A Kaleidoscope of Ambiguity – The Paintings of Tse Yim On
at 12:42pm on 19th August 2020


1. 謝炎安 Tse Yim On,《夏季活動》Summer Event, acrylic on canvas, 2019.

2. 謝炎安 Tse Yim On,《活捉蒼井空》Capture Aoi Sora, acrylic on canvas, 2014.

3. 謝炎安 Tse Yim On,《美好世界 》Wonderful World (1974), acrylic on canvas, 2016.
All photos courtesy of the artist.

(原文以中英文發表,題為〈歧義萬花筒─ 謝炎安的繪畫〉。)

When you look at Tse Yim On’s paintings, it seems like you are looking at a kaleidoscope formed by ambiguities.  At first glance, the images are clear and distinguishable, rich in colour and bright, so the paintings are clear and direct.  However, if you take a closer look at them, you will find that the images and symbols originated from otaku culture [1] are put together with those of current affairs and politics news (“current politics news”), resulting at a contradiction between the visual tension created and the connotations signified or an effect that offsets each other.  Both of the current politics news issues referred by the images and the anime females stir up emotions, just in a very different way.  Notwithstanding that the characters represented by the images on the canvas can be recognised, each of these images can be interpreted differently from different perspectives and form a story full of ambiguities that no viewers are able to have the full picture of it.  There are comments to compare the process of deriving meanings from the images in Tse Yim On’s paintings to hypertext on the internet world: “there is no destined messages behind the works, instead they suggest a constant exploration of meaning an openness to interpretation” [2].  However, I would compare Tse Yim On’s paintings to “a kaleidoscope of ambiguity”, a kaleidoscope that shows the hybridity of the life and culture in the contemporary world and a kaleidoscope that reflects Tse Yim On’s observations from the non-dichotomous contemporary political ideology in a joking tone.

When you look at Tse Yim On’s paintings, it seems like you are watching the films of Stephen CHOW Sing-chee.  His films are full of exaggerated body movements as in comics.  He adapts and re-creates classic stories.  The stories of his films tell philosophies on life; yet the plots of the stories are full of self-teasing and jokes.  Likewise, the paintings of Tse Yim On reveal Hong Kong style post-modern aesthetics: making jokes on big issues and self-teasing, mixing different cultural images together all the time, and a non-linear narrative.  The narratives of mainstream films stick to clear storylines and distinctive character design, taking into account market and public preferences.  Tse Yim On’s paintings aim at showing the spirit of the time.  He mixes Bishōjo (beautiful young girls) from ACG culture with current politics news images on canvas and interprets the impacts derived from the connotations through different hierarchical relations (sex and power, game and rules, fear and pleasure).  “Différance”, a deconstruction behaviour put forward by post-modernism scholar Derrida, is creative interpretation to break the dualism thinking logic.  In Tse Yim On’s paintings, the images are put together like fragments with variable connections, which is exactly the connotation game of différance.

Différance of the Signifier – Swirl of the Meaning

It is a convention to construct the story of a picture by the binary relation of events/objects (e.g. background and characters or theme, size and shape, colours) to form a linear storytelling.  However, the paintings of Tse Yim On play the différance game using “ambiguity” of images: the intertextuality between the images and the connotations is similar to the mirror effect of a kaleidoscope that reflects the colourful fragments into ever-changing images.  So there is no story but the storyboard; there is no full text but paragraphs.  The game of connotation différance has not stopped.  Tse Yim On has been playing on the contradiction and value conflict in current politics news issues.  He makes up storyboards in different stages on various picture compositions, and these works form the three important series of his paintings in the recent 20 years.  In the Insane Fairy Tales series, a long-time creation completed in 2015, contradictions and conflicts in current politics news issues were interpreted by spoofs of various character designs in a joking tone reinforced by erotic imagery and gaudy colours.  Later, the Mongkok Library series (2011-2014) uses pictures and words on book covers (titles and illustrations) to signify different current politics news subjects, leading readers to discover the context of each book by intertextuality, through which the never simply black-and-white dichotomic value in current politics news subjects is illustrated.  To continue his différance game, Tse Yim On divides the canvas into area blocks by images with specific design instead of putting images of various sizes randomly together on the canvas as before.  The Hong Kong Seals series, created from 2014 onwards, models on the composition of a Facebook post with pure characters and background.  The different expectations of generations for a beautiful world in the future is illustrated by comical images of current politics news and propaganda titles in seal style like layout in all works.

