Pearl Lam refers to her younger self as a shopaholic. But instead of spending up on shoes and bags, the Hong Kong-raised businesswoman splurged on contemporary art. In doing so, she has built an empire of commercial art galleries across Asia - in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.
I met Lam briefly in person in May, as she opened a new show at her Hong Kong gallery in the city’s historic Pedder Building (now also host to outposts of major Western commercial galleries including London’s White Cube). She cut a commanding yet welcoming figure, in cool control of her space as crowds from around the world, in town for Art Basel Hong Kong, filed through.
Yet speaking to her by phone recently ahead of her visit to Australia this month for the Melbourne Art Fair, where she is the keynote guest, she sounded more like a giggly, giddy ball of energy.
Lam is the daughter of a Hong Kong real estate tycoon. When she returned to the-then colonial outpost more than 20 years ago, after spending several years studying in the UK, she was expected to join the family business. She duly did so, but it was not enough. After striking a deal with her father, she set up a temporary gallery for pop-up shows of contemporary art – then largely unknown to Asian audiences.
‘‘I started, as I call myself, as a shopaholic, because I like art,” Lam says. “When you’re a student you can’t afford art."
“When I started working in the property development company, I had some money; 1993 was my first real job, and at the same time I opened a gallery to do pop-up shows in Hong Kong. So that’s how I began.”
Lam admits she was “arrogant” about Chinese culture and felt it was inferior to Western art.
“I thought [the arts scene in Asia] was so uncool … When I went to China, I had this Western arrogance. I had been educated in England, I was living in Hong Kong. I really had this Hong Kong colonial attitude.”
But after a decade of living in China, she developed a strong appreciation for the culture: “I started telling people, ‘I am Chinese’. Through meeting contemporary artists, I have become Chinese, and I’m so proud of the Chinese culture.
“I was so ignorant, and arrogant … I felt so ashamed. I came back from England thinking I had superior genes or whatever. It took me years to start learning and understanding.
“So gradually by talking to the artists, and through - I have to tell you - through a translator, I could understand Mandarin, but I can’t speak [it]. My mother is from Shanghai, she spoke to us in Mandarin and we spoke to her in Cantonese. My Chinese standard is up to 11 years old. So it was very difficult.”
How did she then go from barely speaking the language to setting up a permanent gallery in Shanghai? She stopped working for her father and began staging exhibitions, working with Chinese museums, particularly during the China-France year of culture in 2003/04. “Through that experience I realised there was a lot of misunderstanding between the West and China.
“I said to myself, if I really want Chinese art to flourish, I need to make a platform. The Western perception of Chinese art wasn’t the real Chinese art.
“So I decided to open a physical gallery. I opened my first gallery in design in Shanghai in 2005. In 2006 I opened a [commercial] gallery in Shanghai.
“I was trying to find a different model other than the Western model, and of galleries. But I wasn’t successful, so I still had to follow the Western way.
“Because in China, art never [was] about [commerce]. It’s only starting from the 20th century. We didn’t even have a word [for] ‘artists’ or ‘art’ until 1907. We had the Chinese literati - they do poetry, literature, they do paintings, they do carvings, stamps …
“For thousands of years, China was using culture to rule China. The biggest aspiration in China was cultural enhancement, practising calligraphy, painting, all these sort of things.
“So I wanted to create a gallery that would inspire the Chinese artists to go back 200 years ago. They realised what the West was doing, the Chinese were driving [towards] reaching that point …”
While championing Chinese artists, she is also bringing those from the West to the attention of Asian audiences – including Australia’s Ben Quilty, a former Archibald Prize winner. Lam plans to visit his studio in rural NSW during her visit to Australia.
“I think that [his work] is very strong. I will show Ben either in Hong Kong or Singapore.”
Lam attributes her success to luck and timing. Her trajectory reflects that of Hong Kong’s transition from colonial rule to Chinese government, and of Asia’s standing in the contemporary art world.
“It just happened at the right timing, the right timing that China becomes more powerful, people [are] looking into Chinese [art]. My success is by default."
“Western galleries coming to Hong Kong for me is very exciting. If we want to be the part of the international scene, we need to raise the level, to be able to compete. If we do not do that, we will forever be a local gallery.”
Pearl Lam will join Professor Nikos Papastergiadis from the University of Melbourne in conversation at the Clemenger Auditorium, NGV International on Monday, August 11. The Melbourne Art Fair runs from August 13-17 at the Royal Exhibition Building.