Remember the sweet old lady from the local fruit stall? Ever heard of Hong Kong’s last ever bird cage maker? Alvin Lam captures nostalgic Hong Kong and brings a vivid liveliness to his watercolour paintings.
In a city as busy and dense as Hong Kong, it’s no surprise that there’s so much happening in every nook and cranny. Whether it’s people dining at crowded dai pai dongs, vendors setting up stalls at street markets, or hidden barbershops, we often don’t stop to appreciate the little things that make Hong Kong special. Which is why Alvin C. K. Lam has been setting up his painting station in front of local shops to capture candid moments that’ll be cherished for a lifetime.
We chat with local artist, Alvin Lam
When did your interest in art start? What made you transition from sketching to painting using watercolours?
No kidding, I think I picked up paint brushes before picking up chopsticks! My earliest memory is of drawing and doodling. My mom is a Chinese calligrapher and painter so she influenced my interest in art. Comic books also aroused my interest in drawing. Growing up, people always said art was never going to earn me a living. But art has always felt like more than just a hobby, even since I was young.
I later moved to the United States to study and my art teacher was amazing. As my mentor, she inspired me to explore art in different mediums; I experimented with sketching, acrylic, and oil painting. Watercolour is, in fact, new to me; I only started using it early last year. My ex-colleague passed her unused watercolour kit to me and I didn’t know what to do with it until I traveled to Kyoto for a watercolour sketching class. It was a quick crash course and I’m so thankful to the instructor for equipping me with all the techniques. This was the beginning of my watercolour journey!
You spend hours in front of shop fronts and it takes multiple days to finish your work. What’s the challenge in that? Is it usually difficult for you to find a space to set up your area?
I go back at least five times to finish my painting; each time I sit for about three hours. And every time I go back, there will be surprises. Things will be shifted and it’s never exactly the same as when I last saw it, but I find that pretty fun instead of seeing it as a drawback! And the best thing about watercolour is how portable it is, so setting up my space isn’t usually too difficult. But there are times when I have to nestle into a narrow and tight space, and I always worry about getting in people’s way – whether it’s passerbys or customers who come to these shops. I often have to learn the routine of the shop next to the one I’m painting, so that I can set up my corner there.
The biggest challenge is the summer heat (so dehydrating), the humidity, and the mosquitoes! I also can’t get too comfortable as I have to be prepared to be on-the-go any minute, so I’m mostly painting on my lap and my neck gets sore from looking up and down. And you get brain-fried from all the concentration. But it’s all worth it in the end.
Your paintings beautifully capture disappearing scenes of Hong Kong. How do you think art – especially paintings – plays a role in preserving memories?
For me, my subject and settings are more than just a scene, it’s a moment that tells a story. There’s a saying that goes, people don’t remember what you did, but how you made them feel. And these paintings evoke different feelings, whether it’s nostalgia, happiness, or even sadness.
All my paintings are focused in one place and one character and dive into an intimate moment with the subject. And when you look at each piece, I want the audience to experience the full process that went into the making of it. From picking the next shop, to getting to know the vendor, to making it all come to life in my sketchbook, it’s all a process. These are disappearing scenes and shops that many don’t stop to look at and appreciate. So that’s what I want to do with my paintings: to showcase the unsung heroes of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is a busy, distracting place! What tends to catch your eye? How do you decide on your next project?
I’m looking for shops that look particularly untouched, as if they’ve been frozen in time from decades ago. When I was younger, I didn’t see the value of these local shops but, as we grow older, we realise that these shops and businesses are disappearing. Oftentimes, it’s the chaos I find beauty in. And for my next project, I am always looking for more variety in my setting and different textures.
Can you share some heart-warming reactions you received from shopkeepers whom you painted?
For the Wong’s Banana Stall painting, I was very shy and scared to approach the shopkeeper – she seemed so feisty! I brought my gear with me at least three times without even asking her if I could paint her shop. It really takes some guts! And since I take my time to sketch – in the middle of the road at Fa Yuen Street – I needed the people in the area to be okay with that.
So then one day I went back, mustered up the courage and asked “What’s the worst that could happen?” My heart was racing when I brought my stool over – I tried to avoid eye-contact with her, I could sense her glaring at me! She later came over to me – a petite lady with a strong voice – and asked “What are you doing?” and I sheepishly said “I’m painting your store.” She misunderstood and thought I was jotting down something to report her and assured me that she has a license. She was surprised to know I was simply just drawing her stall – it’s just such a rare sight in Hong Kong.
