Hong Kong Baptist University
Many years later, when facing the smoke rising from his rooftop, David Lonesome suddenly remembered that distant afternoon when his mother took him to learn painting.
Pressuring of too many personal paintings piling up in his house, Lonesome has to burn them into ashes from time to time if he fails to sell them out for years. Some of the paintings are preserved and expected to be useful at his individual exhibition one day, however others would be destroyed into fire.
Lonesome is a painter, 52 years old, has sold his paintings on the street in Hong Kong for more than 30 years. The real name of him is David Lau, but he chose Lonesome as his alias for his art career. Lonesome believes his family name was possibly originated from the royal family “Dugu” in Northern Wei Dynasty, back to AD 386- 534, meaning “loneliness” in Chinese.
A head of silver long curly hair, a hawk nose, lighter skin, with a tall figure, Lonesome does not have a typical Cantonese appearance. But what makes him so distinctive is what he wears everyday. He wears a white T-shirt with an eye-catching colorful comic character on the chest. The comic character seems to howl to the sky loudly, with a hideous expression.
“It is the Super Saiyan,” Lonesome said, ”but I draw it in my own style.”
Super Saiyan is a character in the Japanese manga, Dragon Ball, which was popular in Asia among 1980s and 1990s and many young people at that time considered the Super Saiyan was their hero. Lonesome has drawn many classic characters in Japanese manga that he read and watched during childhood, like the Iron Man and Saint Seiya, in his own way. For example, the Iron Man was supposed to be very tough with no emotions exposed, but Lonesome designed a crying single-armed Iron Man image on his T-shirt.
“I can feel the killing pain of Iron Man,” Lonesome said, “So I recreated the scene where he rushed to the sky, enduring, fighting, and paining. It is my understanding and imagination.”
Besides cartoon characters, most of his paintings are about movie stars, while his favorite is Bruce Lee, the famous Chinese martial star, a hero for a whole generation. He represents the dream and inside quality of Chinese people, encourages and influences people at Lonesome‘s age for a long time.
“In my lifetime, I am always trying to hold a personal art exhibition in the art gallery,” Lonesome added, “It must be interesting but unfortunately I don’t have money.”
Lonesome almost devoted himself into painting for the whole life. He started to paint since he was 8 years old. The painting class in that summer occurs to himself quite often: it was a hot summer in Hong Kong, he, the 8 year-old boy sitting on the front seat of his mother’s bicycle, on the way to a private studio. He was curious and nervous on the way, wringing his hand anxiously.
When he entered the studio, he was amazed of those drawing tools in front of him, palettes, painting sticks, and still life moulds of different shapes.
He was the youngest student in the studio at that time, as other classmates were all more than 10 years old, as Lonesome recalled.
“I always thank my parents for sending me to the studio,” Lonesome said, “I found what I love to do for the whole life.”
He studied hard that summer, forgetting the hot weather, various annoying mosquitos flying around and comic books at home. The summer seemed so fast to little Lonesome that he soon noticed it came the day that he would go back to school for the new semester.
Lonesome went out of the studio, carrying all drawing tools in the hands. Streets at Hong Kong were narrow, with dotted shops lying on both sides. Things looked the same as the day he came but everything was changed in his heart. Feeling depressed, Lonesome did not talk to his mother about things happened during the class, like what he learned today and how he was praised by his teacher, instead, he just bit his lips, staying silent, following his mother’s bicycle.
He suddenly cried out, feeling hurt. Pedestrians on the street all looked back at him. Little Lonesome did not care about them, crying louder and louder, saying, “I don’t want to go back, I love painting.”
His mother, stopped the bicycle at the road, and tried to comfort him. The mother asked what he wanted this time as usually Lonesome would ask for a toy or snack as a compensation. However, he asked his mother to buy the still life painting mould for him so that he could practice drawing skills at home.
The mould cost a lot at that time, but his mother did not hesitate at all. From that day on, all family support Lonesome’s artistic creation.
“I am so lucky to have parents’ support,” Lonesome said, “They believe me and always encourage me to realize my dreams.”
During weekends, Lonesome usually sets a table and sells his works outside Hong Kong Culture Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, where stands the Bruce Lee Statue less than a mile away.
He brings his works inside his self-designed hand-made case, the “Zougui” suitcase. The literary meaning of “Zougui” is running ghost, which in Cantonese means peddlers. It is a traditional craft in Hong Kong. The box has four universal wheels underneath and three levels of flexible modular drawers inside. Not many Hong Kong people master the skills to hand made a “Zougui” suitcase, Lonesome said.
After putting all his works on a wooden board in front of him, he will sit on a stool waiting for costumers to come.
Lonesome speaks fluent Mandarin because many tourists from mainland are so interested in him and his paintings that often raise a lot of questions.
“Who are they?” Felicity Cai asked, a mainland student, pointing to the hand-drawn fans before Lonesome.
Lonesome reaches into his “Zougui” suitcase, took out a dozen of fans with oil painting in the folds and explains them to Felicity Cai, who is a 22 year-old college student.
“This is Lam Ching-ying, Hong Kong martial actor, who plays the Vampire in Hong Kong Horrible movie ”Lonesome said, pointing to a man with big forehead, “She is Yuen Qiu, a member of China Drama Academy, very famous.”
“Who is he?” Cai asked, as there was another handsome man on the fan, as she barely knew those figures that David talked about.
“He is Alain Delon,” Lonesome answered, ”We used to see his films. You know Teddyboy movie series in Hong Kong? The films imitated his, stories about gang. ”
“I know Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan in Teddyboy,” Cai said, “They were idols when I was young. But they are not popular anymore.”
