I think everyone who knew my father will recognize him in the following scene. The setting is Cleveland around 1980. I am sitting in the kitchen with my father. We’ve been talking for over an hour about my dissertation topic, and as usual, his knowledge and insight are remarkable. The phone immediately next to us rings; my father stops talking and answers the phone. I hear him say, “Just a moment, please” and watch as he gets up and shuffles out of the kitchen. Through the door, I see him walk to the bottom of the stairs and hear him call out, “Dawn, telephone!”
Abstruse details of Chinese history he always remembered. If put to the test, he could recite volumes of poetry, both famous and obscure, and long prose passages from classics such as the Analects. But the fact that I was right there in the kitchen next to him somehow escaped his awareness. (It also occasionally took him several tries before he got my brother’s or my name correct, addressing us first by our dog Snoopy’s name.) Typical absent-minded literatus, one might say, but my father was anything but typical. Take his sense of time. As many who knew him knew all too well, he had a different relation to time from the rest of us. He had an Alfred E. Newman relation to time: “What… me worry?” Deadlines, picking up his wife or children at a scheduled hour, 9-to-5 workdays, were foreign notions to him. This was maddening to those around him, but perhaps his sense of the vast sweep of history rendered current time a relatively trivial matter?
Nor were my father’s stories typical. People may think that because I ended up in the Chinese art field myself, I must have been raised on sutras, colophons and stele inscriptions instead of bedtime stories. Not so. Like many bedtime stories, my father’s were about his youth. But they did have a unique feature. Who else had a father who related tales from his school days, sung to the tune of Dvorak’s Humoresque? An idiosyncratic way of telling a story, no doubt. But I now wonder whether the light-hearted rhythms and whimsical melody of that tune written in a major key helped my father put to the side the horrors that both he and my mother had experienced during the war, and focus instead on exciting but humorous (hence, Humoresque!) tales of derring-do and school-boy pranks. By singing stories in a major key, he made war-time memories acceptable not only to a child but also to himself.
In this way, my father combined two things he loved: stories and music. He never ran out of stories. I followed in his footsteps because of his stories. The endless things he knew he loved to share not so much through writing—to the regret of all of us—but through exuberant talk. Never didactic, his conversation commonly took a narrative form, no matter the subject, and the stories my father told were too good to forget. Of course, the same can be said of the many humorous and often outrageous anecdotes told about him: my father was nothing if not entertaining.
As for music, his taste in music was eclectic, to say the least. For several years when I was growing up, we had season tickets to the Cleveland Orchestra, which was then under the baton of the great George Szell. My father enjoyed hearing Rostropovich and Oistrakh play the Brahms Double in Severance Hall, certainly—but no more than he enjoyed listening to “The Romantic Strings of Andre Kostelanetz,” the title of an “easy listening” record in his collection, or singing along with Mitch Miller on Friday night TV. He developed a particular interest in American music of all kinds, including marching band music (here again, songs in a major key!). For this reason, perhaps, he was not at a total loss during my eighth-grade father-daughter square dance, where, dressed in a gray business suit, he do-si-doed and swung his partner along with the best of them.
His eclecticism extended to reading as well. Around the time he was singing bedtime stories to me, he began buying me of his own accord several comic books a week. Other children had to beg for comics. Not me. He started out with Little Lulu and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Soon, he replaced those with his favorite Superman and Superboy, with the occasional Green Lantern or Batman thrown in. In this way, he passed down to me his lifelong love for martial arts tales, in which good always conquers evil.
On the other hand, my father also wanted me to read books he had read in Chinese translation as a young man—he was particularly taken with French and Russian literature. So he’d come back with the latest adventures of Superman or a copy of Mad Magazine one day. But on the next, he might bring Gide’s Pastoral Symphony or Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. (I would be remiss in not adding here that my mother was at the same time introducing me to English writers such as George Eliot.)
