London — In 1979, British painter Martin Lever was only 9 years old when he moved to Hong Kong because his father was employed as a surveyor in the Hong Kong Housing Department. He tells VOA’s Cantonese service that growing up in the multicultural city gave him a very different upbringing, one he is grateful for to this day.
Lever returned to England to attend university and worked there for several years. But he returned to Hong Kong, where he pursued a career in the advertising industry. By the time he left in May 2022, he had spent a total of 36 years living in the Asian city.
Lever, who also goes by the Chinese name Li Wah, was not always an artist. He worked as a copywriter in international advertising companies in the 1990s, and later rose to the position of creative director. It was during his final years in advertising that he slowly became a full-time artist. Hong Kong has long been his muse, and his paintings of mostly urban street scenes, grassroots workers and elements of life capture Hong Kong’s characteristics in an abstract style.
Many Hong Kong people do not realize that most of their lives occur high in the sky, he said.
“They live on the 10th floor, work on the 20th floor and eat on the 30th floor,” said Lever. Hong Kong, when seen from a high altitude from the ground, is very different. Works derived from this concept have been popular, he said.
It wasn’t until more recently that he started to turn his attention to politics and the political turmoil of Hong Kong. Using his earlier perspectives, he created a series of works titled “Above the Protests,” scenes of Hong Kong’s mass demonstrations from above.
In 2021, he exhibited the work at the Affordable Art Fair in Hong Kong. Before it began, he received a notice hinting that exhibits should avoid controversy. He had no choice but to rename the work “Above the Streets,” but that experience made him start to question just how much room there was for freedom of expression as an artist in Hong Kong.
Lever said he fully supported the peaceful demonstrations of the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. During the 2019 mass protests, while he was shocked by the violence on the streets, he believed that the root of the problem was then-Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s unwillingness to talk to the demonstrators. Lam regarded the incident as a matter of law and order.
Life in Hong Kong turned harder for him during the COVID-19 pandemic, as he was unable to visit his family in Britain. On his return to Hong Kong, he endured what he describes as a painful hotel quarantine, one of the reasons that made him decide to leave Hong Kong. After the National Security Law came into effect, his doubts about the future of Hong Kong grew stronger.
Lever said a lot of people wondered if the National Security Law was good or bad, also wondering if it was just a way to stop the violence until there could be a dialogue. But then he saw the targeting of those who had been critical of Beijing – pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, Catholic priests – and the closing down of the Apple Daily newspaper.
“And it was, like, ‘Why are they doing this? This is so unnecessary,’’’ Lever said. “I guess that’s the game China plays. That started to impact me; it made me angry, that this should not be happening in Hong Kong.”
He said some of his Western friends who still live in Hong Kong remained neutral about law-abiding people being jailed, songs and books being banned and media outlets being shut down. They could still go through life as usual, he said.
“But having grown up in Hong Kong and having benefited from having so many freedoms and opportunities that came for me because of that, having employed so many young Chinese guys and girls over the years in advertising, and to see that they are slowly now being denied some of the freedoms that we take for granted, it makes me very sad and very angry,” he said. “Upon leaving Hong Kong, I felt I had to express this through my art.”
In his new collection “Silent Protest,” the mouths of Hong Kong people standing in front of libraries, subways, banks and courts have become closed zippers or covered by Chinese national flag face masks, a metaphor for the ubiquity of deathly silence under Hong Kong’s National Security Law.
Lever’s paintings are filled with quotes from former Chinese leader Mao Zedong. He said this is because many of Mao’s sayings are the same as what young Hong Kong residents were demanding.
“Mao said things like anyone can criticize the Communist Party; he said we work for the people; he said New China must look after her youth,” he said. “The layers of irony in putting these two things together, I felt, was very powerful.”
Like Lever, many Hong Kong residents have now moved to the U.K., part of wave of mass emigration. Though he now lives in a small town in northeastern England, he is happy that he can always see some Hong Kong people living close to him. He said they seem to be satisfied with their new lives despite the challenges of being uprooted from their home.
Lever said he hopes that his new paintings will show the changes in Hong Kong to the outside world. He adds that he is not against the Hong Kong or Chinese governments, but just stating the facts.
“I know that there is a risk that maybe if this creates enough noise, maybe I would be blackballed too, which would be heartbreaking,” he said. “But if I was to be blackballed from Hong Kong for painting some paintings, then that would kind of underline the whole point of me doing this, because that’s a tragic situation.”
Lever’s artwork will be exhibited at The Crypt Gallery in London between December 15 and 17.