Pearl of Wisdom
Glamorous gallerina Pearl Lam opens the doors of her second Hong Kong gallery this month. She tells Madeleine Ross about the merits of frivolity and her mission to rid the world of homogeneity
ulture is getting so boring,” declares Pearl Lam in her husky British accent. Reclining on a couch at Sevva, Lam’s pseudo-office while she’s in Hong Kong, the magenta-haired maven sips tea and muses exuberantly on the finer points of Confucianism, colonialism and creativity.
Eccentric, erudite and candid, she’s the sort of person you can imagine would have relished a career as a perpetual student, had professional success not got in the way. “Globalisation,” she continues, “is promoting a homogenous culture, and this banal homogeneity is so bloody boring.”
Boring has no place in Lam’s worldview. A poster girl for individuality in life and art, she has forged a career out of rejecting convention. The daughter of Lai Sun Group founder Lim Por-yen, Lam spurned the prospect of working for her father’s property empire and flung herself, against his will, into the art world. Throughout the 1990s and the early millennium, her father treated her preoccupation with art and design as a flippant idiosyncrasy. When the Western contemporary art market exploded in 2004, and China’s a couple of years later, her peculiar obsession was rebranded as foresight and she was recognised as an authority on Asian contemporary art.
Fast-forward to 2015 and Pearl Lam Galleries are now landmarks in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong. This month Lam expands her footprint from her existing space in the Pedder Building to a second Hong Kong gallery at Soho 189 on Queen’s Road West, which will focus on emerging artists. Her booth at Art Basel in Hong Kong is also sure to be a highlight, with works from artists including Zhu Jinshi and Barthélémy Toguo. Her galleries, which exhibit contemporary Western and Asian art, aim to stimulate crosscultural dialogue between the East and West.
Lam’s mission, as she sees it, is to promote a sort of cultural relativism in art appreciation. “When we talk about contemporary art in the West, we talk about art which is derived from modernism. Our appreciation, our view, how we see things, all stem from Western art theory. But Chinese contemporary art does not necessarily derive from modernism,” she says. When Lam talks about globalisation promoting homogeneity, she’s talking about this blanket approach, one she feels is fundamentally flawed. “Our roots are so vastly different from those of the West, so we cannot use Western contemporary art theory to judge the East.”
Lam refers to herself as a bridge between East and West, but this wasn’t always so. Educated in Britain, she thrived in the cosmopolitan surrounds of London and appeased her father by earning a degree in accounting and financial management, followed by a master’s in law. She did what she had to do to stay in the UK. “I didn’t want to come back to Hong Kong to start my profession as my father’s daughter. I just wanted to lie low, get out of their sight, be as far away as possible, lead my own life and be myself. It was really hard to be myself [in Hong Kong] because I’m different. I didn’t want to be the norm—the nice girl.”
Lam was lured into the world of art and design when she redecorated her London flat. As her spending grew, her father saw it as “frivolous” and insisted she return to Hong Kong. She saw a solution: if her father wanted her back, she’d oblige—but armed with a career that would guarantee copious overseas travel. “I thought if I started a gallery, then I’d get to deal with international artists, so it would give me an excuse to leave Hong Kong