CLP 172: 2000 “Seeing Paintings in Hong Kong” Kaikodo Journal XVIII, 2000, pp. 20-25.

Kaikodo HK

"Seeing Paintings in Hong Kong} (Ching Yuan Chai so-shih III)
Pub. in Kaikodo Journal XVIII, 2000, pp. 20-25.

From 1956 until well into the 1980s I was able to make a number of visits to Hong Kong to see collections and exhibitions of Chinese paintings there, pursue various lines of research, and enjoy the many pleasures that this very cosmopolitan city offered during those years. The account that follows depends largely on memory, with some help from notes scribbled at the time, now scarcely legible even to myself and preserved on the yellowing pages of a drawerful of dog-eared spiral notebooks. Since the single-mindedness of my pursuit of paintings ensured that I kept virtually no notes on other matters, all the rest must be reconstructed from a very fallible memory, and should not be taken as well-researched or substantiated fact; we are in the perilous realm of reminiscence. My apologies go to anyone who is somehow misrepresented herein.

My first visit to Hong Kong was in early 1956, when I stopped there for about a week at the end of my Fulbright year in Japan, on my way to Europe where I was to work for Osvald Siren. I had not yet begun either to keep dated notebooks or to make color slides of what I saw; some now-irretrievable notes on the paintings, written on 3x5 slips of paper, were later entered into Siren’s “Annotated Lists,” which I was already planning to supplement, but I have no record of the collections we visited then. One, I recall, was that of Ho Kuan-wu, familiar to me as an excellent connoisseur of Ming-Ch’ing paintings from the presence of his neat, unobtrusive seals on many of the best, and from the publications devoted to his T’ien-ch’i Shu-wu or “Field and Stream Library.” Another, more ambitious but far less sure of eye, was J. D. Chen (Chen Jen-tao), whose collection seals were by contrast large and conpicuous, rivalling in their pretentiousness (one of them in particular, his double-coin seal) those of the Qianlong Emperor. Reports had it that Chen’s collection had originally been stronger, and that he had given up too many of his best pieces to Chang Ta-ch’ien in return for works purportedly by early masters but actually made by Chang himself. Seeing (and seeing through) Chen’s “Tung Yüan” and “Chü-jan” forgeries, displayed by the owner with great pride and lofty claims, was an early step in the long passage toward my present ability--alas, still not universally acknowledged--to spot the identifying characteristics of Chang Ta-ch’ien’s fabrications of early paintings. I was to see more of Chang’s forgeries in Europe, and still more on returning to the U.S.

Three people had generously offered to introduce me to Hong Kong collectors when I came there: the dealer Walter Hochstadter, the collector-dealer Cheng Chi, and the journalist-critic Chu Hsing-chai. Not wanting to say no to any of them, especially since they had access to different collectors, I ended up going on alternate days with Hochstadter and with (together) Cheng and Chu. I had heard the story of how Hochstadter and Chu became bitter enemies: someone had complimented Hochstadter’s good eye for paintings by suggesting that he was “the Liang Ch’ing-piao of our time” (referring to the great early Ch’ing collector, 1620-1691), and Walter had replied, intending modesty, that he could make no such claim, but that he would like to be thought of as “the Kao Shih-ch’i [1645-1704] of our time.” Chu Hsing-chai had thereupon published a mocking article about the foreigner who calls himself “the Kao Shih-ch’i of our time.” So I was not surprised when, each morning, my guide of that day would inquire about where I had gone and what I had seen the day before. Walter would ask “Where did those two crooks take you yesterday?” and respond, when I mentioned a collector or dealer, “He has nothing but fakes. Don’t believe anything he shows you.” And Cheng and Chu would be equally scornful of the collectors I had visited through Hochstadter’s introduction. Being caught between them worked to my benefit, and I saw as much in my Hong Kong week as anyone could have hoped for.

My dated notebooks begin in the early 1960s and continue, at least for the present essay, until 1981--Hong Kong after that was for me a different place, as was Japan. By then I had begun spending more time in mainland China, and the possibilities of buying Chinese paintings for affordable prices had dwindled markedly. It was during the 1960s and early 70s that I traveled regularly with my close friend the late Hugh Wass, who was also a collector but on a smaller scale and with different tastes, so that it was only infrequently that we had to flip a coin to decide who would buy a piece we both wanted. (I usually won, to his chagrin: “Luck of the Irish again!”) Hugh was living for most of those years in Tokyo, and we would begin our rounds there, looking at Japanese paintings (especially Nanga) as well as Chinese. After some days we would make our way by the Shinkansen train to Kansai to see what was new among Kyoto-Osaka museums and collectors, and thence, typically, to Taiwan or Hong Kong, driven partly by our longing for better Chinese dinners than Kansai (famously inadequate in this regard) could offer. After a week or so in Taiwan or Hong Kong we would fly on to the other, and thence back to Japan, completing the triangle. These were in many ways happy and productive times.

