Home » Best of Hong Kong Art Week: 2019

Best of Hong Kong Art Week: 2019

When Chinese-Canadian, Markham-based installation artist Xiaojing Yan, who is also the tenant at the subsidized studio I created for her in my family’s office building, casually asked if I wanted to go with her to Art Basel Hong Kong, the China offshoot of the glamorous contemporary art fair that takes place annually in Basel Switzerland and in Miami, naturally my immediate reaction was “YES!” I was familiar with the gallery-focused showcase of the world’s finest contemporary art, and eager to know how the Hong Kong version would compare. Xiaojing and I had been working together for some time, me advising on her career path, and so we planned a trip where we would spend one week in Kong Kong, checking out the city, pursuing connections and immersing ourselves in the art scene, followed by another in Shanghai & Suzhou where she would be my guide.


The main event, prior to opening…


Hong Kong’s history dates back to before 50 BC, with British involvement since 1842, and the city’s relatively recent designation as a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China in 1997 allows it to maintain its Western way of life, so it’s a sensible starting point for Westerners traveling further into Asia. The famous view from the Peak onto Hong Kong island and across Victoria Harbour certainly highlights the city’s geographical similarities to Vancouver, with a downtown of commercial and residential towers tightly wedged in between mountains and sea: It’s a true vertical city. My hotel, the Emperor, was a slim, apparently new tower wedged in between construction sites with a surprisingly small and fresh-smelling lobby, dominated by a living green wall. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the tiny room, just large enough for the bed, but the so-called ‘closet’ consisted of about 3 cubic feet above the safe where a few lonely coat hangers hung. Luckily, the paneled walls of the room were covered with small decorative holes, perfect for holding the tip of a coat hanger and allowed me to hang my long dresses and coats that I had brought especially for the fair.


The view from my hotel room, in Wan Chai


A market stall selling tofu


My first impression of the city was that every kind of food market seemed to line the steep central streets. Vendors selling tea, tofu, slabs of meat, live chickens, it was kind of overwhelming. Carefully keeping my bearings, I went for a walk and was immediately impressed at the street food, which is everywhere! There were long lineups of people waiting patiently for various meat and seafood skewers, deep fried fish balls, dumplings – even chicken claws. It felt a bit risky to eat my first meal there, so instead I sat down at a nondescript-looking restaurant and pointed randomly at a picture of a soup on the menu. What arrived was a clear broth with chunks of chicken in it. By ‘chunks’, I mean chicken parts that had been hacked into a couple pieces, right through the bone, and thrown in a pot. It seemed to be just chicken and water with some noodles. But wherever they get their chickens, they certainly make a rich and flavourful broth, and it was exactly what I wanted. Back at the hotel, I fought with myself for about 30 minutes to stay awake, before falling peacefully asleep for 12 straight hours. Unbelievably, the homeopathic jet lag medicine I bought on a whim seemed to have worked.


A Hong Kong breakfast


Wan Chai – the district on Hong Kong island where I was staying – is home to apparently the best pineapple bun in town, which I found at a tiny, bustling bakery called the Kam Fung Café, where people line up for takeaway and they squeeze you into one of the tiny seats if you’re staying. The doughy yellow sweet bun topped with a sugary pineapple-shaped coating would have been a fine enough breakfast treat on its own, but the thing to do is it order it with a ½ inch-thick slab of butter wedged inside. “When in Rome…” I thought as I washed it down with some cold, too sweet milk tea. I headed along Queens Road East toward Hong Kong Gardens, a tight oasis of greenery dominated by the surrounding skyscrapers, including the triangulated Bank of China tower, designed by China’s leading contemporary architect, the late, great I.M. Pei. The garden features, at its top, a spectacular netted aviary holding over 80 species of birds, many of whom were feasting on bananas and mango alongside the raised walkways, providing perfect photo opportunities for orthinophiles.