My father was not a snob. He appreciated both popular and elite culture, whether eastern or western. For him, it took both to make up the whole. Yes, his greatest heroes were his deeply revered teachers, the historians Chen Yinke and Yang Lien-sheng, who taught him Chinese history, and Benjamin Rowland, who introduced him to the discipline of art history; and true, he was indifferent to, indeed, dismissive of, the passing fashions in academe. (He was not one to hold back his opinions, though he was perfectly capable of laughing at himself.) But his mind—and stomach–were open to most anything: he was as interested in low-lives as high-lives; in WWII battleships as in Chinese literati painting; in Entenmann doughnuts and matzoh ball soup as in shark’s fin. I sense that for my father, growing up in colonial Hong Kong was not a stifling but rather a broadening experience that instilled in him from an early age an awareness of multiple cultural possibilities.
Art and culture were not something that my father worked at for a living. They were inseparable from his daily life—indeed, from the lives of both my parents. One of my last memories of my father is from a spring evening in 2004 in Pittsburgh. It is around 11:30 pm, and I am trying to fall asleep on the living room couch, my bed for the night. It isn’t easy, since my parents are on the other side of the room, talking. My mother asks my father a question about some figure in Chinese history, I don’t remember who. He tells the story of the man. She then begins to recite a classic poem about this figure. Before long, my father joins in, and in unison, my parents recite the rest of the poem, lulling me to sleep.
Memorial service address delivered on April 3, 2005.
My family and I want to welcome all of you and to thank you for joining us now in celebrating my father’s life, his life’s profound eclecticism, and the legacy which he leaves behind with each one of us.
There is no question that my father was a consummate art historian. In meticulously sifting through primary texts, writings, seals, and inscriptions, he approached his work with what I view in retrospect was a child-like, creative wonder in his effort to unite form, color, character and brush stroke – with artist, literature, and history. Let’s briefly peer into one homey scene from this aspect of my father’s life.
Following a hearty, home-cooked Cantonese meal, which he often cooked for us, my father would each evening sit, at times with a cigarette, usually with a pile of unshucked peanuts, and always with a mug of tea and a jar of powder sugar-covered hard candies, carefully leafing through a paper-bound book in Chinese. Classical music, mainly – The Marriage of Figaro, a Chopin nocturne, the Dvořák’s New World Symphony – or lighter spirited fare like Romberg’s, The Student Prince, would be playing on the turntable in the background. This ritual would continue throughout the night – each and every night – often after he retired to his study surrounded by volumes and volumes of book-marked pages, stacks of notes, file cards, and photocopies. Not infrequently when I was a young boy and unable to sleep in the oh-so-early dawn hours, I would hear my father upstairs occasionally clearing his throat – and emerging from my room, find a warm light filling the stairway up to his study. At other times, I would creep downstairs to find him, collar loosened and shirt sleeves rolled up, deeply immersed in his work at the kitchen table. He would always express his surprise at my being awake at such a late hour, and offer me a portion of his quite elaborate hot midnight snack before sending me off back to bed. However, his life and his approach to those things which he loved most extended well beyond this realm of art history.
Probably coming as a surprise to most of you, one of my father’s literary heroes, to whom he introduced me early on, was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. As I reflect upon my father’s life and that of my own, I only now realize how fitting was my father’s admiration of Conan Doyle’s character. Indeed, my father was a literatus. However, I also recognize that within this lifestyle, perhaps one of the greatest joys my father found in his work was the opportunity to take a very Sherlockian approach to art history – that was to deduce the truth by identifying and synthesizing the most relevant details and the most minute clues with apparently unrelated details. I recognize this aspect of my father’s joy, since I realize that my own life has been profoundly influenced by it. This then is one of my father’s most valuable legacies to me who works in a distinct, unrelated discipline. As a physician seeing patients and also as a medical researcher investigating the molecular and genetic basis of diabetic kidney disease and hypertension, I share my father’s joy in being able to solve a diagnostic dilemma or to creatively fashion a novel paradigm explaining a disease process by uncovering and relating both relevant and seemingly immaterial clinical and scientific observations.
Being a physician, I also came to have a very different perspective about another of my father’s greatest joys – that was his infamous love for good food and conversation. My father, a diabetic, just loved to eat. Indeed, apart from his work, this was perhaps the one personal interest towards which he devoted the most time. Especially during his travels, it always seemed to me even as a child, that the day would find itself always revolving around meals, conversations over meals, and restaurants. This meal – and then the next meal. Photographs that were taken during my parent’s recent trip to Shanghai share a single common underlying theme almost without exception. They did not show my father standing in front of a renowned Chinese landscape painting nor besides a sublime work of calligraphy. Nor did they capture him with his friends and colleagues in front of an ancient Chinese temple or in the midst of a tranquil classical Chinese garden. They did, however in virtually every picture, depict my father with his acquaintances in front of one restaurant – and then, another!
