The interior of the Xiqu Centre, a Chinese opera house in Kowloon.

Lit Ma

Hong Kong Steps Out on the World's Cultural Stage

Complete with ambitious new museums, international galleries, and a blossoming local scene that could shape its identity for generations.

“Get ready for the dark side," joked Alan Lo, the Hong Kong art collector and restaurateur over WhatsApp as he headed over to pick me up from my hotel. We were going to dinner in a gritty, decidedly undertouristed Kowloon neighborhood called Prince Edward. “Haha. No passport required.” 

Kowloon is a sprawling, restless, ad-hoc-feeling high/low jumble of apartments, industry, and commerce––population 2 million––directly across Victoria Harbour from Central, Hong Kong’s comparatively tidy and businesslike postcolonial downtown, where I was staying. The city, under British rule from 1842 to 1997, is in the middle of a 50-year period of semiautonomy while being politically and economically integrated into China, and European influence is on the wane. Lo’s idea for the evening was to go on a dining adventure with a few of his art world friends, getting me outside of the tourist comfort zone, where all the signs are in English as well as Chinese, and into the real Hong Kong. 

Local artist Kacey Wong at his studio in the industrial Ap Lei Chau neighborhood.

Lit Ma

The city has spent $1.5 billion on reclaiming land from the harbor to create West Kowloon, which is becoming the new cultural center of the city and a laboratory for its future. The area is already home to Hong Kong’s tallest building, the 1,588-foot-high International Commerce Centre, and a series of hectically chic shopping, residential, and entertainment complexes, including 1881 Heritage, which repurposes 19th-century colonial buildings with such élan that I’d thought it was brand-new but designed to look old. Farther down the waterfront, there is the new Victoria Dockside mixed-use complex––office, hotel, retail, “cultural district”––developed by the real estate impresario and arts promoter Adrian Cheng, a refinement of the idea he had to combine shopping and exhibitions with his K11 Art Mall a few blocks inland in Kowloon. Built in 2009, in a kind of baroque modernist style, it looks like an embassy from a more advanced intergalactic empire. A few blocks away, Cheng’s sister, Rosewood Hotels Local artist Kacey Wong at his studio in the industrial Ap Lei Chau neighborhood. CEO Sonia Cheng, just opened Rosewood Hong Kong. Nearby is the Xiqu Centre, a new opera house that also looks like it landed from space, with a façade that resembles parting curtains, built over the station for the high-speed railway that connects Hong Kong to mainland China. Next year, though, will bring the real game changer for the city and its ambition to transform itself into one of the most culturally sophisticated destinations in the world: a museum of visual culture called M+, which will be bigger than New York’s Museum of Modern Art. 

Lo and I discussed all this in the back seat of our Uber as he was taking me to meet his friends at a semisecret power-dining spot called H Kitchen, the private upstairs room of a noodle shop far from the brightly lit bustle of either Central or Kowloon’s new tourist zones. Two of the friends joining us for dinner, architects Gilles Vanderstocken and Charlotte Lafont-Hugo, a rigorously nerdy-hip couple, have their offices in the area. Also eating with us were Honus Tandijono, a handsome and sporty Indonesian Chinese collector based in Hong Kong, and the chatty and arch gallerist Simon Wang, who runs Antenna Space in Shanghai and was doing a show in Hong Kong. 

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Chef William Cai served dishes like crispy baked sea cucumber and shark’s fin soup, all rotating around an enormous lazy Susan. As we ate, we talked about how this business-centric town was becoming a place for culture. Lafont-Hugo and Vanderstocken first visited from Paris in 2012 to co-curate Hong Kong’s detour Design Week; they witnessed such a booming art scene here that two years later they founded Beau Architects, which specializes in gallery and exhibition design. Business has been good: They have done work for Tai Kwun, the former Central Police Station, which has been turned into a major cultural center, as well as for M+’s temporary exhibition space. 

