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“This is my own corner. It’s one of my favourite places,” Pearl Lam tells me. Certainly the view from the 49th floor over Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour is spectacular. It’s a grey day, though, and as I’d briefly waited for the gallerist and art collector at a secluded table in the luxurious Café Gray Deluxe, with its hushed breakfast clientele and its discreet muzak, I’d watched the angry early morning clouds scudding past.
As soon as she arrives, however, a birdlike five-foot figure in six-inch heels, there’s no time to gaze at the scenery. Somehow, we are straight into the serious stuff. I’d been the day before to the opening of the latest show at one of her five eponymous galleries — two in Hong Kong, two in Singapore, one in Shanghai. The gallery, in Hong Kong’s Pedder building, seems to encapsulate, with its flocking chic crowd, the meteoric rise of art in the region, which over the past decade has seen the Chinese market balloon into the world’s third-largest, with 19 per cent of global art sales.
Lam’s show was itself a surprise: I was startled, I told her, by the quiet, intense, Zen-like work of the artist Kim Tschang-Yeul — he paints drops of water, often grey on grey — in the gallery of a woman so well known for her brilliant, vivid, highly coloured, fantastical taste in the design and art that usually fill her galleries.
A surprising choice, especially for the opening of Art Basel Hong Kong, the city’s splashy art week?
“You know, the taste of the art world has changed dramatically,” she says in answer to my raised eyebrows. “Eight or nine years ago, it would have been impossible to show this work here. Something so simple and so meditative. But now, people want more spirituality. It’s a reaction to high consumerism . . . ”
Words like “simple”, “meditative” and “spirituality” are not what I expected from a woman whose personal style is flamboyant, to say the least, and whose apartments in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Mayfair are usually described in lavish terms. There is her 50ft dining table, the apartment entrance framed in a rock sculpture, the elaborate decor that embraces the exuberant mixture of cultures, eras and styles that has become her signature, the magnificent collections of paintings, objects and the rest.
Today, however, Lam is in chic plain black, with just a matching pair of stonking silver bracelets, like heavy armour, around her tiny wrists.
“Even a few years ago, everyone wanted art that was more vivid and direct,” she continues, “but now we are all gradually opening up to a quieter eastern philosophy and aesthetic as the world has become so globalised.”
And, in answer to my question about how it all started — how she came to be there as the gold-rush of Chinese art began, and during its evolution — Lam proceeds to tell me a long, long story about how she became Chinese.
Born in Hong Kong in super-affluent circumstances, her father the property tycoon Lim Por-Yen, her mother Koo Siu-Yung also a real estate developer, Lam was sent to the US and Britain at the age of 11 for her schooling. Ten years later, in 1992, when she was studying fashion and design in London and “in my Dr Martens”, she was summoned home by her father.
“He said to me, ‘OK, now it’s time to get serious.’ He wanted me to go into the business, be a lawyer or an accountant, get a proper career.”
Her plans for a gallery, or even a future in the art and design she had imbibed in the west, were considered frivolous at best, at worst “shameful”. The family decided that she should go to Shanghai to help her mother with a property development there. But in mainland China, “I was an alien. I couldn’t speak Mandarin, I knew zero about China or Chinese culture — we’d never learnt anything about that. I’d never even been to China until 1992. We didn’t have a museum in Hong Kong to show us anything about China. I was completely lost.
“I was what they call a ‘banana’,” she says disarmingly. “Yellow on the outside but white on the inside.”
Just as I’m recoiling from the possible offensiveness of that — though I suppose that if one says it of oneself, anything is allowed — Lam rushes on, barely drawing breath, to recount how it was in 1993 in Hong Kong that she started her first pop-up exhibitions (although she had a hard time explaining her concept), showcasing the range of work that interested her, an east-west mélange of design and the contemporary Chinese artists she was gradually discovering.
“My mother never smiled,” she says. And her father simply begged her to stop. “Chinese families, you know — they are very controlling.”
She breaks off her account, her little-girl-hoarse voice already sounding in need of a rest, as we order breakfast. Just strawberry yoghurt for Lam — “I had a very late dinner, until midnight” — but she urges me to try the egg-white omelette. I’m assured it’s very good, and very pretty, so I ask for the lot: with ham, feta and spinach. I am well into my second cup of coffee, and relishing her story. I can’t help gazing at her hair, which is an installation in itself: a stiff glossy mop that balloons high and wide around her narrow almond face, deep black with a crow’s-wing sheen of brilliant red-purple. How on earth . . ?
