Cover Stephen Wong Chun Hei (Photo: Courtesy of Bonhams)

Artist Stephen Wong depicts Hong Kong’s most famous hiking trail, the MacLehose, in more than 40 paintings, which will be shown in an interactive art exhibition in March

Completing all ten sections of the 100km MacLehose Trail is no easy feat, let alone capturing them in paintings. Since September last year, Hong Kong artist Stephen Wong Chun-hei has painted sections of the city’s most famous trail, the setting for the annual Oxfam Trailwalker race, while hiking its ten sections. His new series of more than 40 paintings, which captures his journey on the trail in acrylic paint on canvas and drawings on paper, will be available for sale during an online interactive exhibition by Bonhams Hong Kong from March 10 to 31.

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Spanning from Sai Kung in the east to Tuen Mun in the west, the MacLehose Trail was named by National Geographic as one of the “World's Best Hikes: 20 Dream Trails” in 2016 due to its sweeping views. “The MacLehose Trail has always been on my bucket list,” says Wong, who specialises in natural landscape painting and is an avid hiker. “I had wanted to challenge myself for so many years. The pandemic made me feel that I had to fulfil this dream because you never know if you will be able to go out tomorrow.” With that, Wong quit his job as an art teacher at the HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity and hit the country parks with his painting tools.

Here, he shares his journey of the last six months.

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7am

I wake up early because I don’t just need a lot of time to hike the trail; I also stop from time to time to sketch when I see something interesting. Before I set off, I plan my journey. The length and difficulty level of each section is different. To get to the starting point of certain sections, such as two and eight, can be quite tricky because of the terrain. Sometimes I need to start the hike at the previous section.

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I used to hike twice every week, but for this project, I go out with a group of friends who are seasoned hikers and are way faster than me. While they decide how much water and food to bring, I decide how many sketch books I need. I have one sketchbook, which contains around 20 sheets, for each section. But there are times when I run out of paper, and I just have to memorise what I see and paint using my memory and imagination when I return.

9am

We set off after a few hours. I originally thought about trying different media and even using an iPad to sketch. But the hike is quite time-consuming, so I sketch with my pencil on the trail, and apply acrylic paint in my studio afterwards.

It’s interesting how my friends changed their perspective on hiking after going on sketching trips with an artist. They finally take time to slow down and appreciate the landscape. Now, they treasure these moments.

It’s a very memorable experience when you’re up on the trail. I notice that the MacLehose trail covers quite a lot of famous mountains in Hong Kong, and they are all connected. When you are in the city, you may be under the impression that the mountains are separate. In fact, it’s the different parts of the city that are separate. That’s why, now that I’m almost done with the project, I’m very familiar with the landscapes and different parts of Hong Kong.

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Noon

Lunch is simple. Just bread, considering that I must bring my tools to the trail.

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5pm

I’m usually quite tired after sketching in the morning. When I return to my studio in Fo Tan, I like having my teatime of cookies before colouring my sketches.

Based on the atmosphere, the weather, the time of day, and my experience during the hike, I form the idea of the colour tones and composition I want for each section of the trail.

I particularly like section eight that leads up to Tai Mo Shan. I went up during the day, but I wanted to imagine how dark it would be at night. So I recreated the scene with a dark blue starry night. I also like section four, so I captured its scenery at sunset. I started with the base colours of orange and red, then explored pink tones. The most challenging part [to paint] is section one, which is next to a reservoir. Painting water is quite different to my usual landscape painting.

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7pm

I paint for a few hours. I try to have a sustainable work life. There are times when I stay until 11pm but that’s the max. Sometimes I have meetings with Marcello Kwan, Bonhams’s Head of Modern and Contemporary Art Asia, to plan the exhibition. As much as I would love to present my work to viewers in a live exhibition, Covid-19 is making this difficult. I don’t want to just post an image onto the website, so we came up with the idea of a “digital hike”, where the paintings will be revealed one by one over March, as if viewers are going on a hike with me. I’ll also be introducing the details of the pieces.

11pm

Watching movies at night is my favourite way to wind down at night. I love movies with good visuals, such as those by Wes Anderson, to inspire my art. My favourite movie of his is The Darjeeling Limited. I also love collecting mini toy cars from the old toy shops in Yau Ma Tei and Wan Chai. I don’t have a driving licence, so I love imagining myself driving in one of these toy cars in my landscape paintings.

‘A Day In The Life’ is a weekly series which delves into the secret lives of the makers and doers within Hong Kong’s arts scene.

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