HONG LING WEE
Former NASA fellow; PHD; Ceramics Artist at Ceramicus.
In the middle of writing a dissertation at Rutgers University as a NASA research fellow, Hong Ling encountered clay and fell in love. What followed was an intense love and pursuit of clay that led to a temporary abandonment of her PhD research program as well as a life she thought she had planned out. Hong Ling broke through societal expectations and pressures to pursue her love of ceramic art in the tough environment of New York City.
Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood? Where did you grow up?
I'm from Singapore, born and raised. Very middle class family. My parents survived the Japanese occupation of Malaysia and Singapore in the forties so they came from a generation where security was the most important thing. For them, the way to a good life was to do well in school and to get a really good job - an office job with air conditioning where you boss people around and put on a power suit as a symbol of success. I was always told as a child to study hard and to do well in the math and science subjects. Doing well in art was perceived as useless. If you got an A in art, that meant you'd spent too much time drawing. Getting a C in art was seen as "good enough" but you absolutely had to get an A in the other subjects. I was very lucky in that I had a very good education in Singapore.
Pretty much all Singapore parents make their daughters play the piano. So I played classical piano for ten years but I couldn’t even hear music in my head, I just couldn’t. It felt like a chore, like taking out the trash or doing the dishes. My parents wanted me to learn music as a backup, in case I didn't do well in school, I could then at least support myself by giving piano lessons. That was the logic behind it.
With hindsight, playing the piano actually taught me the value of discipline. Of course, at that time all I could think of was why I was being "punished" like that. Now with hindsight, I realize that honing your craft is so critical to success in anything. I guess Malcolm Gladwell calls this the "Ten Thousand Hour Rule". You don't have to love something to do that thing really well. At the time when I played the piano, I did it very well and it's that very strict discipline that got me through it. You don't have to love it, you just have to sit down and get it done. It's like training for a marathon, you don't have to love running, you just have to train and do it.
So that was my upbringing. I was a very playful student but managed school pretty well. I would keep getting through one examination after another ... the path of least resistance. I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I just thought that I should do whatever my parents considered was best for me. My society ranked work that required physical labor much lower than work performed at an office and everyone aspired to the latter. No one would ever dream of becoming a woodworker, for example. A life in the arts or physical work never crossed my mind.
When you were younger, what was your dream job?
I wanted to be a doctor. I think that was because as a child, when I felt ill, my mom would take me to the doctor and I would be struck by how noble the profession was. My mother still reminds me of that childhoo ambition! She's really disappointed that I'm an artist now. But I tell my mom that I am a doctor (PhD)! She says it’s not the same.
Can you talk about your transition into America? What were the circumstances of your move here?
I was not the type of person to leave Singapore. Among my friends at the time, there were people who knew that by the time they finished high school, they would go abroad to study. But I never thought about leaving Singapore. I came from a middle class family and my parents would not have been able to support my education abroad. My parents used to say that if I didn’t make it to the universities in Singapore, then too bad, good luck; that's why they gave me piano lessons. It was never in my consciousness to leave Singapore.
What brought me here was love. That is the story of my life ... falling in love. I was in love with a Singaporean guy who was starting a PhD program in the States and we wanted to be together. So I came along. But falling in love is the most inconvenient thing: my life would be going really nicely and then I would fall in love and then my life would take a drastic left turn or everything would come to a screeching halt.
I had what they would call the "trailing spouse syndrome". I moved because of a person but I had no purpose here. I came here with no family, no friends, no network, no job, no school, no mobility. I was in the middle of New Jersey, without a driver's license and there is no real public transportation. I graduated with an honors degree from the National University of Singapore but I wasn't allowed to work here. I had no public transportation, I thought my life had ended. I had love but that was it. How crazy was that?
A lot of times people ask me about my experience moving here. To tell the truth, I felt like I parachuted right into hell. That was how drastic the change was for me. I came already knowing English so I can't even imagine how hard it must be for immigrants who come here without even knowing the language. I was so terrified as a 24-year old, coming here. It was really a huge culture shock to me.
Being a housewife became old really fast and I had to really find a purpose for myself. Why am I here? Who am I? Is my life's mission just to be a supportive spouse? I started questioning everything. I thought perhaps I should find something to do. I applied to graduate school and got accepted into Rutgers, where they have a very strong program in Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems. This was pre-Google Earth and pre-Google Maps and that really shows how old I am. Those topics were what I specialized in back in Singapore and that's what I did my honors thesis research on. So when I applied to graduate school, I happened to be at the right place and the right time with the right skill set. I was offered a NASA research fellowship to work on making publicly funded data accessible to the general public.The fellowship funded my masters degree.
Post-Rutgers. Let’s talk about what happened after the master's degree.
By the time the master’s degree was done, the relationship had fallen apart. He completed his PhD and was returning to Singapore because of a job offer. I thought some distance between us would be good at that time so I decided to stay on and pursue my PhD because that was the easiest way to extend my visa.
