Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong

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Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong

Chris Kyme (pictured above) continues his “Postcard from Hong Kong” series and for November his topic is Stanley Wong and Stanley Wong (anothermountainman) …..


Okay, so you’re reading this in December but it’s my November ‘postcard’. Whatever. And apparently the Hong Kong Kam Fan awards took place the week before, except I can’t write about it because I wasn’t there as it seems to have been a well kept secret. Perhaps Hong Kong has been somewhat preoccupied these days.

In other news, I did know that an exhibition was taking place at the Hong Kong Heritage museum, which featured the commercial and artistic work of one..sorry make that two..Stanley Wongs.

Now some of you, depending on your age and location, may know of Stanley either as an advertising creative director, or in his other guise as anothermountainman.

Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong

Having worked with him 30 years ago in his days as a young art director, it goes without saying that I’m quite familiar with both Stanleys. However, given that he has now put together this fascinating retrospective of his work, I felt it only fitting to share some insights with the Asian regional creative community. His career path having been less than typical, and the man himself being something of an enigma (putting it lightly). So, I interviewed him, Just for you. That’s how conscientious I am.

Stanley, what’s your background?
“Okay, in my youth I first of all studied in Teacher’s College, studying Design & Technology on a 2 year course. So, training to be a teacher. But during the 2nd year, I applied to Hong Kong Polytechnic (in those days not yet a university) for a 4 year diploma course but was kicked out after 1 year based on the school application requirement. So I thought – okay, if you won’t let me carry on, I’ll show you. My friend helped me get a job in a small design company. That’s how I started out. I was very nervous, I had no experience.

I then got a job at Modern Advertising in 1985, and so began my advertising career. The advertising ‘heyday’ was also Hong Kong’s heyday. Then I joined Grey, then JWT, BBH Singapore and TBWA Hong Kong. That’s my 15 year advertising career path. I really enjoyed those times. We had positive competition, clients were like partners. Competition was encouraged. The work we did was very well received by the public. TV commercials were part of entertainment, part of their life. Not pushy or annoying and hard sell like today. At JWT, we were always a top 3 creative agency in Hong Kong. I was there 6 years. It wasn’t just about awards. It was a good healthy agency, with strong strategic planning. I really enjoyed my time there.”

Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong
Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong

And I thought, what can I do? Promoting something. Making a voice. Telling a story. What is it? What message do I want to pass on? If I want to promote harmony. I need a bigger name and objective. I never considered I would become an artist. I was still working very long hours. I prepared my name and mind.

By the year 2000 I started my own production house. It just so happened that I had a project where I was asked to do a personal installation. That’s when I started my art. I did my (now famous) ‘Red white and blue ‘series. If you ask me to follow my heart, that was an interesting starting point. My message to youngsters – stop thinking too much. Let your heart tell you not your mind. So for the past 20 years I have followed my heart ,working continuously.

When I left TBWA I decided to move into directing TVCs, it wasn’t for my enjoyment. It was a natural progression from advertising. My ultimate objective to learn film and eventually and make my own movie. I joined Centro Digital. 19 years ago. I was 40 years old. It was November. A beautiful Autumn day in Hong Kong. I was in a taxi. I thought – I am 40! I want to direct commercials but nobody is asking me to direct. I am 40 but I am zero. I have nothing in hand. I am 40. I have to face this and make it happen. Then I got my first storyboard. Very quickly I was lucky, performing as a capable director didn’t take long. I got more boards, bigger budgets….I learned from watching good directors during my 15 years. David Tsui, Alfred Hau, Louis Ng. Nelson Ng editing. On big and small productions. I made about about 200 commercials and so I learned 200 times. Observing. When I started directing I put what I had learned into practice. All the good things. For the past 20 years I produced some of my own ideas or those from agencies and by today, now another 200 commercials or short films. Finally 2 years ago I produced my first personal film ‘Dance Goes On’, about dance three dancers living in Hong Kong). Although it’s not a storytelling feature film, it’s also not a typical documentary. The core message is a positive one for Hong Kong, about Hong Kong moving on.

Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong

How do you divide the two worlds, art and commerce?
“Within my new agency life, I was doing designs like the Chungking Express poster for Wong Kar Wai, and working with (local theatre group) Zuni Icosahedron. Though commercial, considered those works as still representing me. My art began to develop from there. My ‘Red, white and blue’ series which I have been doing for 20 years really represents me. So I focused on messages about social content, and helping in meaningful ways, like using RWB for designing products to help the mentally ill. The whole journey has been important to me. I see Hong Kong changing and I respond in different ways. Making voices, connecting audiences.”

