Don Hong-Oai (1929 – 2004)

Born the youngest of twenty-four children in Canton, China, Don Hong Oai settled in the Chinese community of Saigon after the sudden death of both parents.  He began studying photography at an early age and apprenticed at a Chinese photo and portrait shop where he was encouraged to learn each phase of making photographs from the masters at the studio. On his own time, he photographed landscapes and began experimenting with combining negatives. He did not want his photographs to have the flat appearance of Chinese painting, so he added perspective.  At age 17, Hong-Oai left the masters to begin teaching general studies and literacy and then graduated from Vietnam National Art University in Saigon. He was desperately poor and friends helped him buy film and supplies. Working odd jobs, he saved $48 to buy his first camera.  In 1974, he joined a former teacher already well established in France. When the teacher died, he traveled to Malaysia to photograph for the Red Cross. In 1978, he was able to get to the United States, where he knew no one, and settled into the Chinese community in San Francisco.  Hong-Oai saved enough money from print sales to return to China every few years, where he continued to make photographs. Much of his work was composed through the combination of several negatives. The process and the varying uses for an individual negative makes each print unique. “Anyone can make a nice photograph in China,” he said, “but I want to do things differently. There would be no value if they were all alike. What gives my pictures value is that no one else can do them.”  Don Hong-Oai exhibited throughout the world and won numerous international prizes in competitions in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, France and Mexico. He was honored by Kodak and Ilford.