Po Shun was one of the dominant American woodcraft artists making boxes during the 1990s, selling well in the galleries and to collectors. The unique look and playfulness of the artwork has helped keep that style relevant and inspirational. He maintains a studio in the garden of his residence in the City of Winnetka in the San Fernando Valley, north west of Los Angeles. Currently he is continuing to make elaborate wood objects and is developing a line of very simple, sculpturally-inspired furniture.
Po Shun is the son of Ah Yow Leong and his second wife, Wright Jing (née Woo). Po Shun is the eighth child, initially raised in a family of nine siblings (elder stepbrothers and stepsisters: Po Yan, Po Yee, Po Lye, Ruby, Dolly and Eileen, brother Po Chih and sister Juliet.) Po Chih is a film director. Later in life, Po Shun discovered that he had another brother and sister, making him the tenth rather than the eighth child.
His father Ah Yow Leong was born in Toisan, southern China around 1891. About 80% of the Chinese who came to the USA during the nineteenth century came from Toisan. Ah Yow Leong travelled to England sometime around the First World War and jumped ship at Liverpool. He began washing clothes and through hard work and charisma became a successful businessman. He started the Leong Trading Company and purchased a ship in Hong Kong to import goods to England. During the Second World War, the Japanese occupied Hong Kong and the ship was taken. With his company inoperable, he opened the Universal Chinese Restaurant at 11 Denmark Street, Soho, London. He died in 1948 after falling down the stairs.
Po Shun's mother, born Lai Jing Woo, came from the village of Shun Tuck Yoon, Guang Dong, China as second wife to Po Shun's father. She was born on December 4, 1913 of the Chinese lunar year calendar. Po Shun's father had six children by his first marriage. His wife did not like living in England so she returned to China, leaving the children behind. One day, Po Shun's father showed his eldest daughter Ruby three photographs of different women from China, telling her that one of these women were coming to England to look after her and that he was allowing her to choose which woman it would be. She chose the one she liked the looks of best from the three photographs and the woman did indeed come to England. Po Shun's father married her and she gave birth to Po Shun. What Po Shun's father did not tell Ruby was that the three women in the photographs were the same person in different make-up, hair styles and clothes. Po Shun's mother currently lives in the Los Angeles area, sharing time with Po Shun’s family and his brother Po Chih.
When the sirens screamed in London during the Second World War, Po Shun and his family headed underground for the deep shelters to avoid German bombs. To escape the dangers in 1944, his parents sent him as a three-year-old child to live with a carpenter in the countryside on the outskirts of Northampton until the end of the war. Mr. Page and his wife also managed a location to collect laundry in their storefront home that was sent to Ah Yow Leong’s large Sunlight Laundry in the city.
The carpenter had a hobby of making model ocean liners. One of them, a majestically long vessel filled his small parlor. When he carved the complex wood pieces, Po Shun crouched beside the liner and rolled marbles along the enclosed decks and into the maze of its inner chambers. Mr. and Mrs. Page were a childless couple and became very attached to the young Po Shun. When his parents came to collect Po Shun at the end of the war, Mrs. Page was devastated and had a nervous breakdown.
His mother did not have the patience to bring up her own three children. He and his brother Po Chih went to a kindergarten boarding school in Harrow, north of London. His younger sister Juliet went to Hong Kong to live with the Chan family. Work was very hard in his father’s Chinese laundry and she was not well received by his father’s older children from a previous marriage.
Po Shun was introduced to carpentry at the age of five when in 1946 he was sent to Holmewood House, a boarding school near Tunbridge Wells. Although he loved to create models of buildings, he had an ability to draw and at the age of eleven had a painting exhibited at the Royal Drawing Society in London and was awarded an honorable mention.
His next school was Leighton Park, a Quaker school near Reading. Leighton Park had a tradition of instilling a social consciousness in its pupils. The boys were encouraged to participate in community work. He and a friend, Tom Lowenstein made large amounts of fudge to sell to the parents and students. The proceeds went to the Sarvodaya Scheme in order to finance the construction of a well in a village in India. Previously the villagers had to go to the river where several were attacked by tigers.
During the anti-nuclear war demonstrations, nearly the entire school took part in the Aldermaston March of 1958 that culminated in Trafalgar Square. The marches were organized by CND, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
He did not excel academically, had a short attention span and only later whilst in college made the startling discovery that short-sightedness was why he was unable to see the writing on the blackboard. He played hockey on the school team for a brief time until lymphedema in his right leg caused periodic disablement that has continued until this day.
At Leighton Park he loved to paint and was inspired by Piet Mondrian. He had his first one-man show when he was 17 years old in 1958 at the Hammersmith Art Gallery, London. It received a positive review in Artnews but no paintings were sold.
In 1958 he entered the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London and received a travel scholarship to France & Italy where he studied with Le Corbusier.
At the AA (Architectural Association) he was designed buildings and created models. He received several awards and travel scholarships. One was to travel in Europe to study with one of the pioneers of modern architecture, Le Corbusier with whom stayed in the monastery of La Tourette that Le Corbusier designed near the city of Lyon, France.
Po Shun received a second travel scholarship to work/study in California with Architects Kistner, Wright and Wright. California of the 1960s left a deep impression on Po Shun.
During college vacations, he worked with Sir William Holford and Partners in the City of London, planning buildings at the new University of Exeter.
Po Shun graduated cum Laude in 1964. Foregoing graduation ceremonies, he traveled with friends to Calabria in Southern Italy to volunteers with Servicio Civile Internationale, a work project to construct an aqueduct in a poor village high up in the remote mountains.
After Italy he returned to England to design public housing for Cooperative Planning Ltd and the Brent Housing Authority.