Arriving in Hong Kong with Hugh was a tense drama: he was extremely nervous about takeoffs and landings, and the approach to the old Hong Kong airport, as I recall it, took us through a cleft between two mountains and then, with a sharp leftward veer, down rather abruptly onto the landing strip. On our first few visits we stayed at the Hilton Hotel, which had an educator’s discount and was conveniently located--the dealer Chang Ting-chen was nearby, as were the best bookstores. Later, after we were introduced to it by J. S. Lee, we always stayed at Sunning House, a small, inexpensive and likeable hotel across Hysan Avenue from Lee Gardens. It disappeared years ago, replaced by a huge, glass-fronted I. M. Pei building. From the hotel we would make phone calls to collectors and dealers to schedule our days, and then set out for the first of the great dinners.

Looking over notes, I cannot understand how we did as much in a few days as they record--not only dealers and collectors and exhibitions but also bookstores (Tsi Ku Chai and others offering the latest mainland publications), makers of suits and shirts and eyeglasses, visits to friends. For a time in the 1960s Nick and Sheila Platt (he of the Foreign Service) were in Hong Kong, and kept a junk in Halfmoon Bay (if memory serves) on which fortunate guests would enjoy elegant picnic dinners and drink martinis, after which, happily tipsy, they could float in the warm water gazing up at the moon, troubled only by small stinging jellyfish (nothing is perfect.)

Among those who showed us paintings, we soon learned to distinguish between true collectors who were not interested in selling, so that one didn’t think of asking prices (for instance, J. S. Lee, Huang Pao-hsi or P.H. Wong, and Ho Yao-kuang); genuine collectors who nevertheless were more than willing to part with some or even most of their holdings (J. D. Chen, N. P. Wong, Lee Kwok-wing); dealers posing as collectors (Ma Chi-tsu); and straightforward dealers (notably Chang Ting-chen, but also Yen Sheng-po.) Sessions with Ma Chi-tsu could be uncomfortable, since his teenage daughter who served as interpreter talked constantly about how much her father loved these paintings, all the while that he was hanging in quick succession dozens of pictures among which only a few could be described, however charitably, as lovable. Hugh and I devised a code for communicating about them without letting Ma’s daughter know our real opinions.

My most piercing feeling, on rereading notes from those years, is: Why didn’t I buy that painting? Works that are now treasured by major museums could have been had for modest sums, but were dismissed by me as dubious in authenticity or unimpressive in quality. For some of them, those judgements still seem valid, but my failure to go for others is now painful to think about. I wish also--who today doesn’t?--that I had bought more good contemporary paintings by artists such as Fu Pao-shih, Huang Pin-hung, and Ch’eng Shih-fa, which were available for prices from fifty or seventy-five dollars to a few hundred from Tsi Ku Chai and other Hong Kong galleries.

J. D. Chen lived on the “other side” of the island in a big house overlooking Deep Water Bay. His furnishings (typified, in my memory, by a plaster sculpture of a nude woman with a clock set into her belly) were in sharp contrast to his paintings, which evinced some taste, even though there were dubious pieces and outright forgeries among them. On a visit in February, 1964 when I was accompanied by C. C. Wang (we had come from Taiwan, where I was engaged in the Ku-kung photographing project), we were shown about seventy paintings. I bought five (by Wang Hui, Fa Jo-chen, Hung-jen, Chang Hung, and Fang I-chih) for lowish prices, and got photos of the wonderful “Sun Chih-wei” (T’ai-ku I-min) handscroll now in the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum, to recommend it, strongly but unsuccessfully, as an anonymous Chin work to the Freer Gallery.

