He plays gamblers and addicts on TV, but off-screen Chan Min-leung is a master Chinese painter.
Reporter: Charlie Leung
It was a rainy day on location in Sai Kung and some actors were standing around chatting, waiting for the shooting of the costume drama to continue. One of them, Chan Min-leung sat aside from the others and contemplated the mist that had lightly settled over a flowerbed. Captivated by the sight, Chan immediately drew the scene on the back of his script.
The name Chan Min-leung may not ring any bells, but his face is a familiar one. Many will have seen him on their television screens playing bit parts – a drug-user here, a swindler or a jobless, gambling addict there. The real Chan, aged 61, could not be more different from his on-screen persona; he is an artist, an accomplished Chinese painter who has won numerous awards and held exhibitions in Hong Kong and overseas.
Chan has been drawing and painting since he was young. His father was a baker who ran his own shop in the 1960s. When the bakery closed at 11p.m., Chan would cover the greasy worktops with newspaper and paint. At first, he did not have any teachers and taught himself by copying the pictures he liked in magazines.
Chan began to study Chinese painting at a studio at the age of 17 and threw himself into the art. However, when he said he wanted to be a painter, he got little support because nobody thought he would be able to make a living as an artist.
“Though the living was hard at that time, painting was my only occupation. I had given up all other activities for it. My motive for going to work is also painting.’’ Chan says.
In 1972, the bakery closed down because of the high rent. Chan decided to start his own bakery in Ma Wan, thinking he would be able to control his schedule and have more time for painting. However, as Chan had never started his own business before, it took him more time to learn and manage the bakery than he had anticipated.
In order to spare more time for painting, he soon closed the bakery and went to work in a carving factory. He also taught Chinese painting at a community centre and worked for a theatre company, both onstage and behind the scenes. Chan says he was lucky because his boss at the carving factory supported his painting and allowed him to be absent on weekdays to teach at the community centre.
Then, in 1977, a friend of Chan’s, who knew he had drama experience through the theatre company, approached him to ask if he would be interested in bit parts in TV drama.
In the 1970s, Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB), Commercial Television and Rediffusion Television were engaged in fierce competition and recruited large numbers of actors. Chan began his TV career and was formally contracted as a TVB artist in 1989.
“Show business is brilliant; it’s like a ‘Dream Factory’. People dream of becoming superstars. But it is also superficial and impractical,” Chan says. As a member of the entertainment industry, Chan has also thought about becoming a leading actor one day.
However, he understands he has no control over his career in show business. He explains that while one person may become popular overnight, there will be somebody else who has good acting skills but does not get the support from the audience.
“It’s a job where you can become rich and famous, but then you can also lose everything suddenly,” Chan adds. Chan is stoical about not landing leading roles. “To me it is a job, it doesn’t matter if I am a star or not.”
However, he does get upset about being looked down on as a bit-part actor. He is still furious when he recalls the behaviour and attitude of one assistant director. “I still remember him [assistant director] looking at me with scorn even now,’’ Chan says. Later, that assistant director was promoted to director. On one occasion, Chan was asked to help translate a script into the Xinhui dialect, but the director challenged him. Chan decided not to answer that director any more.
Not all his co-workers have such a bad attitude though, and Chan says some TVB colleagues become “more polite and respectful to me after learning I am a Chinese painter,’’ Chan says. One producer asked him to make Chinese paintings as stage props for a costume drama series The Legendary Four Aces which turned out to be a huge hit.
“Being an actor and a Chinese painter at the same time is contradictory. Though both of them are art, the lifestyle is completely different,” observes Chan. “Being a Chinese painter is a goal that can be achieved by your effort.”
Chan says a painter can control his output, he knows exactly what he needs to practise in order to improve. However, as an actor, the outcome is greatly influenced by others, such as producers, directors and other actors. Chan says there is a great contrast in the way he handles the two kinds of work.
Chan explains that in a production, the ultimate responsibility lies with the director, Even if he spots problems during a shoot, all Chan can do is be silent. He is not “qualified’’ to voice his opinions unless the director actively asks for suggestions. Chan understands that there must be a hierarchy otherwise the director cannot control the situation.
While he respects the director’s role, Chan tries his best to take show business newcomers under his wing. He points out their mistakes and encourages them to learn other skills so they can survive when they leave the industry. “Show business is bustling with noise and excitement, but it is easy for people to waste their time unless they have other ways out to learn different skills,” he says.,
For his part, Chinese painting has always been Chan’s first priority. Being an actor is a way for him to make enough money to have time to paint. Chan says if he can generate enough income from the sale of his paintings and get enough students, he might quit show business one day.
In fact, Chan knows that if he were willing to paint more commercial works of lower quality, he could make more money. But it is a compromise he is not willing to make. The perfectionist once stopped working for a year and lived without an income in order to carefully analyse the style of his previous paintings so that he could improve and reach a breakthrough in his art.
For all the ups and downs of work as a jobbing actor, Chan considers himself to be lucky. His acting identity has helped him to be better known as a painter.
“I kind of believe in luck. Everybody has their own destiny. There is something that we cannot insist on, but people should first try their best and fulfill their responsibilities,’’ Chan says. He believes fate has been kind to him, both in his painting career and in his marriage.
“Marrying my wife was the luckiest thing in my life.’’ Chan says. Chan met his wife when they were both involved in amateur theatre. For their honeymoon, they went to Zhangjiajie in Hunan province at a time when tourism was still undeveloped in the region. They went there for the spectacular scenery, to find inspiration for Chan’s paintings.
Chan says that 10 years ago, his wife retired and put all the money from her pension into paying off the mortgage on their apartment, even though he urged her to put away some of it for herself. She passed away four years ago but Chan is still moved when he talks about her contribution to their family.
Today, the apartment they shared in Mong Kok is crammed with Chan’s belongings. Books, papers and art materials are stacked on tables and piled high on chairs; an unopened bag of rice sits next to the front door. The loss of his soul mate has been a blow but Chan still has painting.
The walls are covered with his works; there are lush landscapes, vibrant flowers and authoritative pieces of calligraphy. Chan shows them excitedly and explains the techniques and ideas behind each one. As he does so, it is clear he is not playing any character but just being Chan Min-leung.