From left: Tobias Berger, head of arts at the cultural center Tai Kwun; art on display at Tai Kwun.

Lit Ma

The night before the Prince Edward adventure, I’d had dinner at Alan Lo’s own restaurant, Duddell’s, a bilevel, Michelin-starred, Ilse Crawford–designed buzzy space atop the Shanghai Tang flagship store, on Duddell Street in Central. Duddell’s opened in 2013, coinciding with the first edition of Art Basel Hong Kong. “I had a loose idea of creating a space for the art world,” said Lo, who grew up in the city but went to boarding school in the U.S. and worked in hospitality in London. “Hong Kong was starting to change, and there was kind of a growing community of patrons, gallerists. And I thought: Is there a way to bring all these people together to eat, drink, and socialize?” 

He told me he wanted customers to feel like they’d been invited to dinner at a collector’s very tasteful home. Still woozy from jet lag, I stuffed myself with the tasting menu’s spin on traditional Cantonese delights (including double-boiled imperial bird’s nest) while admiring an exhibition of atmospheric abstractions by two Chinese contemporary artists, Wang Guangle and Li Shurui, that had been curated by Jérôme Sans, cofounder of Paris’s Palais de Tokyo. It was a little hard to focus on the art through the wine pairings and people-watching, but I nevertheless appreciated the rigor of the show, which was titled, optimistically, “Enlightening Times.”

This is indeed an exciting if unsettling time for Hong Kong, as the countdown clock ticks toward integration with an increasingly assertive China. Crime is low, the shopping and eating are great, the skyline glitters, and the trains run on time, but many people I spoke with are concerned that whatever democracy and free expression are guaranteed by the Basic Law, which is in effect during the transition period, will eventually expire. The city is on the hunt for a new identity that can survive these changes, and Lo is part of a generation of well-traveled locals and expats working to turn their hometown into the art capital of Asia. If there is one moment when the dream comes tantalizingly alive, it’s every March, when Art Basel Hong Kong takes over the convention center on the waterfront near Central and the global art machine descends on the city to work its magic. Blue-chip art pops up everywhere, and the town is crawling with curators, collectors, and journalists. 

Art Basel Hong Kong is actually a rebranding of Art HK, a fair started in 2008 and led by an Englishman named Magnus Renfrew. That same year, the Gagosian gallery started looking for a space in Hong Kong; it opened one in 2011. Sensing opportunity, the international megafair Art Basel bought Art HK in 2011 and opened it as Art Basel Hong Kong in 2013. Since then, the city has attracted more big international galleries, including Hauser & Wirth, Pace, and David Zwirner, which have flocked to either the historic Pedder Building or the sleek, brand-new art-dealer high-rise H Queen’s. 

In certain ways Hong Kong is ideally situated for a prominent role in the global art scene, being a well-regulated, low-tax financial center within a five-hour flight of half the world’s population. Many hope that the city can serve as the Asian counterweight to London, Paris, and New York in deciding what art and which artists matter most. The hope for many seems to be in part that perhaps Beijing will respect that success and allow Hong Kong to continue to be Hong Kong, as the balance of power in the world tips away from the domination of the West. 

Despite its cosmopolitan reputation, Hong Kong has never been a world-class cultural center. “In colonial cities, it wasn’t part of the agenda,” William Lim, the architect of H Queen’s and a collector, told me over drinks at the opulent, harbor-view China Club, where the dress code is so fastidiously enforced that he was required to check his designer sneakers and borrow leather shoes when we arrived. “We grew up having very little exposure to art. You would have to go elsewhere. Whenever people from Hong Kong who loved art traveled, they would go to the museums because that’s where they could get enlightened,” said Lim. Pearl Lam, the city’s most prominent gallerist and decadent haute-bohemian personality, said, “Hong Kong has always been a wealthy city, but culture was never in the focus. No one really cared about it until more recent decades.” Lam, who runs spaces in both the Pedder Building and H Queen’s, as well as in Shanghai and Singapore, recalls how, when she returned from her studies in the U.K. in the early 1990s, her parents were initially horrified at her idea of opening a gallery––becoming a glorified shopkeeper, in their minds. “When I was growing up you only had the Hong Kong Museum of Art” (currently closed for a much-needed renovation). 

