With his thick-rimmed glasses, Mandarin-collar jacket and broad smile, Johnson Chang is an instantly recognisable figure at many of Hong Kong’s art events—but he’s famous for far more than his fashion sense.
Johnson is widely regarded as the person who kick-started global interest in Chinese contemporary art, turning painters such as Zeng Fanzhi, Wang Guangyi and Fang Lijun into international sensations by curating era-defining exhibitions such as "The Stars: 10 Years" and "China’s New Art, Post 1989".
Here, he recalls scouring Hong Kong for art books as a child in the 1960s, explains why he’s so excited by Tai Kwun and reveals why he’s still looking for young artists to show in his gallery, Hanart TZ, which he established in 1983.
What was the first work of art that moved you?
I can’t remember my first infantile rapture with art, but it must be from some sort of Chinese comic strips of historical, military novels. As a child I was always interested in drawing things and when I was a teenager, one of my uncles invited me to view his collection of important classical paintings from the Shanghai and Suzhou region, which was my first lesson in connoisseurship.
I also spent many of my idle hours browsing art books at Swindon Books on Lock Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.
What was the first exhibition you hosted?
I wasn’t a gallerist at the time, but I curated a show for the artist Mak Hin-Yeung at the Hong Kong Arts Centre in the late ‘70s. That was probably his first public exhibition in Hong Kong and it was very well received. There are a few other shows I did before I had a contemporary art gallery. I organised the first show for Luis Chan, it was 1981 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre.
Then in 1982 I did another show, for the sculptor Ju Ming. The Ju Ming exhibition was particularly successful, so I was persuaded to open a gallery because I was offered a space by my uncle at minimal rent.
Today, I still think, the only way to do an art gallery properly is to have minimal rental. Although I’m not speaking for myself now—Pedder Building has maximal rent.