The art of Hau Chiok, the essence of Chinese cultural tradition

“Bayanihan,” by Hau Chiok

Hau Chiok’s latest exhibit of paintings entitled “Coalescences” is the culmination of over 60 years of dedicated artistic and creative endeavor. The exhibit is on display at the Metropolitan Museum at the Banko Sentral ng Filipinas that opened on Nov. 15 and will last up to January 2019.
Simultaneous exhibit of the paintings of Hau Chiok, Sy Chiu Hua and their students are on display at the Bahay Tsinoy Museum of the Chinese in Philippine Life in Intramuros (up to Dec. 15 only). The exhibits at Bahay Tsinoy show another aspect of Hau Chiok’s and Sy Chiu Hua’s careers.
As teachers, they have successfully guided and nurtured the talent of their students. I can cite the lively horses in black and white and the bright green bamboo branch by George Uy, a businessman. Dra. Naty Chan, an anesthesiologist, painted in delicate brushstrokes the graceful beauty of an apsara, a female deity as well as the exuberance of plum blossoms in spring. Naty Yap painted the three friends of winter – pine, bamboo and branch of plum blossoms.
Daisy Peng, a Canadian, depicted a loving couple of dogs as if they were humans. Sophie Lee uses vertical format and carefully delineated outlines of banana leaf that tower over two white swans swimming in a quiet pond.
This short list indicates that as mentors, Hau Chiok and Sy Chiu Hua allow their students wide latitude in the choice of subjects and styles. It is also noteworthy that Hau Chiok is an excellent calligrapher, seal carver, making rubbings and fabricating paper, silk and the frame for mounting paintings to ensure durability.
Hau Chiok’s paintings cover a wide range of conventional subjects in Chinese paintings – flowers, plants, animals, landscapes, portraits and events. But there is nothing conventional in the way Hau Chiok portrays these subjects. Flowers like peony and lotus are not just beautiful showy blossoms. These are not just botanical specimens. Under his deft handling of brush strokes and inking we sense the passage of time from the full maturity of the flowers, to their decay. He portrays the lotus as it wilts, ages and goes to seed – the promise of new life and rebirth.
The once beautiful lotus is losing its youth, its torn, cracked leaves in various gradations of blue-green and wilted petals capture the Chinese philosophy of the cycle of growth, decay and rebirth. The depiction of the banana plant is at the stage when it is drying up, then bears the banana heart just before it ripens to give fruit.

“Mirror” by Hau Chiok

The fishes of Hau Chiok are likewise portrayed as if they are moving through time. The gold fishes and carp (koi) appear to move silently under the glistening light of water as their scales and flippers reflect light. Hau Chiok undoubtedly admires and respects animals, from the tiny blue birds that roost on plants, to the plumage of the peacock so meticulously drawn in bright contrasting blue, green and black to enhance its splendor. His series of animals that represents the zodiac signs in the Chinese 60-year calendar cycle conveys the engaging warmth of the animals’ individual personalities.
Hau Chiok depicts some of the most ferocious carnivores like eagles, crocodiles, tigers and lions. The huge painting of lions and tigers shows how the painter has deep admiration for their majestic prowess, as if to remind us that we humans have no right to tame and subdue them. I recall a similar portrayal of five tigers surveying the land from the heights of a mountain cliff – but this huge painting is not displayed at the Metropolitan Museum exhibit.
Equally admirable are his landscape paintings, whether located in China, the Philippines, the USA or Canada. “The Fishing Village” near Taal Volcano (boundary of Cavite and Batangas provinces) is peaceful and calm in the interregnum of 600 year cycle when the Philippine volcanoes often erupt. “Bahay sa Bukid” is done in bright green. It is shown half hidden by the large clump of bamboo that suggests its protective embrace. The landscape in Canada composed horizontally depicts a quiet wintry scenery of pines and half frozen river.
Hau Chiok depicts the well-known landmarks of Manila that impinge on the daily lives of its residents. Intramuros gate, the Manila Cathedral, Manila City Hall, Binondo Church are shorn of the scars of congested vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and hawkers. He focuses instead on the major architectural structures drawn in fine precise brushstrokes.
But at the same time as in the case of the Manila City Hall, Hau Chiok places in front a huge balete tree whose knotted, twisted roots and branches tend to overshadow the edifice. This juxtaposition of an old knotted tree suggests a lot of symbolism depending on one’s perspective – the tenacity of the balete tree in contrast to the fragility of man-made edifice. Or does it suggest the inevitable twists and turns of city hall administration?

“Bahay sa Bukid” by Hau Chiok

When Hau Chiok depicts events they are both humorous and charming. The itinerant peddlers of Filipino handicrafts of baskets, mats, brooms, and hammocks happily ride their oxen-drawn cart, all smiles at the viewer. Drivers of calesas in front of Binondo Church find respite under the shadow of the church.
Most masterful is the depiction of “Bayanihan,” the Tagalog maxim that the success of all difficult endeavors requires the sincere and determined cooperation of everyone. Hau Chiok portrayed Philippine presidents – Ferdinand Marcos (riding on a carabao and leading the bearers of the bahay kubo), Diosdado Macapagal, Joseph Ejercito Estrada, and Fidel V. Ramos, while Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo holds up the bahay kubo window as the look-out of the group. All are smiling happily, sharing the burden of a difficult task.
Hau Chiok is more than a masterful painter in the Lingnan style, a style characterized by virtuosity of gradations of brushstrokes, control of inking textures and density without losing the life-like qualities of subjects. Subjects are never “still life,” nor totally realistic as in the West. Chinese traditional art does not cry out in anger and desperation at the imperfections of nature or the foibles of human society.
Chinese traditional art as practiced by Hau Chiok resonates with meaning and symbolism. They are at once allegorical and moral. He celebrates and provides calm assurance that life in all its tribulations provides solace to the human heart.