From left: Suhanya Raffel, director of M+; outside the Xiqu Centre.

Lit Ma

Hong Kong is proudly opportunistic, a migrant’s city. This goes back to its establishment by the British as a place from which to peddle its opium to the Chinese in 1842. It grew into a banking and trading powerhouse with solid legal institutions and a reputation for being East-meets-West neutral ground. Hong Kong is “a city built on trade and commerce,” said Jonathan Crockett, the Phillips auction house’s head of 20th-century and contemporary art and deputy chairman for Asia, over cocktails at the patio bar of my hotel. (I stayed at the Murray, a late-1960s former British government building that was given a high-polish makeover by Foster + Partners last year.) “Everything is geared toward making that happen as efficiently as possible.” 

Sotheby’s and Christie’s have long held auctions in Hong Kong for the same reasons the banks did business there, and just as it’s the third-most prominent finance center in the world after New York and London, it’s also the third biggest place for art to be traded. Many locals of a certain social class whom I met recalled that some of their first encounters with art came from attending preview exhibitions of what was on the block. But something was missing in that art-as-investment mentality. Which is why art institutions driven by curators rather than by market forces are so sorely needed. The upcoming M+ and the already opened 

Tai Kwun––both designed by the Swiss architec-ture firm behind London’s Tate Modern, Herzog & de Meuron––are meant to fill that void. Tai Kwun is a finely crafted entertainment complex. It houses a multivalenced cultural program that ranges from performing arts to literary events. It also, weirdly, lets you walk through the former police building’s old jail cells; grim, but spruced up with multimedia installations that take any political edge off. You can eat lunch in one of several restaurants and shop. Herzog & de Meuron’s additions are spectacular and futuristic and hold world-class gallery spaces for contemporary art, something the city had never had before on that scale. 

But it’s incremental compared with M+. Everyone is counting on the real changes starting when it finally opens next year. “Hong Kong needs a proper global museum that functions like the Pompidou in Paris,” Suhanya Raffel, its director, told me. Raffel is a Sri Lankan migrant to Australia with a long curatorial career, most recently as deputy director of Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales. Right out of the gate, M+ will have one of the world’s preeminent collections of contemporary Chinese art, given by the Sigg family, who happen to be Swiss. Raffel’s goal is to sponsor an interregional discourse, from Japan to Singapore and Vietnam. 

As Hong Kong prepares to reintegrate into mainland China, the thinking goes, institutions like M+ and Tai Kwun will help the city carve out and retain a distinct artistic identity. “China is evolving and Hong Kong continues to establish a position and status within China,” said the gallerist Pearl Lam. 

The growing art market and the arrival of major museums are helping to propel this evolution. The question is whether they can help nurture a healthy local art scene. For a long time, such a scene was hard to find. Not that people weren’t making art; just that no one was buying it. The dealer Jeffrey Deitch remembers coming to Hong Kong in 1982 with Andy Warhol to have an exhibition at a place called the I Club, which was a big success––“every socialite came,” he recalls. But a decade later, when Deitch tried to open a gallery there with a local partner, it didn’t work out. There wasn’t yet a market for the international art they were selling. 

From left: Attack of a Red Giant, by Kacey Wong, as seen in his studio; Cosmin Costinas, executive director of Para Site.