A book symbolises an identity of culture.  Painters have been painting the scene of someone “reading attentively” or “holding a book” to show the taste and this identity of the painters and the painted.   In his Mongkong Library series, Tse Yim On uses Mongkok, a place in Hong Kong where the good and the evil were mixed, to suggest the “variety” of books in his works [3] which include biographies and classics, fictions, books about famous kusos.  Tse Yim On uses a pile of books (library) rather than one book and Mongkok, a pronounce stands for local culture, to summarise the multiplicity and complexity of the “post-colonial Hong Kong cultural identity” [4] that he would reflect by his paint brush.  The basic composition of the Mongkok Library series is a girl holding a book which covered half of her face staring at the viewers.  Each work uses the front and back covers of a different book to show the characteristics of the identity of each girl.  The images on the books represent the observations and thoughts of Tse Yim On regarding different current politics news issues.

The book in the work Ann, which used the names of Hong Kong celebrity sisters Ann Mui Oi Fong and Anita Mui Yim Fong, is a Germany children picture book Struwwelpeter (Fluffy-haired Peter) published in 1845.  It was a popular moral education book in Germany and the century. A lot of creators have made reference to this book (e.g. Edward Scissorhands directed by Tim Burton) or created derivative works from it over the decades.  The book describes the child who does not know how to take care of himself as a freak with thick fluffy hair and finger nails as long as spider legs.  It tells the fable about a scissorman who would cut the fingers of children who suck their fingers.  From today’s perspective, it is a book which uses cruelty and fear to teach children moral education.  As for the work “Anita”, which formed a pair with Ann, the front cover illustrates a picture book Struwwelhitler (1941), a re-creation picture book from Struwwelpeter to make jokes on Hilter.  In the Insane Fairy Tales series, Tse Yim On turns the then Chief Executive into Ikadevil (Doctor Death), the most popular villain in tokusatsu (Japanese action films which use a lot of special effects) Kamen Rider, and a former female government official into a heroine.  Tse Yim On has not stopped making jokes on current politics news issues.  While the level of joke making is relatively less in the Mongkok Library series, the intertextuality between image and text is more apparent.  The book’s content signified by the images and the context that formed the book are more inextricably connected to the connotations of current politics news, which enables more emphasis on the complicated connotations behind current politics news issues in Tse Yim On’s différance game.

The book Japan Sinks in the work “Da Qiao” came from an eco-disaster  fiction Ninhon Chinbotsu (Japan Sinks), which was adapted to films and comics of the same title several times in the three decades after it was published in 1973.  Same as the film Godzilla, the fiction represents a classic Japanese catastrophe and disaster literature originated from the awareness of disasters among the Japanese. When the work was initially shown in 2011, it would be read inevitably in association with the Japan 311 Earthquake [5].  Nevertheless, those who knew well the book or the film of the  Ninhon Chinbotsu might get other associations from the picture showing the collapse of the Tower on the back cover, such as the comics adapted from Ninhon Chinbotsu or the film Nihon Igai Zenbu Chinbotsu (Everything Other than Japan Sinks).  When the front cover of the DVD of Ninhon Chinbotsu shows the collapse of the Tokyo Tower, the front cover of the DVD of Nihon Igai Zenbu Chinbotsu shows the Statue of Liberty instead.  The front cover in Tse’s work “Xiao Qiao” portrays exactly the scene about this Statue.  The plot of Nihon Igai Zenbu Chinbotsu (Everything Other than Japan Sinks) is like a political allegory. The plot says that every governments and people contend with the Japanese Government in order to stay on the land of Japan where is the only territory remains on the Earth after a global earthquake.  Tse Yim On named this pair of works after Dai Qiao and Xiao Qiao, beautiful women in the Three Kingdoms era, to emphasise exactly the two extreme feelings of  Mainland netizens and the general public of other countries on the aftermath of the Japan 311 Earthquake [6].

