DON HONG-OAI: Asian Pictorialism

Winter Fog, Vietnam, 1974
Photograph (c) Don Hong-Oai/All rights reserved

Hurrying Down Path, Vietnam, 1974
Photograph (c) Don Hong-Oai/All rights reserved

Spring Morning on River Li, Guilin, 1998 
Photograph (c) Don Hong-Oai/All rights reserved

Spring Bamboo Boat
Photograph (c) Don Hong-Oai/All rights reserved

DON HONG-OAI was born 1929 in the city of Guangzhou in the Guangdong Province of China. As the youngest of 24 siblings and half-siblings, Don was sent off to live in a Chinese community in Saigon, Vietnam after the death of his parents. At 7 years old he was apprenticed to a Saigon portrait studio where he learned the basics of photography. Don remained an apprentice for a decade, after which he worked a series of odd jobs. Although he was desperately poor, he managed to save US$48 to buy his first camera. In 1950, at the age of 21, he began studying at the Vietnam National Art University.He stayed in Vietnam during the war, but in 1979 a bloody border war broke out between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China. The Vietnamese government instituted a series of repressive policies that targeted ethnic Chinese living in the country. As a result of those policies, Don became one of the millions of “boat people” who fled Vietnam to the U.S. in the late 1970s. At the age of 50, speaking no English and not knowing anyone living in the U.S., Don arrived in San Francisco. He lived within San Francisco's Chinatown where he was able to set up a small darkroom to create his photographs. By selling prints of his photographs at local street fairs, Don was able to make enough money to return to China periodically to shoot photographs. He was also able to study with Master Long Chin-San in Taiwan.

Long Chin-San, who died in 1995 at the age of 104, had developed a style of photography based on the long tradition of landscape imagery in Chinese art. For centuries Chinese artists had been creating dramatic monochromatic landscapes using simple brushes and ink. These paintings weren’t intended to accurately depict nature, but to interpret nature’s emotional impact. Don’s new work modeled on the ancient style combined
(pre-digital photo compositing) the traditional motifs of Chinese paintings, such as mountains, birds, tree's and boats, using more than one negative to create the delicate beauty in each landscape. Realism was not the goal.

Don's work began to draw critical attention in the 1990s. He no longer had to sell his photography at street fairs; he was now represented by an agent and his work was being sold in galleries throughout the U.S., in Europe and in Asia. His work was sought after by private art collectors, corporate buyers and museums.
Don passed away in San Francisco in 2004. More bio here.

Rare original sepia toned gelatin-silver prints made by Don Hong-Oai with his hand-written calligraphy titles and red chop signatures, contact Anne Kelly: Photo-Eye Gallery


Caio Fern said...

fascinating works !!

Bea said...

Elizabeth, what a wonderful post. I just learned so much that I never knew before. I so appreciate you taking the time to share these beautiful works of art and the history and story behind them.
I bow to you my friend. :)Bea

Nettie Edwards said...

Thankyou Elizabeth, for bringing our attention to this haunting, breathtakingly beautiful work.

-K- said...

Really wonderful photos with a tremendous story to go along with it. Thank you.

Kelly M. said...

These works by Don Hong-Oai are quietly stunning, a sense of hush seems to descend when viewing the larger photo -- thank you for bringing a part of his opus to light.

P.Gaye Tapp at Little Augury said...

I am completely taken with these images, as KM says stunning. Would I love to have one? Yes. G.

kadler said...

These are gorgeous. Thanks for the introduction to such a wonderful artist.

Lorena G. Sims said...

Beautiful work!

✿France✿ said...

Bnsoir je suis de retour, tes photos sont magnifiques alors faut continuer de me faire rêver
Possible de mettre un outil de traduction merci

heungman.net said...


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Meera Rao said...

Very beautiful photographs! Thanks for sharing and introducing him to me!