Winnie Chau talks to the renowned artist/designer at the retrospective presented especially on his 70th birthday.
“The most unforgettable design…” Kan Tai-keung pauses, as if to mentally scan through his entire 45-year professional life. But quickly he continues: “… must be one that has been loved by the public. Yet the ones the public disapproved of are just as unforgettable.” With more fondness than regret, Kan Suk (or ‘Uncle Kan’, which is how everyone addresses him) recalls his most denounced design.
Back in 1972, Kan was commissioned by Hongkong Post to design a pair of stamps in celebration of the Year of the Rat. His minimalist approach was, however, a step too forward for the conservative public to appreciate and, thanks to the monotone newspaper printing, the red-and-gold mice looked like a pair of human skulls in print. Condemnations against the inauspicious images actually lasted for a whole year, as 1972 turned out to be a tragic time for Hong Kong. The stamps were naturally blamed for the floods and large-scale fatal accidents. “The stamp [incident] in fact gave me a great setback. I wouldn’t want to be blamed like that,” says Kan. “But I still think the design was done well.” At least anothermountainman (aka Stanley Wong) would agree: not until the 90s did Wong get a chance to tell his teacher that he’d decided to become a designer when he saw those stamps during his secondary school years.
Unlike Wong, Kan didn’t set out to become a designer when he moved to Hong Kong from Guangdong at 15 years old. During his apprenticeship with a tailor, he painted and sketched as a pastime. When the 20-something knew that his much-admired ink painter Wucius Wong was teaching an elementary design course at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Extramural Studies, he went for it, thinking ‘never mind what he teaches’. More than a decade later, in 1979, Kan became the first designer to be selected as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons in Hong Kong. His most celebrated work is the logo of the Bank of China. Many respect him for that alone.
“But actually, I’m more into art [than design],” admits Kan, once a frustrated artist who didn’t get the recognition he deserved as an ink painter because ‘not many were willing to go to art exhibitions’. Partly for that reason, Kan prefers to hold the first exhibition of his 70th birthday series in a small gallery, albeit somewhat disproportionate to his fame, in Sheung Wan to get close to the old neighbourhood. Standing in front of the 70 miniatures of his past and new works (mixed with Chinese ink painting and calligraphy) that can’t simply be called ‘design’, the Septuagenarian tells us his next big plan: to make more time for his ink painting. “[Unlike design,] when you paint, you don’t need to worry about its functions or whether the painting will be hung up or who will hang it,” adds Kan.
Post 70 Art Exhibition is at Haji Gallery until Apr 4.