In closing, we will all very dearly miss my father’s Sherlockian, as well as, his very culinary and eclectic ways. However, I truly believe that he leaves behind with us a legacy that has so greatly enriched each of our lives. He certainly did with me.
During my sophomore year of college, I took an introductory art history class. I felt a certain familial obligation to learn a little something about the field. It seemed particularly appropriate as the class I took was being taught in the very same department at Harvard where my grandfather, and for that matter, my mother, had gotten their professional degrees years earlier. Perhaps, I thought, I would discover that some gene had found its way down to me. I was wrong. Suffice it to say, thanks entirely to several crazed study sessions with my mom and grandfather over Christmas break, I managed to pass the class by, quite literally, the skin of my teeth, and so ended my dalliance with art history. My grandfather was extremely pleased to hear that I had decided to continue seeking a medical career instead.
In the end, the only real understanding I have of my grandfather’s professional legacy, other than what I have been told, is through the many references to him that were made in class and in the texts that we read.
Though I clearly did not inherit my grandfather’s talent for art history, I think it’s fair to say that we share quite a few common traits. For one thing, at an early age, it was apparent that I equaled him as a night owl. When he and my grandmother would come to visit, it was not at all uncommon that he and I would stay up late into the night, talking about this and that and watching movies together. His favorite movie star, without a doubt, was Clint Eastwood. He was extremely particular in what he looked for in a leading man. It was very simple—he had to represent the forces of Good, and he had to be invincible. If he even once showed weakness or worst of all, dared to allow the bad guy to beat him up, he instantly had to be cast aside as worthless. Thus, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone too were very high on my grandfather’s list, though I don’t think that any of them ever quite reached the level reserved for Dirty Harry.
He was also extremely frightened by vampires; werewolves as well, but mainly vampires. I was never really able to get a satisfactory explanation about this, though I’m not too proud to admit that I took advantage of his fear a few times on Halloween as a child, surprising him with plastic vampire fangs and painted on fake blood.
One movie watching experience with him stands out over all the others. We were in Virginia on a vacation, all staying together in a suite. As usual, my grandfather and I were up much later than everyone else, and we decided to watch a movie before bed. I had brought along a few VHS tapes, and we settled in to watch what is now my very favorite film, Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece and last truly silent film, City Lights. After it was over, we stayed up for several more hours, talking late into the night about the movie. My grandfather spoke with eloquence and great passion about the brilliance of Chaplin—how he was able to express sentiment with pantomime that would have been nearly impossible with the spoken word. This conversation with my grandfather was the first time I really understood the power that art, in this case through great film, rather than through a landscape or a piece of sculpture, could hold over a person. It was one of the most memorable nights of my young life.
And I think this story, in some ways, illustrates what was so magical about my grandfather. When he and I watched that movie together, I was no more than ten or eleven years old, but he talked to me as if I were an adult. He is without doubt the most brilliant and learned person I have ever met, and probably many others who knew him would say the same. At the same time, he never spoke down to anyone. There was no intellectual arrogance or condescension in him. When he spoke about something he was passionate about, whether it be a painting, a film, or his favorite dish at the local Chinese restaurant, his excitement was contagious. This is one of the things I miss most about him. He was a terrific grandfather.
Wai-kam Ho was unique in a number of ways. The principal ones are: his temperament – characterized by imperturbability – and his being the last standard bearer of a school of learning generated and carried on from the late 18th century in the city of Canton (Guangzhou) and conducted in Cantonese.
