Ma Jir-Bo's Hong Kong

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Courtesy of Impact Asia (Hong Kong) Limited

Town and country Ma painted some cityscapes, but is most remembered for his pastorals

Hong Kong isn't normally associated with dreamy pastoral paintings rendered in oils, so a survey of the corpus of Ma Jir-bo (1927-1985) comes as a genuine revelation. Like a sort of 20th century Cantonese Constable, Ma infused Hong Kong's rugged coasts and lush uplands with a sense of rustic romance — all the more surreal when you consider that at the peak of his career Hong Kong was no sun-dappled idyll of lusty rice farmers and blushing flower girls. It was a tough entrepôt and factory town, wrapped in a pall of soot, struggle and heartache. But you would never know it from paintings like Pok Fu Lam Stable (1973), Countryside in Autumn (1971) or Ma's many still-life renderings of flowers, harvested vegetables and farmhouse table settings.

While Ma painted some urban scenes, his preference for archaic rural subjects in the Western manner stemmed from his training in European painting techniques from an early age. Insofar as Ma studied Chinese brushwork, it was of the Lingnan school, a Cantonese genre influenced by Western realism. While his oils won critical acclaim, he was stymied by the lack of opportunities that Hong Kong afforded an artist in the mid-20th century. The city was simply too busy attempting to house, educate and provide jobs for a dangerously swollen, largely refugee population to worry about fostering the arts. With galleries thin on the ground, Ma exhibited his work in restaurants, hotels and department stores while making a living through teaching.

The retrospective running at Hong Kong City Hall Oct. 7-13 should redress the balance and baffle a new generation with its village views and country charm. But it's quite possible that the enigmatic Ma meant to provoke as well as please. In reimagining Hong Kong through the eyes of a Western master painter, Ma gives us artifice and exotica. To many people, Hong Kong is all about that.

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