Performance artist Frog King has entertained people around the world for more than 40 years. But who is Kwok Mang-ho, the eccentric Hongkonger who brought this character to life?

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.”

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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.

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Teacher and Students

All this time, Kwok was teaching: from 1971 to 1976 he taught at a secondary school, and from 1977 until 1980 at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. At the latter, one of his students was Wong Kar-wai. “I remember he liked theory—liked many discussions with students and friends,” is all Kwok will say about the man who went on to become Hong Kong’s most famous film director.

Kwok was popular with students and understood the power of a good teacher. He had studied under Lui Shou-kwan, the pioneer of the New Ink Movement in Hong Kong, who remains a major influence. After Lui passed away in the mid-’70s, Kwok began listening to tapes he had of Lui’s lessons. He listened to them daily for almost a decade.

Big Fish

But Kwok was disappointed his own art was still being brushed aside by Hong Kong’s critics and curators. “I was looked down on. I was do you say it?” He stops to think, searching for the word—“abuse.” So, in 1980, Kwok decided to move on. “Hong Kong was a small pond,” he says. “There wasn’t enough space for me to explore.”

Kwok won funding to travel to the US. “They sent me with 14 different artists and architects. We travelled around America together. After [travelling] north, east, south, west, many different directions, visiting different cities, I ended up in New York City.” He fell in love with the city. “From small pond to huge pond. Like the ocean of the art!”

When the programme came to an end, Kwok didn’t want to leave. He applied to the Art Students League of New York and received a four-year student visa. After that visa expired, he stayed in the country illegally, working as a cleaner at a Chinese restaurant in SoHo. He scraped by on a few dollars a day. “It was not about money,” says Kwok. “It’s just a chance in my life, to be in New York City. It was the capital of art in the world.”

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New York, New York

Jean-Michel Basquiat was the star of the scene, having gone from being an unknown graffiti artist to a celebrated painter represented by Gagosian and dating Madonna, who was at the very start of her career. Keith Haring was also on the rise—his graffitied chalk outlines of men and dogs in subway stations had earned him a cult following, though that didn’t stop the police from arresting him on multiple occasions. 

There was also a thriving community of artists from East Asia who had made New York their home. Kwok made friends with Ai Weiwei, Chinese-American painter Martin Wong, Taiwanese performance artist Tehching Hsieh and Hong Kong-born photographer Tseng Kwong-chi, who documented much of Haring’s work. “I experienced the golden age of the graffiti art and the underground culture,” explains Kwok. 

It was in New York where Kwok developed the visual language that defines his art to this day. Loyal to his teacher Lui Shou-kwan, he had never stopped experimenting with ink. “Ink culture is like rice culture,” says Kwok—it’s inextricably tied to Asia. But in New York, he started covering his abstract ink paintings with symbols like the tags of graffiti artists. “The big brushwork [is like] Jackson Pollock, [Willem] De Kooning, Chinese calligraphy,” says Kwok. “Then ink and brushwork blend into graffiti—all of it mixed together.”

Frog Life

By far the most common symbol in Kwok’s paintings is a cartoonish frog’s face with two large, triangular eyes perched on top of a smiling mouth. Kwok has been drawn to frogs all his life. As a child, he used to climb a rock known as “Big Froggy Rock” to watch the horse races taking place at Happy Valley. Later, as a teenager, he referred to himself as the “Frog Prince” when approaching girls—referencing the Grimm Brothers story about a frog who, if kissed, turns into a handsome prince. In New York, the frog took on a greater symbolic meaning. Just as the amphibious frog can slip between land and water, Kwok saw himself sliding between cultures, Hong Kong and New York.

By the late ’80s, the frog had hopped off the page. In 1989, Kwok started his “wearable art” Froggy Sunglasses project, for which he adorns shades with paint, spikes and other embellishments—turning them into bulbous, frog-like eyes—then asks members of the public to pose in them for photos. David Bowie was snapped in a pair, as were artists Nam June Paik and Carolee Schneemann.

Kwok himself began regularly wearing the sunglasses, then added a large coat, thick black-and-white-striped socks, huge necklaces, gloves, blingy rings and a towering hat covered with “froggy” symbols. The outfit totally consumes Kwok—his face is barely visible beneath the huge mirrored shades and hat, and every other inch of skin is buried beneath fabric or jewellery. Over the years, the frog stopped being a symbol on the page and became Kwok himself.

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Home to Roost

It was in this guise that he moved back to Hong Kong in 1998. Kwok’s mother, then 80, had broken her hip. He came back to be closer to her, but also because he felt a responsibility to the local art community. “My art of the frog is a cross-cultural bridge,” he says. “Froggy eyes stare at each other across East and West. I wanted to spread to the new generation of Asia the art of the frog.”

