His namecard is the first thing you note about George Wong’s maximalist ethos: It’s big, more than twice the size of ordinary namecards. On its back, the executive chairman of the Hong Kong Parkview Group lists numerous boards and committees he sits on, including Wild Aid China, National Museum of China, and China Literature & Art Foundation. There are 20 organisations here – but you suspect there may be more.
Parkview Square is the group’s iconic art deco office building on North Bridge Road where the interview takes place. For a long time, some Singaporeans have called it Gotham Tower because its dark, imposing design looks like it’s been conceived in Batman’s Gotham City. You could also imagine Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby filmed here. Its lavish, oversized 15 metre-high lobby features art-filled walls and an opulent bronze ceiling – the perfect setting for a roaring 1920s flappers party.
So when Wong, one of Hong Kong’s richest men, sits down with you for the interview, you half-expect a Gatsby-esque personality. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
“I love art,” he declares as his almost-white shoulder-length mane sways in agreement. “Artists have such an influence on me because they create art through their own language. So in many of my developments, be it a hotel or office building or shopping mall, I try to put art in various spaces – even the toilets.”
On Thursday, Wong launched the Parkview Museum Singapore on the third floor of Parkview Square. Spread over 15,000 square feet of column-free space, the museum is open to the public and features contemporary artworks by international artists. It aims to generate art appreciation and buzz for the building, whose tenants include the honorary consulate of Oman and the embassies of the United Arab Emirates, Austria and Mongolia.
Wong says: “I’ve collected art for years. I’m good at math, but I’ve never sat down to count how many artworks I have. I must have tens of thousands – so many, in fact, that curators told me I should hold exhibitions so these works can be shared with other people.”
Wong frequently goes to art auctions. He enjoys the thrill of outbidding others for works he really loves. To date, he’s acquired works by modern and contemporary masters such as Van Gogh, Monet, Chagall, Magritte, Picasso, Dali, Zhang Xiaogang, Zheng Fanzhi and Liu Xiaodong. Like other deep-pocketed art collectors, Wong has had famous artists such as Zheng and Hyung Koo Kang paint his visage.
“Zheng Fanzhi painted an image of me and my son on a large two-metre by two-metre canvas. The image was a one-to-one scale,” he says proudly, showing a picture of the painting on his iPhone 7.
He swipes his phone several more times before showing another picture: “This is Liu Xiaodong and me in Italy, after his Palazzo Strozzi Foundation show. I bought two of his best paintings. He is drunk in this picture.” He guffaws conspiratorially.
For the inaugural exhibition at Parkview Museum, Wong has chosen to showcase art centred on a social theme. Titled On Sharks & Humanity, the show features some two dozen works by mostly Chinese artists responding to the practice of shark finning and the impact of human activity on the oceans. Curated by the well-regarded Beijing curator Huang Du, the show includes a selection of Singaporean works by Robert Zhao Renhui, Royston Tan and David Chan.
Wong says: “I love shark’s fin soup. But about five years ago, I decided to stop eating it because I became more aware of what’s happening to the shark population. Even at official government functions, shark’s fin is no longer served, and I think all these efforts have had a good effect in reducing the number of sharks being killed.”
Some of the compelling artworks include Yang Kai’s installation of a shark painted in Chinese ink and surrounded by metal hooks, Yu Yang’s shark sculpture made entirely out of real harpoons used to kill sharks, and You Jin’s vivid semi-abstract painting that reflects on the shark’s fin industry.
“I love shark’s fin soup. But about five years ago, I decided to stop eating it because I became more aware of what’s happening to the shark population.
– George Wong
Besides environmentally-themed shows, the museum also wants to shine the spotlight on emerging contemporary artists as well as historically significant art movements.
Some 90 per cent of the works on show will come from Wong’s private collection. He says: “I’m amazed at the history of art. There’s so much to learn and so much to get lost in… And I think, after years of working hard, I now have a bit of money to spoil myself by buying art I like.”
When asked which is the single most expensive artwork he owns, Wong replies with a smile: “My wife.” If Gatsby had gotten Daisy, he’d say the same.
Adapted from The Business Times.