Inside Art Basel Hong Kong

Sophie Hastings travels the world to report on the fairs, festivals, biennales, new galleries and artists’ hubs that make up the international contemporary art scene. She was a Hong Kong resident back in the mid-Nineties and has followed its cultural transformation ever since, culminating in the recent arrival of Art Basel Hong Kong. Here’s her insider’s guide to the hottest art spots on the island

Hong Kong has always been the most captivating, beautiful, gritty and filmic of cities, with the Star Ferry chugging back and forth to the mainland, lush, vertiginous views from the Peak, and breakfasts of giant dumplings and steaming pots of tea in Wan Chai. But with no museum, no theatre, and no art scene, Hong Kong lacked a cultural focus and could only offer shopping to fill the gap.

As a young journalist there, I got to know a couple of pioneering local galleries and several key Hong Kong figures, and over the years, thanks to them, the island has grown an art scene to rival any major international art hub – while all the time retaining its unique spirit. Art Basel’s arrival brings real infrastructure and know-how to this wonderfully idiosyncratic territory, and the combination is thrilling. I can’t stop going back.

Art Basel has long been acknowledged as the world’s most prestigious modern and contemporary art fair, but these days, with its wildly successful Hong Kong and Miami Beach sister fairs, it’s a global phenomenon. An inimitable blend of art market expertise, intellectual stimulation and sheer glamour, the Swiss behemoth attracts the art world’s most powerful and influential collectors, curators, museum directors and gallery owners, as well as celebrities, billionaires, fashionistas and social commentators.

Even artists attend Art Basel fairs. Whether it’s Tracey and Damien hanging out at Soho Beach House (Miami Beach), Jim Lambie DJ-ing an art party in a kitsch Cantonese restaurant, or design guru Stephen Bayley debating art and beauty with cross-dressing video artist Ming Wong, the art stars are present – and they usually avoid fairs like the plague.

Hong Kong is the ideal location for an international art fair. Heaving with charm and character, Hong Kong is a hybrid city where east meets west, old meets new, Art Deco architecture sits happily beside the city’s ubiquitous neon, and the world’s top architects are hired to create minimalist white cube spaces inside iconic buildings. Local gallery and Chinese contemporary art institution Hanart TZ, is joined in the historic Peddar Building by westerners Gagosian, Simon Lee and Lehmann Maupin as well as the flamboyant Hong Konger Pearl Lam, whose eponymous gallery stimulates east-west cultural exchange.  Nearby, at 50 Connaught Road, White Cube has opened its first non-UK space, while the staggering views at blue-chip French gallery, Emmanuel Perrotin, on the 17th floor, threaten to outshine the art.

With its British-based legal system, freedom of speech and minimal taxes, Hong Kong is a great place for the global art scene to do business. Sotheby’s opened its 15,000 sq ft state-of-the-art gallery in 2012 and Christie’s holds its Asian and Chinese modern art sales in May to coincide with the fair.

But Hong Kong’s own art scene, slated as ‘the next big thing’, is definitely worth exploring. Key destinations are Para/Site Art SpaceSpring Workshop, the Cattle Depot and M+ (Hong Kong’s future museum for visual culture). Conceptual artist Stanley Wong, who donated 36 works to M+, runs the island’s coolest lounge bar, The Pawn, in a tenement building that once housed the infamous Woo Cheong pawn shop; while collector Sir David Tang covers the walls with art at his exclusive bar/restaurant the China Club, an exquisite evocation of 1930s Shanghai.

Tang has just opened a lifestyle shop, Tang Tang Tang Tang, on the ground floor beneath The Pawn, and the Hong Kong-born entrepeneur also owns two fumoirs (all 1930s Havana with 300 types of cigar) in the Pedder Building and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. For top end eating, try Tang’s China Tang restaurant in the Landmark building, or for fantastic street level Dim Sum go to Tai Ping Koon in Causeway Bay. Hong Kong’s iconic skyline is best seen from the Star Ferry from Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon Peninsula, while Stanley Market is great for cheap souvenirs, and you’ll be surprised by the beauty of the beaches on the way.

Photo by MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG

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