Splash the cash

This Hong Kong eatery cel­e­brates graf­fiti and street art

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - TONY PER­ROT­TET

It’s a steamy night in Hong Kong, and I’m weav­ing along Hol­ly­wood Road, She­ung Wan, when I no­tice a strange golden door­way next to gilded let­ter­ing: La Com­pag­nie Gen­erale Fran­caise de Tramways. An an­tique brass tube pro­trudes with a but­ton at the end.

In­trigued by this nod to Jules Verne (it sug­gests the Nau­tilus sub­ma­rine in Twenty Thou­sand Leagues Un­der the Sea), I push the but­ton. The door­way glides open to re­veal a nar­row vestibule glow­ing with orig­i­nal paint­ings, in­clud­ing a large can­vas by Jean-Michel Basquiat and three “icons” by Shep­ard Fairey of the Obama “Hope” poster fame. A spi­ral stair­case leads down­wards, and I emerge into a buzzing cock­tail lounge, dec­o­rated like a hip­ster art col­lec­tor’s love nest. A Damien Hirst skull sits on a shelf, the book­cases are spray-painted with women’s faces and the Mr Brain­wash (MBW) piece by the lava­tory door shows a monkey with a spray can who has just graf­fi­tied the mes­sage “Fol­low Your Dreams”.

Be­yond lies a restau­rant, where a crowd clad in the likes of Prada and Gucci re­clines be­neath a ceil­ing of gi­ant bronze pipes. Here, a tall wooden statue by the US artist Kaws sug­gests a hun­gover Mickey Mouse. “Wel­come to Bibo,” says the maitre d’, with finely oiled hair, retro vest and bow tie, look­ing just like a Chi­nese Gatsby. “It’s the world’s first street art restau­rant.”

In the past five years, Hong Kong has pro­claimed it­self the con­tem­po­rary art cap­i­tal of Asia, with Sotheby’s and Christie’s do­ing a roar­ing trade and blue-chip gal­leries such as New York’s Gagosian tak­ing up res­i­dence. The an­nual Art Basel Hong Kong fair has be­come the linch­pin of the trav­el­ling art world, bring­ing West­ern col­lec­tors to meet the brave new artists of main­land China.

But Bibo could well be the most he­do­nis­tic man­i­fes­ta­tion of this new cre­ative im­pe­tus. It opened last year in a 1930s for­mer French tramways of­fice and pur­ports to com­bine as­pects of global art cul­ture, haute cui­sine and “un­der­ground art”, as seen in fash­ion­ably arty dis­tricts such as Man­hat­tan’s Chelsea or Lon­don’s Fitzrovia, but con­tained here in a sin­gle over-the-top designer space. The ex­pat owner, known only as Bibo, main­tains anonymity to give the place an ex­tra level of mys­tery (and hype).

Ner­vously cal­cu­lat­ing my credit card bal­ance, I plunge into the cos­mopoli­tan foray, knock­ing back a Cof­fin Var­nish cock­tail in the lounge be­fore sampling the del­i­ca­cies of an African-French chef who has trained with Alain Du­casse in Paris. The eclec­tic morsels al­most re­quire a dic­tio­nary of gas­tro­nomic terms to de­ci­pher — pan-seared foie gras with grena­dine-poached rhubarb; hamachi carpac­cio topped with chilli and Ja­panese shiso; Hokkaido sea urchin with Baeri caviar. Be­tween cour­ses, I wan­der the restau­rant try­ing to iden­tify the “sub­ver­sive” art. There are works by A-lis­ters such as Banksy, who has painted Abra­ham Lin­coln look­ing like a drug-ad­dled zom­bie, and lesser-known cre­ators with street names such as D*Face and Blek le Rat. One called In­vader has con­trib­uted a site-spe­cific piece on a Space In­vaders theme. For an­other im­pres­sive work, an artist has carved a por­trait di­rectly into a con­crete wall.

Else­where, din­ers sit be­neath a se­ries of screen-painted images of fash­ion god­dess (and art scene regular) Kate Moss. For lo­cal tal­ent, the loopy Hong Kong street artist known as the King of Kowloon of­fers a mo­tor­cy­cle en­crusted in el­e­gant graf­fiti; he was once no­to­ri­ous for start­ing legal cases to claim an­ces­tral lands within the busi­ness dis­trict of Cen­tral, lo­ca­tion of per­haps the world’s most ex­pen­sive real es­tate.

I have to won­der what Banksy might make of this space, hav­ing de­clared in one of his works “Art Should Com­fort the Dis­turbed and Disturb the Com­fort­able”. It is hard to imag­ine any­one’s di­ges­tion be­ing un­set­tled here. But like much con­tem­po­rary art, the in­tent is per­haps not to pro­voke di­rectly. The mys­te­ri­ous Bibo later ad­vises me via email that his main aim is to have street art taken more se­ri­ously. “Had Pi­casso painted in the streets of Hong Kong, peo­ple would prob­a­bly not have stopped and con­tem­plated his works be­cause of the set­ting they were in. In a restau­rant it is a to­tally dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence ... Peo­ple have the time to im­merse them­selves and ap­pre­ci­ate (the) true value,” he writes.

Af­ter pay­ing my $300 bill, I pay my last re­spects to a Basquiat by the bath­room with a value (to my in­ex­pert eye) that must be in the hun­dreds of thou­sands. A waiter con­fides that the in­sur­ance and se­cu­rity pre­cau­tions for the works are of “the high­est level”. But this is clearly a place where ur­ban mas­ter­pieces are meant to be shared, which seems a good thing as I head out past a ta­ble of ex­pat fi­nanciers toast­ing each other with co­pi­ous amounts of red wine. I imag­ine even Banksy might ob­ject to splashes of caber­net sau­vi­gnon, no mat­ter how spon­ta­neously ap­plied. • bibo.hk

Bibo is adorned with con­tem­po­rary art, in­clud­ing a large Mickey Mouse-like statue by Kaws, above; the lounge, far left; en­trance to the venue, left; a Damien Hirst skull

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