Today I interviewed Hing Yee, local artist, and close family friend to the point that even in the American view of things he would be my Uncle. I blogged about him on Kung Fu Dad about Kite Festival. But this post is all about him.
I actually arrived slightly early and saw him at the #Chinatown gate. Once again, because of my lack of photography skills I didn't capture the moment. But as I said in Kung Fu Dad, his image, for me, captures the essence of what a Chinese American Man should be. #Dragonwings by #LaurenceYep tried to capture this in Fiction. For the Japanese American the is #Mr.Miyagi. (made for Americans by Americans) I guess the American man would be #JohnWayne, or the #MarlboroMan. (Made to sell cigarettes and movie tickets) And for the ultimate Chinese man? #WongFeiHung. Maybe #BruceLee will do since he was American born as an icon. But he doesn't embody the culture and ideals that I see in Hing Yee, a true artist philosopher with an #enlightenment grounded in down-to-earthness.
We went over to Hei La Moon for dim sum and because I have known him since I was my son's age, the conversation flowed pretty easily.
Can You tell me a little about when you first came to the States?
"I came here when I was fourteen years old with my older brother in 1965. And you know, back then there was just these grungy looking supermarkets, usually you would go into the basement, and they were dark. The planking that held the vegetables, the planking was about this wide," he held up his hands to about 1 and a half feet or so, "and I knew that they must be made of pine, but you could see the gaps in between them and you know pine is a very light color, but over time, these were completely black!"
"You didn't see a lot of women in Chinatown around that time. And the men would be swearing all the time. I was just shocked by this. It was a culture shock."
"I grew up in Sha Tin, in the new territories in Hong Kong. I used to swim right near, Mahn Faht Ji. I knew the old Abbott. Man did he know what he was doing. That location is very good." He described the area drawing a map out in the air over the dim sum table. It was between two rivers with another hill having a Christian/Taoist church/temple. He also described some of the rich history of Sha Tin and how while reading about Belgian Pilot Charles den Bron flying an airplane from Sha Tin airfield in 1911, there was a painting accompanying the article. He recognized the horse saddle Ma Yu San, in the background.
"Near there was a small place blocked off by a dam, no bigger than this room, but it was enough for us. And I would teach my classmates how to swim there. I was actually the first one in my family to learn how to swim. I taught myself with a book printed in China about sports. It talked about how to run, how to throw javelin, that sort of thing. I still have it. It had pictures and I just followed the instructions and that's how I learned to swim."
"Growing up I lived 3 miles from the beach, about half the distance between my house now and Chinatown. I would walk every morning to the beach and swim all day. I don't know how I survived. I mean no money? No lunch? I didn't get hungry? But somehow I didn't even feel that. I just swam and then rested and then placed and swam until night time and then I walked home. I don't know how much money it was to take a train, but now you would get off at University Station. I always went with my brother. Either my oldest brother or the younger one, but not the youngest one because he was too little. One of my younger brothers had polio so I remember I was always carrying something for him.
"I appreciate, despite everything, that my father chose to have a place in Sha Tin, because I really enjoyed my childhood. My father was so irresponsible that he got himself married a second time and left all five of us. I despise that. But I admire his artwork."
Where did you go to School here?
"I started junior high here at the Oliver Wendell Holmes school in Dorchester. The school at the time was 90% Black and maybe close to 10% almost, 10% White. And can you imagine that after two years, I got into an exam school?" (I think it was the O'Bryant but I have to double check that.)
Did you speak English already? (I asked because Hong Kong being a British Colony it wasn't necessarily impossible.)
"Shit no! I still don't." (Though for the record this entire interview and everything I write is how it wa said in English.)
Did you get into fights?
"Yeah!" he said somberly and seriously, " Of course. You know I'm small, I'm Chinese (the only one), I don't speak English so people misunderstood me, and so they challenge me... but the thing is I grew up in the Southern part of China. I swam all day and played all day. I was very athletic when I was younger. I was strong and fast. White guys aren't fast!" he laughed, "Black guys aren't fast, they just might be a little bit fatter that's all. I'm fat now but when I was younger I didn't have fat. And the thing is here and there I was exposed to Kung Fu."
In Hong Kong?
"Yes in Hong Kong. I mean anywhere you are exposed to some Kung Fu. But in Hong Kong I was exposed to some Hakka Kung Fu. And another thing is confidence. If you don't have confidence in yourself to win, then who is going to have confidence in you? But if you have confidence" he shook his head and smiled, "But I think the main thing is that I always tried to be a good person. I think if you try to be a good person that is very important."
Are you Hakka?
"No I'm Toishan. But doesn't matter, you know, anywhere you are, you are exposed to some Kung Fu off and on here and there. Yeah sure there are a lot of bullshit artists out there... but that's no big deal." He started laughing, "I mean I'm an atrist... and sometimes maybe I bullshit." He laughed again,
"You know I mentioned my father was an artist. I got some of his work. My older brother, he said if he saw his work he would just flush it down the toilet. His second wife contacted me when he passed, just a couple years ago, and asked me if I wanted it. Of course maybe they took the good ones. But I saw some of his Chinese horses, wow, I really thought they were something. I believe that his original work was probably very good."
