The Daily Telegraph - Hong Kong art: a new creative star rises in the east
April 19, 2014

Hong Kong is no longer just about mind-blowing food and price-busting shopping, says Michelle Jana Chan, as she explores the city’s burgeoning art scene.

In the heart of Hong Kong’s SoHo district, one of the city’s hottest pieces of real estate is not being turned into a bank or block of apartments. Instead, the former Police Married Quarters, renamed PMQ, is becoming a hub of design studios, ateliers and pop-ups. It will inevitably draw tourists, too, as resident artists and artisans sell their cutting-edge fashion, handmade jewellery, crafted ceramics and one-of-a-kind accessories.

Subsidised studios for artists are nothing short of astonishing in a city where the skyrocketing cost of real estate is increasingly pushing out small businesses in favour of big chains. Yet PMQ is not an exception but part of a pattern – and policy – in this town, one of the most congested patches on the planet.

Empty or abandoned buildings, some of them legacies of the colonial period, are being converted into hotbeds of art and culture. The Asia Society Hong Kong Center, for example, opened two years ago in a 19th-century British Army explosives magazine. It now hosts art exhibitions, panel discussions and cultural talks.

Out in the New Territories – as manufacturing shifts west across the border into mainland China – disused factories are being transformed into lofts and workshops. One industrial space, Fotanian, holds annual open-house weekends to foster exchange between the public and the hundreds of artists who have taken over this dilapidated building. One local sculptor, Jimmy Lau, told me that the low rents were key to their work.

“Artists need space,” he says, “and that has been hard to find in Hong Kong. Fotanian has helped us be more aggressive about getting the public interested in our work and achieving our goals.”

Last year, Fotanian welcomed as many as 20,000 visitors over its four open days, proving there is a keen interest in Hong Kong’s home-grown art scene.

There will be much more to explore in this city over the next few years, with the opening of the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), a £2 billion project that will be home to 17 performance venues and museums, and a 23ha park fronting Victoria Harbour.

The government here is clearly not on a tight budget. The project is headed by Michael Lynch, the man who rejuvenated London’s Southbank Centre and is credited with turning around the Sydney Opera House in his native Australia. He has now landed one of the most coveted jobs in the art world.

“There has not yet been a museum that looks at the world from the vantage point of Asia,” he says, “and the world needs that. We want to bring back some of the magic of the past before Hong Kong focuses only on shopping and food. WKCD will restore some balance to the city.”

While WKCD’s first phase will be completed in 2015, it will be two more years before the launch of the dazzling contemporary art museum M+, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. The museum has already received enough headline-grabbing donations (including nearly 1,500 pieces from one collector) to crown it the world’s leading institution for contemporary Chinese art.

“Since the [1997] handover [when sovereignty transferred from the UK to China], Hong Kong is no longer a place of transition but somewhere people call home,” says Lars Nittve, executive director of M+, who was also the founding director of Tate Modern. “There is increasing interest here in identity, questions of culture and symbolic institutions. People are longing for something in Asia that can match the big museums of the world.”

Hong Kong is on something of an art high. The city is currently the world’s third-largest art auction market after London and New York. Last year, Art Basel – which stages the most important modern and contemporary art fairs in the world – opened in Hong Kong. It will be taking place again next month.

“We believe the most successful, vibrant art centres are outward-looking and embrace international differences,” says the fair’s Asia director, Magnus Renfrew. “Exactly like Hong Kong.”

The WKCD project will fortify the city’s position. But until it opens there is plenty in Hong Kong, such as Fotanian and PMQ, to lure tourists with a penchant for art. World-class galleries, including White Cube, the Gagosian and Simon Lee, have recently opened new exhibition spaces here too. The auctioneer Sotheby’s has an impressive new gallery – on the fifth floor of a shopping mall.

Unusually, Hong Kong has come to art through the market, rather than the other way around, but that should not deter anyone from exploring the city’s creative side.

Not that there should be any concern about ticket sales or public interest, especially when it comes to WKCD. The district is being built slap-bang next to a railway station that, when it opens next year, will halve the journey time between Hong Kong and the mainland to 48 minutes. Forty million travellers are expected to use the station every year – enough passing trade to outperform any of the blockbuster shows in Europe or the US.

“Like Tate Modern, M+ may be a museum that surprises everybody,” Nittve says. “It will certainly raise the bar for museums in this part of the world.”


When to go
The weather is usually at its best in Hong Kong from mid-September through February.
Every year in January, Fotanian Open Studio Programme welcomes the public over several consecutive weekends.
Art Basel Hong Kong takes place in May at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center. The HK Affordable Art Fair also takes place in May.
Other festivals include the Cheung Chau Bun Festival and Dragon Boat Carnival.

Where to stay
Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong is well located for some of Hong Kong’s best new galleries.
Island Shangri-La sits between the Asia Society Hong Kong Center and Sotheby’s gallery in Pacific Place.

Where to eat and drink
Duddell’s - This one-Michelin-star restaurant serves excellent Cantonese fare. One floor up is a lounge with leafy outdoor terrace serving all-day dim sum and cocktails. Modern and contemporary art exhibitions take place throughout the restaurant.
Chachawan - In the heart of Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan neighbourhood, this Isaan Thai eatery serves green papaya salad, Wagyu beef salad and salt-crusted sea bass with lemongrass. Next door is 208 Duecento Otto for cocktails; a few doors down is the popular Cat Street Gallery.
AMMO - Nestled amid the buildings of the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, this slick dining venue provides a perfect pause after seeing the Center’s latest exhibition.

Inside track
A clutch of commercial art galleries can be found in the Pedder Building, including the pioneering Hanart TZ, celebrating its 30th anniversary, Pearl Lam and Ben Brown Fine Arts. On Hollywood Road, the go-to strip for anyone looking for affordable art and antiques, the irresistible Mandy d’Abo runs the Cat Street Gallery. Liang Yi Museum showcases a well-curated selection of Chinese antique furniture from the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with CTS Horizons (