On average, a hand-drawn fan costs HK$150 each, a T-shirt nearly HK$300, a painting on the wood board at least HK$1,000. They are much expensive than normal ones.
Most paintings of Lonesome belongs to the past, which are “sometimes classic but sometimes too old-fashioned”, in Lonesome’s own words. In 1990s, he sold his paintings very well, as local people, foreigners and overseas Chinese all fancied them. But it hadn’t last for a long time. Fashion changed as well as technology, where people can download pictures from the Internet and print them out very easily.
“People love my paintings but they would never spend much money as before on them any more,” Lonesome said.
For years, Lonesome never stops painting. He draws on everywhere, not only on papers, but also walls at home, pillowcases, mailboxes, and so on.
It should be a good thing that a painter was productive if they could be sold. But unexpectedly, one day, Lonesome found his house filled with his old paintings. Stacks and stacks of paintings were dumped at every corner at his house.
From time to time, Lonesome would look through all the paintings at home and choose some to throw away.
“It was so panic,” Lonesome said, “All are like my children that I spend much money and time on, so cute and precious. But I have to send them away.”
At first, Lonesome chose some “unfavorable” paintings, tied them up with plastic lines, and threw them into the trashcan downstairs, which was easy and quick. However, one day, the cleaner came to Lonesome and asked him to give her those paintings directly without hurting the edges of papers and fans.
Lonesome was surprised with her request and asked her for reasons. The cleaner prevaricated a while and answered that she could sell them at a fairly good price, around HK$30 for each.
Lonesome felt violated with her behaviors and refused to give her paintings any more. “How can I bear with that? People buy my paintings as garbage?” Lonesome was hopping mad.
After that, Lonesome destroyed his paintings by fire on the rooftop. It is not a pleasant errand for Lonesome honestly. The rooftop, disorderly standing many hanger loops, allows about 10 square meters corner to start a fire. He brings an enamel basin upstairs, which has been burnt black and looked dirty. His paintings are in all kinds, A4 seized, fan shaped, cloth made, all covered with thick colorful oil, cluttered in his hand-made paper box. He throws them into the basin and pulls out a lighter from inside his pocket. When the fire starts, the humid corner becomes hot and smoky, so he usually keeps the processes quick and silent.
Every time when Lonesome burnt his paintings on the rooftop, he would stay on the rooftop for a long time.
“It was too sad to describe the feeling,” Lonesome said, “I don’t want to be Van Gogh, the poor guy only got recognized after death.”
Hiu Kao, 32, Lonesome’s friend, having sold his handmade crafts at Tsim Sha Tsui since 2009, faces the same obstacle in his art career. As a sugar painter in Hong Kong, he could not make money out of it.
Born in a family specializing in handwork for at least three generation, Kao was trained by his parents into a craftsman. At a very young age, Kao was taught to learn how to make diverse patterns out of copper wires, in the shapes of animals, architectures, and Chinese characters.
In 2001, when he ended his high school study, he went to Shenzhen by himself, a Southern city in China near Hong Kong, in order to learn the traditional art of sugar painting. He was very faithful and devoted, and gained the recognition of his master, an experienced sugar painter.
Kao and Lonesome met each other on the street in Tsim Sha Tsui in 2010. On that day, Lonesome had not sold anything out. Bored and exhausted, Lonesome noticed Kao, who sat behind an paper-made advertisement board silently for almost the whole day. Oppositely,it was an abundant day for Kao, because the sales of copper wire products were pretty good that day.
Lonesome stroke up a conversation with Kao about his copper wires handwork then found the young man was really familiar with things of the old memory, Bruce Lee, Sammo Hung, and Elvis Presley. Kao even collected the same series of paperback cartoons as Lonesome did.
After knowing Kao was a sugar painter, Lonesome asked him why he did not sell sugar-painting products. Kao’s answer at that time was that sugar painting could not receive due respect as a commercial business.
In Hong Kong, few people master the sugar painting skill. In spite of the scarcity, Kao earns little money from sugar painting, as he only performs sugar painting as a busker during holidays. Oppositely, his copper wires career is more popular. Passers-by would like to buy the pattern of their names or cartoon characters in copper wires.
Kao described Lonesome as the “history textbook” of Hong Kong for Lonesome’s insight and passion of Hong Kong culture, but held a reserved suggestion for the personal exhibition dream. “It could happen in the future if he could find someone financially support the his Bruce Lee paintings exhibition, as we are not provided with a positive living environment, ” Kao said, “But I hope he could make it one day, after all he has spent so much time on painting. ”
Eight years ago, when travelling in mainland China, some businessmen in Shanxi province invited Lonesome to display his paintings with the title of “Hong Kong famous artist” at local, but he refused.
“I know it could be easier that way, while many Hong Kong artists did it, but that is not what I want,” Lonesome said.
In Hong Kong, Government departments like Hong Kong Arts Development Council and Leisure and Cultural Services Council set a large fund, around HK$135,000,000 every year to support artists for their art career, but most of which was for young artists and exchanges internationally.
Meevi Choi, 27, a Hong Kong painter, who lives in a 287 square-foot unit in an industrial building in Kwen Tong. She said those grant schemes are more related to operas and dramas, so they painters have little chance to apply for those financial support.
Besides, due to the colonial history, many foreign people live in Hong Kong and have a closed cultural circle that seldom allows local artists in. Many international art galleries start their business in Hong Kong in recent years, like Ben Brown Gallery, Gagosian Gallery and Edouard Malingue Gallery, which has exerted more pressure on local painters’s living conditions.
Kao’s words make sense, and in spite of Lonesome’s efforts, his burning dream, the personal exhibition waits for a good opportunity, or it could just turn to ashes.