Exhibition to remember teacher and artist who fled Hong Kong during the war

Smiling old man outside on a garden chair wearing a light blue polo shirt and glasses

Mark in the summer of 2020. - Credit: Maurice Cheng

An exhibition showcasing the works of the late Mark Cheng, a history teacher, writer and artist who lived in Crouch End until he died last year, is coming to Crouch End Broadway tomorrow (April 9).

Mark Cheng was born in Hong Kong in 1930. Mark fled to mainland China when Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese during the World War II. He and his family then lived in India for a while before returning to Hong Kong in 1947.

He was born a Buddhist, but converted to Christianity and has been a "staunch" Roman Catholic for all his life, explains his son Maurice Cheng, who has lived in Crouch End for about 30 years. One of Mark's first commissioned artworks was for a church in Bedford.

Maurice strongly remembers his father's stories about the war. When he was a teenager, his family gave gave him to monks to take to safety when the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, an experience that later informed his writing.

"I used to get war stories on stereo," Maurice says. "Dad's stories were about fleeing from the Japanese with Jesuits across various countries in Southeast Asia. Mum's version was surviving under Japanese occupation. Seeing friends lined up against the wall and shot. The war made a huge impression on both of them."

Mark trained to be a history teacher and it was during this time that he met his future wife, Irene. They married in 1957 and were to be married for over 60 years. They had two children, Maurice, who was born in 1958, and Olwen, who was born in 1964.

Black and white polaroid of bride and groom cutting three tiered wedding cake while crowd watches

Mark and Irene married in Hong Kong in 1957. - Credit: Maurice Cheng

During the 1960s, Maurice recalls his father being worried by the rise in Communist Chinese activity in Hong Kong. "My parents were concerned that China might walk across the border and invade at any point. So we moved," Maurice recalls.

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The family relocated to Bedford, England. During his teacher training, Mark had previously taught in Bedford so they returned to the area and settled in well. Mark taught history at St Gregory’s School for 25 years. Irene was a music teacher at a primary school. "They both had huge fun being teachers," Maurice says.

A keen musician as well as an artist, Mark was both a choirmaster and director of a Gregorian Choir Group. He also proved to be a talented writer and his semi-autobiographical novel, Father Paul’s War, was published in 2013.

Maurice describes the novel: "The storyline is about a monk and that sort of environment around the Second World War, but also the encroaching of the communist regime on society and life and particular religious orders and the invasion of Japan. It sold quite well."

Mark will be remembered for his art. He painted "all throughout his life", and had time to do more when he retired in his 60s. When Maurice and his wife, Margaret, cleared out Mark's inventory, there were around 400 pieces.

Abstract painting of white and red villas and trees

One of Mark's artworks. - Credit: Maurice Cheng

Mark was a founding member of Eagle Gallery Artists in Bedford and exhibited regularly at the gallery in Castle Road. He was particularly skilled in oils and watercolour. 

His art changed a lot over time as he experimented with different styles and became influenced by his travels. "There's stuff that looks vaguely Cubist and stuff that looks like Modigliani. Over the last 10 years he mainly focused on what he saw on his journeys around Europe and South America," Maurice says.

When Irene became ill, she and Mark moved from Bedford to Crouch End in December 2019, just before the start of the pandemic, so they could be closer to their children. They lived just above Sainsburys on Hornsey High Street. Irene sadly died 18 months ago, and Mark died suddenly in April 2021; they both passed away from "illnesses associated with old age". Mark was "happily painting and writing till the very end".

The exhibition will be held at CPotential Boutique Charity Shop, 25 Broadway, Crouch End, London N8 9DE on Saturday April 9 between 1pm and 6pm.

All proceeds of any artwork purchases will help children and young people with movement disorders in reaching their full potential.