If you ask someone to think of Hong Kong, it’s likely that a few clichéd images will come to mind: a green-and-white Star Ferry crossing Victoria Harbour, the Peak Tram chugging up through Mid-Levels, perhaps a cluster of neon signs hanging above crowds in Mong Kok.
But to artist Chris Huen Sin-kan, his hometown is so much more than this. “What I see in Hong Kong is not the stereotypes people think about,” he says. “It’s the really little things that I love: the colours, the hazy light—not the crowds in Kowloon.”
Huen tries to capture this calmer side of the city in his large oil-on-canvas paintings, most of which depict everyday scenes in his home or studio in Yuen Long. In one recent work, his wife and baby son sit serenely on a double bed, flanked by two of the family’s three rescue dogs. Another painting features one of the dogs standing knee deep in a paddling pool, staring intently at a tennis ball just out of its reach. There’s not a skyscraper or neon sign in sight.
These quiet, contemplative depictions of Hong Kong have struck a chord with both locals and art fans around the world. Huen only graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2013, but he’s already had solo exhibitions at Gallery Exit in Hong Kong, Pilar Corrias in London and, in March and April this year, the Simon Lee Gallery in New York.
Leading collectors, including Alan Lo and Yenn Wong, have snapped up his work. “I think that over the past five years, Hong Kong collectors have paid more attention to Hong Kong art. And apart from attention, they’ve also put more money in, which is very good for us artists,” Huen says, laughing.
What Huen’s paintings lack in drama they make up for in size. Huen often paints on large canvases, with some measuring up to four metres wide and 2.4 metres tall.
“I’m interested in working on this scale because the proportion of the canvas means I can paint things life-size,” he says. “With a small painting, you can see the whole picture, so when you work on it you’re trying to control things inside. But on this scale, you’re discovering things inside the painting—you’re looking around the painting like you’d look around a room.”
Apart from a brief flirtation with installation art while at university, Huen has always focused on painting and ignored other media.
“When young children start making art, they always make drawings and paintings,” Huen says. “And so did I. I started to have an interest in art when I was learning drawing. In my childhood I had a lot of opportunity to go abroad to Europe and the US. My parents took me to museums there and I saw the paintings hanging on the wall and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, wow.’ I was maybe seven or eight. Compared to what I was doing when I was a kid, I didn’t know there was the possibility to even paint like that.”
Huen might not have been able to imagine it as a child, but it’s now possible that one day his paintings will hang in the hallowed halls of the museums he visited as a seven-year-old. He’s still only in his mid 20s, but leading museums have already begun to approach him about his work. “Some curators are coming to visit the studio soon,” he says shyly, “but it’s a long process and nothing is confirmed yet.”
But Huen isn’t resting on his laurels while he waits for the museums’ decisions. He’s already confirmed two exhibitions for next year—at Ota Fine Arts in Tokyo and Pilar Corrias—and is continuing to push himself in the studio. “I think there are a lot of ideas and concepts that, as an artist, I can still explore in painting,” he says. “I can still dig deeper.”
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