History's Forgotten Men: A Sailor and an Artist in Mid-19th Century Guangdong with Dr. Stephen Davies and Dr. Yeewan Koon
We are pleased to present a double lecture with Stephen Davies and Dr. Yeewan Koon at the historic Luk Yu Tea House in Central.
The period of 1840–60 in China is often seen through the lens of the Opium Wars, but there are also narratives of people outside the world of wars and diplomacy. Through the stories of two historically neglected individuals — Hesing, a Whampoa shipping man and Su Renshan, a Cantonese artist from the outskirts of Guangdong — this double lecture will show how mid-19th century Guangdong was a time of change and possibilities.
In his recent book, Dr. Stephen Davies recalls the story of a British purchased Chinese junk Keying and its voyage from Hong Kong to London where it was intended to be a traveling exhibition of Chinese items. In this talk, Dr. Davies draws attention to one of the junk’s Chinese crew members, Hesing, a man who was very much part of the fluid, multicultural, polyglot but very Cantonese world of the Huangpu (Whampoa) waterfront.
Dr. Davies traces Hesing’s story from when he first became part of the Keying project to landing in England, his reinvention of himself as a “5th rank mandarin” and his final story back in China. The treaty ports offered new opportunities. It was people like Hesing who seized them.
As Keying’s journey to America and Europe began in the Pearl River Delta area, a different story was unfolding at the edges of Guangdong city. Dr. Yeewan Koon relates the story of Su Renshan, an artist discontented with the pressures of being an elder son, challenged the structures of Confucian learning with his iconoclastic ink paintings.
This part of the talk will examine how Su’s radical reinterpretation of familiar iconographies and brushwork to show the limitations of traditional values placed on art and artists were at this moment of change. Su’s radical paintings showed the possibilities for later generations of modern Chinese art.
The lectures will be followed by a short discussion between the two speakers who will reflect on how examining marginal figures in history can reveal different types of insights into larger grand narratives of Chinese history.
Dr. Stephen Davies is an Honorary Fellow of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences. He is author of the book East Sails West: The Voyage of the Keying, 1846–1855 and currently writing the history of maritime mission in Hong Kong. He still teaches at HKU, is Hon. Editor of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, writes as a yachting journalist, is an occasional TV presenter, works with museums and heritage interests in China, Singapore and Hong Kong and is an active yachtsman.
Dr. Yeewan Koon is an Associate Professor in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Hong Kong. Her book, A Defiant Brush: Su Renshan and The Politics of Painting in Early 19th Century Guangdong (2014) situates an unusual artist in a larger world of art that includes export works and ink painting during the time of the Opium War. She is currently working on her new research on the “self-knowing copy” through case studies where copying was more than an act of learning, artistic transcendence, or for mass production, and reveals motives of wit, historical positioning and affectation.