Yale-China captures Hong Kong’s local flavor

At the Yale-China Association, illustrator Michael Sloan is bringing Hong Kong’s authentic street markets to life.
At the Yale-China Association, illustrator Michael Sloan is bringing Hong Kong’s authentic street markets to life. Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

The Yale-China Association’s newest art exhibit brings Hong Kong’s street markets to life on Temple Street.

The exhibit, which opened earlier this month, features 18 portraits and street scenes that local illustrator Michael Sloan created during a yearlong residency in Hong Kong. Sketched and then painted in watercolor and acrylic, the works primarily portray locals in the Tai Po and Mong Kok East street markets. Sloan said that the paintings, some of which have an explicitly political message, illustrate the dichotomy of Hong Kong’s social spheres.

Curator Annie Lin ’09, senior program officer for the arts at the Yale-China association, said Sloan’s work depicts a side of Hong Kong that is often forgotten, but is as integral to the city as its glossy, tourist-friendly enclaves.

“It’s a part of the city that’s often in black and white, but Michael brings it into color — what’s often in the background, he brings to the foreground,” Lin said.

Sloan has worked as an illustrator for the last two decades, drawing for newspapers and magazines such as “The New York Times,” “The Wall Street Journal” and “The New Yorker.” He is also the creator of “Zen of Nimbus, ” a comic series about a scientist who struggles with fame and fortune after discovering an outer space phenomenon. “Paintings of Hong Kong Street Markets” is Sloan’s first experiment in portraiture.

Lin said she has been a fan of Sloan’s work since the two met a number of years ago. She reached out to him this summer about the possibility of showcasing his work at the Yale-China Association. She added that Sloan’s work, which grew out of extended, first-hand experience with a community, speaks to Yale-China’s mission to promote “a true bicultural understanding.”

“There’s great value to developing an intimacy with a place,” Sloan said. “My work is about getting to know the rhythms of a particular street or neighborhood, recognizing the same people.”

Sloan said he had visited Hong Kong a number of times prior to living there, but never for more than a few days at a time. During those trips he sketched mostly scenes of the harbor and other better-known aspects of the city, he said.

Sloan added that living in Hong Kong and exploring the city beneath its commercial surface inspired him to start sketching street markets. He found the city’s commercial sphere, dominated by large glass and metal malls, to be soulless and hygienic. The street markets felt much more authentic to him, and he was usually the only white foreigner in these markets, which had few signs in English — and, he added, he does not speak Chinese.

In addition to illustrating the tension between the sterilized and authentic aspects of the city, Sloan said his work depicts the love-hate relationship between Chinese mainlanders and the residents of Hong Kong Island.

“Mainlanders are subject to humiliation and discrimination because they look and behave differently,” Sloan said. He explained that social norms like spitting and pushing, which are acceptable in Mainland China, are considered vulgar in Hong Kong and give rise to cultural prejudices.

He cited a painting of a “parallel trader,” someone who transports goods between Hong Kong and Mainland China — for instance, infant formula, the quality of which is not trusted on the Mainland. Sloan said he depicted this man as dignified despite his allegedly disreputable profession, adding that this is the first time he has combined his sketch work and his editorial work.

“Here, my opinions about what I’ve drawn are pretty clear,” he said.

Sloan is married to Leslie Stone, the Yale-China Association’s director for Hong Kong and director of education. The couple moved to Hong Kong for the year with their three children so that Stone could run Yale-China’s Hong Kong Office.

The family lived on the New Asia College campus in an apartment that has belonged to Yale-China since the 1970s, Stone said. She explained that the Yale-China Association and New Asia College established a partnership in the 1950s that has facilitated cultural and educational exchanges among their students ever since.

Every two years, four Yale-China Teaching Fellows are appointed to teach foundation courses for underclassmen majoring in English at New Asia College, Stone explained. Sloan said living on the university campus allowed his family and the Teaching Fellows to share parts of their lives with one another, and that the fellows introduced Sloan to the neighborhoods he painted, he said.

Sloan is the fifth artist to be featured in Yale-China’s art exhibit series, which began four years ago. Lin, who previously worked on the Association’s “Foothills” exhibit, featuring photography from China’s Xiuning County, said she hopes visitors to the exhibit will appreciate the dignity that Sloan brings to the everyday people he paints.

“These pigs are something that might be considered grotesque,” Lin said of a painting of a butcher’s stall, “but the role Michael shows them to play in society could be considered beautiful.”

“Michael Sloan: Paintings of Hong Kong Street Markets” is on display weekdays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at 442 Temple St. through June 7.

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