Has your commercial background inspired you as an artist?
“When I started doing personal work in the art scene, doing exhibitions, installations, gallery work..the art circle people considered my work as not art. Because I came from an advertising background. My work was very design-oriented. At same time, looking at my personal work, advertising people would think that I was no longer commercial. I was stuck in the middle of two worlds. People make personal judgements – what is art? What is design? To me it’s simple. A poster you call design, but when the message is purely personal I call it art, even though it’s printed not painted. If art is not from the heart, then it’s commercial. I see both different angles. I keep doing personal work.

So my art is informed by my advertising background because my message is always clear. Like my Bhuddist-inspired messages, or Red White & Blue. For most hardcore art insiders, art should be expressed in an abstract way, open to interpretation. They consider my work too clear, lacking art language or feeling. I don’t mind if you call it art or design. I am from an advertising background, if I want to get my message across to an audience I have to make it clear. If the public has to guess what an advertising message is about, then it’s nonsense. So, you’re right. I grew up learning to be very single minded, very clear. That’s my approach to art.”

What are you trying to say?
“From 2000 onwards, I started focusing on social values. Promoting people in harmony. Like RWB promoting a positive Hong Kong, when it was so negative after 1997. Like the photo series of unfinished buildings called Lanwei (Rotten-Tail). I was shooting these for 7 years…across 12 cities. To talk about social issues. Or my ‘Tomorrow’s Daily Newspaper’ published on 2007.07.01 and 2017.07.01, which was dated 2047.07.01 (when ‘One Country Two Systems’ is meant to end).

Talking about Hong Kong remaining unchanged for 50 years. What would be the Hong Kong news then? I asked writers, reporters, artists, students and advertising people to come up with news (and ad) in 2047. Of course it was all very negative and miserable. Is this the future we imagine? What should we do? I promised myself to do one every 10 years. I did another one in 2017. The result was the same, the views expressed were not very promising.

When I look back, since I became a Bhuddist 15 years ago..I slowly started doing work on installations and videos on Bhudist beliefs and values…I think those messages are good to share with people in the city. When I look back 20 years later I see two clear directions in my work. Social values, and spiritual values and beliefs from Bhuddism.”

Tell us about this exhibition
“I’m fortunate to live two lives. They complement each other. Two paths. Two objectives. So in this exhibition we have the Black Zone, my personal work, White Zone, my commercial and commissioned work, and Grey Zone which is a combination of both. Commissioned work also features my personal expression. I’ve been lucky to find clients who ask both sides of me to do their projects. So I can inject my values into brand work, like for the clothing brand in China called Exception. I started that as a photographer, then artistic consultant, and have been doing so for 18 years now. Injecting social beliefs and environmental values into a clothing brand. We also opened a bookshop called Fangsuo
There are others, a property client in Shenzen..not based on Western inspiration, but more going back to inner values. For Cafe de Coral, a fastfood chain store in Hong Kong, it was about inspiring local neighbourhood values. In future I hope I can persuade more commercial clients to not only talk about business and money.”

What does the future hold?
“In 2001 I initiated a project concluding 30 years of my career, inviting friends across generations and creative disciplines such as sculptors, clothes designers, graphic designers and film makers, across countries. Some well known icons like Yoji Yamamoto or the Creative Director of Muji, Kenya Hara and so on, based on the dialogue of ‘What’s next?’. Each basing their work on a single word. After the dialogue, they chose one of their work pieces to be part of a group exhibition, then I matched each piece with one of my own works.

So with this exhibition, which is called Time will tell’, to the public it is a retrospective. However, I don’t only want to look back on 40 years, but reflect more on the times we have lived through, and how we deal with time. How you participate. Can it be fast or slow? Continually making process. I put up a big sign ‘How you participate’. It’s not about results or accomplishments. I want to conclude 40 years. From here on, I’ll see how I continuously involve creating dialogue in different cities and surroundings, proposing messages for others to think about and so we inspire each other. I’ll keep working personally and commercially. I’ll be 60 next year after the show has finished in March. After that, I want to be reborn again. Make a film, be a painter. The next step of my education. I don’t know. I’m very prepared to start 40 years ago starting as a TV director from nothing.”

Chris Kyme is Co-founder and Creative Director at Kymechow, Hong Kong.