I was halfway through my doctoral program when a good friend noticed how focused I was on my research and suggested that I do something fun and live a more balanced life. I responded that I was an overachieving Singaporean and that I didn't have time for fun. I wanted to do my PhD in the shortest time possible. But not only did he ignore my reason, he went on to sign me up and paid for a Beginners' pottery class as a gift to me. I was horrified. Great, I thought, you've just given me more work to do. In hindsight, it was the best gift.
The class was a ten-week commitment. I went to the first class kicking, screaming and grumbling under my breath. Again, you never know what life has planned for you. The moment I touched the clay, it was like I had woken from a coma. It felt like I walked out of a black and white world into a world of color. It was completely irrational because I had no skills, my hands couldn't even make a thing but I loved the experience. Turning a ball of clay into an object was beyond me but that sense of joy and fulfillment from playing with the material in my hands ... I loved it. I found myself spending more time in the studio and less time at the lab.
I unofficially took three years off from my dissertation research and immersed myself in the studio to learn as much about ceramics as I could. I'm not one of those people who could pick things up quickly. I'm actually a very slow learner. It took me so long to even understand what I was doing. But I knew I loved it. It felt right. So again, falling in love with clay ... another inconvenience in my life. Up to that point in my life, I has been presenting papers at conferences and publishing in journals; I was on a smooth sailing path towards academia. and I was really good at research. But now I’d fallen in love with this thing, this clay. It was a curveball in my life. I had to re-evaluate why and how that was going to make sense.
Growing up, I had already decided that I was not artistic and creative. I did not envision starting something radically new like this in my thirties. The story should have been that I found something that I loved between the ages of five and twenty and became really good at it and made that my career. You don't just find something in your thirties and try to make yourself believe that you can do it.
I want to focus on those three years when you took time off from your PhD program. What gave you the confidence to just decide that? What was the actual experience in making it work?
When I first started, I immersed myself in the studio and worked really hard but there was no structure or guidance. I wasn't in school nor a program. I improved very slowly.
Then 9/11 happened. I was two miles away from Ground Zero. That was a huge turning point for me. I think people in New York who survived that event felt the need to reevaluate their lives. People who never intended to have children had children, those that never intended to get married got married. For me, it felt like a second chance at life. If I could do it all over again, what would I choose? I realized that I never got out of bed excited to run to the labs to look at satellite images when I was in school. But with clay, I couldn't wait to get out of bed to rush to the studio and make another piece of work. So why should my future be anything other than the pursuit of my passion?
I wanted to give the best time of my life to the thing that I cared about the most. I didn't have an ailing parent to care for, or kids to raise, or student loans to pay back. With all those factors considered, I was able to choose the thing I wanted. If I had a different set of circumstances, I might not have been able to have to do this. But because I had a certain level of freedom, I thought if not now then when?
However, being Singaporean, I still had to finish the degree. I had a sense of responsibility to see things through because I was already much closer to the end than the beginning. On the day I defended my dissertation, I celebrated by throwing out my academic journals and books because I now needed shelf space for my ceramics. Plus, if I ever went back to research, those books and journals would be obsolete anyway with the speed at which technology was moving. I made room for my new love.
So you became a doctor like your mom wanted?
Yes, but I also became an artist overnight.
How did your parents take it?
Not well. I joke about this but my mom, like a traditional Asian parent, thinks I'm doing this to punish her, like how all Asian parents think is happening to them. My dad passed away before I even encountered clay, so there's no objection there. For my mother, coming from that generation where everything had to have a practical purpose, she felt that I was irrational. She wanted me to pursue a comfortable life. From her point of view, it's really hard to understand what I did. After investing so much in school and degrees, why would anyone choose to be dirty and do manual work all day with no stability or certainty?
Growing up, we didn't know any artists; what artists did, how they lived, how they put food on the table. Artists were like unicorns to us. Who were these people? So it's difficult for my mother to understand my choice. Even though she's been to my exhibitions have seen awards that I've won, it's still mind-boggling to her. But I feel that I've lived the first half of my life fulfilling my parents' expectations so I would like to live the second half of my life fulfilling my own dream.
After you became a doctor and an artist, what was the journey like?
Being the pragmatic Singaporean that I am, I gave myself five years to see how it would work out. Five years in the lifespan of an artist is really short, but in the career span of a Singaporean , it's really long. I had to strike a balance somewhere. If I didn't set a target for myself, how would I able to measure my growth? Those five years were really challenging because I didn't even sell enough pieces to make rent but I was very lucky I didn't have any other huge expenses so it was still possible to manage and get by. I was using my savings from the stipend in graduate school. But I was also working on my craft like my life depended on it. Since that was the choice that I had made, I wasn't going to cut any corners. Even though I didn't have a boss and I didn't need to report to anyone, I knew I would only be cheating myself if I didn't give it my best.