Tired of pushing pencils over the drawing board, he joined the American Friends Service Committee and was sent to a remote part of Mexico, initially to help build a well in an Indian village called Cuauhtenco where the inhabitants spoke mostly Nahuatl, similar to the Aztec language. The main occupation in the village was weaving and this was his introduction to the art of hand-crafting.
The next year he needed a paying job and joined CAPFCE, the Mexican school construction committee. He designed 27 secondary schools in the state of Michoacán. Most of the schools were in areas where roads did not exist. He traveled on horseback along the Pacific coast, guarded by armed soldiers because of anti-government resistance movement. The prefabricated metal school structures were sometimes transported by mule or rafted over rivers. On his numerous visits to local villages, he was attracted to the great variety of ceramic, wood, metal and textile crafts.
When the 1968 Olympics were celebrated in Mexico City, he worked in the Olympic Cultural Committee helping to organize the International Festival of Children’s Mural Painting. Children from the participating countries came to the capital to paint large murals titled "The World of Friendship". The murals lined the main avenue, El Paseo de la Reforma. He met Ruth Rivera, director of the Fine Arts Palace and the daughter of Diego Rivera. He lived for ten years in a house that she designed and had previously lived in.
After the Olympics he joined Aluminio Deschamps SA to design aluminum and fiberglass building facades. In his spare time he painted landscapes in acrylics and had an exhibition at the Anglo Mexican Institute. He decided to apply for Mexican citizenship.
In 1969 he married Poh Suan Leong, whom he met in college. She graduated in architecture and is from Penang, Malaysia. They have been married for 36 years. Their two sons were born in Mexico City.
For several years, he practiced architecture, designing a series of large furniture stores, residences and commercial exhibitions. He developed furniture designs and was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Knoll International Furniture Competition, 2 Gold Medal Awards for fiberglass furniture in the IMCE, Mexican Export Competition and two first prizes in the low cost furniture competition, awarded by President Portillo. He designed a low-cost egg incubator and received a Special Mention at the annual conference of the International Society of Industrial Designers.
He became one of the Founding members of Mexican Association of Craft Designers and helped organize an exhibition of their products at the Museo de Arte Moderno. Past President Miguel Alemán asked him to design and make furniture for his Acapulco residence.
In an old traditional colonial area of the city called Coyocan, Po Shun's family built their dream home. They lived there for only eighteen months.
In 1981, the Leong family immigrated to Southern California. Po Shun hoped to make a living designing furniture. He set up a studio in the garage to produce prototypes and self-taught himself woodworking. The following year he received the Daphne Award for best dining chair in an American National Furniture Competition held in New York City, and the following year another two Daphne Awards.
With income from royalties not sufficient to support his family, and with time to spare, he began to make small wooden boxes to sell directly at local Los Angeles street craft shows. His first boxes - priced at two dollars each - sold well, so he continued to practice his skills and with increasing confidence the boxes developed into the complex architectural style that he is best known for today.
He exhibited throughout America and received numerous awards:
Best of Wood Award - American Crafts Exposition in Evanston
Craftsman Award - American Craft Exposition in Evanston
Craftsman Award - Philadelphia Craft Show
Best of Show - California Woodworking. Juror: Sam Maloof
Best of Show - American Craft Exposition in Evanston
Best of Art Furniture - the California Woodworking Show, Del Mar
Best of Show - awarded by vice President Walter Mondale at the American Craft Council Show in St. Paul, Minnesota
Artist in Residence for American Forests Famous and Historic Trees
Po Shun has made at least a thousand boxes and one-of-a-kind furniture objects.
He works very fast in a spontaneous way. He has been quoted as saying his method is like Chinese cooking. All the carved pieces are prepared by carving or cutting the details and arranged in open trays. Assembly is rapid, just like wok cooking.
He does not consider his artwork to be perfect.
Po Shun's methods continue to evolve, from the complex to the simple. Lately he has been experimenting with bent plywood forms to produce affordable furniture. Commissions for his elaborate sculptures and art boxes are also continual.
Po Shun is a member of the Furniture Society, a non-profit organization whose mission is to advance the art of furniture-making by inspiring creativity, promoting excellence, and fostering understanding of this art and its place in society.
He and his wife Poh Suan celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary in October 2005. Their elder son, Sze Tsung, graduated from Harvard as an architect and their second son, Sze Lei graduated in urban planning at Columbia University. They are both married and each live and work on opposite coasts.
Po Shun’s artwork has been shown in the following institutions, galleries and museums:
Mint Museum of Art + Design, Charlotte
Albany Institute of History and Art
Minnesota Museum of Art
Birmingham Museum of Art
De Cordova and Dana Museum of Art
Portland Art Museum
Lowe Art Museum
Columbus Museum of Art
Delaware Art Museum
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Atlanta International Museum
Art in Embassies Program, D.C.
Orange County Museum of Art
California Crafts Museum
National Museum of America Art, Washington, D.C.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Tullie House Museum, Scotland
"Cabinets of Curiosities" Wood Turning Center, Philadelphia
"Into the Woods" Long Beach Museum of Art, California
"Designing Futures" Craft West, Australia
"Celebrating Nature" Craft & Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles
"California Design 2004", San Francisco.
Jimmy Carter Presidential Library
Anchorage Museum of History and Art, Alaska
California Museum of Craft and Design.
Hospital Infantil, Mexico City
MCI Art Collection, Washington, D.C.
Federal Reserve Bank, San Francisco
Centocor office building, Pa.
The White House Collection of American Crafts
and the private collections of
Artie Shaw (bandleader/clarinetist)
Jane & Arthur Mason
Brigitte Jodexnis & Hans Kraushaar
Henry Luce III (son of the founder of Time and Fortune magazine)
Otis Chandler (former editor of Los Angeles Times)