This insatiable pursuit of paintings was mostly for the purpose of augmenting my visual store and my slide collection (with a Nikon and its trusty Speedlight and a supply of Kodachrome I could shoot slides as fast as the paintings appeared, all leaves of albums and all sections of handscrolls, with lots of details.) But it was also to find pieces for potential purchase. Buying good paintings on these trips at prices even I could afford (and, of course, looking for pieces worthy of consideration by the Freer, during my years there) was the adventurous, cloak-and-dagger side of my life, balancing the academic: following leads into unlikely places, matching eyes and wits with wily dealers, managing to avoid the traps they set. It was the best eye training I could have received. An important side-benefit, moreover, was that it meant spending time with some very interesting and mostly likeable people, the collectors and dealers. They included:

Ho Yao-kuang, the Chih-lo Lou collection, especially strong in works of the late Ming and early Ch’ing Individualist and i-min or loyalist artists of the transitional period. An important symposium on the i-min masters was organized around this collection (fill in: James Watt, etc.) Apart from the high level of quality of the paintings and the hospitality of the owner, what I recall especially about Ho’s apartment is a life-size and disturbingly lifelike colored (wax?) bust sculpture of him, complete with glasses, the work of some unsung Chinese Duane Hanson (minus the irony), that occupied a glass case looking out at you. To see the bust and the real person together was somehow an unsettling double-image experience.

N. P. Wong, or Wang Nan-p’ing. I have written briefly about visiting him and seeing his paintings, first at his flat in one of the mountainside mansions on Tai Hang Road and later on Leighton Road, not far from Sunning House (see The Jade Studio, p. ---.) Wang Nan-p’ing’s tastes were basically those of the traditional (late-period) connoisseur, and accordingly favored the circle of Tung Ch’i-ch’ang, the Orthodox masters, and other Ming-Ch’ing name artists.

Liu Tso-ch’ou (Low Chuck Tiew), whose Hsü Pai Chai collection, rich in Ming-Qing paintings of good quality and firm authenticity, is now in the Hong Kong City Museum (check). He was said to have bought heavily from Ho Kuan-wu, an excellent source. I met him in the late 1960s through the introduction of Wong (Huang) Pao-hsi, and visited him to see paintings several times after that, sometimes in the company of James Watt, who was always unfailingly helpful in arranging visits to Hong Kong collectors. An especially long and impressive viewing was in 1975, when Howard Rogers was with me.

Others, who will be given only brief mentions here, include Cheng Chi, who in the 1960s was frequently in Hong Kong but in later years lived mostly in his Tokyo house, where I spent many enlightening and entertaining hours with him (besides being a good connoisseur, he is a great raconteur and purveyor of gossip of the field); Hsü Po-chiao, a major source of paintings for some other buyers but, for whatever reason, never for me; Lee Kwok-wing, a smaller but quite knowledgeable collector-dealer who would show paintings mostly of modest size which he had acquired mainly from sources in China, and which he had remounted and meticulously researched; V. C. Kuo, who ran a business in Aberdeen selling diesel motors from Japan for the fishing fleet there, and who had amassed large numbers of good works by major recent and contemporary mainland masters; P. T. Huo, owner of the famous ghost scroll by Lo P’ing, which I saw and photographed in 1969 at the Bank of Canton through the arrangement of J. S. Lee; Jacson Yu, a painter who also collected, and sometimes sold, paintings by recent masters such as Wu Ch’ang-shih; and Chang Pi-han, a discerning and modest collector to whom I was introduced by C. C. Wang, and who moved in the 1980s? to Piedmont, California, near enough to Berkeley for me to take my graduate students to enjoy his hospitality in painting viewings. I remember, on one of the Hong Kong visits to his pleasantly rural hillside house with C. C. Wang, eating great li-chih (lychee, my favorite fruit) and learning from him how we had come at exactly the right moment, when those from a particular tree in Canton, marked with a distinctive yellow-green stripe, had appeared for sale. This, again, is from memory; lychee afficianados can correct me.

My stay in Hong Kong in 1970, longer than the others, was especially exciting and fruitful. The great “International Symposium on Chinese Painting” at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, the first in a series of large-scale events of this kind, had just been held, and many of the participants and attendees moved on afterwards to Hong Kong, where local collectors had prepared further visual feasts for appetites already near satiation. An exhibition of Ming-Qing paintings from Hong Kong collections, organized by the Min Ch’iu (“Assiduously Seeking”) Society, was held in (check), and a number of private viewings at the collectors’ homes were arranged. These included Lee Jung-sen or J. S. Lee (a remarkable assemblage of really fine pieces, testifying to his good eye--no one else I have known has so successfully balanced the responsibilities of wealth with sensitivity, knowledge, generosity, and personal involvement in the projects he supports), P. H. Wong or Huang Pao-hsi, N. P. Wong, Ho Yao-kuang, and Chang Pi-han. With smaller groups I visited, with purchases in mind, dealers including Chang Ting-chen (Wai-kam Ho, who was with me, was taken by a 1764 Lo P’ing portrait-in-landscape which is now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Eight Dynasties no.271), Lee Kwok-wing, Ma Chi-tsu, Chu Hsing-chai, and Yen Sheng-po. Wen Fong, who had been buying on a large scale, principally for the Elliott Collection (with the Princeton Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art as ultimate recipients), showed us in his Hong Kong apartment some seventy paintings--a marathon viewing with many surprises.

