‘I thought I was god’s gift to China’: art gallery owner Pearl Lam on her ‘colonial attitude’ and embracing her ethnicity

If I came back to Hong Kong, I’d have to behave, I was someone’s daughter, I belonged to that family.

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I wanted to study art or architecture, but my father cut my financial expenses so I couldn’t do it. I ended up studying accountancy and financial management at the University of Buckingham.

What was amazing was that there was a ratio of five boys to one girl – I had such a great time there. I loved my university life.

I knew that if I wanted to stay in the UK, I had to do something. So I did a conversion course from accountancy to law at City University, because that’s what my father approved of. I just wanted to delay returning to Hong Kong.

With my first month’s salary, I bought two paintings by Shanghainese artist Sun Liang

Pearl Lam

Shanghai surprise

Eventually reality called and I came back to Hong Kong in 1992. My father sent me to do a development project in Shanghai, the construction of 41 Hengshan Road.

I can see now how fortunate I was to be sent to Shanghai, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. I couldn’t speak a word of Mandarin. I was 22 and didn’t know how to do a big project like that, but it was an enlightening experience.

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With my first month’s salary, I bought two paintings by Shanghainese artist Sun Liang from Ho Gallery. He became a friend and introduced me to the art scene in Shanghai, taking me to galleries and art studios.

Because my Mandarin was bad, I brought my secretary with me the first time. Then I began employing postgraduate students with an art background to translate into English for me.

Lam was sent by her father to the city to supervise a construction project that helped shape the Shanghai skyline. Photo: Getty Images

Arrogant to inquisitive

In my early days in Shanghai, I had a really colonial attitude, I thought I was god’s gift to China. Luckily, I couldn’t speak Chinese, or I would have been stepping on everyone’s feet without realising it.

Because I was trying to catch up and understand, I became more inquisitive than arrogant and that saved my life. I was open to seeing different things.

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All expenses paid

Between 1993 and 1998, I began doing pop-up shows in Hong Kong. I stopped because of the Asian financial crisis [of 1997] and I was in and out of Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Forty One Hengshan Road was completed in 2002 and people often say it helped to shape the Shanghai skyline. Property wasn’t me – at one point, I had to learn about sewage treatment plants – but it was a great learning process.

Hong Kong politician Maria Tam Wai-chu (right), Michael Chin (left), associate director of the China department at Richard Ellis and Dominic Leung, executive director at Richard Ellis with a model of Forty One Hengshan Road. Lam supervised its construction. Photo: SCMP

My deal with my parents at the time was that I could spend three weeks in Shanghai, two weeks in Hong Kong and two weeks in London – travel expenses and everything paid for. I am very connected to the UK and spend a lot of time there.

Proud at last

My first 10 years in Shanghai was all about meeting people, listening and learning. I didn’t learn in a formal way, going to lectures; I learned from what people said to me. I always had someone there, taking notes and doing translation and research for me.

The more I learned, the more I realised I really should be proud of being Chinese, that Chinese culture is superior to Western culture

Pearl Lam
I consider myself very lucky because I witnessed the rise of Chinese contemporary art. Initially, it was all foreigners buying art, it wasn’t until 2011 that the Chinese came into the market.
In 2003, during the Sars epidemic [in Hong Kong], I was in Paris and London. The French cultural attaché in Hong Kong asked if I’d like to prepare an exhibition about the French influence in Chinese art.

I prepared two exhibitions. It was only then that I began telling people I was Chinese. It took me 10 years. The more I learned, the more I realised I really should be proud of being Chinese, that Chinese culture is superior to Western culture.

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At the end of 2003, I went to Shanghai, set up an office and employed a team for a year to create a show. “Awakening: La France Mandarin” opened at the National Gallery in Beijing and the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre.

We also brought the French designer Andrée Putman’s design show to Shanghai and Beijing and the Hong Kong Design Centre.

Contemporary conduit

When the museum show was opened, I got my mother involved and asked her to cut the ribbon. She saw people thanking me and her friends told her, “This is great, you should let Pearl do what she wants.” So, things got better.

Art wasn’t something my mother would have supported for me, but things did get better. I wanted to open a gallery, to have a platform to show Chinese abstract and ink brush work, works that people hadn’t been focusing on.

Lam, art curator Lesley Ma and artist Etsu Egami at a gala dinner in 2022. Photo: Pearl Lam

Commercially, what people recognised as Chinese contemporary art was political, but that is the Western definition of Chinese contemporary art, it is not the real thing.

My dad passed away in 2005 and later that year I opened my gallery in Shanghai. I wanted to do design because I love design. I started inviting international designers to China to experience Chinese traditional handicrafts.

In 2012, I opened a gallery (Pearl Lam Galleries) in Hong Kong.

Lam is the daughter of tycoon and founder of the Lai Sun Group, Lim Por-yen. Photo: SCMP

Conquering the world

I’m really bad with administration and management, so I leave that to my staff. I usually see artists and collectors. Whoever I think is great, I’ll send the link to my curator, David Chan.

America is still the centre of contemporary art, so I have to be there and see what is happening. Recently, I’ve been going to Africa to look at African art. My first trip was to Lagos and next we are going back to Nigeria as well as visiting Ghana and Senegal.

During Covid, I started representing artists like Mr Doodle and Philip Colbert. I have really learned from them.

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Air time

I’m never stationed in one place. Before Covid, I’d spend a month in Asia, going all over the region – Tokyo and Korea, visiting artists in their studios and collectors – and then spend a month in Europe, London and Paris, and from there go to Los Angeles and New York.

I like winter, I don’t like summer. So, during summer in the Western hemisphere I’d often go to Australia or South America for two or three weeks and the rest of the time I’d be between Hong Kong and China.

I was in London during Covid for nearly two years and realised I enjoyed it. Now I spend more time in London. I think I fly more than a pilot.

Lam at her gallery in Central. Photo: Tommy Tang

Happy families

I am on good terms with all my ex-boyfriends and call them my extended family. I see them all the time and we speak often.

Most of their girlfriends and wives are now also my friends. As soon as they have children, I am really good to them, everything changes. I have a very big extended family. We are close. I have homes in London, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

I am very lucky to have a job that is based on my passion. I am learning about different cultures and from different generations. From this new generation of twenty-something artists I have learned how they communicate and see the world.

I am very happy that I’m doing what I do, it pushes me to be open-minded. We are really celebrating diversity – that’s what I am in this world.

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