Face Yourself: Zing

For most people, make-up is about attaining facial perfection by sealing the pores and covering flaws. But to Hong Kong’s top make-up artist Zing, it is about daring to reveal the beauty underneath in his raw and funky approach, just like the grungy charm of Hong Kong.

Standing in the middle of the stage at the opening ceremony of his book launch exhibition, Zing seemed as shy as a little kid beside MC Jan Lamb. He shuffled the words of his speech, struggling to put them all together to express his feelings about the event and his gratitude to the star-studded patronage and to his friends (it actually brought to mind the murmuring style of alternative Asian diva Faye Wong, the artiste who launched Zing’s career to the apex). Verbal expression may not be Zing’s strength, but the pictures mounted on the walls around him spoke a thousand words for their creator.

Raised in Singapore, bred in a very proper and culturally abundant family, Zing spent a childhood just like that of the Von Trapps in The Sound of Music. His strict parents banned all sources of cultural pollution like television and pop music in his entire childhood; classical music swirled in the sitting room and the bi-weekly symphony visits were the only entertainment until adolescence. Meanwhile, he frequently participated in the backstage work of different performing arts, and had immense interest in English literature like Shakespeare. These cultural influences obviously planted in him an artistic chip at an early age. By the end of his adolescence, his interest was diverted to make-up by his fashion-savvy classmates.

When chatting with Zing in person, you would find out that he’s quite outspoken, so straightforward that you may find his opinion outrageous, as outrageous as his makeup. Who wasn’t shocked by the explosion of red pigments on Faye Wong’s face at her 1998 concert? Who didn’t gag at the first sight of Sammi Cheng’s Nike eyebrow? And who would’ve thought of dissecting Devon Aoki’s face into four sections in different colours? All these unforgettable make-up schemes may have been impressive to Asian audiences worldwide, but also posed a big question mark for the masses. Well, his new book, “Zing by Zing”, should be very helpful in deciphering his work and prying into his mind and inspiration sources.

A collection of images and texts from his weekly makeup column along with some other images specifically done for this project, the book presents a stunning reading experience in the genre of make-up books. To have a general overview of makeup books, we could identify the ones like Kevin Aucoin’s “Face Forward” as Category One – Textbook; Stephane Marais’s “Beauty Flash” as Category Two – Portfolio and Biography; and Zing’s “Zing by Zing” as the exceptional Category Three – Novel. Instead of teaching you how to do a complete make-over, or showcasing a retrospective of his past work, Zing intentionally did this book on a project basis, guiding the reader to explore his different fantasies, the history of make-up and art, and his personal experience with his artiste friends.

Many of the faces in the book were rendered unrecognizable, which intrigued me to ask him, “Why was it necessary to use celebrities instead of models as the canvas for your make-up if your intention was to transform them?” He answered without hesitation, “Have you ever seen Carina Lau sprayed with neon colour paint all over her face?”

I instantly got the point. It’s just the same as shaving Natalie Portman’s head. If the skinhead girl wasn’t totally different from the princess-like Natalie, it wouldn’t enlarge your eyes’ pupils; if the neon camouflage look were not applied on the decent beauty Carina, you wouldn’t fall off your chair. It’s all about showing the rare, alternative side of the famous faces that you have never seen. At the same time, it shows the enormous trust of the artistes to Zing, allowing him to express his wildest dreams on their faces.

There is a line in his book that says, “the relationship between artist and artiste is very magical – I make you beautiful, you make me famous.” Does that imply his relationship with the artistes is a win-win situation? He replies, “I really feel grateful to the artistes, because they launched my career. If the so-called stunning makeup was not done on their faces, it might have not been that stunning.” True, but it’s also undeniable that his makeup has helped the artistes’ face find their place in pop history. In terms of the make-up industry, make-up artists in Hong Kong are usually famous for the stars that they cater to, while make-up artists in other parts of the world are usually famous for their own style and visual contribution. Would Zing regard himself as the former type or the latter one? “I believe nowadays most people buy my book because of my work and not the artistes featured,” he states confidently.

On the subject of Zing’s style, while he is best known for his funky lavish makeup, under closer scrutiny one would see that his makeup is actually very minimal and natural. In some extreme cases, he even does no-makeup. In 1996, to make Faye Wong’s image more outstanding, he decided not to apply any foundation on her face on every public occasion, from photo shoots to TV appearances. And once, when he arrived late at a music video shooting of Stephanie Che, he told them to start shooting without makeup because she looked better without it anyway.

Zing explains: “What the artistes book is a make-up artist, but not cosmetics. The role of the make-up artist is to make the judgment of how to make the artiste more beautiful. Sometimes we are paid to confirm that they don’t need makeup at all!” I was totally inspired and mesmerized by what he said; it is akin to just drawing the eye or the lips on a raw, foundationless face for an effect that is so avant garde, comparable to the deconstuctive approach of fashion designers like Martin Margiela and Rei Kawakubo, who like to expose the sewing and underlining of their clothes.

He adds, “In fact it’s all about contrast. Sometimes make-up does not work if it’s too full; it has to maintain a balance to get to a optimal point. Why do we have to be afraid of exposing our skins and our flaws? It all makes us more beautiful and more real.” Indeed, it is surprising to hear a make-up artist say such a thing. Instead of correcting a face’s flaws, Zing prefers to enhance them as part of the person’s attraction, like Devon Aoki’s freckles or Shu Qi’s lips. By confidently confronting their “shortcomings”, it becomes part of their innate charm.

This principle makes me think of the beauty of the city of Hong Kong, its chaotic character, the mix of scrubby old buildings with modern architecture, people who buy food from hawkers after going to a high table dinner, all mixed up in chaos, but suspended in harmony.

“Do you like Hong Kong” I asked.

“Yes!” he immediately answered. He likes the energy and the vibe of this 24-hour city, as well as all the nonsense bits. “All cosmopolitan cities have their own nonsense, like the dirty subway in New York, the ridiculously slow service in Paris – a big city must have its own nonsense to make it a big city.” Zing likes to work in Hong Kong because he loves to do makeup on the Asian face, and Hong Kong is the meeting point and the stage of the biggest and best Asian faces.

I suppose the greatest lesson that Zing can teach us is that when you are brave and confident in confronting our shortcomings, your inner glow shall shine through. For you, for us, and for the City.

Text: Declan Chan
Images courtesy: Zing

Published in Issue 15 HONG KONG, 2005