The metonymy of Kuso – Two Sides in One Identity

When you look at Tse Yim On’s paintings, it seems like you are looking at otaku’s secondary creations.  Not only restricted to manga (Japanese comics) culture, otaku culture includes also worldwide culture of video game.  Since getting global, otaku culture has become an emerging economic power.  Its impact on society is seen through the derivative works in doujinshi (fan-fiction) culture.  The Copyright (Amendment) Bill 2011, which was considered by the Hong Kong netizens suppression of freedom of speech and political speech, was also caused by posts to kuso political figures on the internet.  Cultural jam and kuso do not only realise the creative power of doujinshi culture in postmodern aesthetics, but has also become a way to express opposition to and critical discourse on authority and political hegemony.  Tse Yim On made use of characters from manga and tokusatsu to kuso political figures as early as the time when he was creating the Insane Fairy Tales series (before 2009).  As a fan of Japanese ACG culture, Tse Yim On collects figures of bishōjo from Japanese anime and characters from tokusatsu.  He also put images from Japanese anime in his paintings.  By attaching the (story) context and (cultural) connotation behind the images from kuso and secondary creation to symbols signifying political issues, he connects extremely different symbols to form an intertextual “web of association”.  Using fictional characters to make jokes on political figures is a sign of the times.  It also underscores the complexity and multiplicity of ethnic identity.  In the Insane Fairy Tales series, every political figure possesses two identities like those characters in superman or hero stories: an ordinary man in ordinary time but a man with super power once putting on the mask and the clothes.  If you look at realisation of power from the story structure of these superman and hero films, you will find that people is only the tool to express power while the essence of power lies on the system.  The distribution of power is comparable to the rules of hero stories and video games: everyone is in the right place and justices and evil both exist.  As such, to kuso by cosplay and to emphasise the political logic in these issues by connotation ambiguity and metonymy from intertextuality are not entirely dichotomy.   In the Mongkok Library series, the female character in “Mia” is holding a book titled The Dig of the Great Powers 《大國掘起》, which is a humorous association of Tse Yim On to The Rise of the Great Powers《大國崛起》, a TV documentary series once popular in the Mainland and Hong Kong.  He plays tricks of the Cantonese homophones in the book title in the hope of stimulating readers to associate it with different historical stories in a humorous way.  The front cover in red and black shows Tian-xiang-er-hao [7], a knockoff Gundam made in Sichuan.  The back cover on the right shows Tiang-xiang-hao, the previous version which copied the Gundam in 1:1 scale displayed in front of Diver City Tokyo Plaza in Odaiba, Tokyo.  Notwithstanding that the manufacturer in Japan was discontented with the copyright infringement, the netizens in Japan liked this Tian-xiang-er-hao inexplicably, which triggered off a wave of secondary creation.  Tse Yim On makes kuso on TV programme names and symbols of knockoff culture and creates fictional book titles and book covers to interpret the impacts of China’s knockoff industry on the world.  The industry, on one hand, is criticised by foreign countries infringement of intellectual property rights, but on the other hand it has promoted China’s position as the “World Factory” and brought it huge economic interest from the world.

A Post-colonial Jigsaw Puzzel – An Otaku Talks about Politics

In the Hong Kong Seals series, the différance game is reinforced by the jokes on current politics news.  By linking (cultural) images with (political-related) propaganda slogans, Tse Yim On breaks the conventional “fit and match” relation between images and texts and reform it by the ambiguity of puns.  The picture composition in this series borrows the idea from the fashion in Facebook emerged in 2014 when there was a wave for people to use a four-character “propaganda slogan” as the profile picture and to issue posts in the format of plain text with background.  Tse Yim On reverses the positions of the slogan-type headline and the pictorial background, making the big blood red headline in Chinese seal style and the background look like overlapping each other.  That reminds viewers of their internal text-image relation and external signified (the current politics news occurred sometime and somewhere).  Compare with other series, the postmodern aesthetics behind the Hong Kong Seals series reveals more subaltern insights and characteristics that are closely related to internet and anime cultures in the post-colonial era.