What kind of goals were you setting for yourself?
I entered exhibitions and competitions and I applied for grants and did surprisingly well. I was accepted into shows with artists who had twenty-, thirty-year careers. At the end of the five years, I had accomplished a lot and I was feeling really good about where I was at in the context of ceramics. But financially it was not yet sustainable. I had to make a choice. Do I go forward or should I go back to my other life?
I decided to stick to this a little longer because I receiving awards and being accepted in juried shows. And just after that I had a solo exhibition and it was sold out! I believe that success is your tolerance for failure because if you can’t tolerate failure then you may never see success. Sometimes, success takes forever to come.
In the moments when you experienced failure and setbacks and disappointments, what was the thing that kept you going?
The thing that kept me going was my love for this material. Financial success was never what I was going for anyway. You could probably make a lot more money by being a babysitter or a dog walker in New York. If it were just about the money, you should never ever choose to be an artist, it doesn't make sense. It's a terrible business model. I always measure success in terms of the fulfillment that I got and how I judge my own work. Whether or not a piece of work sold or not didn't really matter to me as much. It was more important that I felt pride in making that work and putting it out into the world.
Let's talk a little bit about your work. What inspires your creations? How do you go through the process of making something?
All my work centers around the theme of home. It's because I've been away from home for so long, it's my longing for my home. All my work reminds me of my childhood, my heritage, my culture, my country, my community, my family and my friends. What I'm really seeking to create is the sense of home, whether it’s a teapot or a vase, I’m conjuring up memories of experiences and channeling that into my creations. Half of my work is functional, like cups, plates and utilitarian ware; the other half is decorative, sculptural ceramics. For my sculptural ceramics, I only make houses, Again, I am searching for home.
What does a home mean to you?
I think 'home' is a complicated concept; it is where you are the most comfortable, where you are the most secure and where you feel a sense of love, but it always comes with frustrations, shame, disappointment, discontent, betrayal. It's not one-dimensional. I think being so far away from my family and my home country makes me feel nostalgic about the past. My work is fueled by those romanticized memories.
Let's talk about your experience of living in America. What does the American Dream mean to you?
The American Dream to me is having the opportunity to explore the things you didn't expect and having all these opportunities out there for you to pursue. I never thought I would be doing this and yet this is what I do now. There is very little resistance in this society to anyone pursuing something like what I am doing. It's not totally ridiculous or crazy to people. Whereas I think if I were living in Singapore, I would be faced with opposition and a lot of societal disagreement. Here, especially in New York, where there are so many people living very unconventional lives, it feels like you can make it work. I think that to me is the American Dream. Working really hard and turning an impossibility into a reality.
What is your hope for the work that you're doing? What are you striving for now?
I needed to find a larger purpose for the work that I do. Because the world doesn’t need another piece of ceramic. I think if the world ceased ceramic production today, life would go on just fine. So what responsibilities do we have as artists to the world? Doing the work that we do. What I hope to do (and this sounds so cliche), is to make the world a better place. It's not so much the ceramic pieces that I create but the message that I want to share, which is that perhaps if we look outside our box and the traditional paths we've set for ourselves and appreciate the differences in others, maybe that can help us find our passion. The people who find their passion and love their lives do not do bad things to others. In encouraging others to find their passion, I'm hopeful that the world can become a better place.
I give a lot of talks and the point is not to get everyone to become artists but more to encourage people to examine their own lives and explore something different. If you want to try playing the cello, pick it up. How would you know you don't like it unless you try it? It's about stepping out of that comfort zone, which I still have to remind myself all the time. We're so quick to reject the unknown and the unfamiliar.
How do you challenge yourself to break out of that comfort zone?
I'm a selfish artist. If I’m investing my time, I want to create something that's interesting and unique to me. It's in the development of a series of work that is the most exciting period of me. But it can be uncomfortable. The work often has to go through an awkward, sometimes hideous phase, much like adolescence, before it becomes something beautiful. Luckily, I can live with a lot of uncertainty. I love that R&D because it's about thinking creatively and critically and it’s about being decisive.
I don't like to make work that I'm most comfortable making. The moment I've gained enough muscle memory to go on autopilot, I stop making that thing because it no longer requires me to problem-solve. If I can be thinking about what’s for dinner while making a piece, I know that I’m not challenging myself.
People often ask me, “you have had so much education and you're doing something totally unrelated to your work, how do you reconcile that?” I always tell them that a good education teaches you a specific skill but a great education teaches you critical thinking and problem solving. So I put my education to work every single day.
Four years ago, I had a neck injury and it really scared me. After physical therapy and rehab, I had to think about my work differently and work on a smaller scale. Even though the injury imposed physical limitations on what I can do, it actually forced me to think more creatively about the work. I’m very happy with how my work has developed and I value my studio practice more than ever. Sometimes a breakdown presents an opportunity for a breakthrough.of what I can do and still make work that is interesting to me.
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