By Clare Morin
It begins, of course, with the fact that there is no beginning. There is no true origin or starting point. There are only circles and the stories we tell ourselves. The way we impute beginning, middle, and end, on snatches of our perceived reality.
If you walk behind a row of semi-detached houses in Blackburn, Lancashire, you’ll find the forest where I played every summer of my youth. I was born in this rural patch of northwest England and would have grown up here, if it were not for my father. One day while working as an architect for the local council, he spotted an advert for a job in the Architectural Services Division of the British Colonial Government of Hong Kong. My parents, then young and still adventurous had too many bills to pay, and they saw this as a promise of a better life. When I was two and my brother four, we boarded a plane to Hong Kong.
Every summer, we would return to this house in Blackburn and I would pretend to be English. In the mornings, I would wander down the road to find Sally and Jenny—daughters of an artist called David Schofield. We would disappear into the woods for endless summer days, crafting intricate stories with our imaginations. Today, when I visit that row of houses, a funny thing has occurred. Quietly and gradually, David has installed artworks throughout the woods, like magical walls that disappear into the ground and reappear elsewhere. There are bronze circles that look like portals into other universes and underground dens you can climb into. Being an artist, he kept the practice of transforming reality alive.
I grew up in Pokfulam, on the south side of Hong Kong Island where the sun sets over the Lamma Channel. After finishing high school here, and then college in England, I returned to Hong Kong in my early 20s and got a job writing about artists for HK Magazine. One of the first artists I interviewed was Sun-chang Lo (羅聖莊), a visiting professor in the architecture department of the University of Hong Kong. He was reaching back and animating millennia of Chinese painting through his own, modern, city experience. Born in Guangzhou, China, but raised in New York’s Chinatown, he would rove the city’s streets with his camera, looking for compositions in rusting doors and abandoned objects. He would find perfect shan shui landscapes caught within the peeling paint of walls. His works revealed both the artist and the spiritual seeker’s path.
Writing about Hong Kong artists in the early 2000s meant I was charting a society in a constant state of identity crisis. Hong Kong had been a British colony for 150 years until 1997, when it switched back to Mainland China under a 50-year period, known as “one country, two systems.” There was a schizophrenic dualism in Hong Kong that underpinned everything: international and local, Chinese and British, ancient and modern, fishing community and Asian financial center.
Having realized I wasn’t English while at college, I began to explore my British-Hong Kong hybrid nature. I studied tai chi and chi gung. I began mapping out the energy circuits on my body and tapping into the ancient geography of yin and yang that could be found in the rolling hills and Banyan trees of the ancient parts of the city, amid the vertical, futuristic maze of metal and glass. I met artists like Lam Tung-pang (林東鵬), whose large-scale paintings on plywood revealed the quiet spaces of the hundreds of islands that make up our home—and in the background, that modern, majestic, relentless city. I went into Mainland China on a tai chi retreat and saw the massive northern mountains for the first time. I felt like my Chinese self was meeting her larger self.
When I was 24, I bumped into Buddhism. As the saying goes, when you’re ready, the teacher will appear. I found a center in an old Chinese building in the busy district of Wan Chai. On the top floor lay the Kadampa Buddhist Meditation Center, a serene space with wooden floors, mats on the floor, and a shrine with Buddhas, flowers and water bowl offerings. I joined a Saturday afternoon study program where we dove into The Heart Sutra, Buddha’s central teaching on the nature of reality. We would recite the sutra at the start of every class: “Form is empty; emptiness is form.”
This is also when I found the works of Lui Shou-kwan (呂壽琨). He was born in Guangzhou and escaped to Hong Kong during the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949. Like so many of our city’s greatest thinkers and artists, he arrived as a refugee from somewhere else. He was a classically trained painter and in Hong Kong during the 1960s he found an open port with libraries containing books about the Abstract Expressionists in New York City. His mind was radically opened by this collision of East and West. Hon Chi-fun (韓志勳), another great modernist artist of this generation, once said, “We all wanted to find a way to bridge the Chinese realist tradition with Western modernism and the American painters gave us a model.” Lui Shou-kwan led the New Ink Movement, which changed the direction of Chinese ink painting and inspired an entire generation of artists. His students included another one of my favorite artists, the great ink painter Wucius Wong (王无邪). Lui encouraged them all to create works in an individualized way, from the very depths of their hearts.
At the start of my third decade, my karma shifted again. I married a Mainer and we moved halfway around the world to the United States. For the first few years in Maine, I became like a hologram. I worked as a remote writer and editor for Hong Kong media and arts organizations. I wrote three chapters for a book about the history of Hong Kong art and continued to deeply hold onto my identity as a Hongkonger. I would meet Mainers who would project “English” upon me at the sound of my voice. This led to confusing moments, where I would launch into a five-minute monologue about my history.
I found people like Suzanne Fox who worked with the Chinese community in Maine and together with the artist Mei Selvage we formed an arts event called Yaji. It was a cultural lab held quarterly in Portland. In one event called ‘Migrations Stories’ during Chinese New Year 2015, we featured the New Hampshire-based artist Shiao-Ping Wang. She was creating beautiful, layered works works of her various homes, in Taipei, Taiwan, where she lived as a young girl, and her current home in New Hampshire, right on the state line with Berwick, Maine. Her paintings startlingly revealed the immigrant experience; how home is a layering effect in the mind. Where at any one time, depending on the particular scent that wafts in the wind, you could be sitting in a Hong Kong fishing village, on the hills in Lancashire, or in Casco Bay.
Eight years after moving to Maine, I can tell you that the layers are changing once more. I have begun to wonder if I should hold onto any sense of cultural identity. Am I a British writer, a Hong Kong writer, or an American writer? Or maybe who I am depends on who I am talking to, at any given moment in time.
In Buddhism, we learn that the self we normally see is, in fact, an illusion. The storyteller in our mind is continually creating narratives about who we are. Our minds project a permanent, fixed identity upon this shifting play of change and so much of our suffering arises from this habit. Buddha taught that we are all in fact migrators on an endless journey through cyclic existence (Sanskrit: samsara). This life is just one chapter in a very long and unwinding story. Unless that is, we are able to wake up from the dream, and realize the true nature of things.