Art publisher Lorette E Roberts has spent years carefully sketching the minutia of Hong Kong life. She explains how it all began
“It’s been a great visit,” declares Lorette Roberts of her latest trip to Hong Kong, settling back with a flat-white in the comfortable, old-world confines of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club.
An artist, publisher and teacher, Roberts is best-known for her wonderfully illustrated sketch books, depicting through beautifully crafted drawings and paintings the minutia of life in the SAR.
A Hong Kong resident for eight years, Roberts is now happily ensconced in a pretty Suffolk village in Britain, but returns to the city twice a year to catch up on life in Asia and to run a her successful watercolour classes.
“It’s great being back in the bustle and bustle of Hong Kong, and such a change from the slow pace of rural England,” she says. “I love the contrast, I think I have the best of both worlds.”
These days, Roberts works from a 400-year-old farmhouse, her easel lit by several red Hong Kong lampshades hanging from the ancient beams.
“I know, it’s fabulous, isn’t it?” she laughs. “Those lamps are so Hong Kong. Although I love the tranquility of my new home, the changing seasons and the wildflowers and so on, I miss the energy of Hong Kong. The farmhouse is full of Chinese artefacts from our time here.”
Roberts has also ensured her little piece of England now celebrates Lunar New Year. “I’m not sure what the locals think,” she says. “But I host a big party where we dress up in an Anglicised version of Chinese New Year. I buy dim sum from the local supermarket and we have a really fun night.”
Roberts has led a peripatetic existence, following her civil-engineer husband from one continent to another, landing in Hong Kong in 1998.
“Like all expats, we were constantly on the verge of leaving,” she recalls. “This went on for eight enjoyable years, and when it finally looked like we definitely would be going, I decided to put together a book of sketches to five my husband as a sort of leaving present.”
And so Roberts, who began her career as a botanical artist but with no formal art training, set about sketching and painting hundreds of images of Hong Kong until eventually they were bursting from her notebook.
“It was a lot of work,” she admits. And when friends also pointed out that it was a lot of effort for a leaving present, Roberts decided to turn her sketches into a proper, published book. “Obviously it had to be full colour, and as some of the images were large and had to fold out, self-publishing was the only option.”
Sketches of Hong Kong enjoyed great success and Roberts succeeded in finding a publisher, Blacksmith Books, for a second edition, plus books dedicated to Sai Kung, Stanley, SoHo, China, Singapore and Vietnam. She has just published a book examining the flora and fauna of Asia.
“I try to capture the traditional aspects of a country, elements of which are often quickly disappearing. In Vietnam, for instance, I love the traditional dress, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing it on the streets forever.”
Although her books include iconic images, such as the Star Ferry, the Peak Tram, Victoria Harbour and so on, Roberts admits to being much more interested in people.
“I love to watch people at work. There are so many craftsmen in Hong Kong, many of which are becoming lost skill sets. The lantern lighters spring to mind.”
She photographs anything she finds interesting, returning home to sketch the scene with pencil and paper.
“I don’t leave the house with any sort of plan in the morning. Scenes just sort of happen,” she says. “One of my favourite images came from sitting down on a break in the Art Museum. Suddenly, all these little schoolchildren came running in and knelt down in front of me, backs facing me, to view the harbour. I had this wonderful view of lots of little feet – fantastic. It turned out to be a very popular image (and is currently the cover of Sights and Secrets of Hong Kong).”
Every picture tells a tale, and one with an interesting story is the old Police Station in Stanley, scene of the last tiger shooting in Hong Kong which took place in the 1940s. Roberts was amazed to receive a letter from a reader in America about the incident.
“It was from a chap who was born in Stanley prison during the war. He said to avoid disturbing the other prisoners, his mother would sneak outside onto the verandah at night to rock him back to sleep. One night she was sitting – rocking and dozing – when she opened her eyes to see a tiger standing right in front of her. Paralysed with fear and not knowing what to do, she sat motionless clutching her baby until the tiger eventually just wandered off. No one believed her in the morning, until news reached the prison a few days later that a tiger had been shot and killed in Stanley.”
Roberts lived in the Midlevels during her time in Hong Kong (“wonderful”), but admits to loving the villages and the history of Hong Kong.
“In the New Territories you can still find villages that grow fields of watercress. I find this fascinating.”
Her curiosity has won her invitations to people’s homes throughout Asia, to the consternation of her husband.
“I think he worries about me, disappearing off on my own into rural China. But I’ve enjoyed such lovely hospitality from local people who see me sketching. It’s funny, people often object to being photographed, but don’t seem to mind being sketched.”
But for now it’s back to Suffolk, for a packed schedule of art classes underneath those oh so Hong Kong lamps. But she’ll be back, ready to seek out new scenes and situations.
Roberts’ most recent publication, Flowers & Plants of Southeast Asia, along with her 2018 Calendar and other merchandise, is available from Kidnapped Bookshop, Sai Kung, loretteroberts.com