to his childhood dream. He began exploring Hong Kong’s hiking trails and thinking about how to capture the city’s tropical forests and craggy peaks, making sketches and watercolours on his walks, then transforming these small studies into sprawling, metres-long paintings when he arrived back in his studio. To Wong’s surprise—and that of the naysayers who had dissuaded him from pursuing his passion—these paintings have become a critical and commercial hit, selling to collectors and museums and earning him rapturous praise in the media.
“I’ve heard him described as the David Hockney of our city,” says Lumen Kinoshita, an art collector and director of the financial services firm KGI Asia. Kinoshita has a small painting by Wong in her bedroom, propped on top of a vintage Louis Vuitton trunk. “It shows a road winding through hills, leading to a cliffside and the sea. Looking at it always brings a smile to my face.”
It was in fact a pilgrimage to Hockney’s home country in 2011 that persuaded Wong to devote himself to painting Hong Kong’s landscapes. “I like Hockney a lot, so I went to the UK to see the landscapes that had inspired him. I went to London and to Yorkshire,” says Wong. Hockney was born in the Yorkshire town of Bradford and has made hundreds of paintings inspired by the surrounding countryside. “I felt very strange because the landscape was very beautiful, but at the same time I didn’t really understand it,” says Wong. “What I understand is the Hong Kong landscape: the green colours, the mountains, the clouds. Since that trip, I work mainly on the landscapes of Hong Kong.”
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