Fine porcelain made to look like paper


Still inside the garden, the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, a colonial mansion and former residency of the commander of the British forces in Hong Kong was under construction but the contemporary ceramic teapots on view were remarkably inventive. My favourites were a teacup and saucer in fine porcelain made to look like they had been crafted from post-it notes, and another that looked like it was made of old rusted industrial parts. Like much of the city, the garden was full of locals enjoying their lunch, taking meetings and enjoying the waterfalls, gardens and beautifully curated ponds filled with lively koi. En route back to my hotel, I ducked into Shanghai Tang, the high-end womenswear retailer in Pacific Place mall. The small shop was filled with expensive and richly coloured garments, accessories and gorgeous silk scarves. I recommend a visit if ‘Luxury Chinese’ is the look you’re after. Stopping in to admire some beautiful centuries-old temples tucked just off the main roads, I also visited the Blue House, an early example of urban revitalization for community housing that has won architectural awards for its restoration and adaptive reuse of a 1920’s Chinese-style building.


I.M. Pei’s Hong Kong tower. The x shapes light up dramatically at night


That night, we had plans with a close friend of mine from New York, Arabella, who works as a travel editor and had also flown in for the art fair. Ronin was an edgy local Japanese-style restaurant that I had booked from Toronto, based on the advice of Arabella’s travel-industry friend whose insider-ish list of recommended bars and restaurants would come in very handy over the week. Once past the unmarked door and inside the darkly intimate space, we all enjoyed the beautifully presented, if slightly unremarkable sashimi – I ate Geoduck, a clam which apparently is the thing to have – for the first time. It was ok, but I preferred the whisky highballs, which were excellent. It was a treat to catch up with Arabella and to introduce her to Xiaojing, and I was glad she had decided to join us for the week.

We followed dinner with drinks at the elegant Café Grey at the top of the Upper House luxury hotel with another friend’s husband, Chris who is an architect with a practice both here and in Toronto. After Arabella succumbed to jet lag and left (she had flown in at dawn), Xiaojing and I caught up and talked business, architecture and public art with Chris. The Upper House occupies 49 floors of a tower overlooking Victoria Harbour and is an oasis of quiet perfection with design-forward interiors (by famous local Andre Fu) in bamboo, ash, limestone and lacquered paper panels. Café Grey is the cherry on top – a moody restaurant and bar with spectacular views of the glittering harbor below.


Beautiful sashimi at Ronin


Arriving at Cafe Gray bar, at the Upper House


The next day, it was HUMID. No need for my trench coat …or umbrella, luckily. The three of us walked across town to the Asia Society for an elegant champagne brunch hosted by the Vancouver Art Gallery to promote the $40 million donation by a Chinese patron that will help to facilitate the construction of their much-needed new home, designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & deMeuron. The Asia Society is in a beautiful building designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien architects. It is all sleek pathways surrounded by lush vegetation, and it has a vaguely Arthur Erickson feel – again reminding me of Vancouver. We chatted with a tall, dynamic woman, Lisa Turner who is a trustee of the gallery, and her documentary filmmaker husband and heard from the building’s architect, Simon Demeuse who gave us a virtual tour of the pagoda-style museum, which will be covered with a specifically designed articulated glazing meant to evoke logs related to BC’s history, rather than the wood that was originally proposed. It promises to be quite a striking and successful building, although I couldn’t help wonder about how effective the juxtaposition of wood in an otherwise glass city would have looked. From the sounds of it, still need to raise considerable funds, so I do hope that more patrons step up. (It turns out that I was smart to wear tights with my dress, which I did despite the humidity, because the ladies who went bare legged got savagely bitten by some kind of Hong Kong fly, terrible itchy bites that left dark marks on their legs. No one warned us about this! Luckily the flies weren’t bad elsewhere in town, but I felt awful for them and very lucky to have gotten away with only a few bites on my ankles.)


