The veneer of Hong Kong

East meets West; a phrase so oft-repeated, its meaning diminished for the global generation. In days gone by, Hong Kong encapsulated the blurring of the line. But where is that line today? Hong Kong will always fascinate. For how it came about, for what it was and is, and for what it hopes to be. Today, Hong Kong is suffering an identity crisis. It stands battered and bruised, up against emergent upstarts and mainland behemoths in the battle for regional supremacy.  The son of an ex-pat, but who had lived his entire life in the SAR, told me, ‘it is a place that has lost its soul.’ This malaise has been brought about more sharply, post-handover, by Hong Kong’s ever shifting relationship with its motherland. Recently I watched a compelling illustration of this relationship in a cinema just 20 miles from where it was filmed. Yet how far really divides the life captured in ‘China’s Van Gogh,’ from that of those who sat watching with me? The historical backdrop is an astonishing tale in itself, before you overlay the beautifully captured and poignant personal narrative.

Following the signing of the first of the ‘unequal treaties’ in 1842 ‘Hong Kong’, the island was ceded in perpetuity to the UK. Kowloon Peninsula followed in 1860, but it wasn’t until 1898, when the New Territories also came under British colonial rule for the infamous 99-year lease (never buy leasehold!), that the territory we see today was realised. Previous to the 1984 Sino-British Joint declaration, it was only these ‘New Territories’ which were legally to be returned. That the 1997 handover included the whole of Hong Kong was down in small part to British diplomacy, and in large measure to the perceived necessity of China to right some historic wrongs. And so, what began as a collection of fishing villages now stands at a population of 7.5 million. Hong Kong is in its third iteration; gone is the cotton mercantile age and diminishing is the financial capital synonymous with sharp suits of the 80’s. Today Hong Kong is searching for its new future, something to prop up the diminishing significance of its economy and drive the voracious and unsustainable property market which cannibalises everything else.

But, for this remarkable and well-known tale of growth and success, there is an equally astonishing mainland narrative, one which completes the double helix and may even one day eclipse Hong Kong’s storied history. Just across the border, lies the city of Shenzhen, again a simple collection of villages in origin, and by 1979 a town of just 30,000 on the Kowloon-Canton railway line, when it was awarded city status. Was it a coincidence that it was earmarked as the first of China’s special economic zones in 1980, lying just a few short miles and a couple of lush green mountains from the capitalist monolith that was becoming Hong Kong?

Shenzhen is to many Hong-Kongers a place where things are made and where invention takes place, where industry catches fire. Pretty much what Hong Kong was to the world, before production, labour costs and sheer lack of space resulted in the loss of business and the dawning of the ubiquitous ‘Made in Taiwan’ age of the 80’s and 90’s. To many more Hong Kongers and expats alike, it is simply the go-to venue for cheap electrical goods, cheap tailoring and dress-making and hooky designer grey imports, if you know the right places to look (everywhere). It quickly eclipsed Hong Kong in terms of population and now numbers over 12 million residents, all on the make and in a hurry. No longer will the next great tech start-up base themselves in Silicon Valley, today, they head to Shenzhen. Many of Chinas megaliths reside there. TenCent, Huawei (and for the balance of fairness), Oneplus, and Vanke etc. Walk into any of the vast computer centres and leave carrying components, literally, by the handful. Loose chips in one hand, circuit boards in the other. Setup supply chains today deliver to the world tomorrow.

I’ve only seen a small part of Shenzhen, but what it offers is clearly very different to Hong Kong, or at least, the aspects I know. ‘Dafen Village’, the setting of ‘China’s Van Gogh’s’ is one such example of this. In my mind, the name conjured up images of lush green grass surrounding a hotchpotch of rickety wooden houses, a slew of tourists arriving every 20 minutes by bus. The film shattered this idyllic image with one more realistic to the Chinese dream; a close collection of low-rise utilitarian blocks wedged under an elevated motorway, replete with teeming alleyways and run-down facades but with a constant buzz of pure industry. Since 1989 it has become synonymous with the creation of ‘replica,’ oil paintings by famous artists such as Van Gogh, da Vinci and Rembrandt. From just twenty ‘painters’ at inception to over 10,000 workers at its peak, hundreds of thousands of copies every year are produced there, with a total turnover of approx. $630 million. A village no more, but a story synonymous with the entrepreneurial nature of the new China.

The documentary focuses on two long established painters, who had lived and worked their entire lives producing copies for westerners. The emotional core of the film is the journey of Xiaoyong Zhao who, alongside his family, claims to have painted over 100,000 Van Gogh’s, visiting the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam to view the original works. My preconceptions about Dafen was that of a production line, which in truth it was, but this story added the fine brush strokes of an artist to the paint by numbers reality. Zhao paced behind as his employees worked, giving constant and unwanted feedback; the colour, the shape, the style, it wasn’t right, do it again. As he talked about painting and about Van Gogh, in particular, his passion for artistry and worship of the man shone through. The film was a visceral examination of this man’s tortured reality, one even he was not fully aware of.

