Doing it their way

Aspire to the way, align with virtue, abide by benevolence and immerse in the arts – Confucius’ teaching on four things in life are part of the creed for lawyers John Tong Chor-nam and Herman Tsoi Hak-chiu.

The arts, at their core, are one with the way.

That’s why the solicitors named their collective collection of over 1,000 Chinese paintings and calligraphy You Yi Tang – a palace in which people can immerse themselves in art.

“We grew up appreciating art because the elders in our families collected paintings and calligraphy,” said Tsoi. “Our love for this kind of art was influenced by what we constantly saw and heard.”

Tong said: “Driven by a strong sense of belonging, our families were mainly interested in Guangdong or Lingnan masters.”

Tong’s family is native to Shunde, a key district for Lingnan culture.

Originating in the late 19th century at the end of the Qing Dynasty and just before the Xinhai Revolution, the literati in China broke with entrenched conservative thought and began to create and promote new styles of art. This gave birth to the more subtle Lingnan School in southern China, which is characterized by an eclectic blend of China and the West, ancient and modern.

Combining Han Chinese and Western painting while retaining traditional Han Chinese techniques, the Lingnan School was edgy for its time. It is known for its merry and warm atmosphere, which is presented through bright colors, soft shading and unprecedented compositions while carrying local characteristics.

But for Tong and Tsoi, their collection is more than just a representation of cultural heritage and aesthetics, it’s also a testament to their friendship.

In 1989, when Hong Kong’s economy soured because of unease over the impending handover and after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the two were at a loose end. While wandering in Macau, they came across an antique shop. As part of their first purchase, they bought a batch of masterpieces, but were later told that their most valued asset – a painting by Chang Dai-chien – was a fake.

Describing the experience as tantamount to paying tuition fees to enter the circle of art collecting, they then persuaded the same seller to sell them a rare piece of calligraphy: Xu Beihong’s Four-character Couplet: Bu Wen Shishi, Zhao De Dengyin.

According to Yang Shanshen, a second generation Lingnan School painter and a friend of Xu’s who annotated the work, Xu was satirizing officials of the time, who acted only on the orders of superiors and were not considerate of the people.

Twenty three years after they bought the fake Chang painting, their collection of Chang’s work had expanded to a point where they could hold a solo exhibition of more than 100 pieces. The opening was even graced by the master’s family.

The show, jointly held with Sotheby’s in 2012, was their second collaboration. It followed the 2010 exhibition of more than 100 of You Yi Tang’s collectives of Chao Shao-an, another Lingnan School pioneer.

Nine years have passed since, and at the invitation of China Guardian Hong Kong, You Yi Tang will once again exhibit their striking collection. After repeated delays due to social unrest and the pandemic, the exhibition at Hall 5FG in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre runs from tomorrow to April 23.

The exhibition will not be limited to a single artist, but will offer a broad view of Chinese paintings and calligraphic works. The Divers Ensemble: Paintings and Calligraphy from the Collection of You Yi Tang will display over 100 works from different masters and genres.

For example, the works of Lingnan School leader Gao Jianfu represent the origins of the school’s characteristic edgy look, infused with the nihonga style the painter learned while studying in Japan, while Deng Fen’s work offers a glimpse of Chinese gongbi painting.

Tong said the exhibition’s name denotes Chinese art’s prosperity, as different schools come together like rivers running into the sea.

“Our passion for Chinese painting and calligraphy for many years has only been cumulative,” Tsoi said. “We would like to show key pieces of our collection to the wider public, allowing many others to appreciate and develop a wider cultural understanding and curatorial knowledge of Chinese calligraphy and painting.”

(This article was published at The Standard on April 16, 2021: Weekend Glitz: Doing it their way )

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