Companion, by KAWS, in Hong Kong harbour


That afternoon, we walked down to the harbour to see the floating sculpture by KAWS, the Brooklyn-based artist who is – for some reason – wildly popular in Asia. The scale of his piece, a giant floating ‘Companion’ figure (sort of like a dark Mickey Mouse with crosses for eyes) resting face up in Hong Kong harbor, was more successful than I had expected, minimizing the surrounding buildings into a storybook landscape, all in greyscale. It was a popular Instagram opportunity for the art crowd. We then visited Art Central, the smaller art fair that was on alongside Art Basel during art week. While waiting to get in, I noticed a pocket-size Kaws figuring poking out of a woman’s small white Louis Vuitton handbag! Naturally I snapped a photo for Insta.

Art Central is considered a lesser fair, which perhaps means that the art is not as pricey, or the galleries who show there less exclusive, but it was no less interesting to me. There was a lot of good quality work, much of it from Asian galleries, which I really enjoyed. One painter, Heri Dono from Indonesia really stood out, with his bold, large-scale paintings which appeared to offer contemporary, politicized takes on traditional Indonesian art. There was also a motorized wall sculpture by Korean artist Chloe U-Ram titled Ala Aureus-Insula made of machine parts, resin, CPU board and LEDs that looked like a spidery Art Nouveau lamp come alive. We briefly met Freddie Balfour, Arabella’s cousin, a culture writer for Bloomberg, who was very busy working art week, but who otherwise seemed quite nice, if a bit sharp. He dismissed the fair as being a 5 out of 10, but I would have been more generous.


Paintings by Indonesian artist Hari Dono


A detail of a neat, slowly moving piece by Korean artist Chloe U-Ram


I enjoyed being in Hong Kong with Xiaojing. It’s interesting to experience not just an art fair, but the craziness of the entire art week, alongside an artist. She is justifiably focused on her career, mindful of how important the right connections could be for her. I feel for artists–this life is not easy, it’s an insanely competitive and fragile choice. Plus, the money is often entirely out of line with the amount of effort put in. I do feel some pressure to help her and somewhat unsure of my role, but ultimately I know that there is value in being a support, offering advice when I can, making introductions, talking up her work and ultimately playing the long game.

If you’ve spent time in London, you’ll probably feel quite comfortable in Hong Kong, as I did, which I think was partly due to my decent sense of direction, and partly due to the distinctly colcnial vibe. The buses are London’s familiar Routemaster buses, for instance. I stuck mostly to the areas of Wan Chai, Central and Admiralty with a bit of Soho at night, so I didn’t go too far afield, but central Hong Kong seems fairly small and easily navigable. I loved the British pharmacies, the double decker trams and the general organized chaos. These little things about the city reminded me of the Adventures of Tintin, the Belgian cartoon detective.


A HK tram


It turns out that Art Basel Hong Kong is huge, expensive and top notch, just like Art Basel in Switzerland. It felt thankfully less flashy and more sophisticated than the Miami fair, with a healthy concentration of art from across Asia. I was interested to see how some galleries were selling accessible, more commercial versions of the work of artists primarily known for large scale installations. The land artist James Turrell’s gallery was showing his series of etchings from the 1980s in editions of 45 that wonderfully encapsulated his work with light and atmosphere. Do Ho Suh, the Korean artist who is known for sewn nylon representations of full-scale architecutural space, showed a number of embroidered thread pieces, ‘embedded’ on cotton paper that allowed collectors the ability to hang a wall piece that captured the essence of his installations. The Argentinian artist Tomas Saraceno whose ephemeral art seems to be everywhere these days, showed a 15-inch sculpture made of spidersilk, carbon fiber, glass, metal and ink, totally in keeping with his ethereal, sensory environmental art practice.


A detail of an embroidered wall piece by Korean installation artist Do Ho Suh


Among other standouts at the fair for me, was a highly detailed and slightly spooky-looking sculptural cast of water by American artist Matthew Barney, one of the few major American names that I saw, and an unusual piece for him, I thought, though it was from 2015. There was an excellent, almost operatic seascape by one of my favorites, the Spanish mixed-media painter Miguel Barcelo and a series of recycled metal spherical floor sculptures that looked like delicate, charred versions of the earth, or what the earth may look like soon given the climate crisis.


Matthew Barney, Water Cast 10 2015 at Gladstone Gallery’s booth. This was cast bronze and must have been a real challenge to fabricate!


