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Cheung Yee. Photo: Hong Kong Museum of Art.
Cheung Yee. Photo: Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Cheung Yee (1936–2019)

The Chinese artist Cheung Yee, a pioneer of the contemporary art scene in Hong Kong, died in Los Angeles on December 4 at the age of eighty-three. The Hong Kong Museum of Art confirmed his passing. Best known for his paper castings; bronze relief; and wooden, stone, and bronze sculptures, which mixed Western modernism, traditional Chinese aesthetics, and elements of folklore and ancient philosophies, Cheung cofounded the avant-garde Circle Art Group with Hon Chi Fun, Wucius Wong, and several other peers. The group was active from 1964 to 1971.

Born in Guangzhou, China, in 1936, Cheung was raised in Hong Kong but was forced to leave the region when the Japanese invaded China during the Second Sino-Japanese War; his family relocated to Guangzhou. When the conflict ended, Cheung returned to the region and began learning Gongbi, a realist brush technique in Chinese painting. In the 1950s, he studied art at Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, where he met his wife. Throughout his schooling, Cheung pursued his interests in archaeology and began experimenting with different materials and with approaches to copperplate etching, welding, and modeling.

In 1964, Cheung’s first major retrospective was organized by the City Museum and Art Gallery at Hong Kong City Hall. The following year, he received a grant from the Institute of International Education to study in the United States and Europe. Since then, he has had solo exhibitions at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, AO Vertical Art Space, and Galerie Du Monde in Hong Kong and at iPreciation in Singapore. In the 1980s, the artist started his series of iconic bronze crab sculptures, two of which can be found outside of the Space Museum Art and in the sculptural walk in Kowloon Park in Hong Kong.

In 1979, Cheung was designated a Member of the Order of the British Empire. He also received the Hong Kong Annual Sculpture Award in 1988. An advocate of the local arts scene, Cheung taught in the department of design at Polytechnic University in Hong Kong and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he served as chair of the department of fine arts from 1984 to 1992. After retiring in 1998, he moved to California where he continued to work.

“I think the great achievement is when you create something out of nothing,” Cheung said in an interview in May 2019. “One time, I gave my students a piece of white paper. Someone complained that they had no tools to make art but I told them, you can use your hands to fold the paper, to crush it, your saliva to wet it. In my eyes, nothing is garbage. Garbage is man-made, nothing is naturally junk.”

Cheung’s works can be found in the public collections of the Hong Kong Museum of Art; the Museum of Modern Art, Mexico City; the National Museum of History, Taipei; the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan; and the Kaohsiung Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan.