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Humans of Hong Kong: Immortalising memory with Dixon Ngai

By Nicole Hurip 23 June 2020

Welcome to Humans of Hong Kong, a brand-new story series on Localiiz that takes a deeper look at the many colourful characters and unique personalities that call our beloved city home. The art of painting porcelain by hand, or guangcai, started in the Qing dynasty and was sold all across Europe. Dixon Ngai, or Lam Duen Shan Ming, has taken upon himself to keep the tradition alive, as part of Hong Kong’s cultural identity.

It all started with an apprenticeship at a porcelain factory when he was 15, an endeavour that he continued for seven more years. He is bringing new life to the age-old practice, incorporating new motifs and compositions while respecting traditional techniques. Join us as Dixon explains what art means to him, and how having thick skin is essential if you want to excel at your craft.

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“At that time, when I was in Form 3, I went to the porcelain factory for an apprenticeship with the master. I would go once a week and practice my painting at the factory by myself as well. I would also bring pieces home to paint. It was like handing in pieces of homework every week, showing my master my work.

“He would always critique my work because it was for my own good. Too many compliments would be useless. Trying non-stop, not being scared of failure, having thick enough skin to keep badgering the master about how to achieve certain effects with a certain colour, how does a certain step prepare you for the next, and so on.”

“Traditionally, porcelain are eating utensils, but not a lot of people can afford them nowadays. But I still want people to use them. Let’s say I’m drinking tea with you, having a chat. In the future, you would remember this story. Maybe every time I hang out with friends, I use the same cup; when you look at it again, you realise that you’ve built a relationship between the food, the porcelain, and the person.

“I don’t really care about the definition. In different spaces, if it were a tile, and it covers a whole wall, you may think it is art or design. I want to continue this craft in daily life, for people to see it often, which is why I experiment a lot. During that process, I don’t usually define what the end product is.”

Guangcai is declining because that’s the trend. It was a product of trade and production. During the Qing dynasty, only the port in Guangzhou was open to foreign trading. China’s porcelain largely came from Jingdezhen and was sold overseas via Guangzhou. A lot of the porcelain was damaged during the transportation process, which prompted a group of painters to produce custom orders right there in Guangzhou.

“Those were very labour-intensive times, which is hard to go back to. Porcelain is an excellent medium for remembrance, and I will continue to use porcelain to record Hong Kong’s unique cultural identity. In 50, 100, 200 years later, maybe people will look at it and realise there once was a place called Hong Kong. Art expresses how I feel, my everyday epiphanies, onto porcelain. People would think that is art. To me, it is as effortless as breathing.”

“Traditional motifs are usually flowers, scenes in nature. I think in modern times, too much greenery might not capture the right feeling. Straight lines, architectural elements might be more appreciated. I studied environment and interior design in university, so I’m very familiar with the architecture in Hong Kong and the Lingnan area. I think we can draw a bit more of our unique cultural background onto the porcelain.

“In the early days, I would paint a lot of ships. I really like the ships of Hong Kong, because I think Hong Kong itself is a ship without a port. You’ll need to constantly be on the move, to be adrift, to adapt. Hong Kong is what it is because we have the ability to adapt. If we lose that, we will be no different from a typical city. That’s why we need to constantly accept challenges, to see where strengths are and build upon that. You cannot give up the world for a single port.”

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Nicole Hurip

Travel editorial director

Never content with sitting still, Nicole has turned her passion into a career. Hong Kong is her home, but she’ll always have a soft spot for L.A. and London, where she spent her college years. She loves exploring hidden places, hunting for cool vintage pieces, and talking to interesting people. Her vices include consuming excessive amounts of wine and cheese, a debilitating weakness for sparkly things, and spending too much time on Instagram.