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In the 1990s, art nonprofits began to emerge. Para Site, for example, was founded as an artist-run space in 1996, at a time when most local artists had to keep their day jobs because there weren’t enough collectors to support their work. (That remains a problem: Ellen Pau, a prominent local artist of a bleakly metaphorical bent whose retrospective was up when I visited, is still a medical radiographer.) More recently, the streets of Hong Kong have shown sprouts of an organic emerging art scene. Among its most whimsical expressions is the work of Esther Poon, better known as Knitter Esther, the “yarn bomber” who has taken to decorating a banister that runs down the middle of Pottinger Street in Central with seasonal designs. Similarly, the HKwalls street-art festival moves to a new neighborhood each year, enlivening alleyways with a taste of sometimes dystopic images drawn from the realm of global hipsterdom. 

The biggest obstacle to making art in cramped, high-rent Hong Kong is finding studio space. William Lim, the architect and collector, notes that you can see that in the art that’s been produced: “That’s why Li Ching was doing things that were foldable. A lot of the works people were doing were small, intricate, and very time-consuming. It’s the tightness. It’s the lack of space, you know, that created some very interesting artwork.” 

The same real estate challenges affect galleries too, which I was told come and go––though there are a few in and around Central, of admittedly varying quality (10 Chancery Lane Gallery has a solid reputation, but the work I saw at Yan Gallery, Parkview Art, and La Galerie seemed a bit eager to please). Dealers who can’t afford the rents in Central have flocked to a new arts district across the island in the gentrifying former manufacturing zone of Wong Chuk Hang. 

I was shown around that neighborhood by Dominique Perregaux, a Swiss man who owns a gallery called Art Statements in a brutally functional building I would not have been able to find had I not had a guide. He handed me a can of San Mig Light beer and settled in front of a painting––really a diptych––of a lifesized horse, slightly abstracted, by Troels Wörsel. Perregaux complained that even here his rent had doubled in five years. He took me on a walk to a few other galleries, including Pékin Fine Arts, on the 16th floor of the Union Industrial Building. We also stopped by Longmen Art Projects, which featured a show of cloudy paintings by Chuang Che, before ending our tour at a lively building operated by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council that provides cell-like, below-market-rate studio space to artists. It had a Pop Art–painted vintage Rolls-Royce parked in its lobby, where young creatives sat on benches drinking coffee. 

The Herzog & de Meuron–designed Tai Kwun.

Lit Ma

But back in Central, all that struggle seems very far away when you visit Tai Kwun, with its exquisite show spaces, or the H Queen’s high-rise, where I attended an opening, at David Zwirner, for the New York artist Marcel Dzama. The problem with both gallery and artist––if indeed it is a problem––is that they are so world-class this show could be anywhere in the world. 

This bothers some artists, including Kacey Wong. When I told him about a show I had just been to, he deadpanned that I might as well have not left New York. That cannot be said of Wong’s toy-chest-like studio in Ap Lei Chau, a rather forbidding industrial zone and fishing village in the south of Hong Kong Island. There’s an enormous bust of his one-eyed cat on the wall made out of shards of wood, and a large robot sitting in the corner, head in hand as if in what-have-I-done contemplation. As we sat drinking tea on low chairs on casters in his studio––the door to which was marked detective––Wong described the work he will have in M+. Called Drift City, it’s a series of photos he took of himself dressed in a skyscraper costume at tourist sites around the world. 

He was not quite as optimistic as others about the arrival of the global art market, because it didn’t seem to be affecting the lives of many artists who live here. “It’s almost like two parallel worlds,” said Wong. “It’s not like it’s promoting local communities. It’s just another international art thing. Internationalism, that’s what it is.” 

But isn’t that the whole idea of Hong Kong? I asked. To be a kind of marketplace, a neutral territory of sorts. He half agreed: “If you interview some Hong Kongese they’ll say, ‘I have no stake here. I can always go away.’ It’s like a Jason Bourne movie, except everybody’s Jason Bourne. They open the safe, see three passports: Who do I want to be today?” 

A mural painted for the annual HKwalls street-art festival.

Lit Ma

It’s a particularly resonant question given Hong Kong’s identity crisis, which has it pulled between past and future. And what Hong Kong appears to want to be today is an art capital, with enough gravitational pull to let it thrive in ever closer orbit to China.