Don Hong-Oai (單雄威, 1929 - 2004) was born in 1929 in the city of Guangzhou in the Guangdong Province of China. He is often described as a Chinese artist, but not because of where he was born. He left China at the age of seven, after the sudden death of his parents. As the youngest of 24 siblings and half-siblings, Don was sent to live in a Chinese community in Saigon, Vietnam. Later in his life he would occasionally return to visit China, but he never lived there again.
On his arrival in Saigon, Don was apprenticed to a photography studio run by ethnically Chinese immigrants. There he learned the fundamentals of photography. He also developed an affection for landscape photography, which he practiced on his time off using one of the studio’s cameras. Don remained an apprentice for a decade, after which he worked a series of odd jobs. Although he was desperately poor, he managed to save US$48 to buy his first camera. In 1950, at the age of 21, he began studying at the Vietnam National Art University.
Don remained in Vietnam throughout the war years, working a variety of jobs and continuing to practice photography. In 1974, near the end of the war, Don accepted a position with one of his former teachers who had moved to France. Unfortunately, the gentleman died soon thereafter. From France, Don traveled to Malaysia where he worked briefly as a photographer for the Red Cross.
With the war over, Don returned to Vietnam. However, in 1979 a bloody border war broke out between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China. The Vietnamese government instituted a series of repressive policies that targeted ethnic Chinese living in the country. As a result of those policies, Don became one of the millions of boat people who fled Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 80s.
At the age of 50, speaking no English and not knowing anybody living in the U.S., Don arrived in San Francisco. With the help of the local Chinese-American community he managed to find a place to live and employment and was able to set up a small darkroom. By selling prints of his work at local street fairs, Don was able to make enough money to return to China periodically to photograph landscapes. Most importantly, he was given the opportunity to study for a period of time under the tutelage of Long Chin-San in Taiwan.
Long Chin-San, who died in 1995 at the age of 104, had developed a style of photography based on the Classical tradition of landscape imagery in Chinese art. For centuries Chinese artists had been creating dramatic monochromatic landscapes using simple brushes and ink. These paintings weren’t intended to accurately depict nature, but to interpret nature’s emotional impact.
Although there are many variations on that traditional style, such paintings commonly included a human figure engaged in some commonplace activity against a background of natural beauty. To provide a sense of scale and scope, the paintings usually had three distinct layers: a foreground, a middle range, and a distant background. The human figure was always in the foreground or middle range, with the distant background often blurry or misty.
At some point in his long career, he began to experiment with translating that Classical style of art into photography. In keeping with the layered approach to scale, he developed a method of layering negatives to correspond with the three tiers of distance, and taught this method to Don.
Central to Don’s new work was the classical tradition of the six principles of landscape painting. The first and most important principle is that of spiritual resonance, the ability of the artist to feel the true nature of what is being painted: the humanness of humans, the treeness of trees, the waterness of water. This is the single aspect of the six principles that cannot be taught; the other five deal with technique and approach: the correct method of using the brush (or other medium) to achieve the desired effect, fidelity in the depiction of the nature of the subject matter, care in the application of tone and layer, care in placing the elements, and proper respect to the experiences of past masters through reprising themes.
Don’s new work began to draw critical attention in the 1990s. He no longer had to sell his photography from small stalls in street fairs; he was now represented by an agent and his work was being sold in galleries throughout the U.S., in Europe and in Asia. His work was not only being sought after by private art collectors, but also by corporations and museums. For the first time in his life he was achieving recognition and a level of financial success.
Not all of Don’s later work involved the layered negative technique he learned from Long Chin-San, but he remained focused on the spirit of Chinese art. In the last years of his life Don Hong-Oai spent more time making prints in his darkroom in San Francisco’s Chinatown than he did shooting photographs. He never learned to speak English. He died in 2004 at the respectable age of 75.