Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Tuesday, May 5, 1998


Hawaii’s two greatest
Chinese artists

IT has been my privilege to know Hawaii's two greatest Chinese artists Betty Ecke, known to the international art world as Tseng Yuho, and John Young, who died last Dec. 21.

Both incredibly talented, says George Ellis, director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Yet so very, very different.

Both highly respected in Hawaii art circles Young far better known to Honolulu residents generally, Ecke far better recognized internationally for over 50 years.

Young was 88 when he had a stroke that killed him in keeping with his flamboyant nature, just after he hosted a holiday party for friends.

Ecke, 16 years his junior, is still at her easel, still working from an office at the Art Department at the University of Hawaii, where she is officially retired. Her Hawaii Kai hillside home is also a work of art based on ancient Chinese cosmological concepts.

She has slowed to about 20 paintings a year. But she spends hours on her works, whereas Young sometimes created rampaging horses, joyous children, carnival atmospheres or oceanscapes with a few brush strokes.

Young's paintings were marketed primarily in Hawaii. After a show in March honoring Ecke at Kapiolani Community College, five of the displayed paintings were sent to London for sale.

She has other outlets in mainland Europe, in New York, in Hong Kong and on Taiwan. For 17 years until its owner's death she was chiefly marketed by the Downtown Gallery in New York City.

Oxford University's Michael Sullivan, distinguished historian of Chinese art, first saw her work in London in 1946, when she was only 21 and still living in Beijing. He and others brought her to the attention of the international art world with their writings. He credits her with moving from a solid grounding in traditional Chinese art to a blending incorporating modern Western influences, and always evolving.

Her paintings and collages are mostly abstract, gentle in nature, never ugly, immensely detailed in design and structure. She will leave ugliness to others to depict, she says, but can join other modernists in trying to get inside the mind.

Young's art grew from his birth in Chinatown, Honolulu. Ecke's grew from a childhood in a highly literate Chinese family, wealthy enough to have five servants though really wealthy families had 20.

Three months in bed with illness at age 11 led her to painting as one of the few things she could do and enjoy. Even as a teen-ager she had significant shows in China. In 1945, when just 20, Tseng Yuho married her art teacher, German-born Gustav Ecke, in Beijing.

They settled in Hawaii in 1949 when he became the first curator of Asian art at the academy. They traveled frequently and mingled with the art greats of Europe.

The Communist takeover in China separated her from her mother for 30 years, after which Ecke found her living in a house shared by six other families but not wanting to leave Beijing. President Nixon had presented some of Tseng Yuho's calligraphy to Mao Tse-tung.

BESIDES being an artist, Young was a major collector of Asian/Pacific artifacts. He brought many here to market. A gallery at the academy houses works donated by him. Other Young gifts are at the Wo International Center at Punahou School. His brightly colored works decorate walls at the Maple Garden and Hee Hing restaurants. He was very good at marketing himself, Ellis notes.

Ecke, much more reserved and intense, has left the marketing of her art to others, mostly outside Hawaii.

Ecke wants to pay for a Chinese folk art tea house on the border of Manoa Stream at the East-West Center on the University of Hawaii grounds. It would adjoin the center's Asian garden not far from an existing Japanese tea house and help point up some of the cultural differences. Negotiations over long-term maintenance of what she sees as an active teaching place have held up a final UH acceptance.

I am very grateful that Hawaii has had both Ecke and Young, and that I could know them.



A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.




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