In 1941, Yip Yan-chuen painted Eight Views of Hong Kong in the format of an album of small-size landscape, with historical heritage, natural landscape, and modern colonial constructions as motifs. For a very long time, Hong Kong had been considered a mere desert island and was ignored by traditional writers of chorography. Men of letters in Hong Kong, however, did assiduous research into the history of China to unearth the identity of pre-colonial Hong Kong. They found that Castle Peak Monastery was in fact where Buddhist monk Pui To stayed during late East Jin Dynasty, that Sung Wong Toi was where Song emperor Zhao Bing made a brief stop when he fled to the South, and that the Kowloon Walled City was a national defense construction built by the Qing government. Yip depicted the geographical layout of Castle Peak Monastery, Sung Wong Toi, and Kowloon Walled City from an omnipresent point of view, as if putting them into a broader space and time, and to suggest a poetic feeling that all things human are but ephemeral, only mountains and the sunset shall remain.
Yip’s choice of sceneries is beyond just depiction of natural landscape, but is also related to Hong Kong history. Lei Yu Mun offers a view of the narrow strait of Lei Yu Mun from Victoria Harbour. Sails of fishing boats echo the flags of trading ships; they suggest that fishing, trading, and shipping established the development of Hong Kong over the years. In Amah Rock, we see a traveller under boulders of extraordinary shapes. Legend goes that a woman, carrying her baby on her back, climbs up the top of the rocks to wait for her husband who has gone working in a faraway place. In this painting, who is this traveler waiting for? What is his yearning?
Yip highlighted the dynamism of the city with merely a handful of brushstrokes that outlined his motifs in a minimalist way. In Happy Valley, the artist did not go for boisterous races; instead he reflected the scale of the races with the long stretch of the racecourse only. In Peak Tram, most of the scene is covered in mist; only buildings on the foothill and hilltop remain to highlight the steepness of the slope. Lugard Road, circling the hillside, was built for enjoyment of panoramic harbour vista, but in Lugard Road, emphasis is on the modern steel and concrete walkway and gas lamp, accompanied by luscious red flowers and green trees on the hillside, and two boats fleeting by in the background. The artist’s choice of modern colonial constructions as motifs presents how natural landscape is altered by human activities, with a purpose of constructing a cultural landscape connected to Hong Kong history.