Yen Sheng-po I had known about for some years, as a dealer who sometimes sold important paintings but was notoriously “tricky.” He was, for instance, the previous owner of the two Chang Ta-ch’ien forgeries, “Chü-jan” and “I Yüan-chi,” that had gone to the British Museum through the (even trickier) painter-collector-dealer Chiang Er-shih. It was Yen Sheng-po who told me the story of how the large Wu Pin “Landscape with Palaces” (Distant Mountains, pl. 90) which I had acquired the year before from N. P. Wong (for a price more than twice as large as I had previously paid for any Chinese painting), had come into Wong’s hands. Smuggled to Macao from the mainland, reportedly cut into four pieces, it was remounted cheaply and badly in Hong Kong and bought by J. D. Chen. Yen Sheng-po next acquired it, then Chu Hsing-chai, who offered it to the Swiss collector Franco Vannotti for $2,000. Vannotti turned it down, as did Cheng Chi, and it was finally bought by N. P. Wong. Cheng Chi, revising his opinion of it, then offered $4,000 for it, but Wong by this time wanted more, perhaps surmising correctly that he could get still more (not a lot more, fortunately) from an American scholar-collector, myself, who was just then fascinated with Wu Pin and intent on promoting him as a neglected major master (in my 1967 “Fantastics and Eccentrics” exhibition and elsewhere.) Wong sent me a small, muddy photograph of the work, and on the basis of that I sent him half the asking price and received the painting on consideration. A first viewing made it clear why Hong Kong collectors had rejected it: a skimpy, inept mounting, with too-light backing paper used in a misguided effort to overcome the darkness of the silk, had thinned the ink tone and reduced greatly the impact that the work should have had--and later came to have. After much agonizing I sent Wong the remainder of the purchase price, and took the painting on my next trip to Tokyo, leaving it with Cheng Chi to be remounted by his favorite mounter and mine, Meguro Sanji of Kôkakudô, who was well known to a few Chinese and western collectors for his seemingly magic ability to make silk purses out of sow’s ears. In this case he was greatly aided by a fortuitous circumstance: Cheng Chi had just brought back from a trip to Beijing a supply of Chinese backing paper ideally suited to this job, and generously let Meguro use enough of it for the large painting. It strengthened the ink values and, together with Meguro’s handiwork, produced a powerful picture that has awed everyone ever since. Cheng Chi, accompanied by Meguro, brought the newly-mounted painting to the 1970 Taipei symposium, where it was hung, along with two others from my collection, in Wu Pin’s first “one-man show,” organized at my request to accompany my paper on the artist, and made up (apart from my three) of all the Wu Pin works in the Palace Museum, including one “Anonymous Sung” painting, “Steep Ravines and Flying Cascades,” which I had persuaded the Palace Museum curators to include as by Wu Pin. (It was exhibited as that again in the Metropolitan Museum’s “Splendors of Imperial China” exhibition of 1996, pl. 207 in the Possessing the Past catalog.)

The Hong Kong dealer whom I most liked and respected, and from whom I bought the most, was Chang Ting-chen. He had been with the famous Yü-ch’ih Shan-fang or “Jade Pool Mountain Chamber,” a painting and calligraphy store at Liu-li-ch’ang in pre-P.R.C. Beijing, and had relocated as an expatriate in Hong Kong. Nostalgic always for his old haunts, he would reminisce about them over impeccably ordered dinners at the best Beijing-cuisine restaurants that Hong Kong could boast. Chang put off for years returning to Beijing, fearful of what he would find, and when he finally went back, in the late 1980s, he returned bitter about what had happened to his beloved city, with no thought of ever going again. Compared to the great painting market of 1940s Beijing, Hong Kong’s must have seemed terribly impoverished, but Chang made the best of a greatly reduced supply of paintings, and always had good pieces to show. When a viewing ended, one simply told him told him which of the paintings one was interested in, and Chang would write out a list with prices, which held firm as long as the works remained in his hands. One never bargained--at least, I didn’t. The whole procedure was straightforward and businesslike, and carried out on trust: one could take the paintings back to one’s hotel room for longer contemplation, and pay for them at some later time.

