Hoi Chiu

Unleashing one’s imagination

“I’ve never dreamed of creating with sand.”

His love for painting went way back, long before he was known for the stage name, Hoi Chiu. A chance encounter with sand painting on the internet one day opened up a whole new world for Hoi Chiu. “It simply unlocked my imagination.” He began with some sand and papers at home, and taught himself sand painting after the making a mess of the living room often. And out of the trials and errors, he found a way for himself.

Text: Ho Siu Bun
Translation: Jennifer To
Photos: Leung@runmanworkshop

“I’ve never dreamed of creating with sand.” – Hoi Chiu

From Eason Chan’s MV to roadshows at shopping malls and original productions on stage, it has been a decade since Brothers of War came into being. The production will be presented in Hong Kong again by JOCKEY CLUB New Arts Power after re-runs in various cities. How much has it changed in ten years time?


A self-taught sand painter 

“Since I started sand painting, I feel liberated without the brushes. I turned my hands into tools just like kids do. Every touch and stroke amazes me and makes me truly happy.”

Hoi Chiu dreamed of becoming a painter, but life did not always go as planned. “I met a group of theatre friends and took part in some performances. I eventually became an actor myself.” Hoi Chiu has not given up painting though. He thought at length about integrating painting into stage performances. “I wonder if I can come up with a non-verbal way of performance. At first, I tried working with visual elements, such as puppetry and clownery, until I came across a sand painting video on the internet one day. I started incorporating it into theatre performances and I realized that it works well for a spontaneous live performance, it is visually attractive and it allows the audience to actually see my thought process as I create. It is an unconventional way of performance yet very satisfying on different levels.”

It is no easy task to teach oneself to paint with sand. With the impression of the video, Hoi Chiu took on the task and realized he had to think outside the box often. “Once I got the table and sand set up, I needed to think what to create with the grains. When I started practicing at home, I often ended up with sand everywhere. I had to come up with solutions and I worked out a device to recycle the grains and reduce wastage.” The sand painting table has undergone many evolutions until the current version of a light box of slightly over an inch thick. “I also tried out different fluorescent lights. The surface of the light box has also been upgraded from plastic to glass. Apart from creating the visuals, I also need to work on my speed and synchronizing my creative process to music. It is an endless learning cycle indeed.”

Hoi Chiu made his way with creative hands and perseverance for ten years

Channeling Stress into Creativity

The story of Brothers of War is about two kids who are bored out their minds during hospitalization. However, the boredom soon transforms itself into a journey of non-stop imagination.

The two travelled back to the olden times, becoming a horse and a soldier. Despite the quarrels along the way, they managed to help and support each other while keeping each other company. “This is a show for the family. I wish to remind the audience the importance of friends and companionship, and also having a good time together.” When asked why he targets this show for family audience, Hoi Chiu explained “Some kids face a lot of pressure growing up. Parents sometimes push their children to act against their wishes because of academic results, which is not unlike the horse in the production, who is expected go to battle and gain recognition. But to what significance after all?” He paused for a second and added, “The most important thing is company. It’s good to be driven and become an achiever, but sometimes it backfires too and kids will resent it. Take myself for an example, if I had felt so much pressure when I first started sand painting, maybe I would have loathed it. But I continued out of love and through the process I found my confidence and gratification.”

“I wish to remind the audience the importance of friends and companionship, and also having a good time together.” – Hoi Chiu (Photo: China International Youth Arts Festival 2019)

Looking back on his childhood, Hoi Chiu might not have the abundance of toys as kids do today. How did he manage? “We went looking for games to play, nothing is ready made like today.” He continued, “In the world of creativity and imagination, we often become passive participants of a virtual reality. In my time, we didn’t have the same convenience and we needed to create our own reality. A bedsheet became a makeshift beach and we played the roles of monsters with cardboard boxes.”

Hoi Chiu believes in creating one’s reality through imagination (Photo: China International Youth Arts Festival 2019)

Likewise, the characters in the show create a horse out of a mere broomstick. “Often we see things as they are, but we can also try to see what they can be.” In addition to sand painting, Brothers of War brings together kungfu, singing, dancing and sand animation created via stop-motion technique in the performances.

The unexpected extras on stage

Brothers of War has been created for almost ten years. “We did our first tour at Beijing. The stage design there resembled a guest house from the period dramas. We also travelled to Kaohsiung, and to Guangzhao, Foshan and Xiamen by way of Hong Kong. Hoi Chiu looks very much forward to the homecoming. “It was terrible looking back on the first sand horse I drew in the show!” And that comment alone showed how far he has come with his skills.

Every performance is a testimonial to Hoi Chiu’s hard work. (Photo: China International Youth Arts Festival 2019)

With a splatter of his hands, Hoi Chiu causally created a wild mare out of sand. He is on the quest for an improvisatory and spontaneous style, similar to that in Chinese ink paintings. Despite ten years’ solid work, Hoi Chiu remains very humble. “It may appear I can paint anything now, but there are still so much for me to learn. Sand painting is not a past time, I cannot give up when I feel uninspired. On the contrary, I need to discover new ways to use sand, for example, can I simulate water colours, graphite, or even make it photographic?” However, there are still many unexpected incidents beyond his control. For instance, the humidity on the glass surface can turn fine grains of sand into slushy mud. And once a moth stopped by on the light box during the show. Hoi Chiu has learned to think quick and go with the flow.

The quest for art sees no ends and limits. Hoi Chiu pointed out there is a difference between the act of painting and how one interprets the canvas. “If I were to paint the sky, do I shape it with my hands, or do I evoke the atmosphere and context with my movement? These are rather separate issues.” Asked what Hoi Chiu strives for apart from re-runs of Brothers of War, he said, “I’m still perfecting my skills at sand painting, I also wanted to preserve these as sand animations and participate in film festivals.”

Hoi Chiu’s dedication to sand painting drives him to break new grounds with the medium

It has been three years since Chiu relocated from JCCAC to his current location. He has reserved half of the workshop’s space for sand animation productions and two of his sequences have been nominated for international film festivals. This would be his next chapter on journey of sand painting.▲



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