Detail from one of Wing Chan's Urban-Tapestry photomontages. Courtesy of the artist.

profile / alumni / graphic-design
April 28, 2017
Writer: Mike Winder

For his second career, alum Wing Chan weaves an urban tapestry

After graduating from ArtCenter, Hong Kong-born Wing Chan (BFA 85 Graphic Design) ran a design firm in New York’s West Village for more than 15 years, with clients including American Express Private Bank and Standard Chartered Private Bank. 

But in 2011, after living in the United States for 31 years, Chan moved back to Hong Kong. “Sometimes life has to move in circles,” he says over the phone.

Sometimes life has to move in circles.”

Wing Chan

That statement refers as much to Chan's return to his homeland as it does to the dramatic professional shift he's undergone recently. Today he’s enjoying a second career as an artist, creating intricate large-scale photomontages of Hong Kong’s lively street life.

Chan's Urban-Tapestry exhibition has shown throughout the world—it recently ran at the Choeunsook Gallery in the Gangnam District in Seoul, Korea—and can currently be seen at Ginza’s Gallery Kanon in Tokyo, Japan, through May 1, and at ESPACE in Hong Kong through May 11.

“All my life my career had been in graphic design,” he says of his 25-year design practice. “I felt like it was time to work on something that I had always wanted to since I was a little kid.”

What reignited this dormant artistic ambition? “I wanted to convey how congested it is here in Hong Kong,” says Chan, describing his kaleidoscopic images of commuters aboard subway trains, riding escalators and crossing streets.

Having lived in New York for 25 years, Chan was used to the hustle and bustle of urban life. Hong Kong, however, was a different beast entirely, and the size of the crowds caught him off guard. 

“When I first moved back, I made the terrible mistake of setting my morning appointments for 9:30 a.m.,” says Chan with a laugh. “At that hour, the inside of subway trains are like sardine cans. It’s unbearable. So I learned to make all my appointments after 10:30 a.m. and before 4:00 p.m.”

While Chan admits that life in Hong Kong comes with its share of headaches, he also found it invigorating and shortly after moving there he began taking thousands of photographs of people on their way to and from work and school.

“Nowadays it’s very easy to take pictures of people on the subway, because they are off in their own world,” says Chan. “Most of them are either taking a nap or on their cell phone doing social media. So I could be very close to them, sometimes just four feet away, and take pictures of them without them ever noticing.”

And speaking of life moving in circles, Chan says that the importance of getting out into the real world and paying attention to your surroundings was ingrained in him by Illustration and Integrated Studies instructor Christine Nasser.

A photomontage from Wing Chan's Urban-Tapestry exhibition. Courtesy of the artist.

“Each week, she’d assign us to go to the hippest spots in Los Angeles, whether they were in Beverly Hills, Venice or Malibu,” says Chan. “She’d tell us, ‘Don’t be intimidated because it’s the hippest restaurant in town. Just go there, even if you can’t afford to order a dinner.’”

He says Nasser wanted her students to notice their surroundings. “What kind of people dine there? How do they present the food?” says Chan. “Instead of sitting in a classroom and learning a whole bunch of theory, just get out there and observe. It’s the best way to learn.”

Chan says another instructor who changed his life at ArtCenter was George Hanft, who passed away in 2010. “I started at ArtCenter thinking that I hated lettering by hand, and I even said that out loud in front of him in a lettering class he was teaching,” says Chan with a laugh. “Well, I ended up really enjoying lettering and taking his class two or three times.”

Chan remembers students getting very excited and nervous towards the end of a term, and how Hanft had a calming affect on them. “He was always so cheerful. And he would remind us, ‘It’s not the end of the world. There’s always a solution.’”

“But he taught me more than lettering. He taught me how to be a good human being. How to be nice to others. How to be giving,” Chan says. “Those are lessons more important than anything technical.”

Wing Chan’s Urban-Tapestry runs through May 1 at Gallery Kanon in Ginza Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Japan; and at ESPACE in Hong Kong through May 11.