To me, this was an insight into the real China, not the shiny PR-friendly view cultivated and encouraged by the CPC, slowly seeping into the western consciousness. He is, like all of his counterparts, originally from a tiny country village.  When one of his apprentices’ sulks following some more ‘feedback; Zhao admonishes him, suggesting he goes back to working as a poor farmhand, if he doesn’t want to cut it in the big city. The workers sleep where they work, eat together in dirty and bleak backstreet kitchens and find small pleasure feeding a bird from their hands whilst on a break. Xiaoyong dreams of visiting Europe, via the open invitation from his main client, who sells his work in Amsterdam. But his wife sits in the background, tutting and grinding, the realist antithesis of his naïve excitement when he talks of his art. He is the perfect henpecked husband – a big talker with his employees, but a different shadow of himself in the marital home.

Finally, he is off. Upon arrival in Amsterdam, we discover that his works are not sold in some grand salon, but in a pokey stall and with a mark-up eight times his own sale price. As he lights yet another of his industrial strength cigarettes, the realisation is palpable. Then, finally, he stands before the original masterpieces that he has spent his lifetime replicating. His enjoyment is child-like, ‘the colour is different’; after all this time, now he knows, and we start to see a true image of the ‘artist’ in him for the first time and not the huà jiā, (painters or art workers) to which he is usually so scathingly referred.

We see his passion igniting something more than he has previously been, more than just a painter. He visits Arles in France, the long-time home and final resting place of Van Gogh. He lights three cigarettes and solemnly stacks them atop the headstone, carelessly brushing aside the less reverent offerings already there. He and his companions marvel at the architecture. They stand transfixed in the piazza, staring at the deepest of blue sky sunsets. At this point the audience are themselves bemused; familiar with Hong Kong’s stunning sunsets, which have little to do with deep azure tones and more to do with the curiously artistic filter of sunlight through smog. He takes out his easel and paints, the same image as ever, but this time his reference is real, so real he can feel it. They drink Baijiu and tinnies in their cheap and cheerful hotel room, no advance booking, for a better deal. They carouse through the empty cobbled streets and he shouts in appreciation, ‘I am Van Gogh now!’

And just like that, we are back in Dafen. The barefaced industry and utility of the surroundings on his train journey home is beautifully juxtaposed against his arrival by train into Amsterdam. As he gazes, we feel the sorrow of a man who knows there is a place he would rather be. The visit has a profound effect; he develops original paintings to supplement his day job and at dinner he regails his wide-eyed contemporaries of what he has seen. There is an accord struck over Karaoke, they will become not just painters, but artists (yì shù jiā), free from the tyranny of the monotony and conformity which earmarks their existence. We feel their joy and their hope. Finally, he goes back to the village in which he grew up. We had seen him here before, applying for his visa. He embraces his eighty-year-old mum and paints her portrait. A passing driver shouts, ‘its much quicker to take a photo!’ and it encapsulates my impression of China in one fell swoop. The traditional and the modern, jostling for position, the perception of what a nation wants to become, so at odds with the magnificence of what it has already been. There will be only one winner, the losers left behind, still living in a world which no longer exists – the oil painted canvas to the led lit entertainment screens.

This documentary was only more significant to me as I watched in a place separated from Shenzhen by just a few miles, some paperwork, and an ‘invisible’ border, but who in body could be one and the same. Yet the outlook, the experiences, the perception of life were so very different. I watched on with interest to see the reactions of the audience, and yet they all took pleasure in the same things as I. The naivety of the protagonist, the small-time habits and concerns of people who have only seen the outside world on TV or their phone. It was poignant to think that aspects of this wide-eyed wonder could still be felt in corners of Hong Kong that people don’t often wish to talk about. The migrant workers, caged home residents and extreme poor, whose money does not go on entertainment and enjoyment, but on futile survival, do still exist and their life is not so very different from their cross border compatriots. Hong Kong offers some of the greatest disparity between rich and poor in all the world. It is a place of constant regeneration and whilst it is running just to stand still, it is also trying to evolve whilst retaining the intricate fabric of a society which has narrowed the gap between East and West. So, exactly how far is it from Hong Kong to Shenzhen? It may just be a few short streets to cross from one to another, but in terms of those clashing cultures? For most there is still a very long road yet to travel.


‘China’s Van Goghs,’ directed by Father and Daughter, Yu Haibo and Kiki Tianqi Yu is still currently showing in Hong Kong. Limited showings are at the Metroplex in Kowloon Bay, tickets are available here. In Mandarin with English and Chinese subtitles. Runtime: 82 minutes.



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