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© Mo

Father, You Have Nothing to Regret!
- Mo Zhuang Ze -

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29 January 1990

In his later years, I would hear my father say that his greatest regret in life was his obsession with bonsai. By then, his health had deteriorated from the soil disease contracted from almost six decades of cultivation. The relationship with the bonsai society he founded, and led for 20 years, had also ended in disagreement.

Yet in his obsession, my father had always found freedom. He believed that artistic expression was not to be judged and did not let “technical rules” hinder his vision. In creating bonsai, he refused to constrain and contort the plant to create shapes. Instead he would study what nature wants, and let the plant’s destined shape provide the imagery.

Drawn to the Wrightia religiosa for its fragrance and characteristic, he made it his chosen medium. Uninspired by the dimensions of commercially available pots, he shaped and fired his own unique white vessels, customised for each scene he was creating. True to the spirit of the Lingnan school of bonsai, every pot presented not a tree, but grand scenery - scenery in which the plant itself mimicked the wonders of nature.

Before his obsession with bonsai, my father had been an accomplished composer, conductor and performer of Chinese classical music. In the same way a musician might pick up a new instrument to further express what his heart hears, my father found a new instrument in bonsai. He saw it as a continuous journey of artistic expression - an expression that also embraced poetry, calligraphy and more - threaded through with his deep love for the Chinese culture.

I grew up in awe of the man. There seemed nothing he couldn’t turn his hand to, after diligent study and earnest application. When I was nine, our neighbours installed an outdoor basketball hoop, and my father saw how envious I was. Within a month, he had constructed one for me - built from scratch using scrap materials found in our backyard.


13 November 1998

However, one day in his early sixties, I found my father puzzling over a panoramic photo-spread in a fashion magazine. In it, the same model appeared at intervals along a brick wall, and my father was trying to find mismatched brickwork showing where the photographs must have been manually stitched together. He could not understand how the image could have been manipulated otherwise. A mere Primary school kid, I could not help him at that time, but years later, I discovered the digital tools that I use now - a new instrument that my father did not get the chance to pick up.

My father did use the camera a lot, however - primarily as a way to document the bonsai he created. In 2011, I bought a digital scanner and set out to archive the stash of photographs my father had left behind, expecting to find a treasure trove of family and scenery pictures. Instead, I found more than 5,000 slides and negatives chronicling his obsession with bonsai - the community, the occasions, and most of all, the bonsai themselves at every stage of their cultivation and subsequent growth, capturing their transformation over time.

This book represents merely a fifth of that photographic legacy, and it has taken a decade to restore and nurture. There is so much more to be shared, and ten years is not such a long time. This is what nature offers at this moment; and the next time I revisit it, it will have grown closer to its natural destiny. That is the way of the bonsai.

So this book has become part of my journey. Through 60 years of photography, to revive public appreciation with bonsai and the Southern Chinese style of cultivation. To restore my father’s reputation as a visionary artist. To resurrect his bonsai creations that have since been lost.

Weak from the soil disease, my father once said in great earnest: “Now, I no longer create bonsai. I have created all the best bonsai in my mind. The artistic pleasure no longer lies in analysing the living bonsai in front of me, but in liberating the most beautiful, most natural scenery that I have encountered in my life with my eyes closed, and presenting it in front of me!” Through my own work, I hope to show all of you some of the beauty that my father could see.

I also hope to prove my father wrong - there is nothing to regret.


September 2020

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