I have kept for last, in honor of the occasion for which this essay was written, P. H. Wong or Huang Pao-hsi. My first viewing of paintings at his home may have been in September of 1965; at least, I have no record of an earlier visit. I was with Hugh Wass, and we saw some forty-five paintings, including fine works by (among others) Ch’en Shun (the handscroll of flowers), Chao Tso (the 1612 handscroll). K’un-ts’an and Shih-t’ao, the Four Wangs, and Hua Yen (the very lovely 1743 horizontal painting of Su Wu tending sheep, with a nomadic procession, perhaps intended for Lady Wen-chi and her consort and their entourage, in the distance.) In 1967 I was back again with Hugh, seeing some of the same paintings as before (my comments and opinions on them can be observed in the notebooks to change from year to year) but also quite a few new ones, such as the 1577 album of landscapes by Hou Mou-kung (“best work of his I’ve seen!”) and a small, early (1654) Wang Hui landscape “in the manner of Chao Po-chü” that I found enchanting. (Students in my Four Wangs seminar given shortly afterward at U. C. Berkeley similarly fell in love with it.) I was realizing the scope and depth of this collection, which seemed inexhaustible. At some of these viewings we were joined by young Harold, already an accomplished painter, although specializing then in meticulous copies of older paintings. (A portfolio of reproductions of these was published by his proud father.)

The 1969 viewing brought out more works by later artists than before--I may have asked for them, in connection with some current research or exhibition project. They included a series of good works by the 19th century Jens (Hsiung, Hsün, and Po-nien) and by Chao Chih-ch’ien. Striking and a bit mysterious was a Tai Pen-hsiao landscape with figures, done with reddish color and slight washes that gave, as I wrote, “a remarkable separation of planes of depth.” I judged it then to be “a highly original painting,” but when it reappeared at the viewing in the following year, I was told by C. C. Wang that it was in fact a forgery by Chang Ta-ch’ien. When I look now at the slide, I see that he was right. I was still learning--among other things, that even the best collectors make occasional missteps, and that when a premodern work exhibits unusually convincing effects of space and lighting, one should choose carefully between congratulating the artist and questioning his authorship and the date of the work.

The 1970 showing, because it was for the post-Taipei-symposium group including C. C. Wang and several foreign specialists, was especially long and rich, featuring many of the best pieces in the collection. Much of it was familiar to me by now, but there were always surprises. A briefer viewing in 1975 was heavy in works by Hua Yen, presumably because I was accompanied this time by Howard Rogers, who was then deeply engaged with that artist. I made notes on no less than seventeen, with stars beside quite a few. And, if my memory is correct, this viewing ended, as others had before, with a very good dinner, western cuisine served formally as it might be at a British country house.

That was my last visit to the collection. In April of 1976, Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York held the auction of “Paintings by Ming and Ch’ing Masters from the Lok Tsai Hsien Collection.” Browsing now through the catalog, I realize again that some of the finest and most attractive of Huang’s paintings were offered there. Unhappily, negative gossip, in part malicious (a story best left untold), prevented the auction from realizing what it should have, and many paintings were bought in, or went for low prices. The Hou Mou-kung album was acquired by C. C. Wang, a fine group (Wang Shih-min 1638 landscape, Wang Chien 1669 album, Chin Nung 1661 blossoming plum) by the Yale University Art Gallery, and others by small collectors for whom this was a great opportunity--a landscape by Tsou Chih-lin, for instance, was bought for $2,500 by the pianist Gary Graffman, who would later lend it to our 1981 “Shadows of Mt. Huang” exhibition. I myself could not attend the auction, but purchased two of the paintings immediately afterwards: a 1667 landscape with figures on satin by Hsiao Yün-ts’ung, and Wen Cheng-ming’s early (1515) “Chih-p’ing Monastery,” which reached Berkeley just in time for a seminar I was giving on that master.

In the fall of 1977 I was in Hong Kong again briefly, after a month-long tour of mainland China as chairman of the Chinese Painting Delegation; our group was by then too exhausted, and too saturated with impressions of great Chinese paintings, to make any effort to see more of them for a while, and my happiest memory is of being re-introduced on the night of our arrival to the delicious decadence of life outside the P.R.C. by J. S. Lee, who entertained several of us in the cabaret atop the Lee Gardens, where a sultry-voiced songstress blew away the clouds of puritan austerity that we still trailed from a month of immersion in it. In 1981 I was once more in Hong Kong for only a few days, this time on the way to a longer stay on the mainland, and managed to buy a few paintings from Chang Ting-ch’en and Lee Kwok-wing. And I went for the first time to Harold Wong’s Hanart Gallery on Hollywood Road, where he showed me paintings from his new stock. But that is the beginning of another account, in which the drama and discoveries are pursued more on the mainland than in Hong Kong, and so marks a convenient place to end this one.

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