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Invisible, to the eyes
Chan Dick never seems to have grown up.
He was never serious about school and spent his childhood exploring the exciting confines of the world of cinema at an amusement park without a thought of chasing to be the first in class.
For this reason, perhaps, life and the daily objects through his lens are able to offer the world a glimpse of an unseen Hong Kong.
His latest work The Trek, for instance, is not about the human body, just as his Chai Wan Fire Station is not about a fire station. No Compromise from 2014, in turn, is a manifestation of determination with a touch of raw beauty. It brought Dick his first international award.
Are they all unseen to you?
The Child In Him
What makes the artist is his path to adulthood and the child in him.
Dick likens himself to Forrest Gump. He may have come to the realisation of late that he was blessed with dyslexia. “Thanks to the Google map, I finally can make my way when driving. I couldn’t read a map actually. Recently, I find myself weak in reading words. When I was a kid actually, I only fancied drawing and Chinese brush writing.”
When he was a child, he attended school in the morning. When not at school, he roamed the streets. Ngau Tau Kok was his home. He frequented Kai Tak Amusement Park for the free film screenings where he submerged himself in the world of movies. He lingered the line between the factual and the imaginary.
Dick’s after-school routine started with preparing lunch for his factory worker mum. As she left for work, he was off to the street. “I had no friends because of my unsociable disposition. After school, I would sometimes take a bus ride to Shatin. I could just wander around without getting bored. Or, I would go and see a film, usually at the Palace Theatre.”
His HKCEE results fell short of promise so he went for a graphic design programme at the HK Chingying Institute of Visual Arts. “My parents had no idea what graphic design was all about. Career prospects in advertising rang a bell though. One needs only learn a craft to make a decent living. That’s what they thought at the time.”
From realistic pencil drawing to airbrushing and using markers for silhouette sketches, he spotted a change in himself as he started to pick up speed and master the art of simplicity. A photography coursework sparked his interest in a road sign somewhere in Choi Hung and led him to buy his first camera – a Nikon FE2. Then and there, something clicked.
Subsequently, he left his drawing kit behind. “You go from one stage to another and there is no point turning back.” Obsessed with the craft, he entered the realm of photography. “I was hooked. I came out tops in the student group of a photo contest.”
After graduation, he became a photo assistant. “The company had three bosses. I used to work three shifts. The four-year stint made me nine years older. “The hectic work schedules also left him friendless. On his days off, he continued to wander the streets and spend time in the cinema.
“I enjoy my role as an observer. People tend to polish their words but your body language gives you away. Observation, however, gives you intimate knowledge of your subject. It feels great.” Chai Wan Fire Station was the fruit of this tireless observation.
One day from outside the window in his studio bathroom he heard noises of fire fighters playing a game of volleyball. For the entire month that followed, he peeked through that window and observed the daily activities at the fire station. Over a 15-month span, from a single perspective, about 1,500 photos were produced. Chai Wan Fire Station was by far his “bulkiest and most complete series, which earned him first prizes respectively at the Tokyo International Foto Awards in 2016, and the Hong Kong Photo Book Awards in 2015. During 2017 and 2018, this series was exhibited in Japan, the Netherlands and Hong Kong, and was collected by the Hong Kong Tai Kwun Contemporary and Japan’s Irie Taikichi Memorial Museum of Photography Nara City.
Beyond the lens, Dick was most thrilled about the limited edition of his photobook.
The book design is an art in itself. Only 100 copies were printed, each carried a HK$1,200 price tag. Before the photobook came out, a Japan online bookstore shashasha already took five copies from the publisher. The rest was gone within a week, which was rare given the consumption sentiment is sluggish. A Japanese edition followed.
The book marked an important milestone in his career, he conceded. Conversations with Japanese photography critics and exchanging views on photography broke down language barriers, he said. He was beaming with excitement. He would even smile when looking at his name in Japanese.
Passion comes from the child-like heart.
Imagine and you will see that No Compromise was not a product of sudden passion. His earlier works Escapers and War are proofs of his intention. “People tend to think less of Hong Kong as a photography backdrop but nobody has ever seen City Hall from a perspective like this.”
Dick asserted that he is not a portrait photographer but these three series were immaculately put together to contradict his own claim. He set the scene and applied his advertising photography skills. Some people even describe the series as “an ambiguous notion between realism and surrealism.”
Back to 21 May 1989. Chan Dick worked overnight but joined the Hong Kong’s first rally of the June Fourth incident right away the next day. “Hong Kong people of my generation had once watched the news from day till night and also joined the rally passionately. Then, we were back to making a living and put our passion aside.”
He says, “I just have the feeling that we owe this generation indeed. I should do something for them.” His work No Compromise was an advertising campaign in 2012 for the student group Scholarism led by Joshua Wong which protested against the government’s plan to implement mandatory “patriotic education” in schools. The work won the third place in the International Photography Awards (IPA) (Professional Editorial, Political) in 2014.
Dick’s latest work The Trek captures about 40 human anatomical specimens. It is by no means an attempt to dissect the boredom or terror of anatomy. His purpose is to take his viewers on a walking tour, savouring the journey through the human body while opening up their intimate feelings.
He says that a fleeting image never repeats itself. When it is gone is gone for good. He has a burning desire to shoot a Hong Kong schools series disguised as architectural photography with a hidden agenda.
He is also serious about making a living.
Successful artists are also human. They live, then, to create.
Artists do not have to pursue the avant-garde. Rather, they present their best to the world and in turn win it.
Feed them, however.