Do you Paint?
"I draw. But actually painting is just adding the color you still have to draw it out first and then grid it. I used to watch him, (my father) when I was a kid. I guess back then for training to be an artist you would copy other great artists, and I liked the copies. I didn't know anything about originality.
But I got to see the whole process of how he did it. One stroke might take up to 30 minutes. I see some guys on tv that just bwaaap!" he motioned a broad stroke, "I mean yeah you can paint like that, but you are not painting a house. Who do you think you are? Picasso? Picasso could paint like that because he painted for how many million hours? Painting from morning until late afternoon or evening."
"I'm an artist too but I build. I build kites"
He also sculpts, builds tables, helicopters, (no really) submarines and a ton of cool stuff. But recently he has been focusing more on kites.
"I will draw and draw until I can't draw anymore, and then I have to build it. I mean when you are drawing you can't draw the outside without building the inside, but you can't draw the inside without building the outside," he laughed,
"I'm sure you heard of Form and Function. Function is something real, but form is abstract until you build it."
At this point I blurted out a bunch of Kung Fu stuff because that Form and Function quote really got me thinking. I told him I was totally stealing that for when I teach Kung Fu.
Did you go to college?
"I did two years of college. But with my personality.. I cannot attend school. I mean I read all the time, still. I am always trying to better and improve myself and learn new things. But school. I went there with a full scholarship to study physics. But in the end I dropped out after two years.
So then you started working?
"I was working from the second day I got here. When I was 14, the next day I went to work at my Uncle's laundromat. I was afraid I would be late, and the jet lag, no clock, so I just stayed up all night to make sure."
You're Uncle was here already?"
"Yes. Actually my grandfather was born in San Francisco... at least by the books. A lot of how I lived, in my childhood, how I was supported, was thanks to my grandfather. He sent us money regularly, after I was born. Before that for a while he had stopped. That's why I am named Hing, which means prosperous. After me he sent us money every month."
He continued with a vast knowledge of history of Chinese settlements on the West Coast of North America and the building of the railroads.
"You know I was travelling with my wife in Xi'An and there was a calligrapher, selling there. There was a great amount of works. But one section of the poem read, "Chong yul But Ging." WHich basically means if you praise me.. okay that's nice. But it won't buy me. If you say I am a piece of shit. Okay. It also won't effect me. I really like that saying. "Praise or Degrade, I am not afraid." Because that is what I aspire to be. So I asked him if he would sell that. He said yes. 300 RMB! Hahaha. I said I can not afford it. But if he would write out those four words for me, I would give him 99 Rmb which is still quite high for him, but cheap enough for me. But why 99, because gau gau gwai yut. All ofthe Chinese culture and meaning is to become ONE. Not one thousand or one million. But the 99 trying to be one. He looked at me differently."
I think this is another philosophy I would have to steal for my Kung Fu teachings.
How did you meet your wife?
He laughed. "I was sitting in my friends car, it was a mustang. I must have been in the passenger side because it was his car, but somehow I remember it as being in the driver's side. I saw her and her sisters walking across the parking lot, together. I saw her walking by and I looked. I thought, 'I like her. I think I'll marry her someday.' And within a couple of years I did." he raised his hand in oath, "I'm not exaggerating. I just knew within about 10 seconds from that distance."
The waitress, came over, and I am used to this happening to me, but either because Hing's back was to her or the clothes he was wearing were not your typical Mainlander clothes, she spoke to him in English, and then when he responded in Chinese she said, "Oh you know this language too." in Cantonese.
"Jong Gok Ngen amah." I'm Chinese, he said, in Taishanese. I only mention this because his look his simultaneously Very Chinese and Very American. He is so traditional Chinese looking, that my Uncles always thought he was my Sifu. Or when we went to a Kung Fu Federation event in New York and he sat in the Master's section, nobody dared question it, even though technically those seats were somehow reserved ahead or something. At the same time, to a new immigrant, he has a very American presence about him, in his demeanor and swagger. I don't know anybody else like him.
So I'm asking everyone this, but what do you think about the changes in Chinatown.
"Chinatown will always be around. I mean you don't have to own everything just to be a Chinatown. Hong Kong is a Chinatown! It was one of the biggest Chinatown's in the world. But now even it is back to China, it is still a Chinatown. in Hong Kong and even Guangzhou you see white people, black people and even before hundreds of years ago, Arabs, Middle Easterners, Indians. I mean we are all mixed we just don;'t know it. We can all say we are Han, but people traveled and mixed all the time. If you look at the genes you would be surprised. I mean there are Chinese people all over the world, and our culture is strong. Even if it somehow disappears there will always be something left. I mean the Aztecs and the Inca they were great, and in a way they are gone, and their remnants are here. But in a way they are still here, they have just mixed and their culture is still around. I think a lot of it is how we choose to perceive the world."