Bay Area Artist: Ning Hao

Below is an article I wrote that will be included in an upcoming book called Remembering Locke 1915-2015.

Locke, California, artist Ning Hao was born and raised in Shanghai, the son of two Chinese doctors practicing Western-style medicine. Ning says that until 1949, his family owned and lived in a huge house—taking up a whole block—but then “we were liberated by the Communist Chinese Party” and favor went to those who had supported that party.

Even though his father donated their house and hospital to the government, his parents were discriminated against because they formerly had owned their own practices and had been in “business.” They were assigned to work in various sections of the city that the government determined: his mother in what had been the French District during Japanese occupation, his father the Chinese section.

Ning, born in 1957, remembers doing a lot of drawing from the time he was six. He has found inspiration for his art in various places. First were the pets he dearly loved. Unfortunately, he arrived home one evening from school during Spring Festival and all his pets were gone. He found out later that they had “gone” to dinner plates for the festival. “In China at that time you were not allowed to love anything that closely. It was traumatic for me. But compassion for animals—the word pet ceased to exist—was considered too remote. Animals became just food. You were supposed to love humans like that: your mother, father, sisters and brothers.

Ning’s brother, five years older, went to best local government school. Only one child per family was allowed that privilege so Ning was sent to a private school. Private schools had the opposite connotation from American ones. “It was not high quality. Sometimes we didn’t have enough pencils or paper.”

Here is a photo of Ning Hao with the paintings in his shop behind him. Main Street, Locke, CA. Taken by James Motlow, co-author of the book Bitter Melon about the Chinese in Locke.
Here is a photo of Ning Hao with the paintings in his shop behind him. Main Street, Locke, CA.
Taken by James Motlow, co-author of the book Bitter Melon about the Chinese in Locke.

He describes the web of political parties and classes that existed in his formative years. His father was a leader in the Democratic Party, but Ning says the meetings were already fixed by the government before they occurred. “Even though there were nine political parties, Mao made sure that none of them was against him. It was a system designed to protect his power and save face internationally,” Ning says.

He also grew up in a time of austerity for women. “I never saw an earring, necklace, lipstick, false eyelash. Chinese women were only supposed to love red, the color of the Chinese revolution, never pink. All these (accouterments) were considered a sexual disease.

“If you had pimples on your face as a young person, it means you were mentally poisoned. You were to stay home and self-criticize. The community did not want to see you. Like if you were gay, you couldn’t survive.

“Two thousands years ago, they had already dismissed homosexuality,” Ning says. “So our race was seen as ‘healthy.’ It is really about old minds, even worse than Communist thinking, showing it had been a prejudiced society all along.”

Ning says that as a young person attracted to art, he was looking for a way to survive. “Because of my background of educated people with money, I was already seen as the rotten part of society. Neighbors did not trust us.”

His father was considered to be in the intelligentsia class, “like teachers or anyone with a brain to use for his own way to think. We couldn’t escape. For me it was a prison. My family was continually investigated. They broke into our house and sealed off antiques, the piano, gold, money into one room. “

Ning recalls the day that President Nixon visited his school. Curtains were drawn on all the school windows so that the important visitor would not see anyone peeking at him, and he would think all was being run properly. “As a young person of 16 or 17, I was very confused. The U.S. was called a dismissive name, the Paper Tiger, but when Mao was so polite to Nixon and we couldn’t even look at him, I thought he must be a god from the West coming to us. I couldn’t say this out loud, of course.”

Ning saw examples of what he didn’t want to have happen to him. His friend’s father who had been a scholar was forced to become a carpenter. “He used to be high ranking in geometry. Suddenly he could only use his knowledge to make furniture,” Ning says. “My friend was one year older and always doing paintings. I tried copies of the things—Communist Party designs—but he always said I was doing it wrong. He is the one who taught me color, how to mix it right.”

When Ning came to the U.S., he lost track of his friend. Later he heard that he stopped painting. He had been studying art, but there was no future in it. “He was locked outside society. He couldn’t marry. I could never find him. I lost my best friend.”

Getting to United States was no simple matter. There were lots of hurdles, major ones within his own family. It was partly because Ning had a “famous fight” as a freshman in high school with an adult over the issue of knowledge and whom it benefited. Ning pointed out that the riches stayed with the government. His father told him not to speak out any more because he was always politically incorrect. “They can put us all in jail and I could be executed,” his father told him.

Since they lived in a tiny house now and Ning was the youngest of four, he slept in the same room with his parents. Many times at night he heard their arguments over his fate. His father took the position that this son would not fit into Chinese society. His mother may have agreed but was reluctant to have her youngest removed from her.

Ning met a “blond haired, blue eyed, skinny, American-looking” neighbor who had documents allowing him to leave China. He was just divorced, had no kids and said he was going to the U.S. to look for his own race and wife.” Ning’s father said, “Don’t talk to him. He doesn’t like China.” Ning said, “I don’t either.”

There was one more “secret midnight conversation” about Little Bear (Ning’s nickname). His mother relented and a student nurse his father had employed in the 1950s became Ning’s sponsor.

He had an aunt who worked in San Francisco. He was allowed to bring a mere $37.50 with him from China so he was dependent upon his relatives. His aunt and uncle sent him to another uncle’s house in Philadelphia. He was a painter, supposedly a well-known artist from China, but he was upset with Ning. “You use too much paint,” he told Ning. “Put it on too thick. You’re an idiot artist like Van Gogh.”