The next time we meet it is at “Frog’s nest”—Kwok’s home and studio hidden in the jungle outside Yuen Long. I’m instructed to take a taxi to a specific address—an empty stretch of road behind a low-rise apartment block—then call Kwok’s mobile. A few minutes later, he shuffles into view and waves me up an uneven concrete path that weaves between towering banana trees to two small bungalows. One is his studio, the other is his home.

His two dogs—Yat and Yee, Cantonese for “one” and “two”—bound out to meet us, brushing against half-finished canvases propped precariously around a central courtyard, totally exposed to the elements. Kwok is unconcerned. He has never been precious about his art—he regularly tears up works on paper as part of his performances—and is so prolific, he says, he can always make more.

Highlight Reel

Kwok is, however, careful about documenting his exhibitions and performances. Inside, his studio appears chaotic—there are piles of paper, pots of paints and pencils, rows of sunglasses and different iterations of his Frog King outfit hanging from various hooks. A hot plate in the corner flashes ominously, as if negligently left on. But his desk is clear of clutter, the shelves are fairly ordered, and he knows exactly where everything is. “It’s in that book, the red one, top shelf,” he says at one point.

These books record all his successes, including the almost rapturous reception he has received since returning to Hong Kong. In perhaps the clearest show of the establishment’s about-turn, he was selected by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council to represent the city at the Venice Biennale in 2011. Last year, he was commissioned to create a major new installation for the reopening of the Hong Kong Museum of Art

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Much of that installation was made in this studio in the wilderness. “The mouse and the insects and the snakes and the mosquitoes—many different things come out and you have to get used to them and work together with them,” says Kwok, who is often woken up by the howl of the wind or the patter of rain on the roof—not that he has a set sleep schedule. “I cannot define day and night,” he says. “When I feel tired, I go to sleep. I sleep for two hours, then I wake up and start doing something again. Sometimes I fall asleep [for] only five minutes, then I get up again. You cannot say making art is just like [a regular job].”

Work and Play

As he starts donning his Frog King clothes for Tatler’s photographer, I wonder whether the outfit is a burden, whether it’s a struggle to always appear happy and full of energy. “Not very much,” he says, at first. “I’m playing. I’m playing with the public. Playing is art—from playing you learn and explore. I’ve never grown up. I’m now 72 years old but my head is still like a child—like children’s thinking. I play every day.” But it clearly isn’t as easy as it used to be. The clothes are hot and heavy. Within minutes, Kwok is sweating. His Froggy Sunglasses are blurred with paint, so he shuffles slowly forward, arms outstretched. “I sometimes play too much, then I feel very tired,” he admits.

We step into the courtyard outside. “Shh,” he whispers, pointing to the other building. “Frog Queen is sleeping.” His wife, Cho Hyun-jae, is a Korean artist. She spends part of the year here, where she makes her own art and acts as Kwok’s manager, and part of the year in Korea, where she has another studio. Previously, Kwok had told me that his friends thought the relationship—like his two previous marriages—wouldn’t last. “Our friends were very worried,” he said. “They said, ‘You two, strong artists, strong characters, together—very dangerous.’ It’s been over 20 years now. Sometimes, like a typhoon, we want to kill each other. But sometimes you have a partner and the happiness comes out.”

Worry; Be Happy

Happiness may well be Kwok’s most used word. “Celebration,” “fun” and “play” are other favourites. Kwok’s mission, he says, is to bring people happiness with his art. Even when he’s not opening an exhibition or giving a performance, he sometimes ventures out in public in full Frog King regalia. “I dress up like this to go shopping, then people will have some fresh thing to enjoy in the market, on the street, in the tea house or dim sum house or restaurant,” he says. “I want to make fun [for] people.”

But is he happy? Kwok pauses to think. “If you look at philosophers or poets or creators or spiritual people, I believe they must be suffering at least 10 times more than regular people,” he says, slowly, his voice dipping almost to a whisper. “They go very deep into life and explore. It’s very painful, but then it turns out they’re very happy. The most happiness can come out from the struggle. I believe good art has to come out of suffering. My personal experience is like that. When I was five years old, my father died, so I grew up with no father. I struggled. [When I was a child, I used to think] what should I play? There was no daddy to bring me to fly the kite. So, I became independent; I had to do things by myself, make some fun in life.” Kwok goes quiet, takes a sip of water. “OK,” he says, meaning, I sense, enough.

Later, after I have left Kwok in his leafy hideaway and returned to the city, it’s this image I can’t shake: that of a 72-year-old man, often alone in the forest, working all hours of the day and night, determined to create joy from sadness.

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