A terrific, emotional seascape painting by Spanish artist Miguel Barcelo


One thing is for sure, the best way to do these art fairs is with a VIP pass which Xiaojing had thankfully found a way to provide for me, for the two preview days prior to the public opening, because by the time the general public gets in, even by the time of the general ticket vernissage the night before, it would have been terribly crowded and no longer desirable from an art-world insider’s point of view. The real money, the serious deals, happens on the preview days if not long before. And, the people-watching is excellent. Mid-day, a woman sauntered by in what looked like a YSL one-shouldered party dress, lace stockings, sky-high heels and a stuffed cat inside an Hermes Birkin bag!


Recycled metal globes by Korean artist Hoon-Yee at Leeahn Gallery’s booth


That morning we had started off by trying to find our way to H Queens, a tall building whose elevators, I had heard, open right up into the galleries that occupy many of the floors. It took a while to get there, because with Xiaojing and her artist friend Jian navigating, we got a bit lost in the maze-like markets of the central city, each of which looks very much the same, crowded, busy and steep. (Pro tip: Wear reliable shoes when walking around Hong Kong.) It was funny to see office workers in suits having lunch perched on plastic stools outside the tiny eateries that line the streets, taking advantage of cups of various types of tea that vendors place directly out for locals to pick up for a few cents.

At H Queens, the numerous elevator attendants ushered all of us art week visitors in and out, on every floor. Everyone gets at least somewhat ‘dressed’ for art week, but I was still amused to see one very slim young Chinese woman in a long, silk saffron-coloured cheongsam-style dress, with spike Louboutin heels, red lips and a perfect bob, tottering around delicately photographing the art in a series of selfies. Needless to say, she added considerably to the experience. My favourite show featured a series of powerful 10-12 foot tall paintings covered in a lacquered red paint applied to look exactly like blood. I thought they were by a Chinese artist but these impactful works turned out to be by the Franco-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed. Interesting to think about in light of some of the current political situations around the world.


A stylish lady at H Queens, photographing work by Louise Bourgeois. (Look at her heels!)


Blood paintings by Franco-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed at H Queens

With all the humidity, it was good to get back to the western-style air conditioning of Art Basel. I had been hoping to meet more people, but sadly didn’t find anyone new to chat with. Yesterday I had sat beside an elegant local woman called Alice who said she was “not really” a collector but seemed to know everyone. She said she had recently returned to Hong Kong after having spent 30 years living in Switzerland. She gave me her card, along with some tips for Shanghai. It appeared she was a consultant for Faberge.


My cocktail at The Old Man


That night, trying another of the spots on her list, Arabella and I met up for drinks and dinner at a Japanese place called Fukuro. Our first choice was actually the sister restaurant next door, which was booked up, but Fukuro ended up being FANTASTIC. We had Waygu steak that was right up there with the best I have ever eaten, and a beautiful seaweed salad. We sat at the bar where I started chatting with an Italian guy from Modena called Paolo who worked in marketing and sales for a luxury tile company and spent his time flying to various cities in Asia and the Middle East for work.

After dinner, we finished with whisky cocktails – Hong Kong seems very big on whisky – at an atmospheric little cocktail bar called the Old Man, in homage to Hemingway, which we were told was located “down the street, around the corner, you will see a guy standing with a flashlight, then go down the steps.” Indeed there he was, lighting the way for cocktail-lovers. Arabella had one called Hills Like White Elephants which featured mead and a pea shoot, while mine, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, paired whisky, eggplant ink and smoked vermouth. It was artistically topped with onion ashes and looked like a moonscape!


