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Pearl Lam

Daughter of the late Hong Kong tycoon Lim Por-yen, curator and gallery owner Pearl Lam has become a notable name in the art world. She tells Leanne Mirandilla about choosing an alternative career over her family business, her passion for Chinese art and her hopes for her new gallery.

By Leanne Mirandilla | May 17, 2012

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  • Pearl Lam

I was always interested in art. I don’t understand, because my parents didn’t have that vibe. None of these Hong Kong families are interested in art! At the beginning, my family thought I was ridiculous. “Art as a career? Are you joking? We don’t want a shopkeeper. Over 10 years in England and you come back to be a shopkeeper?”

They didn’t understand art because, in their eyes, in their minds, art is a hobby. You don’t make it into a career. They wanted me to [go into] property development. Or become a lawyer or a chartered accountant. Come on, can you see anything of me [in] that?

I wanted to study architecture and art at university, but my parents banned me. To please my parents, my first degree was in accounting and financial management. Then I did a conversion course into law and a master’s in law. I gave them what they wanted, as long as I could stay in England. Even now, I love London.

After university, I was sent to do property development [by my family]. Can you imagine? I knew nothing about property development. But it lasted for quite a few years. It was really difficult because, when I was in Shanghai, it was really the beginning [of the real estate industry there]. My friends said I was building a spaceship in a jungle.

We were doing pop-up shows [in Hong Kong] in the 90s—from ‘93 to ’98—that’s how I started. That’s why when people say “I do pop-up exhibitions” and they think they’re cool—my god, I did it 20 years ago!

In 2003, I pulled out from my family [business]. At the time, there was the French year in China, and the China year in France. China brought all these Chinese cultural events to France and France brought all these cultural events to China. It was just huge. I was asked by the French cultural attaché to think of some exhibitions.

I decided to set up an office to do exhibitions. One of them was called “La France Mandarin”—the French influence in Chinese art. All of this was non-profit, non-commercial.

Then I thought that I should do something on design. I wanted to put on a show in Shanghai and Beijing. There were queues of people waiting to go in, because it was the first time they ever saw scenography in a design show. It was really exciting. Then I came to Hong Kong and did a design show. I thought it [would be] really easy, but I didn’t have enough [of an] audience.

The timing in Hong Kong might have been wrong. It might have been too early. Instead of wasting my money, effort and time—because these were non-commercial shows with no audience—I decided that I should focus on China.

I decided, while I was in Shanghai, that I needed to have a gallery. [But] I still didn’t want to sit in a gallery, so I had to employ someone. That’s why I employed Magnus [Renfrew], who’s now the director of the Hong Kong Art Fair [ART HK], to run the galleries.

I believe in Chinese art, and I wanted to cultivate the Chinese audience and collectors in order to support the art. Everywhere [else] at the time was exporting, so I needed to have a physical space. To find a space was really difficult, because I was so fussy.

The last few years, my mother has been badgering me to return here. Because of ART HK, it really consolidated all of my interests and validated them. So obviously my mother said, “Why aren’t you back?”

I’ve been in Hong Kong for a month. I’ve never been in [any] city for a month! The maximum was two and a half weeks.

All I know, right now, is that there’s interest [in art in Hong Kong]. But the question we have to ask is whether it will be a real culture and art center or [just] an art market. Today it’s an art market. It’s very difficult for artists because rent is high. There are a lot of problems.

The whole of Asia has this phenomenal belief in using art as an investment—a speculative market. But I think that if you’re a collector, you’re not a speculator. I always explain that people will make 20 or 50 or 100 times [their investment] on an artwork if they bought it purely because they believed in it, because of their passion. They didn’t buy it because they were speculating. If you speculate, you won’t make that much.

The Chinese, traditionally, we have collectors’ blood in us. So I don’t understand what’s wrong now.

What I love to do is make artists international, make them rock stars. This is what I’m good at. I’ve made several artists into rock stars. I don’t want to mention names, or else people will say I’m arrogant.

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