One night when Kwok Mang-ho was five years old—around the time his father was dying from tuberculosis—he set himself a reckless challenge. “I was on the street somewhere in the Times Square area, near Happy Valley,” he recalls. “Us children used to play with soda drink bottle caps. But that night I had a firecracker. I was thinking, ‘If I don’t throw it, what will happen?’ I felt a huge sound, a huge explosion. I didn’t feel pain. I just felt all my fingers bleeding. I was sent to hospital.”
Kwok, now better known as his artist alter ego Frog King, can’t quite explain why he didn’t let go of the lit firecracker. Nor can he remember why, a year or so later, he ran away from his mother on a day trip to the island of Cheung Chau, jumped into a sampan with some friendly fishermen, then, once they were out of the shallows, flung himself overboard.
“I didn’t really know how to swim; I was drinking lots of seawater,” he says. Luckily, the tide was in his favour—the waves tossed the six-year-old Kwok retching and exhausted on to the shore. “I wanted a challenge,” he says, almost laughing at the memory. “I wanted to do something where I didn’t know the result. I was very brave and enthusiastic to just do it, right?”
Listening to this story in the hushed hall of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery more than 65 years after the event, I’m not so sure. Neither, by the sounds of things, was his mother, who watched the scene unfold from the beach. “She was very worried,” Kwok admits. “But this is my character—to not think about results. I explore, I experiment.”
Against the Grain
Despite the risk of serious injury, or worse, this foolhardiness has carried Kwok far. He has been a prominent figure in Hong Kong since the late 1960s, when he stood out as brash and radical in a generation of more quiet, traditional artists. “In the 1970s, the art scene was very conservative,” he remembers. “Artists were doing impressionism and some traditional Chinese paintings. Flowers, birds, landscapes—those forms.”
Kwok had other ideas. In 1975, he won an award for an exhibition featuring charred plastic pipes—a far cry from the inks and oils of his contemporaries. Later that year, he walked into a gallery at the Hong Kong Museum of Art and poured a bag full of burned cow bones on to the floor. Kwok devised it as a piece of performance art—he titled it Splashing Cow Bone Action; the security guards saw it as vandalism.
“The guards and curator came out to complain,” says Kwok. “But I made it calm; I promised to clean up. They didn’t call the police.” A couple of years later, he literally lit up the Tuen Mun Art Festival when he built a sculpture of a pyramid several metres tall, threw a mattress over the top and set the whole thing on fire. The air quickly filled with thick, acrid smoke.