Ms Wong eventually was okay with me painting and I was so relieved. Her reaction when I gave her a framed print of her shop is something I’ll never forget. She was so happy that she was literally jumping on the street! She is the sweetest lady, she couldn’t stop talking and smiling and told me she’ll show the painting to her grandkids. And now whenever I pass by her stall, she never fails to greet me (and sneakily slips in a few extra guavas in my shopping bag!).
And also, The Alleyway Barber was a tricky one. He was a rather quiet man and he just let me be without striking up any conversations. I’d catch him taking naps in between haircuts and he was reluctant to tell me his name. He simply said, “Just call me old man.” He thought he was too old and why would anyone want to paint him. And when I showed him his print, he quietly examined it, and said “Could you give me more hair?” To which I laughed and his print exclusively has more hair!
Tell us about your first solo exhibition, A Moment in Time. How did that come about and how has the exhibition changed your relationship with your paintings?
I walked by Shing Wong Street quite a few times and was always curious about this neighbourhood. The shop with the bright blue gate (the one featured in Treasure Trove) particularly caught my attention. I talked to the shopkeeper, Vincent and showed him my postcards and asked if there was a possibility for him to sell them there. Instead, he suggested ways we both could collaborate. I also found out that the very building of the shop is 70 years old as of this year! It was Vincent who suggested holding the exhibition to promote my art, and to get to know the history of Shing Wong Street.
It wasn’t a fancy gallery but I find the setting of the exhibition so meaningful and it suits my art. I also learned a lot about logistics and event management through this exhibition. It was intense with a lot of behind-the-scenes work, for which I’m grateful to get hands-on experience.
My paintings were like my inner world and through this exhibition they were open to the public. And it was so special to have my paintings up in the very neighbourhood of my Tales of a Ladder Street mini-series. I met people from all walks of life around the area; locals, expats, and just about everyone. And people who came to the exhibition started sharing their stories with me and how they related to these paintings and for me, that was just unforgettable.
You also run your own craft kombucha brand, On The Wagon. How did that start and how do you balance painting and your work at On The Wagon?
I met Ash when I was on the street painting one day. This was in early 2020. I found out he makes kombucha, so I tried it and was blown away. Long story short, I saw potential in the Hong Kong market with people becoming more health-conscious. And for us, kombucha is more than just a health drink, it’s a very fun artisan beverage that’s for everyone. At the end of 2020, I handed in the resignation letter for my day job to pursue my art and work with the kombucha brewery full time.
And how do I balance between my painting and On The Wagon? Well, you don’t take a day off! Holidays are a luxury and when you work for yourself, it’s a 24/7 job. But most importantly, you need to enjoy it.
What feelings and emotions do you hope to evoke in the audience through your paintings?
I want my audience to celebrate the paintings, whether it’s celebrating the person in the painting or the culture and heritage of Hong Kong. The subjects of these paintings are very much part of the rise (and fall) of Hong Kong. A lot of them set up their shops before the golden age of the city, in the 50’s and 60’s. We’re caught in the crossroads now with technology and consumerism, which has vastly changed our behaviour.
These shops are fading and it’s natural for one to feel nostalgic or concerned and to want to hold on. It’s a double-edged sword. Things change, so part of my mission is to celebrate these people playing a huge role in the development of Hong Kong. I guess you could say it’s like a memoir of the city. It’s showing reality without over-romanticising it. I want to use perspective to make the audience feel like they’re in there with the shopkeeper and I purposely let the focus fall on the vendors themselves.
What do you hope to achieve in the next five years in your career as both an entrepreneur and as an artist?
I want to continue to grow and work on new paintings. I want to paint more challenging scenes; shops in Sham Shui Po, dai pai dongs, and even maybe multiple shops instead of just one. I still have a lot to learn in terms of watercolour and I want to grow my collection.
My paintings are a visual documentary of Hong Kong and it’s interesting to wonder how they will be received 20 years from now, when all these shops will have probably disappeared. But I don’t really think too far in advance; it’s exciting and I want to continue doing this.
To purchase one of Alvin Lam’s prints, check out his website and follow his Instagram for behind the scenes of his paintings and updates on his pop-ups.
On The Wagon, G/F. 14A South Lane. Shek Tong Tsui, Hong Kong, p. 5744 8390