The work “Capture Aoi Sora” (2012) uses the scene of a China fighter aircraft fighting with Minila, the son of Godzila, as background.  A big headline “Capture Aoi Sora” (“Capture Aoi Sora Alife”, or double meaning “Screen Capture”) is put over it.  Tse Yim On uses the “Aoi Sora Phenomenon” [8] in the Mainland anti-Japan procession in 2012 to highlight the populistic consciousness under the postmodern political ecology.  In 2012, Aoi Sora, a former AV actress highly popular in the network community (including not only male), commented on the Diaoyu Islands dispute on Weibo.  She wrote in Chinese calligraphy to appeal for “friendly relationship between Japan and China” (日中友好) [9].  However, her action aroused a slanging match both online and in the real world between the supporting netizens and the opposing netizens in the Mainland.  Netizens who wanted to protect their idol participated in the anti-Japan procession with a banner written “The Diaoyu Islands belong to China!  Aoi Sora belongs to the world!”, while opposing netizens uphold their sentiment to boycott Japanese goods and participated in the procession with a banner written “Protect the Diaoyu Islands!  Capture Aoi Sora Alife!”.  International magazine The Economist published an article to analyse the situation [10].  The “Aoi Sora Phenomenon” also became a research topic [11] in academia.  Disagreement between the Mainland netizens over “boycott Japanese goods” revealed the fact that transnational consumer culture (especially otaku culture) was impacting on populism and national consciousness.  Tse Yim On uses a fighter aircraft and Minila as metonymy to transform the Diaoyu Islands disputes from anti-Japan context to otaku cultural context under consumer culture, highlighting the fact that populism and nationalism are no longer an aggregate concept in the post-colonial era.  From the Brexit referendum, election of the US president to resistant movements in the Middle East, the impact of the network community on politics in reality increasingly apparent. The broadcasting platforms of the online video game live streaming, apart from being capable of mobilising netizens on the internet, have long been used by these network communities (especially video game otaku) to discuss current politics news.  As a result, the network ecology has connected with politics in reality for a long time.  It is not surprising that Tse Yim On, as an otaku in the internet era, uses otaku culture as metonymy to make discourse on current politics news.

In the post-colonial discourse context, discourse is one of the facets to reflect the hybridity of identity.  In trans-geographical consumer culture in the internet era, the impact of trans-geographical internet culture on civic culture is recognised better in slangs than in dialects.  The “Teacher Aoi Sora” in the mind of the Mainland netizens and the “Aoi Sora” in the years when Hong Kong people loved Japan popular and entertainment cultures represent two sides of the same “Aoi Sora”.  The hybridity and diversity of Hong Kong people in respect of identity and culture can be seen through Hong Kong style Cantonese.  The ambiguity implied by the four-character expression 「吾愛吾家」 (I love my home) in Cantonese – the characters「吾」(it means I) and 「唔」 (it means no) have the same pronunciation but different connotations – echo the ambivalent feelings expressed in the work of in the same title by Tse Yim On.  A background in blue tone, a nearly closed door, a beam of yellow light leaks out.  Is it artificial light or sunlight?  The answer is unclear.  A background in strange atmosphere plus a foreground that shows a lovely girl, head popped on head elbows, smiling and staring at the viewers.  The indoor space created by the contrasting background and foreground echoes with the highly ambiguous expression「吾愛吾家」(I love my home) to form a strange ambience.  Apart from meaning “family”, the character「家」in Chinese culture is also a metaphor of the affinity between the ruler and the subjects in political context.  In 2017, the Hong Kong Government launched the theme song “Hong Kong Our Home” (香港‧我家) to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the handover.  People were apathetic about the song and did not identify with it.  They thought that the beautiful society mentioned in the lyrics was merely propaganda like rhetoric.  The real situation in Hong Kong was much different from their expectation for “a beautiful life”.  The work Wonderful World 《美好世界》is a series of paintings.  The four characters「美好世界」disappeared gradually according to the years stated in the titles (1974, 1997, 2016).  Born in the 1970s, Tse Yim On grew up under the benefits of public housing estates living culture.  He represents the 3rd generation of Hong Kong people described by LUI Tai-lok: those who have witnessed the previous generation enjoy a good life and opportunities but are incapable of an upward mobile and have lost the vision for “a beautiful world” as the sunny day has gone [12].  In Wonderful World (1974) 《美好世界(1974)》, images and symbols that tell the stories of urban development (a Ten-year Housing Programme implemented by former Governor Sir Murray MacLehose), economic take-off (change of the Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport to a civil airport promoted the development of the air transport industry) and prevailing fashion (comics like Little Rascals became a successful cultural industry) to summarise the good development in the 1970s.  As the third generation in Hong Kong, Tse Yim On can only face the immigration wave from the return of sovereignty in 1997 (in his painting Wonderful World (1997)) and treats the wishing thinking of “migration to the Moon” of the rich nowadays (in his painting Wonderful World (2016)) as his true Utopia: an imaginary world, big red characters「美好世界」(wonderful world) are retreating behind layers of colours until they blend with the bright red background eventually.  Complementary colours are used to create a conflicting atmosphere where the moon in green looks prominent and wired on a red background.  The vision to “wonderful world “ has become a strange imagination over time.

