17 November 2019
Malaysian freelance artist Chao Harn-kae is exploring the endless possibilities of ceramic sculpture. Photo: HKEJ
Malaysian freelance artist Chao Harn-kae is exploring the endless possibilities of ceramic sculpture. Photo: HKEJ

Malaysian artist pursues love affair with clay in HK

There is something elemental about clay. It is said that the first man was fashioned out of it. 

Some of the oldest artifacts of civilization are made of earth, formed by human hands and given permanence by fire.

It is no wonder that artists are fascinated by clay. It connects them to the deepest recesses of nature and human feelings.

Malaysian artist Chao Harn-kae understands that his craft has its beginnings in the dawn of civilization. 

It is an art that makes use of the four elements. Earth is the raw material, water helps to give it shape, fire strengthens it, and wind cools it down to its final form.

That is why ceramics is a humbling art. One can only try to discover its secrets but will never master it. Each work is an attempt, but perfection is an impossible goal.

Chao took up fine arts at the Malaysian Institute of Art, majoring in oil painting.

“I studied oil painting, but somehow I became fond of three-dimensional art, ceramic sculptures in particular,” he explains.

If he is made to choose between painting and ceramics, Chao said he will always opt for ceramics.

“I will continue with this collection, exploring the endless possibilities of the medium,” he says.

Though ceramic art always offers formidable challenges, Chao has done some pretty amazing works in the field.

He has been named one of the finalists for the 2015 New Art Wave International Artist Award. His works include Rabbit and Rebuff, which are both ceramic sculptures.

“Around two years ago, I finally got some personal time to do my own creations with ceramics. Rabbit was my first. It is a combined human and animal form. I am very pleased with it.”

Rebuff is an experimental work in porcelain. It is the form of a woman that probably encapsulates his concept of oriental aesthetics. The texture is that of snake scales.

Some people say the scales signify the woman’s animalistic nature, while others see it as simply the fashionable clothing of an urban dweller.

Chao prefers not to comment on his own works. It’s better to leave the interpretations to the beholder.

“I didn’t major in ceramics. I still have a long way to master it technically. Ceramics is a fusion of science and art and it involves knowledge in physics and chemistry. I proceed through trial and error.”

Taking a look around his workshop, Chao recalls the difficulties of making his sculptures.

“Ceramics can be very fragile. Some break into pieces in the process. Some melt into a paste. If that happens, I have to start the creation all over again. Unlike other art forms, there is no way you can fix or amend it. It is simply a one-off thing.”

Chao is possessed with a passion to pursue his art. “Nonetheless, I have to earn a living, so I have to put my interest aside,” he says.

He first came to Hong Kong in 2004 to do a Disneyland project. Prior to his arrival in the city, Chao had worked in various projects in Dubai, Singapore, Australia and Shanghai.

Chao gives credit to his painting class teacher and his family for their unreserved love and support.

“My father sent me to a painting class when I was in primary five. I became captivated as my teacher was so inspirational and led me into another world. I won several awards afterwards and since then I haven’t stopped painting.”

But man does not live by art alone. He had to earn a living, and people kept telling him it was hard, if not impossible, to sustain oneself through art.

Once his mother joked that Chao couldn’t manage to do anything else other than paint and sculpt.

“It’s true. I really can’t do anything else. I am too skinny for physical work. And back then I didn’t excel academically. Doing art creations seemed to be the best way out.”

He is grateful for the support of his family. “We are not an affluent family but they allowed me to pursue my art. Fortunately, I won a scholarship to study at the institute.”

Unlike most Malaysian art students, Chao didn’t join advertising or industrial design. Fine arts was a rare choice.

Eventually, most of his classmates switched to non-art-related jobs. There are one or two who are now working as curators.

How about artists? Maybe Chao is the only representative.

“Frankly speaking, my family don’t understand what I am doing but they respect what I love to do, and as long as I can support myself independently, they are reassured.”

Living in Hong Kong for over 10 years, Chao has come to love the city and its people.

“Hong Kong is a highly international city. I can enjoy the artworks of the masters by simply going to Wan Chai. It’s just unlikely to happen in Malaysia as most of the international art exhibitions are done in Singapore instead.”

Hong Kong people are often described as cool. Chao disagrees, but admits that Malaysians are more enthusiastic in nature.

“Hongkongers are quick thinkers and works very efficiently. Hong Kong is just invincible.”

However, he says he is not considering making Hong Kong his permanent home.

“Though I have adapted to Hong Kong’s environment very well, I miss my home dishes very much. Some of the dishes are available in Hong Kong too, but they don’t taste quite the same. Maybe that’s homesickness.”

Like many Hong Kong people, the high living costs bother Chao a lot.

“As a freelance artist, I don’t earn a steady income, but I need a room to do my creations. I am afraid that I couldn’t afford the rent if I got old here.”

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on August 7.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

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Chao took up fine arts at the Malaysian Institute of Art, majoring in oil painting. Here are some of his oil paintings. Photo: HKEJ

Rabbit (left) is a combined human and animal form, while Rebuff is an experimental work in porcelain. Photos: HKEJ

Chao made this surreal artwork (left) for Harbour City in June. Photos: HKEJ

Chao has won a lot of trophies and medals for his excellent paintings. He is able to pursue his art career with the support of his family (right). Photos: HKEJ

Chao (left) says he was inspired by his art teacher to pursue a career in fine arts. Photo: HKEJ

HKEJ writer