West Kowloon Cultural District Authority
2013 / Dec Issue
Talking Art : Doryun Chong

Formerly of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Doryun Chong, joined the WKCDA in September as Chief Curator of M+. Inspired by the mega-cultural project, he left the States where he called home for the last two decades, to move to Hong Kong, the place where he had never spent more than a week at a time, to embark on a new and challenging journey.

What was your first encounter of arts and culture?

When I was 6 or 7 years old, I became interested in my father’s small collection of ink landscape paintings as well as Chinese and Korean calligraphies. We also had a big LP set of western classical music divided into big books of different eras and genres, from baroque and Romantic to modern, and symphonies, concertos, operas, and so on, and I listened to those LPs endlessly. My father understood the importance of having culture around the house, not that he wanted to discuss it with me, but he just wanted to have these things available in case I would take interest in it and I did.

Were you trained in an artistic way?

I was actually trained more in music than art. I played the piano starting at the age of 5 for 15 years. I sang in choirs for many years and I used to perform in college but not anymore. Both my sister and I took a lot of art classes like drawing, painting, watercolors starting very young. It was very much part of our experience growing up.

But you chose visual art in the end?

I think visual art had been integral to my cultural and intellectual DNA. Although I didn’t practise it as much, I studied it, majoring in art history, from college on and it eventually became my profession.

When did you first learn about Hong Kong culture?

When I was growing up in Korea in the 80s, Hong Kong popular culture played a huge role in my peers’ cultural diet and mine. Chow Yun Fat, Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui, and all those film and pop music stars. Even in the 90s when I was in college, I had a number of Chinese friends from Hong Kong and Taiwan, so I was naturally exposed to what they were listening and watching.

Coming from an Asian background with western education, how did it influence your artistic sense?

Naturally and subconsciously. My background is as Asian as American and western but ultimately I think these two things are not separate, they have melded into one in my mind. You can be modern or contemporary and Asian at the same time. Although I chose to live in the States and work for American institutions, my interest and specialty was in the arts and culture as well as the general history of Asia with a focus on 20th and 21st century.

What makes you return to Asia when you have a long established career in the States?

To me, it’s not coming back to Asia so much as simply moving to a different place. I was shaped into a very culturally Asian person but I had lived in the States for two decades—all of my twenties and thirties, which is the most important period of one’s life in the sense that one comes fully into a social being. I have always been attracted to exciting and meaningful opportunities and have been lucky to have a series of positions in established, well-known museums. In the case of M+, the institution is in existence but the physical building will not exist for a few years and that itself is extremely exciting. This is potentially a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to build a whole museum from ground up.

Why did you choose to come to Hong Kong?

There are many great cities in the world for different reasons. I think “Hong Kong, Asia’s world city” is not just a slogan but true reality. Hong Kong has a cosmopolitan vibe and a large percentage of people here are used to working with foreigners which makes life a lot easier for people like myself. This very sensitive and at-times confusing time Hong Kong seems to be going through, means that it is also a historical moment, not only in terms of the life of this city, but for the whole region as well. For all these reasons, Hong Kong felt the right place for me to be in.

What do you want to achieve in the next 3 years?

First of all, my responsibility is to structure the team and hire the right people as the curatorial team has to grow a lot more in order to run a museum of this scale. Secondly, it’s to build the collection which has already started. The next 3 years is going to be critical before the museum opens in 2017/18. Programmes like Mobile M+ and M+ Matters are great models that we should continue in the next 3 years but I’d like to take them to some new directions while strengthening them to make sure the M+ name is out there within and outside Hong Kong. A museum should educate as well as entertain, so we need to generate knowledge, information and scholarship and we, as curators, need to make sure these are done in an efficient, systematic and significant way.