I’ve been meaning to write about my friendship with Chen Yifei for a number of years. I put off putting pen to paper however because he had just passed away and it may give the impression of trying to ride on his coattails. Now is a slightly better time to write about it.
Chen Yi-Fei was a household name towards the end of the Cultural Revolution. Red Flag, a Communist Party magazine published by the central government, took the unprecedented step of including his portrait in gouache of Jin Xunhuaas a full-color insert. The painting was an ode to the heroism of Jin Xunhua, an educated youth sent to the countryside. Jin had become a martyr saving timber at a forestry station during mountain floods. Later on, Chen worked with Wei Jinshan and others on a number of original large oil paintings such as Take the Presidential Palace. For a while, his fame surpassed that of the “Four Kings” in Guangdong Province.
In 1977, I went to Shanghai to view the “Exhibition of French Country Landscape Paintings.” Before I set off, Liang Junli, a good friend and fellow student at the affiliated high school took me to meet Peng Ning. They had studied at the Beijing Film Academy together. Peng’s father was a general who passed away before the Cultural Revolution. At the time, Peng and Bai Hua were working together on the movie script for Unrequited Love so he was a long-term guest at the Yingbin Hotel in Guangzhou. Peng Ning knew Chen Yifei so he recommended me to his friend Xue Jing from the Department of Directing at Shanghai Film Academy and told me to look up Xue in Shanghai. Peng Ning was a tall man with the forthright attitude typical of Northerners. He was really enthusiastic about the script, and even showed off some of the plot and lines on the spot. The political atmosphere at the time meant such “scar” literaturereally took some courage. When Unrequited Lovewas released, all the accolades seemed to have gone to Bai Hua with little attention given to Peng Ning. (Unrequited Lovewas originally titled The Road Stretches Away; Peng Ning passed away about a decade ago in his sixties.)
I went to meet with Xue Jing once I arrived in Shanghai. Xue had a very youthful face and was always smiling. He first took me to see Zhao Dan but Zhao wasn’t home, so I only met his wife Huang Zhongying. He then took me to Bai Yang’s house, a small two-story villa with its own courtyard. The building was looking a little abandoned and desolate by then. Bai Yang and Zhao Dan were both famous actors. Her movies River of My Love and Mistress Xiang Linpractically defined the Chinese movies of the Forties and Fifties. The Bai Yang I met was a kind old lady whose every gesture and every smile felt so cultured. Such cultural sophistication was something new to a props artist from a grassroots theater troupe like me.
That night, Xue Jin took me to see Chen Yifei.
I don’t remember which street Chen’s house was in though I recall going up to the second floor. There were two groups of guests that night. The group that arrived before us was the Xinjiang oil painter Ghazi Ahrned and two other youths. When it was our turn, we just chatted in general and I suspect neither side left much of an impression on each other that night.
A year later, an exhibition of Romanian artists was held in Beijing and Shanghai. The exhibition featured Nicolae Grigorescuand Corneliu Bababoth of whom were great masters whose fame and popularity had already reached as far as China. Yu Zesheng had just graduated from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and had been assigned to a post back in Zhaoqing so we went off to Shanghai together. When we boarded the train in Guangzhou, we just happened to share the carriage with painters from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts including Tang Xiaoming, Lin Yong, Chen Yanning, Wang Yujue, and Wu Qizhong. It was a gathering of crème de la crème of contemporary Chinese artists. When the train arrived in Hangzhou, they got off to visit the Zhejiang Academy of Art. They naturally took us along with them to see the “Legacy of Pan Tianshou Exhibition” and seminar… We got back on the train to continue our journey to Shanghai the next day.
The delegation of top painters from Guangzhou Academy were naturally given “special treatment” once they reached Shanghai. They were personally welcomed at the station by Chen Yifei. Chen was the deputy director of Shanghai’s Office of Oil Paintings and Sculptures by that time. He was shaking hands with everyone when he realized that I was in the group too! I hastily explained to him that I just happened to be on the same train as the others (they were all fellow students and old friends I knew well though). When we walked out of the train station, Chen greeted the others then came over to chat with me, much to the surprise of others from the Guangzhou Academy: How come Yim Muukun knows Chen Yifei so well? There was a lot of surprised murmuring and his enthusiasm surprised me as well. After he settled the delegation in at Heping Hotel, Chen turned me to say: “Come and have dinner at my place tonight. Just you and me.” He then gave me the address and instructions on what bus to take.
