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Dec 24 2019

Obituary: Cheung Yee (1936–2019)

by Pamela Wong

Modernist sculptor CHEUNG YEE passed away on December 4. Image via the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Cheung Yee, modernist bronze sculptor and co-founder of the Hong Kong-based avant-garde Circle Art Group, passed away on December 4 in California, aged 83.

Born in Guangzhou in 1936 to a family who ran a ceramics business, Cheung was fascinated by handicrafts at an early age. After the Sino-Japanese war, which forced his family to move between Guangzhou and Hong Kong, he settled in the latter city and began to learn gongbi painting. Instead of inheriting the family business, he chose to pursue arts studies at the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei. He was fascinated by ancient artifacts and archaeology, and studied inscriptions and characters on oracle bones and ancient bronze reliefs, as well as I Ching hexagrams and mythological animals. Such elements can often be recognized in his works. 

Upon graduating, he became interested in sculpting and picked up stone-carving and metal-welding skills from blacksmiths and craftspeople in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei neighborhood in the 1960s. Adopting tortoise shells and human figures as his main subjects, he created his sculptures with a “bronze-folding” technique that he developed. In 1963, he co-founded Circle Art Group with sculptor Van Lau and the late painter Hon Chi Fun. Often incorporating traditional Chinese elements with Western techniques, the collective was considered one of the most groundbreaking modern art groups in Hong Kong. In 1964, Cheung’s first major retrospective opened at the Hong Kong City Hall. He was honored as a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1979 and received the Hong Kong Annual Sculpture Award in 1988. He taught at Polytechnic University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and became the head of the department of fine arts at Chinese University in 1984. He retired and moved to California in 1998.

Cheung’s iconic Crab General series of bronze reliefs was first developed in the 1980s, and stems from his studies of the forms of the crab. His renderings of the crustacean are installed permanently in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Park and outside the Space Museum. His last solo exhibition, “The Early Years,” was held at Galerie du Monde in April.

Pamela Wong is ArtAsiaPacific’s assistant editor. 

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