This woman is the personification of one of the most cosmopolitan cities in modern day China, where old tradition blends with Western culture. Douglas MacDiarmid‘s great friend Eric Grinda, a film maker who made a documentary on MacDiarmid’s life, work and beliefs called “A Stranger Everywhere’ in 2006, moved from Paris to Hong Kong a few years ago for work, and sent back a photo of the sweeping views of the harbour beyond his office balcony. Douglas recalls “in the photo I saw this woman’s head with a lock of hair falling forward.” The face is the outline of the harbour, her eyes are two islands just offshore. That lock of hair obscuring her face seals the inscrutability. “The head, for me, is the embodiment of Hong Kong — not quite Chinese, nor entirely European, and not someone to whom one would give implicit trust…but I mean, I played around with it.”
There are people who can never get enough of Hong Kong but it is not a place Douglas has ever warmed to. When he dropped in on his way to Japan in May 1967, he wrote to his parents: “Impressions of Japan encouraging. Mind you, anything at all would have seemed heaven sent after Hong Kong, which apart from its wonderful site is just a vile bazaar.” Hong Kong was then a British colony, with independence still three decades away. In his book it was a convenient plane stop, a good place to push past as quickly as possible. “Met up with friends in Hong Kong who took me about the place, and caught up on the politics of British corruption and Red China just over the border. And how Americans and their way of life are detested everywhere, as much for their unfortunate knack of bringing ‘aid’ that helps the rich grow richer so they can extort even more from the underdog,” he observed of the times.
The painting made a welcome appearance at the one-night exhibition of favourite MacDiarmid paintings brought along by collectors to the Auckland launch of Douglas’ biography Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill at the James Wallace Trust’s The Pah Homestead, Hillsborough on 18 July 2018.