Work by Lam Tung Pang at Blindspot Gallery


In the morning, I set off by bus to the South Island Cultural District, which I had heard was the new hot spot for galleries in the city. I was hoping it was going to be good, and it was…certainly different. I have visited emerging art neighbourhoods including in London, Milan, New York and Hamilton Ontario, and none have this urban layout: Walls of old blackened industrial buildings looming imposingly over a busy flyover. (Although it’s possible that I just entered from the wrong side). Still, it was stark and intimidating and hard to believe that this was a gallery hot-spot. Each building came complete with its ancient metal box elevator operated (occasionally) by an ancient Chinese man with no English and seemingly no awareness of which organizations were in the building. Not wanting to risk being stuck, I ended up walking up a couple of times (8 floors!) Luckily over the course of the day, more people showed up.

There was one artist whose work I found very appealing – Lam Tung Pang at Blindspot Gallery, a beautifully designed space that left the industrial, peeling paint of the old concrete shell intact. Pang seems to be a young-ish Hong Kong Chinese artist on the rise. His large paintings depicted mountains, and mountains of rice in bowls, on gouged out plywood panels, to which he occasionally applied tiny plastic figures, often kneeling or praying, creating an intriguing sense of scale that added to the effect, as if seen through a literary eye, or as if scaled up from a children’s book, if you can picture that. It was very successful, I thought. Although I would have loved to buy a small painting of his, they were $13,000 CAD which was a wee bit too much for me. The gallery was impressive–I can imagine a show of Xiaojing’s here. Hmmm.

In the evening, I took one of the Routemaster buses over to Yardbird – another of the popular restaurants on Arabella’s list – on my own. It was no problem being there alone since they had a crowded bar and lots of people waiting, and WIFI too. I ate at the bar and talked with a friendly African American guy called Henry, who had just finished a few weeks of travelling around Thailand and Indonesia, and was headed back to his job in disaster preparation in the city of Telluride, where he’s from. The menu featured chicken yakitori of various sizes, meant to be shared, which is a bit of a warning – I mean if you were to order the ‘knee’ or ‘neck skin’ yakitori they would bring out hilariously tiny little skewers, but I had a large salad, and the one meatball I received was very good.

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Chatting with a king Crab…


One of the few people I knew in Hong Kong, David Lau, I hadn’t seen for forty (forty!!) years, since he had stayed with my family in Toronto as a high school student when I was quite young. Xiaojing and I met up with him and his wife, Mabel and I was pleased that it felt easy and as if only a few years had passed. They are a very kind and generous couple. They drove us up to the Peak and got caught up on each other’s lives as we did the 40 minute stroll at the top – and took multiple selfies against the stunning city views faded with smog, so I’m really grateful to have had the chance to go. Then – for a special experience – we drove about 40 minutes to Tuen Mun, a fishing village where Portugese traders built a base in the 1500s, for a seafood dinner. There were several boats and seafood markets, and David seemed to know which one was best – the idea was to choose what you wanted to eat for dinner – and so I asked him to make his best selection of the various species of fish and shellfish. As we browsed the market, a 16-inch King crab was brought out and we all photographed ourselves holding it.

Part of me felt badly for the beautiful creatures we were about to eat, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be, isn’t it? When you think of and respect the animal, you appreciate it and hopefully don’t waste it. That connection back to the animal being eaten is something I noticed often in China. Heads are left on fish; small crayfish are served intact for diners to peel, etc. The Chinese certainly believe in eating every part! Across the way was a jam-packed restaurant where the busy host was expertly throwing bag after bag of raw seafood onto a scale at the door, before sending it to the kitchen to be cooked up into various dishes. David and Mabel made a bit of a ceremony of rinsing the dishes at the table before eating, ‘just in case’, they said. David then poured each of us a glass of red wine and Mabel poured tea and hot water. We ate giant Canadian Geoduck clam (again!), which arrived raw and we cooked ourselves in broth at the table, alongside a veritable feast of jackknife clams, crawfish with crispy garlic, abalone with ginger and water spinach in sauce. It was a delicious but quite heavy meal, very different from how I am used to eating. Interestingly, there was very little rice, in fact it was ordered as an afterthought. Most of my meals in China were lacking in rice, which surprised me and turned out to be a reflection of Xiaojing’s own personal tastes – who did all of the ordering. It was a terrific, unforgettable experience and the perfect way to end a fascinating week in ‘Honkers’!

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