Chinese export painting was an intriguing phenomenon in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the West’s fascination with decorative arts in the chinoiserie style gave rise to the production of arts and crafts that catered to the European and American markets. Draftsmen and artists who operated in Canton (present day Guangzhou and an important trading port in the 18th and 19th century) saw the opportunity to profit from this great demand.
Among porcelain, lacquerware and silk, oil painting that depicted landscapes of the area were very popular. Commissioned portraits were also in great demand.
George Chinnery was one of the first Englishmen who saw the opportunity and established an acclaimed career in Canton, Macau, and briefly in Hong Kong as a portraitist in the English Grand Manner style.
In Canton, he taught a handful of Chinese students, among which was “Lamqua.” Lamqua was said to have already been a painter before meeting Chinnery; Under Chinnery’s tutelage, Lamqua quickly adopted his teacher’s style and became a very competent portrait painter himself. Later, the pair had a fallout and became business rivals as Lamqua would offer prices deliberately meant to undercut his teacher.
What I saw in these two small self-portraits was one of the many stories of “when expatriates meet locals” in the 18th and 19th centuries when trading between East and West brought not only business transactions but also personal stories of cultural (mis)understanding and possibilities—the moments of intrigue when traditions and customs were not quite readily apparent to either party. There is a sense of incongruity in Lamqua’s self-portrait—a man in mandarin attire and hairstyle was depicted in a sophisticated English Grand Manner oil painting.
The image illuminates the hybrid existence of the culture and people in Canton, Macau, and my native Hong Kong—a British colony since 1842 (and returned to China in 1997). Hong Kong’s transformation from a small fishing village to a cosmopolitan city epitomized the myriad stories of cultural exchange and hybrid existence.
The term “Hong Kongers” (Heung-gong yan) with which the people in the region proudly identify reflect the experience of daily existence at the conjunctures of language, custom, and the everyday life that is unique to the region.
The awareness of this cultural hybridity led to the movement of “localism” in Hong Kong in recent years to trace the footsteps of people such as Chinnery and Lamqua who helped establish the unique culture of Hong Kong in which the East and the West converged and generated innovation.
Despite the ebbs and flows of the relationship between Lamqua and Chinnery, the two nemeses are now reunited at PEM in Salem, a place of historical intrigues. The pair of self-portraits call to mind many moments of the past, lives lived, and stories of cultural crossings during early globalization.
The two paintings are currently on view at: Importing Splendor: Luxuries from China. On view June 13, 2015 to December 31, 2017. Located in the: Chinese Art, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation Gallery.