What does Hong Kong artist Josie Ho do? The better question might be: what doesn’t she do? The multi-hyphenate creative wears many hats, from singer, actress and producer to fashion designer, among other things. She pursues art unconstrained by form or genre, limited only by the extent of her imagination.
From the beginning of her career, Ho has pursued boundary-pushing artistic projects. To name a few chosen paths, she is a rock star, a Hollywood actress, a producer of often gritty and dark films, and the creator of her own handbags. A dynamic figure in Hong Kong’s entertainment industry, she has been active in building the city’s cultural connections with the western world through artistic collaboration, even setting up her own production company, 852 Productions, around this mission.
Her latest achievements include the 80s tribute show Flash Back Now! and Finding Bliss, a documentary chronicling her trip to Iceland with fellow Hong Kong artists to rediscover the joy and humanity within themselves. Ho speaks to 5’ELEVEN” about her decades-long career and shares what she’s learned about art, style and what it means to be human through her life’s work at the meeting point of east and west.
Josie Ho was photographed by KBB Photography. Styled by Adrian Yeung.
Hair by Vic Kwan. Makeup by Zing.
One of your first artistic endeavours was music. How would you describe your musical persona?
I had an attitude of “I play the court jester” in my earlier music – hardcore, and critical of things that were going on around me. I’m working on a new EP with my band Josie & The Uni Boys, and I think there’s going to be a slight shift towards more optimistic music. My band and I are growing older together, and our tastes are changing. For example, our guitarist Don is experimenting with electronic music and writing in a softer tone. Pivoting that way will be a challenge for me as I’ve always been a rock & roll singer, but it’s something I’m excited to try.
You just held an 80s disco concert in Hong Kong called Flash Back Now! How did it come together?
Hong Kong has been closed to the world for the past few years, and people have felt bored and stuck. I wanted to put on a party for everyone to come and have fun! We focused on 80s music because that was a golden era for Hong Kong: glamorous parties, excitement in the air, and everyone playing dress-up (even just standing in line for the clubs)! I was a little girl in the 80s, but I tagged along with my older sisters and the popular singers of the time to the discotheques. I loved how freely people connected with each other and formed friendships in that environment.
I didn’t want to just perform for the audience to watch – I wanted us to all party together. So instead of doing a concert of only my own songs, we did lots of hits from the 80s. We designed the interior to look like a discotheque and got people really hyped up. I peeked out during a DJ set and saw office ladies on their feet dancing!
You recently filmed the Finding Bliss documentary in Iceland, where you took part in workshops in search of vulnerability, trust and laughter. Tell me about this interesting concept.
A few of the musicians on the trip are my bandmates. We’ve known each other for so long and hang out all the time, but they are reserved people and don’t tend to talk much in group settings. They’re also quite subtle when we perform together – they prefer to stand still and play. The Iceland workshops were inspired by theatre master Phillip Gaulier’s classes, which explore how we make each other laugh again. They were like an expressway for getting to know each other, a way to break down our walls and reveal more sides of ourselves that others hadn’t seen before. I wanted to see if they’d open up enough to start storming up to the audience at the next gig!
Made-to-order leather jacket and choker by Celine. Earring by Alexander McQueen
You have a really international career. What differences have you observed in creative environments around the world?
The creative environment in each country reflects its specific culture. In the US, production is super organised and often bound by completion guarantees to finish on time. Thus everything runs exactly as planned, leaving less room for flexibility. We can’t miss shooting a scene, so everyone is super sharp and ready to execute. In Hong Kong, crews move fast. So fast that the director will talk about what he wants for the next take, turn around, and find all the cameras, lights and actors already in place!
When I work with directors from different countries, I deeply feel the style of that place through the director’s choices, including visual preferences like colour. For example, Hong Kong filmmakers like shooting in deep reds, blues and greens. I shot a film called ‘Open Grave’ in Hungary, where films tend to feature more natural light and natural textures.
Do you sense any differences between Asia and the West in terms of style?
I adore London. I have so much fun packing my bag for trips there. I’ll spend time mixing and matching outfits I’m going to wear, and always leave lots of space in my luggage to pick up new things. I love people-watching and seeing what people are wearing, from Selfridges to Brick Lane.
Hong Kong fashion was adventurous in the 80s. But thereafter, someone must have started a trend of just wearing all-black everything. I like the look – it’s cool and subtle – but we could be having more fun! I love the fearlessness of London and New York street style, in comparison to which Hong Kong is quite conservative. I hope people are encouraged to have more fun in everyday life, even if that’s just tweaking the colours and patterns in their wardrobe!
You created a handbag line, Mata Hari Bags. Tell me about your design philosophy.
The line originated as a project to design a bespoke bag for each of my friends. I had this idea for a bag lined with a drapey fringe. It evolved into a design for a canvas bag with suede tassels, with a stencil of a machine gun embroidered on the side. I had the support and expertise of my husband Conroy Chan, who runs his own clothing line and is great at working with the factories on the technical details of manufacture and distribution.
How would you describe your personal style?
I’m happy to wear something extravagant for big events, like a full couture outfit or something with a balloon shape. My style is relaxed and minimal effort in my personal life, but I always leave room for a cool metallic headpiece or cap that covers half of my face when I go out.
I’ve gotten to know my own style over the years, and I know that elegant dresses with long trains aren’t for me. I’m not the tallest person, so for formal events, I feel the best dressing in a smart, slick style. I love a cool pair of trousers with good cutting, something like velvet bell bottoms, with a flowy shirt and a velvet blazer. That’s cool to me.