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Humans of Hong Kong: Casting perfection with Chris Li, metalworker

By Celia Lee 11 December 2023

Traditional crafts were once the crown jewel of Hong Kong’s booming industrial age, whether it be bamboo art, guang cai ceramics, or jewellery-making, to name a few. While these industries have all dwindled in the face of modernisation, the imprint of these professions has not entirely vanished from the streets of Hong Kong. 

In a metalworker’s modest studio in the industrial Ngau Tau Kok neighbourhood, there is a promise of metamorphosis rather than a revival—a new kind of alchemy. With Chris Li of Gold Steed Atelier, an artist, metalworker, and contemporary jeweller, we spoke about eternity, staying afloat in an age of fast trends, and his love for parasitic plants.

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“Part of the reason why I got interested in metalworking was because of my brother, who got into the craft first. At the time, I had no direction—I was a high school kid […] following my brother […] who did a lot of art pieces in contemporary jewellery when he was in university.

“[My brother] was very interested in biker accessories, the ones that are big, chunky, and masculine. [When I was following him in the studio,] I just started to learn the basics [of metalwork]: polishing, hammering rings, et cetera. I studied design, then enrolled into the same university as my brother.

“[In] my degree, they don’t teach you any of the technical stuff; they want you to explore and do research on your own. The castings and everything I do now, I learnt from independent research. [When you are studying] contemporary art, the most important thing was to do research—why did you choose to use this technique, this material, [and] what is the meaning behind [your piece].”

“For me, making something with metal is to eternalise it. [When] I eternalise a flower with metal, it will never wither in our lifetimes. This material is very fascinating, I can throw it around and it won’t break or even make a dent.

“My mentor doesn’t really agree with my craft, but I think he just hasn’t seen the perfection I can achieve with casting [yet]. The process of making a mould from a real flower is […] an art [in itself]. I use real flowers to make a mould, and because of how delicate the flower is compared to the material, it may be that I make 10, but only one will come out perfectly.”

“People think it’s just about pouring metal into a cast and waiting for it to set, but I also make my own moulds. People say, ‘Your work is just casting.’ When they use the word ‘just,’ you know they think it’s a very easy process. This really hurts me, but I’ve gotten used to it. You have to train your mindset, and over time, you know how to answer [those who doubt you]. Usually, when they realise the time and effort that went into making this product, they will appreciate it more.”

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“Recently, I’ve been focusing on orchids. I think the orchid is fascinating, because it is the oldest species of flower on earth. It is even more special to me because it is a parasitic plant. There is no individual flower; it has to parasitise on a tree and absorb its nutrients to grow. I look up to H R Giger, one of the artists that did design work for the film Alien. I feel that [the orchid] is mystical; it’s almost like a life form. So, for me, it’s almost like a Xenomorph.”

“My favourite thing I’ve made so far is a full body piece for [local singer-songwriter] Terence Lam’s concert. His stylist approached me saying they had a space-themed outfit and wanted to add something metallic to it. I replied, ‘I’ve been watching a lot of Alien stuff; one of my idols is the designer for this franchise. Do you mind if I make a piece out of orchids, in a similar vein?’ I was very lucky that the designer listened to my suggestions and gave me the opportunity to experiment with my ideas and present my work in front of a lot of people on a big stage. I think this is what I’m most proud of about this project.”

“I think what I do is more art than industry. Even though there are a lot of industrial and craft elements in what I make and how I make it, I am happiest when I make something I want to make. You need to have your own character. Be yourself, and your artwork will be yours.

“I also like making household items. I’m working on a few now, lamps, door hinges, et cetera. I’m trying to incorporate a sculpture into daily life, and eventually, [I] will feel like [the space] becomes a theme park as [I] make more and incorporate different things.”

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“Art is a profession. My mentor used to say, ‘In any given place, no one will remember which lawyer or doctor was prominent in their lifetime; it is the architects, artists, and musicians—creatives—who are remembered, but who are also underrated in their lifetimes,’ and I agree with him.

“I will still aim for perfection. I think you should push yourself to achieve this before meddling in the beauty of imperfection, because then it won’t be an excuse for your mistakes.”

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Celia Lee

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Celia is passionate about culture, food, and different happenings in the city. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her scouting for new and trendy restaurants, getting lost in a bookstore, or baking up a storm at home.

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