There’s a fabulous Andy Warhol exhibit making its rounds in the United States and it recently came to Chicago. From what I’ve seen in person and on social media, it was one of the most popular Art Institute shows in recent years. I recently learned of a 2013 book titled, Warhol in China, which seems like a timely find.
Warhol in China is mainly a book of black and white photographs from Andy Warhol’s October and November 1982 trip to Hong Kong and China. Although there isn’t a lot of text, the book tells a fascinating story that starts with Hong Kong.
Alfred Siu is a Hong Kong entrepreneur and a graduate of Stanford in the US. He all but discovered Zaha Hadid in the early 80s. At the same time, he wanted to bring more contemporary art to Hong Kong, namely for his new establishment, the I Club. He contacted people in the New York art scene and inquired about Warhol coming to Hong Kong to take portrait photographs for the I Club. Warhol had been to Hong Kong in 1956, and in 1972 he had created his famous Mao portrait. So it wasn’t such an outlandish idea. Traveling to China in 1982 was still relatively novel for Americans, and Siu arranged for Warhol to visit Beijing for several days. Back then, it was probably easiest for Americans to get to China via Hong Kong.
The book is a fabulous look at early 80s China, but of the over 200 photos, half are from Hong Kong. The collection doesn’t indicate in which city the photos were taken, and they are not arranged in any particular order. So it’s up to the reader to try to figure it out. Beijing is a darker, more monochromic city, while Hong Kong seems more colorful–even from the black and white photos. I found it interesting to see what Warhol liked enough in Hong Kong to capture on film. Much of it was architecture–Jardine House, Hopewell Centre, and buildings seen from the Peak–but there were also street scenes of Hong Kong’s famous trams and interior hotel shots of televisions, bathrobes, and the staff. In Beijing, we can see ancient architecture, the Great Wall, and also crumbling, newer buildings and lots of bicycles. One of the most memorable Beijing shots to me is a banquet table covered with plates of food, much of which you wouldn’t see at a banquet today because the quality of the ingredients has greatly improved.
Andy Warhol flew non-stop, according to Siu, from New York to Hong Kong with his entourage. Siu showed them around Hong Kong, a city Warhol took to quickly. The vibrant street scenes and the energetic nightlife appealed greatly to Warhol. For someone who generally woke up late everyday, Warhol rose early in Hong Kong to sightsee. Siu also accompanied Warhol and his entourage to Beijing, but Warhol didn’t find it was exciting as Hong Kong. He toured the ancient sights in China’s capital and appreciated its history, but found the city dead at night. He did meet with an underground artists community, which was still quite hush-hush back then.
Siu’s plan to have Warhol take portrait photos for the I Club didn’t exactly pan out. Hong Kong’s rich and famous felt too self conscious about posing for Warhol and worried they’d be judged–for being too pretentious? So Siu and his then-wife and family were basically the only ones to sit for portraits. After Warhol left for the US, Hong Kong socialites realized what they had missed and flew to New York to have their portraits taken there. As for the I Club, it only lasted a year or so. Between 1982 and 1984, the future of Hong Kong was so up in the air that people didn’t want to invest in membership of a private club. Many left Hong Kong then in the first brain drain.
Warhol never went back to Hong Kong or China. The long flight was an issue, plus he passed away four and a half years later.
We’re lucky to have this collection of his photos in Warhol in China. Hong Kong and Beijing are certainly not the same now.