I have loved art for as long as I remember. Perhaps it was because my dad was an artist. I grew up surrounded by his paintings and his art books. Being part of my daily life, they were nothing “special,” yet invariably they held a special allure in my heart.
My mom told me that I was scribbling alongside my brother when I was three. We were still in China then. My brother was a much better scribbler than I was. According to mom, while brother was drawing airplanes and trains, I could only draw squiggly lines that best resembled worms.
When I was four, my family moved to Hong Kong. Gradually, we moved to a larger apartment. There was a whole room dedicated to painting. My father called it his painting studio. It was a playroom for me. Much of my free time was spent in this giant room, with oil paintings, some finished and some half-finished, plastered from wall to wall. It was a special moment each time I asked dad to set up a blank canvas for me on a tiny wooden board. It felt like a scared ritual. My dad would prepare a small palette of oil paint for me, along with linseed oil, turpentine, a few brushes and palette knives, and a stash of cut-up newspapers for wiping off colors from the brushes.
I loved the smell of the room. It was filled with the mixture of oil paint and turpentine. Highly toxic, perhaps? But I was so used to it that I always associated it with the special connection I built with dad and with art.
My father always called his paintings “commercial works.” I was too young to understand what that meant. He recruited my mom to help him by copying his paintings. He called this act “printing money”—It was a way to make a living and raise us kids. It took me many years to understand the concept. Meanwhile, I thought painting was so much fun, that almost every weekend, I would dabble on the canvas and copy whatever my dad was painting. He was doing a lot of landscapes and beach scenes. So those became the subjects of my art as well.
Sometimes I would deviate from the style of painting my father did. One day, at the age of five, I picked up a brush and started painting a boat on a piece of cardboard paper after I had eaten dinner. It was my after-dinner entertainment. I asked my parents to guess what I was painting. They said, “a boat!” Wanting to trick them, I started painting candles on the boat. They said: “It’s a birthday cake!” Then I kept on changing the subject and tried to turn the cake into a hat. I realized it wouldn’t look like a hat if there wasn’t a person underneath it. So I started painting the hair and face of a girl. My parents were puzzled for a long while what I was coming up with. When they saw the eyes, they knew I was turning this into a full-scale portrait! But I ran out of paper! So I asked my dad to fix it for me. He quickly attached an extra cardboard paper to the bottom of the paper I was painting on, the voila! I could keep on finishing the portrait. You can see the painting below. The place where the two pieces of paper were put together is clearly visible, which makes this painting really odd. But this portrait has become one of the most valued “family treasures” and is still hanging on the wall of my mom’s apartment today.
Apparently I was quite talented in painting. When I was in elementary school, I participated in many painting and calligraphy competitions and always managed to snatch some prizes. The “problem” was, I was also good at academics and other activities, such as reciting poems, gymnastics and dancing. Being at the top of my class every year made my parents believe that I was some sort of child prodigy and that I should give the academic subjects precedence to art, which they considered a hobby.
When I was a teenager, around the age of 14, I started to think seriously about my future career. I had this strong urge to become an artist—perhaps not surprisingly. Painting in Paris had became a romantic dream for me. I decided that I would go to Paris and study art.
That year, I enrolled myself in French and painting classes. Every week, I would spent hours and hours after school to attend lessons at l’Alliance Francaise and at an art studio, both in my neighborhood. Sometimes I would spend more time reading my French books than my school books. I would spend even more hours perfecting a sketch of a plaster statuette—sometimes up to 16 hours on one sketch. But I wouldn’t stop until I got it “right.”
By the time I was 17, I was almost ready to apply for universities in France. But a television news feature sealed my fate. The episode depicted how life was like for a group of Chinese students studying art in Paris. It showed how they had to work at menial jobs like washing dishes in order to have enough money to get by. Sometimes they wouldn’t even have enough money to buy soap. Life was not romantic as I had envisioned. My parents said, “Look at that! Do you want to live the same kind of life as them?” I was deeply discouraged.
Over the next couple of months, my dad asked me the question: “Would you prefer to have art or bread?” Even though he was an artist, he felt that he had struggled all his life and was not able to truly follow his dream to paint non-commercial paintings because he had family obligations. Being a traditional father as he was, he said that as a girl, it would be too tough to pursue the artistic path—especially in a cultural desert like Hong Kong. “You can paint as much as you want after you retire! Treat it like a hobby and you’d enjoy it more!” he advised.
I allowed myself to be persuaded and took the second-best choice of becoming a journalist instead. At least I didn’t have to become a lawyer or a business person, I thought! But giving up art turned out to be one of the greatest regrets of my life.
While the skills I learned from studying journalism have benefited me a great deal both career-wise and in my personal life, it turned out that the type of journalism that I wanted to do has been following a trajectory of death a few years after I graduated from university. Ironically, the world of art has transformed itself. Digital technology has greatly expanded the possibilities within the artistic field that neither I nor my father had ever imagined. If I had studied art in university, even if I could not do non-commercial art, I would still be able to choose among many professions, ranging from Web and graphic design, to product design, to architectural drawing to film post-production and so on—and be able to enjoy the work much better.
While I love writing, nothing beats the feeling of working with visual arts. So outside of work, I’m always seeking ways to express myself in visual and even performing arts.
Perhaps I should also blame myself for not standing up to my parents and insisting on following my own dreams. I have so much respect for children who have the guts to do that—refusing the path that their parents set out for them to follow. I was weak in comparison. But in the Chinese culture, children are expected to “respect” their parents and listen to what they say in all aspects of life—at least in my generation that was the case. I only regret that I did not rebel sooner. All these years, I have been living with unfulfilled dreams, pent-up frustrations, boredom, restlessness and the question of “What if?”
If you are a parent, would you allow your kids to follow their dreams, no matter how “odd” they might be? Or would you insist on their following the conventional path—the sure path to a “stable material life,” even if they have the talent for a certain “obscure” field?
If I would give one piece of advice to parents, I would say: “Let your child choose who and what they want to be!”