“It was no accident that Hong Kong became a centre or a marketplace for Chinese paintings and works of art,” Sunny Tang, curator at HKMoA, said. “The collections in our museum, especially those major donations from private collectors, illustrate the trajectory of art collecting in Hong Kong and retrace the footsteps of the city’s history. These precious works of art ended up in Hong Kong because of the city’s unique status.”
Tang is responsible for the new presentation of the Chih Lo Lou Collection of Chinese paintings and calligraphy, a key donation to HKMoA in 2018 that was introduced to the public for the first time as part of the reopening of the museum, which turns 58 in 2020.
The Chih Lo Lou Collection was founded by the late entrepreneur and philanthropist Ho Iu-kwong, who built one of the three most important private collections of Chinese paintings and calligraphy in Hong Kong (the other two are namely Xubaizhai collection compiled by the late Chinese art connoisseur Low Chuck-tiew, also housed at HKMoA, and Bei Shan Tang, originally the private studio of the late philanthropist Lee Jung Sen).
“Although I was a student of science, I have read a lot since I was a child. I’m passionate about Chinese culture, and I feel strongly about the Chinese nation,” Ho said in a 1978 interview with the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly. Born in Guangdong, China, in 1907, Ho experienced early childhood during a time of turbulence. The country, under the last years of the rule of the Qing dynasty, was embroiled in poverty and chaos as well as foreign invasion. He later moved to Hong Kong, which was already ceded to Britain as a colony and founded his construction company Fook Lee in Hong Kong in 1938 at the age of 31.
Ho’s dedicated passion for Chinese art, cultural heritage and virtues formed the basis of Chih Lo Lou Collection, which turned out to be a rescue of Chinese works of art in the times of turmoil. “During the 1940s and 50s, wars and political turmoil were raging over mainland China throughout the 20th Century, and many escaped from mainland China to Hong Kong, bringing these cultural treasures with them,” said Tang. “History gave collectors an opportunity to get their hands on these artworks.”
In order to safeguard these paintings and calligraphy works from being lost, Ho reportedly spent a fortune to acquire the works dated from as early as Song dynasty (960-1279) and assembled the collection under the name of his studio Chih Lo Lou, which means “house of bliss.” Over the years, the collection has earned a renowned reputation and has been exhibited at museums all over the world, including HKMoA and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
“My father’s collection could be worth tens or even hundreds of billion dollars. It’s hard to say, but [we] do not want to make a profit out of it. We just want to pass them on to future generations,” said Ho Sai-chu, the eldest son of Ho senior, in an interview with Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly in 2016.
Eventually the collection found its way to HKMoA. The Ho family made a noble decision to donate a collection of 355 works of painting and calligraphy to the museum, according to Tang. “The Ho family made the decision unanimously and donated the collection to us. On one hand private collectors understand that if they pass the collection on to the family, it will be separated and eventually lost. But by donating it to a public institution, this keeps not only the collection intact but also preserves the legacy,” said the curator. “Now these artworks belong to the city.”
The title of the first exhibition of the Chih Lo Lou permanent collection, A Pleasure Shared clearly reflects the spirit of this donation. The exhibition, said Tang, is intended to present an overview of this famed collection, but with a focus on paintings by Ming loyalists.
“In many cases collectors appreciate art based on its artistic merit. But to Ho, an artist’s integrity is the most important,” the curator said.
Having lived through some of the most turbulent times in modern Chinese history, it is not that difficult to understand Ho’s perspective. “Late Ming to early Qing was a period of transition, and artists emerged during this time pledged loyalty to the fallen regime, rejecting the new rulership of the Qing dynasty, which was established by the Manchurians who invaded the middle earth from the northeast,” Tang said.
“To demonstrate their loyalty, these leftover subjects refused to serve the new rulership, withdrawing themselves from the real world. Some even committed suicide as an act to preserve their dignity. Ho truly admired their spirit.”
Tang said these Ming loyalist artists expressed their sadness and melancholy in subtle ways, through the minimalistic pictorial composition and the portrayal of landscapes with dry brushstrokes to create a distant world that is disconnected from reality. One example is Retreat in a Mountain of Pines by Hongren (1610—1664), one of the Four Monks. Hongren painted a landscape of an oddly shaped barren rock mountain with harsh straight lines and dry brushstrokes. All traces of people are absent from the painting. Tang said the work can be considered a reflection of Hongren’s life path, and his choice to cut ties to the outside world by becoming a monk.
The ink scroll Returning from Fishing (1672) by Gong Xian (1619 — 1689) portrays an otherworldly landscape of mountains and rocks, and in its midst sits an empty, solitary boat floating on the water. Further down along the shore sees an isolated house with its windows shut, shielded from the rest of the world by the dense woods. There is no living creature in sight.
“Usually boats are painted properly. But here, Gong Xian adopted a minimalistic way to depict a boat with only two brushstrokes,” Tang said. “The painting tells you that the man has returned from fishing, but it doesn’t tell you where the man is. This landscape painting is in fact a portrayal of solitude, which is a common thread in many of these paintings.”
The exhibition also highlights Ho’s friendship with modern artists, including Zhang Daqian (1899—1983). Splashed-colour Landscape (1966) was painted after Zhang met Ho in Hong Kong, according to Tang. Zhang worked on the painting upon his return to Brazil, as his way to celebrate Ho’s 60th birthday. The curator added that there were writing and calligraphy works commissioned for the occasion. “It was a common practice back in the days to commission artists to create a celebratory work. But this is rare today.”
Tang said the presentation of Ho’s collection at the museum puts the history of collecting and art connoisseurship of Hong Kong into perspective. “Hong Kong today has a vibrant art market but history made Hong Kong a safe haven for these cultural treasures in the first place,” he said.