“it hasn’t been a sacrifice”
About to step down as the head of the Cultural Affairs Bureau, Ung Vai Meng sees his seven years in the job as the right choice for an artist also interested in contributing to city’s development. He has overseen some of the most significant projects and changes to the cultural scene of Macau, and CLOSER speaks to him about his years in office and his private artistic universe.
The winter midday sun gently shines into the meeting room of the Cultural Affairs Bureau (IC), illuminating the artworks hanging on the walls. It is in this serene atmosphere that the departing president of the IC, Ung Vai Meng shares with CLOSER his world of art and culture.
On March 1, 2010, Ung Vai Meng took up his post at the Bureau. Almost seven busy years passed quickly, and earlier this month, describing himself as an “old man”, he announced that after overseeing the successful transfer of the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau’s culture-related functions to the IC, he was stepping down and retiring in February.
Speaking to CLOSER about his plans for after his retirement, Ung reveals: “I was originally from the art world, so I want to return there after my retirement. Of course, if there is a chance for me to participate in other social issues, I would be happy to do so.”
From a prominent local artist to public servant, to director of the Macau Museum of Art and head of the IC, Ung has spent more than half of his life immersed in Macau’s art scene.
“My first job in the IC in the 1980s was to draw pictures of the cultural heritage of Macau. This was such a lovely job. For three months, I was only required to draw buildings,” he recalls.
“Later, I became a drafter and a designer in the department. So in the first half of my career in the IC, my work was strongly connected to my life. Even when I became the director of the Museum of Art, I was still closely associated with curators, painters, art critics and directors of other museums. Therefore, my job was actually very close to my interests”.
As an artist and an official in the cultural department, Ung has a unique perspective on the development and protection of culture and heritage in the city.
During his seven-year tenure, many properties that are deemed culturally or historically significant were revamped and opened to the public. Ung believes that these buildings are capable of transforming the neighbourhoods in which they are located.
“After we rejuvenated these buildings, the atmosphere of the whole neighbourhood changed as well,” he observes. “Take the newly opened library on Rua da Ribeira do Patane (Sa Lei Tou) as an example. Although this neighbourhood is densely populated, not a single library can be found there, and cultural facilities are seriously lacking as well”.
“These buildings where the library is established were most likely going to be demolished. But they are in fact the last remaining special architectural feature of the area. As a result, we discussed with the owner and worked on injecting new life into them, converting them into a landmark that is recognized by the residents. These buildings are not merely facades, people can now walk into them and use them too.”
Ung believes that conserving local culture and heritage is not only about protecting buildings and items that are culturally significant. It is also related to the development of the cultural scene and cultural industry of Macau. Only when a place has a mature cultural atmosphere can it nurture the next generation of artistic achievement.
“The cultural atmosphere can influence people. I was affected by it when I grew up. The streets and alleys of this city give you many inspirations. Imagine if you were in a highly industrialized city where dust flies around and lakes and rivers are nowhere to be found. I don’t think this kind of environment is good for artists”.
Therefore, Ung thinks that in order to develop cultural and creative industries and allow artists to make a living through their crafts, it is crucial to first develop the cultural scene.
“If Macau’s cultural environment is non-existent, then there will never be an industry,” he states.
Ung describes himself as a prism, exuding different colours that represent the different tasks of his life.
As the IC president, he views his job as being like an artistic creation. “My job now is like a canvas. However, this is not a solo work, but one that requires the participation of my co-workers”.
Regarding his own artworks, Ung says that his busy work life has affected his creativity. However, he still tries to spend time painting for leisure, because, he says, he “comes from this world of arts”.
The president also claims to be an introvert, and is not really very interested in socializing with others.
“I might be very chatty when dealing with the media. But as soon as I return to my studio, I switch off my phone and let myself disappear into it. I can paint there and enjoy my private world.”
“I am not talented in dancing or in music. I cannot express myself with my body. But I can do so through painting. So, when I am creating, I am in my own world. Since abstract painting allows you to freely express yourself, I will thus put all my thoughts and emotions onto the canvas.”
Apart from lack of time, the director suggests that holding such an important office has also impacted on his ability to produce more art.
“I think there would have been a conflict of interest if I had rolled out exhibitions of myself after becoming the IC president. I used to have at least one exhibition per year, but since I became the director of the Museum of Art, I have rarely presented my works, except two very small-scale exhibitions.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a sacrifice, I chose this. I want to focus on developing the cultural scene of Macau at this stage because it benefits far more people.”
Other than his artistic creations, Ung Vai Meng is in fact very interested in studying a topic that is rather less well-known - traditional Chinese ancestoral painting.
“I think there are fewer than 10 or even five or three people who are researching this topic in the world,” he says.
However, he admits that the ancestral painting culture is very distant from the modern life of Chinese.
“In the past, every ancestral shrine or even every family had a lot of paintings of ancestors hanging on the walls. But this item is very alien to contemporary Chinese,” he says with some disappointed. “But I am still very dedicated to this research. I hope that apart from achieving something in Macau, I can also contribute to filling this void in Chinese art history.”
From his role in the government to his role as an artist and researcher, Ung seems to refract a lot of different colours just like the prism he described. And his hope is to keep this prism as pure and transparent as possible.
“I hope that this prism will never be polluted, and will always contain some very pure intentions, so that it can refract clearly and can bring to society some light and colour.”
Apart from his official duties and personal interest in researching ancestral painting, Ung Vai Meng is also very passionate about a special vocational training project called “The Special Agent of Culture”.
“There is a centre called Desafio Jovem Macau (Teen Challenge) at Ká Ho where young people with drug addictions can recover. However, some of them do not have high education levels, so they tend to go back to their old ‘friends’.”
“As a result, we are collaborating with the centre and providing an assortment of vocational and artistic training, from heritage conservation and library book repair to painting, so that we can work together after they return to society,” he explains.
“Since 2015, the relapse rate of the young people in the ‘The Special Agent of Culture’ program is zero,” he adds proudly.
Being able to influence others through cultural and art programs is a reflection of Ung Vai Meng’s general attitude towards life.
“There was one time I was asked by some young people what we humans should do. My answer to that is ‘we are all like a firework’. When a firework is shot towards the sky, it explodes and creates different colours. However, they explode not for themselves, but also to ignite other fireworks nearby, so that there will be even more colours in the sky.”