Interview with Yuen Tai-yung, ‘Godfather of Hong Kong movie posters’

The ‘godfather of Hong Kong movie posters’ talks life as a self-taught artist, the process of creating posters and his unexpected fame.

I lived in Shanghai before moving to Hong Kong in 1957. I started out in factories, and around 1965 I entered Longman Publishing where I was the assistant to a German lady. She was in charge of illustrations in educational books and saw potential in me. Her mentor was working at an advertising company, and she got me in.

I didn’t know any English but the advertising company recognised my drawing skills and allowed me to flourish. Later, the company changed its policies and required employees to be skilled in English; it didn’t feel compatible with me anymore so I went into film advertising instead. That’s where I worked until I retired in 1992.

I have never taken any drawing lessons, everything I do I learnt slowly by myself. As a child, I used to doodle a lot, especially people. Back then I drew very slowly and would produce fewer than ten pieces a year. But once I started working, I trained myself to work at a much faster pace and improved very quickly.

There weren’t a lot of locals who were good at drawing when I entered the industry. The foreign company offered to pay for my English classes in the evenings, but I was always too sleepy to concentrate after a full day of work, so I eventually gave it up.

As a Chinese with close to zero English skills, one of my proudest moments was using a mish-mash of broken English and Cantonese to tell a foreign superior off! I suppose I did take a bit of advantage because I knew the company wanted me.

I actually have not seen a lot of the films that I’ve done drawings for. The most important part of the process was the movie stills. They used to have thick books of still shots from the reels in sequence, and I would take them home to browse and understand what the films were about. Then I’d roughly draft an initial drawing and present it for review; usually they’d only get me to make slight adjustments or additions, it was very rare that I’d have to start from scratch.

I started getting phone calls asking for commissioned work after drawing posters for The Last Message and The Private Eyes. I honestly just coasted off the popularity of these two works; pretty much every piece I did afterwards was for people who approached me instead of the other way round.

I do most of my drawings from home as I have work during daytime. Generally, it takes me around 10 days to finish a piece. Nowadays I’m getting on in age and don’t burn the midnight oil anymore so it takes a bit longer. If it’s a piece I’m personally interested in, the process is quicker, but I don’t get to choose commissioned work so sometimes those drag on a bit.

As a movie poster artist, my job is to try and channel the film’s special characteristics. A poster is the first thing about a film that prospective audiences come into contact with. It has to grab their attention. It’s down to me to make a movie look as interesting as possible before people even know what it’s about.

It’s hard to strike to a balance between reality and drawing – if my drawing is too realistic then why should people choose it over a simple photo instead? I try to capture my subjects’ unique vibe and the power in their gaze. It would be good if people think my drawings were more attractive than actual photos of the subjects. I want to enhance people’s beauty.

Cartoony caricatures are my forte, and there are a few pieces that I’ve done specifically for this exhibition. I want to show more sides to my work. I want to surprise people by still coming out with new styles in my art.

Needless to say, I was very surprised when The Posterist was released. It wasn’t even supposed to be a documentary in the first place! The director wanted to record our series of interviews, and I agreed as I thought it’d be a good memento to have. But in the end there turned out to be over ten hours worth of footage.

The audience reaction when it came out was unprecedented. The memory that stuck with me the most was when The Posterist was screened in Spain and I was interviewed the day after. The interviewer told me that there were girls in the audience in tears, and then she herself also started tearing up halfway through chatting with me. I really didn’t get why! Maybe it’s just because westerners are more comfortable with openly displaying their emotions.

I think people have such strong feelings because I’m still doing a very old vocation in this ultra-modern age. I didn’t need much qualifications nor English skills to get myself a good job that I’m interested in. Talent could override other qualities. Nowadays it’s not that easy, you have to work very hard to stand out.

It’s good that I’m getting these kinds of reactions; my hard work has not been in vain. Before I started using social media, I had no way of knowing that my art was affecting other people. I can proudly say now that I have made a significant contribution to Hong Kong.

The tradition of hand-drawn movie posters should be preserved, but it is always easier said than done, because computer graphics are definitely more time and cost effective. The younger generation probably doesn’t have the patience to paint manually when you can do it with just a few clicks. A shame, really—there is so much artistic and creative value in such works.

There is a movie theatre in Tai Nan which still does its big boards by hand. It actually attracts a lot of tourists because it is so rare, but whether people will watch the movie after seeing the posters is a different story. The hand-drawn poster will probably attract the first batch of audiences but after that, it’s out of the poster artists’ control.

Yuen Tai-yung’s latest exhibition ‘Glitter, Glitz and Glamour’ is being held in the Garden of Stars at Tsim Sha Tsui East Waterfront Podium Garden, running until March.