He told Ning, “Go outside and make money.” Ning did hit the streets and painted people’s images for money. One day he made $100 and was proud. His Philadelphia uncle was mad at him, though. He said he forgot to turn the gas off and he ate all the food in the fridge. He never could please his uncle, it seems. He came back to San Francisco.

There he stayed at a hotel on Broadway, the Big Al. “My room was above a porno shop. It was the only place I could find for $150 a month. Eight by six with one sink. No mirror. A bed. I had one suitcase. That is how I started my independent life.”

In China he had been studying at a Shanghai artists’ school in graphic design but had not completed a major. He went to the San Francisco Academy of Art and took all manner of art classes for his liberal arts degree. Meanwhile, he charged $2 per drawing at the wharf, doing likenesses of the tourists. Because he had no license and was getting more popular than many of the regulars who did portraits, someone called the police on him. He was very nervous because this would be a major infraction in China, cheating the government, but the San Francisco police told him to go home and not come back. “But there I had already earned $400.”

After his graduation, he applied to the Academy to be a teaching assistant and work toward his master of fine arts. He received a scholarship for eight semesters and taught with Thomas Mache, the director of the sculpture department.

He finished his MFA in two years but only had a work permit for one year. He wondered how he would get a green card. His advisor introduced him to City College of San Francisco where he took his portfolio, the same one he later carried to New York City. There he met future wife. I took her to Chinatown, which she loved, particularly when it closed down at night. You could hear the Chinese voices and violins. We had a very nice dinner.”

When his future wife found that he lived in a dumpy place, she said she would help him move. He moved to Chinatown, a fourth floor place on Clay and Stockton. “But I spoke Mandarin. They spoke Cantonese. I had moved to another foreign land,” he laughs. He soon married and moved to his wife’s apartment.

Ning got a traffic ticket and had to go to driving school. As luck would have it, the first night he met a woman who was a French teacher in San Mateo and had lived in Paris for two years. She made connections for him so he could take his portfolio to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Because he had copied the masters so well, the museum thought he had stolen Cezannes and Matisses from them.

When he said they were his, they told him he was a very good copier, in that case. No galleries in New York wanted to work with even very good copies of masters, Ning relates. One said, very simply, “Where is the you?”

At the Gallerie Rienzo, they asked what painting Ning had done in this country. He showed them a few pictures he had of Golden Gate Park “and they said ‘sold!’ That is how I got my first paintings in a gallery in New York. But I thought I had better find a local gallery in San Francisco.” He was able to sell three watercolors to the Maxwell Galleries, each for $1,500. “I was moving up in price,” he says, “even though the paintings didn’t even have frames on them.” He also retouched some paintings he had done on Broadway and sold them for $3,000 and $5,000. He has much gratitude toward Maxwell Galleries who jumpstarted his formal painting career.

Ning joined competitions and won best of show at the Santa Rosa show. He was invited to have a show at the Concord Community Center with two other Chinese painters. He also showed at Fairfield and Walnut Creek. It was in Walnut Creek that he was told there was a place called Locke in the Delta. “When I came to Locke, I came to the River Road Gallery and saw Connie King (the woman who helped preserve Locke after many other Chinese died.) I asked her if she sold any other than Locke artists. She told me, ‘This is a membership. You also have to sit here.’

“When I told her I was from the Bay Area, she said there was a house for sale here. My wife had always wanted a house. We bought one that Ping Lee (the unofficial mayor of Locke) had owned. My wife loved Ping Lee’s garden. We asked him if he would please take a loan. We had no history of owning a house, only of renting. Our housecleaning money would never buy a house.”

Ning has fond memories of Ping who let them pay him for nine years. “He was a very kind and honest businessman,” he says. “Later Connie introduced me to this studio.” He looks around at the Locke Main Street gallery he has created in the old Happy Café and dance hall. It is chock a block full of his strong, colorful and skillful paintings of the Delta and California scenes, the animals he so admires—both wild and tame—and a variety of other themes.

He says most of his clients are from San Francisco, New York and Europe, people who are familiar with him since his Maxwell Galleries days. He sells more locally as well, in Walnut Grove, Santa Rosa, Sacramento, Fairfield and Concord. He has paintings in a gallery in Tiburon.

He knows Danny Glover, who has visited him in Locke. Ning was once part of a gallery that Glover owned in San Francisco. Eddie Murphy came to use Ning’s Locke building in a movie and Ning earned $700 a day just for the setting.

The artist works on his “sculpture paintings” avidly every day. “I call them that because they have a high posture, lots of paint, lots of mixing which I combine in every stroke. Every stroke is like a carving. Some I do smooth like the Renaissance painters but I fully understand the difference between the two- and three-dimensional.”

Ning, who has taught art history for a number of years, has ambitions to rewrite an artist catalogue. He sees this as a way to dissolve the problems of prejudice and racism he thinks has affected the world’s art. “We all live under the same blue sky. We need to stop all this nonsense of denying different people and their environments. We are brainwashed in our backgrounds to judge others. My solution is to respect the others: the people who we are not familiar with.

“Locke is a good place for a painter,” he says, “even if you don’t receive a big value selling your paintings like you do in the city. It’s a good place to live, where the Chinese transition has been to a beautiful land. California has beautiful light. A symphony of color. The bottom line is how we see color.”

 

 

 

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