Kwan Kam-cheong

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AO Vertical’s latest show participant Kwan Kam-cheong is quickly becoming a breakout star, but Ysabelle Cheung discovers he’s more than happy to just take pictures

What does Hong Kong mean to you? Ten international and local photographers ponder that question in AO Vertical’s latest 10-floor exhibition, the Chai Wan gallery’s first group show of the year. All About Hong Kong is a collective homage to a city which all the artists – including Ho Fan, Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze and Alfred Ko – have ties to. “We wanted to bring together a variety of artists who are interested in discourse about the place,” says curator Sarah Greene. “Almond Chu looks at the behaviour of society while Michael Wolf provides a more detached, outsider’s view of urban architecture. And our new star Kwan Kam-cheong’s photographs, to me, are striking. They really reflect the insider’s perspective of the city.” 

Kwan is an accidental photographer. “I’d rather you not take a picture of me,” he says when we arrive to photograph him. “I don’t like to show my face.” Despite being showcased alongside such luminaries of the art world in his first exhibition ever, Kwan is at odds with the idea of being an artist. He still works in the printing press industry with his brother, a role he took up at a young age to make ends meet. The 35-year-old Hongkonger grew up poor and spent most of his childhood shuttling around in foster homes after his mother died when he was four. He fell into photography by chance. After purchasing a camera three years ago, he learned the craft by voraciously reading photography books and taking snaps on his route home after his night shifts ended. A friend sent through his gritty black and white prints to Asia One – and the rest is history. He won Asia One’s photobook competition last year and was subsequently picked up by AO Vertical. “When the gallery phoned me to invite me to their show, I was at work. I said ‘oh’. Then I put the phone down because I had to keep working,” laughs Kwan. “I don’t think I’m an artist. I just like taking pictures.”

Kwan has released a new photobook, titled Homebound (see slideshow images above), to coincide with the show. “Photography is a very new, emerging trend,” says Green. “We’re surrounded by visuals every day – everyone has a camera, but not everyone can take photographs like Kwan. I think people will respond to his pictures in particular because of the rawness of his subjects. His book documents his journey home and the dark underbelly of Hong Kong – but he’s not trying to impose a message or preach from a high pedestal. This is his life. And this is the life that the majority of Hong Kong has to face on a daily basis.”

Kwan’s journey home takes him everywhere, from the blood-splattered meat markets to the seedy alleyways where drug addicts get their fix. He confesses that what began as a hobby has become an obsession. Once he walked for more than six hours through Hong Kong until his shoes fell apart.“I always think there’s something just around the corner, in the alley,” says Kwan, who’s dedicated the tome to his late mother. “The usual beautiful subjects – flowers and mountains – bore me. I don’t know what I’m chasing and I don’t have a mission – but I can’t stop taking pictures.”

All About Hong Kong is at AO Vertical until Sep 14 .

Homebound is published by Asia One Books, priced $200.

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