To get the full flavor and benefit of a conversation with Wai-kam, it is best (perhaps necessary) to talk in Cantonese. Otherwise, his train of thought might not lead to riveting accounts of his youthful exploits or to an obscure passage from his vast knowledge of Chinese literature that illuminates the topic of the conversation. At such moments, he would temporarily lose his Olympian calm, and became animated. What he did not tell was his brilliance as a young scholar. This came out at a dinner in Hong Kong hosted by a friend who was one of a group of Wai-kam’s classmates at school and college. Stories were told of the high-spirited pranks the group was up to, and also that Wai-kam was the one everybody turned to when they had difficulties with, or did not have time enough for, their assignments, and how Wai-kam once wrote several totally different essays on the same subject on behalf of each of his friends.
On the same visit to Hong Kong when he was feted by his old school friends, now all successful business men, he was taken to a dance-hall one evening. It was reported afterwards that Wai-kam spent the entire evening talking to a pretty hostess – expounding and answering questions on Buddhism. This episode relates to one of Wai-kam’s central intellectual interests.
Soon after the Second World War, Wai-kam was one of three candidates to gain admission to the graduate school in history at Peking (at that time Yenching) University. His professor was the legendary Chen Yinke. Among Chen’s many original contributions to the study of Chinese history was his calling attention to the influence of Buddhism on Chinese culture in the 3rd to 8th centuries. (Among the dozen languages Chen mastered were Sanscrit and Pali.) Later, when Wai-kam arrived at Harvard, his subject was Buddhism. But his interests ranged way, way beyond Buddhism, and he made full use of the rich collections in the Harvard-Yenching Library. It was said that when he left Harvard for Cleveland, the library had to send a truck to collect the books he checked out. And his reading was not confined to Chinese books and books on Chinese culture and history. From time to time he would come out with astonishing bits of esoteric information which no one would expect from a Chinese scholar. (One example: when someone mentioned Clare Hall at Cambridge, he casually remarked that Clare College was the second oldest college at Cambridge.)
Wai-kam’s partnership with Sherman Lee was a perfect combination of talents. They built one of the finest collections of Chinese paintings anywhere, and they collaborated on the trail blazing exhibition Chinese Art under the Mongols (1968), with Sherman selecting the objects and Wai-kam providing the historical context.
Wai-kam’s fertile mind and multiple interests were advantages and deterrents for his scholarly work. The hosts of ideas in his head all vying for expression produced a traffic jam that was his “writer’s block”. Most of his major publications were left unfinished, notably his article on Li Cheng and that on late Northern Dynasties Buddhist art –more the pity as his knowledge on Buddhism brought special insight to this study. On the other hand, his erudition and ability to see connections which may escape others were amply demonstrated in the large and sprawling exhibition on Dong Qichang (1992), the crowning event of his career – every virtue and fault in this project is pure Wai-kam. For the symposium held in connection with the exhibition, the entire Chinese art world came to Kansas City. After the symposium, the whole company of attendees, speakers and listeners, were transported to a cruise boat on the Missouri. In the mellow atmosphere of the evening, with the presence of all the venerable elders who came all the way from China, the thought that sprang to mind was that this was the last scene of the concluding act in the long opera of traditional Chinese art history, conducted by Wai-kam Ho.
Wai Kam Ho’s reputation as an outstanding scholar in the field of Chinese art, especially painting, is a well established fact which does not require further elaboration. Similarly is the knowledge that, together with Sherman Lee, he built for the Cleveland Museum of Art a famous collection of Chinese painting, known worldwide. Consequently, it will be repetitive of me to praise Wai Kam for these achievements, particularly since Chinese art is not my primary field of expertise. But, having worked with Wai Kam for about twelve years, sharing an office and knowing him intimately as a friend, justifies my contribution to this well deserved tribute.
Wai Kam’s unorthodox way of doing things and his eccentricity became a legend within the Oriental Department of the Cleveland Museum of Art and a source of delight to us all. Wai Kam was much liked by his coworkers which was natural considering his sensitivity, kindness and warmth towards others. This was precisely an aspect of his personality that I would like to stress.
Wai Kam was an intellectual with many interests, not limited to his field. He had a keen interest in world affairs and people, and always a positive outlook on life. “Joy de vivre” was his philosophy which reflected in the things he liked: art, literature, nature, people , good movies and last but not least, bonne cuisine! My wife, Ingrid, and I became very good friends with Wai Kam, Wai Cheng and the entire family. Numerous Chinese dinners together (he was an excellent cook!), excursions into nature and movies became some of the most pleasant memories of our life in Cleveland. Especially remembered by us were discussions with Wai Kam, sustained by lots of coffee and fried mushrooms, at an all night diner, which frequently lasted into the middle of the night. Life was never the same once Wai Kam and Wai Cheng left Cleveland for Kansas City, although we maintained contact throughout their lives.
