Elaine Chiu: ‘Seeking’ a Hong Kong identity through her art

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The 21-year-old artist, whose solo exhibition ‘Street and Seek’ opens on July 5 at Sai Wan’s Hotel Jen, speaks to theDesk about finding a local identity, traversing two cultures and bringing these conversations to life through art

In just a few days, Hong Kong will celebrate (or, for some, mourn) the 20th anniversary of the return of our city to the great sovereign, China. For years, our SAR has managed an increasingly precarious juggling act: on one hand, the growing distance yet unavoidable presence of a larger sovereign and, on the other, a growing local identity rooting itself steadily despite its ambiguity, controversy and lack of preconceived definition. However, in the midst of all the political rhetoric, polarised dialogue and conflicting interests, how can the young learn to navigate these tough questions without a set compass? Elaine Chiu, 21-year-old fine arts student and visual artist, has her own modest way of trying to figure it all out – through studying and painting the city she calls home.

Chiu, a fine arts student at the University of Hong Kong, opens a solo exhibition, ‘Street and Seek’, on July 5 at Hotel Jen in Sai Wan, a stone’s throw away from theDesk co-working and events space. Amid all the uncertainty that continues to riddle the future of Hong Kong’s youth, Chiu has enjoyed one constant in her life that she uses to make sense of her world: art. It’s in her blood. Her mother is a painter and taught her how sketch as a child. As a result, Chiu developed a habit of finding solace in art when she was young. She fondly tells us how she began with crayons as a young girl before she later ‘fell in love with watercolours’. “When I was young, I drew my mom as having only three fingers,” she tells us with a chuckle. But she’s way past that now, rendering rich streetscapes with a keen and impressively detail-orientated eye.

As Chiu grew older, the world rendered with her crayons widened as she became proficient in more sophisticated media, including acrylics, pencils and, most recently, watercolours. Today, she spends her time painting intricate cityscapes in different nooks around town. Explaining why she paints street scenes, she tells us that it’s ‘the most direct way’ she sees and experiences the world. “It’s the best way I can paint from my first-person perspective,” she says. “The communication with my audience is the most direct that way.” Why Hong Kong, though? It really goes without saying but in case there’s any doubt, she adds: “Hong Kong is home. It’s where I grew up and it’s what I know.”

Having studied art history for the past three years at university, Chiu tells us that her idea of art has transformed from being ‘spontaneous and intimate as a child’ to becoming ‘quite complicated’ today. “I’ve learned that different cultures see art differently,” she tells us. And it’s exactly this variety and complexity that she attempts to bring to her art. Citing that watercolours are not her ‘final destination’, Chiu wants to combine ‘ink and oil panting’ in the future. When asked why, she tells us that ‘ink and oil are traditional mediums for East and West’ and she hopes to use the conflation of media as a way to traverse difficult questions regarding her local identity. “I feel an identity crisis as a Hongkonger, especially in recent years,” she tells us. “I always ask myself ‘who am I? Who do I represent? Is there a Hong Kong culture?’

These questions recur often in Chiu’s mind, as they do in the minds of many other local youths. “I love Chinese literature,” she says. “It’s the language that I speak.” But, the ‘other’ side is more elusive, more inarticulable. “I don’t know how to explain it,” she resigns. “I guess deep down I’m Chinese but I have a Western package. How can I represent that?” In a way, Chiu answers her own questions in the series of paintings she brings to Hotel Jen. Her brushstroke is unmistakably frenetic and almost confused but only in the fascinating way that Hong Kong itself is. In the foregrounds, we see impressionistic renderings of figures, the Western notion of three-point perspective – and in the backgrounds, buildings are gradually washed away in blue and green like the cliffs and fog of Qing Dynasty scrolls.

Conscious or not, Chiu’s touch is as unique as the Hong Kong cityscape. In her own words, it’s ‘crowded and busy, with lots of human activity’. “Street signs are complex,” she says, “but they give such a richness to the scene.” The admiration she speaks with comes through loud and clear in her art. “I love the colour of Hong Kong,” she says. She also hopes that people can ‘seek’ what she herself in the city sees through her art and hopes that her audience can ‘discover something they may have neglected about Hong Kong’s beauty’. She tells us: “We’re too busy. I just want people to become more aware of their surroundings and see that there is beauty all around the city.”

Chiu does hope to become a professional artist but acknowledges that ‘practical financial reasons’ might make that a difficult reality. But her true goal in her pursuit of art is not monetary. She says it’s spiritual and a means of understanding the world. “I want to give myself an answer to what art is and means,” she tells us. This may sound like a cliché question that all aspiring ‘artistes’ throw into their statements but what strikes us about Chiu’s self-questioning is how humble its origins are. “Whatever the answer ends up being,” she says, “it just has to come from the heart and shouldn’t be a part of any ‘marketing trend’ that happens to be around. I think I just have to be sincere.” To help her come up with an answer, stop by Hotel Jen on July 5, between 6pm and 8pm, to speak to this inspiring young artist yourself.

By Grace Fung

Elaine Chiu, in brief:
Name: Elaine Chiu
Profession: Artist and university student
Age: 21
From: Hong Kong

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