As Henry Wong lounges in the corner of an arts space studio in Hong Kong’s bustling Yau Ma Tei district, a wacky hat sags like a dishing on top of his head. He peers out from a pair of bright orange glasses, his eyes full of jolly mischief. His cartoonish looks reflect his provocative portraits about the Chinese and the local politics. I could not help but find out more about this idiosyncratic artist.
Wong’s peculiarity is not limited to his odd Facebook page alias “Local Ginger”, where he uploads most of his creations. Even when asked a question as simple as how old he is, he likes to keep it a mystery. “I’ve been through the Cultural Revolutions in China, the Second World War; so don’t ask me how old I am,” he says, refusing to confirm his age. “Always young at heart…just joking!” says Wong, with a childish giggle.
The phrase “local ginger”, as Wong explains, comes from the Qing Dynasty in the Guangdong province, where locals would not buy the ginger as they thought it was too spicy. “But actually, they were of great medical use,” Wong says, as a matter of fact. Leaning back on his chair, his eyes fill with pride as he admits why he chose this particular name. “Because in Hong Kong, local ginger means powerful!”
Wong knows how to cherish his time, but he does so to more than just get his works done. “My masterpiece documentary is not for today,” says Wong, as he slumps his bag next to a dried, weathered plant, “it’s for the future.” Putting his scrawny hands on his hips, he expresses how badly he wants to be remembered for his paintings. “Like now, when we talk about the communist party, people say ‘Oh, that fucking guy killed a student!’ he says in a slightly raised voice. “I want to be remembered forever as well.”
Wong pulls out an old Sony Xperia phone from his pockets to show his Local Ginger page, which has been liked by over 2000 online users. “The creations all come from myself,” says Wong, pointing at his nose to emphasize his point. “One person, one mind.” As a freelance engineer repairing appliances, Wong considers himself a lucky person to have enough time to dedicate to his artworks. “Busy is the human attitude,” he says with a disappointed smile, “but the fate came on me.”
Wong attributes his success mostly to his hard work, and a little bit of luck. “The pavement is sometimes very hard,” he says, pausing for a brief second, tapping on the plastic table. He looks over at his colleagues, who are busy chatting on the other end of the cluttered studio, and turns his gaze back. “Even though I am a computer illiterate, I have friends who help me out with my Facebook page.”
But a serious political concern lurks behind Wong’s quirky demeanor. “I am going to stop my work when Article 23 gets implemented in Hong Kong,” he says as he rolls his hat to the top of his head. Article 23 is a security law proposed by the Government of Hong Kong, which allows enacting laws on its own against practices, which potentially harm the consolidation of the power of the government.
“It will be terrible for the younger generations,” says Wong, “as they won’t have the freedom and may have to flee somewhere else.” Then almost immediately, he goes back to his comical self and adds: “Luckily I won’t be in Hong Kong anymore, I will be up in heaven!”
Wong uses the current freedom of speech in Hong Kong as his way of treasuring the present time. When asked about the risks he could face from the officials for provoking controversies, he presses a finger against his chapped lips and once again unlocks his mobile phone. “Look at this, this is me.” He points at an article published by the Hong Kong Free Press, regarding the Chinese governmental surveillance of social media sites, where the photo under the headline is of Wong himself.
“People tell me, ‘Local Ginger, be careful!’” says Wong, mimicking an overly concerned voice. “But I am not scared…because I’m too old,” he bursts into a fit of laughter as he shoves the phone back into the pocket of his faded denim pants. “Nobody cares about me,” says Wong as he catches his breath. “I am a small potato!”
Wong gushes when asked about how he speaks such good English for an old man like him in Hong Kong. “Whoa! Thank you!” he says, clearly taking the question as a compliment. “I talk to a lot of missionaries and read English books,” he says. “I also have talked to a lot of “aliens” in my life!” It took me a while to realize that he was referring to foreigners as “aliens”.
Wong continues to share his peculiar wisdom on cherishing the present time-being as he fumbles into his bag, and takes out a black clock that wobbles and tilts but stands right back up when pushed. “Do you know the metaphor behind this clock?” asks Wong. “This means that you cannot fight time,” he answers his own question as he puts it back inside his bag. “No matter how much you try to push the time away,” says Wong, “it will catch up to you.”