With Wai Kam Ho’s death the world lost a great scholar but when one visits the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Chinese galleries his legacy lives on.
For Wai-kam Ho, the continuum of space and time was an illusion. Indeed, his kinship with Albert Einstein was probably not far off the mark. Brilliance and erudition were givens. But for Wai-kam, the General Theory of Relativity defined priorities—meals, conversation, literature, art, music, movies, deadlines— with deadlines invariably trailing far behind the others. One could not help but observe that Wai-kam’s space-time curvature complemented that of most colleagues at the Cleveland Museum of Art—their paths having crossed at the door when he came to work at 5:00pm.—as well as Sherman Lee’s straight, undeviating approach to mental as well as physical effort. Their collaboration was predestined.
My first meeting with Wai-kam Ho was disconcerting. I had just begun work at the Cleveland Museum of Art as a young and naïve curatorial assistant. He asked if I took dictation. Taken aback, I quickly located a copy of the Gregg Shorthand Diamond Jubilee Edition and spent several very late evenings unsuccessfully attempting to master a few of its 129 brief forms. That this textbook could be freely tossed became immediately apparent upon the first of Wai-kam’s many assignments, which invariably began in the museum cafeteria shortly before it closed and we were evicted. The letter might be continued, two or three days later, or simply left for me to complete. For routine matters, I learned to responsibly simulate the content and forge Wai-kam’s signature. With considerable practice, I could approximate the natural flow of his rotund “W” by wearing a thickly lined leather glove that I kept in my desk drawer for the purpose.
Having read Wai-kam’s few articles on Buddhist art, I was delighted to learn shortly after my arrival that he was to lecture on the subject at a symposium on the Yuan dynasty at Oberlin College. I don’t remember the date—only that the day was snowy. The organizers were so pleased by Wai-kam’s agreement to participate that they appointed him the keynote speaker after dinner. He arrived uncharacteristically early, but excused himself from the morning sessions to organize his slides. That he had not appeared by dinner was cause for genuine alarm. Wai-kam was eventually found seated calmly if chilled in the inner courtyard of the museum, where he had momentarily escaped for a cigarette break and unintentionally locked himself out. After warming up over dinner, he offered the projectionist a handful of slides and began a lecture on the iconographic intricacies of a Yuan Buddhist mural with analyses that were beyond anyone’s Realm of Comprehension and images that were largely upside-down.
The term “Wai-kam-at-all” was coined by an installation technician and stuck with many of us for many reasons. Sherman Lee had foreseen this years earlier by converting Wai-kam’s ID photo into a Wanted Poster that he hung discreetly in a small corridor off the director’s office. The museum librarian managed to secure a copy and hung it in his office as well and for good reason: Wai-kam had borrowed as ‘long-term loans’ several thousand books on multifarious subjects. The same museum truck used to transport large works of art was eventually required to retrieve those books from his home. Some were returned to Harvard University.
That mug shot reared its head again when Sherman came into the office, shuffled around Wai-kam’s desk, and somehow excavated his ID photo in a very deep stratigraphic layer of papers. I asked Sherman why he wanted the photo; he told me that this was none of my business. Shortly thereafter a letter arrived from a fictitious dealer offering a screen titled “The Three Laughers of Tiger Valley,” “unique in the history of Chinese or Japanese painting.” Wai-kam was initially clueless as to the culprit, but took the proposal—like the Wanted Poster—in good humor.