She goes on. It wasn’t until 2004 that she opened her first gallery, and that was in Shanghai — which had gradually started to feel more familiar, and where she encountered fascinating artists making work “because they loved it, not for the market — there wasn’t a market”. Design came first, then a second gallery a couple of years later focused on contemporary art.
By now, Lam was regularly spending her time between Hong Kong, Shanghai and back with friends in London: a pattern that has continued. Obviously restless and super-energetic, her three homes in those cities occupy her time almost equally in a jet-setting single life that seems a world away from that of her traditional upbringing.
As the galleries first took shape, she tells me, she was well on her “journey to learn to become Chinese”, relishing the newfound culture and using her gallery as a platform for the art and design — “Shanghai Deco!” — she discovered. The art of the moment was “mostly political pop”, she says, “which did not interest me so much but I wanted to find art and design that drew on the past.”
At the same time, though, her international reputation was growing, with invitations to organise collaborations between Chinese museums and French cultural authorities and other projects. Lam was rapidly becoming the powerhouse of Chinese contemporary culture that she is today, endlessly in motion and with a kind of wild dynamism about her.
She breaks off to exclaim, as my omelette arrives, “Oh! Isn’t that beautiful?” It is: a perfectly round fluffy snow-white pouffe sits in front of me. I can’t think of much to say in return about her yoghurt, but there’s no need: it’s clear, despite the fabled dining table in her apartment seating 66 people, that food isn’t high on the list of priorities. The omelette is almost tasteless, small squares of industrial ham notwithstanding. The spinach has quite sensibly gone Awol. This is how, I think to myself, you get to be as sparrow-slim as she is.
It really doesn’t matter. We’re rushing on to 2011 — the year, Lam tells me, when everything really changed. “Interest in contemporary art suddenly started to grow,” she says, “and even the government looked at it differently — though it was often about investment.” So it was time for her first Hong Kong gallery, in 2012, and for a name-change: the early “Contrasts” became simply Pearl Lam Galleries. The stable was completed in 2015 with her second Hong Kong space, in Sheung Wan, devoted to up-and-coming talents: the opening show, by Chinese artist Ren Ri, showed works in beeswax and acrylic. There’s also a foundation, her galleries in Singapore, an artist-in-residence programme and a range of other projects.
I know better than to ask a gallerist about their favourite artists: they would never want to go on the record about that. But looking through the stable of artists linked to her galleries, and her shows of visiting artists from around the area and around the world, it seems that her tastes are broad and eclectic: minimalists side by side with the lavishly decorative; big names shoulder to shoulder with emerging voices.
I do, however, ask her about the clients and collectors, especially those appearing from the newly art-aware Chinese mainland. “The collectors now, they are from the one-child policy time and they might have money from parents and grandparents, and they are collecting not so much for investment any more.”
And “new money”, she says, loves art. “For status, for everything. Once they start collecting, they are obsessive, that’s what Hong Kong people are like. Now instead of talking about golf, they talk about contemporary art.” Her laugh is nice — aimed at herself as well as others.
I’m keen to ask — though it’s hard to get in a question — about public art in the region. As Hong Kong fills up with more and more foreign mega-galleries (David Zwirner and Pace are just two of the art-world giants coming to the new H Queen’s building, a magnificent 24-storey gallery hub now under construction, all chasing the burgeoning wealth of the mainland), what about those missing museums?
“It’s so important. The M+ museum [under construction in West Kowloon] is so badly needed, to put us on a par with the west. We have to be on a par. You have to have that, the non-profit spaces.”
That week, too, I’d been hearing controversy in the city about the opening of an outpost of Beijing’s magnificent Palace Museum. But why would anyone not want that? Soft power from across the water? And surely it chimes perfectly, for Lam, with her mission as a sort of cultural ambassador, bringing each side to the other from her special position on the pivot of eastern and western sensibilities?
“There’s quite a lot of anger,” she replies. “Hong Kong, for some people, has become more political. In 1997 we produced [a large percentage] of China’s GDP — now we are dependent on them for everything. Even our water supply. China is like the parent, Hong Kong the child.
“But I think it will be very good to have that museum [of traditional art] — we all grew up knowing nothing about Chinese culture. We have to do that. I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t gone to [live in] China. Although it still took another 10 years for me to say I’m Chinese.”
As we get up to leave, the panorama of Hong Kong suddenly lit up in a burst of sunshine, it occurs to me that Pearl Lam is very like the city itself: a combination of irresistible, impulsive natural energy and improbable artifice. Her career has spanned the entire growth of the art scene in the region, both riding on it and driving it. She is one of a kind.
Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor
Illustration by Patrick Morgan