A Kaleidoscope of Ambiguity

When you look at Tse Yim On’s paintings, it seems like you are looking at a kaleidoscope formed by ambiguities.  His distinctive use of dazzling colours possesses the characteristics of neo-expressionism: crude style, vivid brushstrokes, emphasis on free association and spontaneous expression of feelings.  He creates layers of flat space by moving different complementary colour blocks forward or backward [13].  This is similar to how Georg Baselitz and Julian Schnabel made use of the material properties of media to construct inner space in their paintings.  Dazzling colours and overlapping spaces have strengthened the signifying relationship of image and reinforced the joking tone.  He “does not make political comics…but wants to collage the political elements into poetries” [14] on the canvas.  Infinite associations from almost ambiguous connotations are reflected by “différance” by means of deconstruction relation between the signifier and the signified, just like a kaleidoscope extends fragments to endless scenes, to reflect unlimited contradictory connotations and inspirations from current and politics situation in the present world.


[1] The otaku culture here also includes those homebodies referred in video game culture and internet culture.

[2] Poon, Tingyi. Great Righteousness Resolving Confusion – Works by Tse Yim On: Great Righteousness Resolving    Confusion, p.8-9 (Hong Kong: iPreciation, 2010).

[3] Extracted from the author’s interview with Tse Yim On (10.02.2020).

[4] Tse, Yim On. Artists Statemen: Great Righteousness Resolving Confusion, p.15 (Hong Kong: iPreciation, 2010).

[5] This is one of the motives for the painter to create.  The author’s interview with Tse Yim On (10.02.2020) was used as reference.

[6] Extracted from the author’s interview with Tse Yim On (10.02.2020).

[7] In 2010, Guosetiangxiang Theme Park in Sichuan made a giant sculpture by copying the design of “Gundam” from anime in the hope of attracting visitors.  The Japanese company which had the copyright took action against the theme part for the infringement.  Subsequently the theme part altered the design and launched a “knockoff Gundam” to resolve the infringement issue.  People called this Gundam “Tian-xiang-er-hao”.

[8] Aoi Sora was a famous AV actress.  She left the AV industry in 2005 to focus on her showbiz career.  Later she explored the Mainland market.  Starting from 2005, the Mainland netizens began to take great interest in her posts on the internet.  The cumulative number of fans on her Weibo is over 15 million, greater than other female KOLs in the Mainland.

[9] In September 2012, Aoi Sora issued two posts to appeal for friendship between Japan and China on Weibo in respect of the anti-Japanese sentiment after disputes over the Diaoyu Islands. In her posts, she wrote「日中友好」(friendly relationship between Japan and China) and「中日人民友好」(friendly relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese) in Chinese calligraphy by writing brush.  The responses from the Mainland netizens were mixed.  Nevertheless, she received 150 thousand responses to her posts, which led to a detailed study on the contradictory complex of the Mainland netizens towards Aoi Sora by The Economist.

[10] ‘Can’t we all just get it on? A Japanese actress reminds her Chinese fans how conflicted they are’ Economist.com (22 Sep 2012) retrieve: www.economist.com/china/2012/09/22/cant-we-all-just-get-it-on

[11] Apart from a research paper, there is also a publication: ZHENG Mei, The Aoi Sora Phenomenon: New Media and Image Marketing (Hong Kong: Up Publications Ltd., 2013).

[12] Lui, Tai Lok. Four Generations in Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Step Forward Multi Media, 2017).

[13] According to the author’s observation, while colour weakness may explain why Tse Yim On uses high chroma colours and high contrast designs in his paintings, his distinctive use of colour is based on his aesthetic judgement.  Reference of the writer’s point of view: Michael Marmor, Vision, eye disease, and art: 2015 Keeler Lecture. Eye 30, 287–303 (2016).

[14] Tang, Siu Wa. The Truth of Collage – The Works of Tse Yim On, Stand News, 3 June 2017.

This article, originally written in Chinese, was first published in the catalogue Wonderful World of Color by Tse Yim On. Translated into English by ST.