Splash the cash
This Hong Kong eatery celebrates graffiti and street art
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