During other afternoons in the cafeteria, Wai-kam chose to dictate a simple but elegantly worded gallery label. He never assumed knowledge on the part of the visitor, nor did he talk down to him. And still others when he unexpectedly walked into storage when I had a painting unrolled for a student and stayed to share his thoughts. Sherman turned to and consistently acknowledged Wai-kam for incalculable historical and literary insights. He recognized that the same absent-minded scholar who absconded with books on Western art and could often be found in the galleries of Dutch landscape painting instead of at an appointed meeting also proposed the theme of the museum’s extraordinarily successful bicentennial exhibition, The European Vision of America. Co-organized in 1976 with the National Gallery of Art and the Reunion des Musees Nationaux, this show traced European perspectives on the Americas from the time of Columbus’s landing to the 19th century. Perhaps Wai-kam’s own outlook on America had inspired the theme; when I asked, told me only that he had found the brainstorming meetings to be tiresome.
Working under Wai-kam could be at once exasperating, engaging, and educational. It was also an unorthodox kind of privilege. Perceiving his Tiger Valley as a pile of books and papers that continually runneth over his desk, one could excuse Wai-kam for transgressing mundane boundaries of the museum profession in pursuit of enlightenment. Sherman clearly did. For one knew that behind Wai-kam’s eccentricities was keen and overflowing mind, tempered with a rare combination of modesty and self-assurance that allowed one to laugh, even at oneself.
In preparation for the exhibition Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting, a joint exhibition the Cleveland Museum of Art held with the Nelson Gallery in Kansas City, we spent the summer of 1979 working in Cleveland, staying at the Alcazar Hotel and home for elderly Christian Scientists and being ferried each morning by Sherman Lee to the museum and back again each afternoon at five PM. It had been Sherman’s hope that our presence at the museum each and every day would entice Wai-kam to come to work, if for nothing else than the pleasure of our company. And the scheme worked, to a degree, since Wai-kam did in fact come every day but only about 3 PM, and on arrival he would immediately suggest that we repair to a coffee-shop where we could be properly accoutered for a long, long conversation. We had met Wai-kam before, but it was during that summer that we became fast friends, ever in awe of his knowledge about everything from airplanes to German Romantic literature, to say nothing of his immense knowledge about Chinese and Japanese art.
Several years later Wai-kam was in Japan, and Sherman had requested that the three of us look at and evaluate a painting of “Eight Horses” by Chao Meng-fu. We thus made an appointment with the owner, Mr. Takahashi of Heisando in Tokyo. Takahashi-san is a very courtly and formal individual, and such appointments were governed by an unvarying ritual: first came Japanese green tea with sweets, then the viewing, and finally Western-style tea with sugar or lemon. On arrival Wai-kam informed all of us that we had to move along rapidly because we had another appointment of great importance. Takashi-san thus served the green tea, whisked it away after a moment, hung the painting—which Wai-kam immediately pronounced as genuine—and then brought on the Western-style tea Wai-kam could hardly restrain his impatience, looking repeatedly at his watch, but finally we were able to make our apologies to Takahashi-san and prepared to leave. Even the gentleman, however, he insisted on driving us to our next appointment, assuming that it was with another dealer. We gave him general directions to Ginza, hoping eventually to be able to gracefully leave Takahashi-san’s company, but finally Wai-kam pointed across the street, to a movie theater showing a double feature of kungfu movies he had not yet seen.
MARY ANN ROGERS
Once upon a time, when Kaikodo was still a fledgling business, Wai-kam paid us a visit in Japan. After that Chinese movie that rudely interrupted our art-viewing session with Mr. Takahashi at Heisando that Howard mentioned, we took the hour train ride from Tokyo to Kita-Kamakura, trekked from the station along a narrow winding path through a tunnel of rock and then up 130 steps to our rustic cottage isolated in the middle of a field. We went inside, removed our shoes in the genkan, and Wai-kam glanced up to take in the limited scene. He applauded us for having done such a nice job in recreating the feeling of the 19th century, his way of saying how terribly antiquated the set up. Then, with a rather pleased look on his face, he concluded that the minuscule dining table in a cubby by a window, bird cages hanging above filled with rescue birds, would be a perfect place to sit and drink coffee and talk for a hundred hours. He said it would be just like sitting in a coffee shop. He was still at that table when Howard and I got up in the morning, his bed unslept in, and as he rose from a deep slumber, he was ready to pick up the conversation where we had left off—Where was it? That Chinese movie we just saw or a recital of the titles of his favorite cowboy films, or something about European paintings that he had been thinking over, or about the five-spice-beef and noodle soup that was one of his specialties when he took to