When I arrived at his house that evening as agreed, his wife was already cooking away in the small kitchen downstairs and dinner was soon ready: I was invited to sit at the small round table in the kitchen. Mrs. Chen had cooked a few dishes herself and they looked quite appetizing. I was about to invite her to take a seat when she said that she had eaten already and went upstairs, leaving me with Chen Yifei. He filled a small glass with liquor and said that this was one of the rare occasions that he invited a guest to eat at his home. I naturally appreciated the high regard he had of me. As the conversation went on, I asked him in a round-about manner why I was treated so differently on this visit. Chen seemed to have expected this and said when Xue Jing brought me here last year, he thought I was just an ordinary regional or prefectural-grade art cadre from Guangdong. At the end of last year (or in early 1979), he saw my new oil painting Warrior Songon the inside cover of Guangdong Literature & Art (the monthly publication of the Guangdong Provincial Writers’ Association) and realized that I “had an exceptional talent for painting.” He then expressed his sincere apology to me for his poor hospitality last time. I was greatly moved by his gesture and we began corresponding by mail.
During this visit to Shanghai, Chen took time from his busy schedule to introduce me to Cheng Shifa and Zhu Qichuan. He even asked Master Zhu to paint me a few gourds and a length of gnarled vine. I was also taken to visit a few young painters in Shanghai as well.
I don’t remember which month it was but at the start of 1980 I received a telegram that Chen Yifei sent from Shanghai asking me to meet him at Baiyun Airport in Guangzhou. When I picked Chen up from the airport, I learned that he had also sent a telegraph toChen Yanning. Yanning was away on business so I was the only one there. I used the few “coupons” (only coupons paid for with foreign currency were accepted at large hotels or for high-end imported consumer goods in China at the time) I had to secure a room for him at Dong Fang Hotel Guangzhou. I already knew from last year that he was going to the U.S. and he asked me if I wanted to sit for the exam for the first Master’s degree class to be offered by the Department of Oil Painting at the Central Art Academy after the Cultural Revolution. He said he knew Ye Jianying’sfamily so could help me out there. After he put his luggage away and freshened up, Chen ordered two servings of coffee, toast and fried eggs. From the way he ate, I noticed that Westerners used the back of the fork when eating fried eggs, and it made me realize with a start that his Shanghai background was totally different from a small country boy like me. Chen told me that the only way to get to America was to go from Shenzhen Port to Luofu. He then crossed over to Hong Kong and flew from there to America. He also said that he was going to make some money by painting a portrait or two in Hong Kong. One thing he said at the time really left a strong impression on me:
“There is no way that this ball ain’t going to bounce in America!”
Chen did indeed bounce in America. He already told me in Guangzhou that he knew Armand Hammer, the CEO of Occidental Petroleum, and Hammer had promised to help. His first exhibition in America was indeed held at the “Hammer Gallery” in New York.
I accompanied him to the platform for the Shenzhen-Guangdong express train the next day and waved him goodbye.
In September 1980 my application to travel to Taiwan to take care of my father’s funeral was approved. When I reached Hong Kong on a one-way permit, I got back in contact with Chen Yifei in America once more. He also sent me a Form I-20 for applying to the Art Student League of New York. The U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong did not give me a visa unfortunately. Shortly afterwards, he asked me to help him auction a large ink painting of plum blossoms by Wang Zhen, the “White Dragon Hermit”, a famous painter from Shanghai during the early Republican years. The auction was conducted through Sotheby’s in Hong Kong and the painting was sold for 14,000 HKD which I wired to him in full. We lost contact after that probably because he was so busy.
Our next meeting was at the Art Taipei expo in the fall of 1996 when his exhibition area ended up right next to mine. His exhibits were large thick oil paintings of women in cheongsam holding a fan and ordinary people in Tibet. My exhibit was Night Waves on the Channel from my “Crossing of Taiwan Forefathers” series. Both of us had changed somewhat at our reunion in Taipei sixteen years later. The two of us – one from Shanghai and one from Hunan – continued to follow two distinct paths in life. He invited me to visit his personal exhibition that will be held at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing at the end of the year. I went and saw a beautiful violinist in a black dress performing in the foyer, a constant stream of senior figures from art circles, celebrities and high-ranking officials coming up to him to express their congratulations… I just stood there quietly looking at the paintings and also at Chen Yifei as he moved around among the social elite.
After that, all word I had of him up until he passed away came by the way of auction news.