Yeung Sau-churk’s long journey from bored bookkeeper to rebellious artist to wise teacher
By Kristy Tong
In a local secondary school, a man wearing round, black-rimmed glasses and his snow-white hair in a ponytail steps into the art room. He greets each of the students like an old friend and asks whether they missed him. Throughout the lesson, he constantly asks questions and requires them take photographs to capture different visual elements of objects such as metal surfaces, lines, and corners, in order to train their observation and artistic sense.
Artist and teacher Ricky Yeung Sau-churk describes himself as “being possessed by other spirits” once he enters a classroom. The 64-year-old cannot wait to share his experience and knowledge. He enjoys teaching so much that even retirement cannot stop him and he is currently an artist-in-residence who teaches art workshops at various primary and secondary schools.
It is hard to imagine that Yeung spent the first part of his working life with his head buried in ledgers and accounts for 18 years. After completing secondary school at the Morrison Hill Technical Institute, Yeung followed social expectations and opted for a stable office job. But after spending five years doing accounting work for an audit firm, Yeung discovered he had no interest in figures and could not bear the working environment.
“I felt like I was in jail. There was no human touch,” Yeung says. Inspired by works such as existential psychologist Rollo May’s Man’s Search for Himself, he reconsidered his career path and decided to take action to create meaning in his life.
He remembered that he used to enjoy art lessons at primary school and his work was always chosen for display. To explore his potential, he started to take art classes after work at a Caritas Social Centre. Later, he switched to a three-year part-time course organised by the Department of Extra-Mural Studies of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) when he was 26. This was a turning point.
“My desire to create was so strong that I was like burning myself out,” Yeung recalls of that time.
The conditions for practising art were less than ideal. Yeung lived in a cramped tenement house with his family and had to wait for them to sleep before he could practise calligraphy on weekday nights. On the weekends he would just stay on the verandah to draw and paint. His family disdained his passion for art and told him he would end up begging if that was all he did.
Yeung did not have the courage to quit his job because he had to support his parents and save money to rent a studio. “There were two of me at that time. I sold my body in the day to earn money and redeemed it at night to do what I loved,” he says. “Through art, I found a release from the suppression of work and healed myself.”
Yeung’s early artworks were radical, sexual, and vulgar. He was the first artist to adopt condoms as a material, using condoms, bamboo sticks and cotton wool to make the sculpture People vs People in 1981.The work depicts office workers’ attempts to cheat and outwit their colleagues. Another acclaimed work was his 1987 performance installation Man and Cage. In this installation, the artist was trapped in a bamboo cage, with his face painted white and his body painted red. He kept climbing inside the cage and yelling for 48 hours as a commentary on Hong Kong’s limited living space.
Yeung’s style during this period made some people uncomfortable. In 1984, two of his pieces depicting sexual intercourse were removed from an exhibition in the Ninety Seven Restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong after just one day due to diners’ complaints.
Although art provided Yeung with an outlet to vent his frustrations and disillusionment with work, society and his loss of his earlier Christian beliefs, it did not prevent him from experiencing a serious breakdown at the age of 37. The last straw was when he wrote eight cheques incorrectly in one day, something he had never done before. With his girlfriend’s encouragement, he finally quit his job and travelled around Europe for 15 months.
When Yeung came back to Hong Kong, he decided to pick up his studies and applied to study fine arts at HKU. His interviewers recognised him as a rising artist with some fame, and told him they were impressed by his performance in Man and Cage. He was accepted to study fine arts and comparative literature at the age of 39. Yeung threw himself into his studies to make up for lost time and spent most of his time in the library reading books.
Studying at university helped Yeung to find his path and put his life on the right track. He still had anger but wanted to transform it into energy for teaching, so he decided to apply for a teaching job after graduation. But it was not easy for a 42 year-old with no teaching experience. It took him a year to find a post as an art teacher in Fanling Lutheran Secondary School.