Feb 23, 2012|
I think architecture is a byproduct of my interest in art when I was younger. I started painting when I was relatively young, in my early teens. I learned from school, and I was also a student of renowned Chinese ink brush painter Zhao Shao-ang, who’s no longer alive. I can’t say I was very good at math or science, so I thought, “Architecture is a good solution. I might do well.”
I started my career in hotels. I knew, at some point in school, that professional architecture wasn’t my thing. I felt that I didn’t have the discipline to be a really good architect. But I liked design, and I still loved architecture.
I tried to make a few bucks [in the food and beverage industry], which is what drew me into the hotel project development side of things. I was working for Shangri-La hotels in their project management division. I started getting involved in some smaller projects, like restaurants. It was exciting to see something change completely from ground zero, [from the] concept stage to reality. I was very fascinated by that whole process.
I was traveling in China three-quarters of the time. I managed to brush up my really horrible Mandarin and pretend that I know how to live in China and blend in with the people [laughs].
Every time I was assigned to these projects, I didn’t stay in the hotel because the hotel was actually not built [yet], so I stayed in the crappy hotel next door to the site. Meanwhile, I looked at all the renderings saying, “Wow, it’s beautiful, the architecture is amazing,” and then I went to work every morning to this flat piece of land. Then two months before the hotel opened, the GM and the operating team would take over and I went to the next [building site]. Maybe if they were nice to me, I’d get invited to the grand opening.
The whole transition to opening Press Room and Classified here involved quite a few years of ongoing conversation with my two friends, who eventually became my partners in business. As a big city, Hong Kong was missing something. We had all lived and worked abroad, and we thought that there were all these really cool restaurants abroad where it’s not fine dining, it’s not chi-chi but the vibe is very good and everyone’s having a good time, but we don’t see that here.
It was never meant to be a group. It was meant to be a one-off project. I mean, when you’re 25, I think you’d be pretty happy with one restaurant. To even have that when you’re 35 is pretty cool.
Hong Kong is inherently very difficult. It’s very expensive. You don’t want to end up having a business where you just pay rent to the landlord, so you need to be very careful. And just in terms of the natural quality of spaces in Hong Kong, it’s very difficult to find a New York-style, downtown industrial space—there’s nothing like that. Everything is malls… and malls… and another mall, and we wanted to get away from that. We weren’t particularly interested in being another Lan Kwai Fong restaurant.
One of the most significant inspirations that prompted us to start the business was Keith McNally, who runs a series of successful places in New York. One of the most famous restaurants he owns is Balthazar, a brasserie in Soho, which to date is still heaving every day. Over the years he continued to develop really interesting ideas, and he really stood by his beliefs.
We knew from day one [at the Ambassadors of Design Collective] that it’s a very long-term proposition to try and play catch-up with places like London, New York and Tokyo with design and creativity. Here, design is seen as a luxury rather than a part of our lives. Chinese people tend to be quite practical. When they look at design, they think that it’s just something that looks prettier or nicer. For someone with a design background, you understand that there’s always a function attached to design and it always goes back to certain social issues that you’re trying to solve. Design is a lot more than pretty things.
We had almost 60,000 people come through Detour this past November. I think the number shows that the city is actually ready for arts and culture. People used to say we were a cultural desert—I think things have changed a bit in the last few years. We’ve come a long way, but as a community we still need to work very hard to not just maintain our position, but to take things further.
I hope I’m not doing the same thing in 10 years’ time. I hope someone else will take over and further develop this! We shouldn’t be complacent.