Zen and the art of the shopping mall
It was 2002 and Adrian Cheng Chi-kong was in Kyoto studying Japanese art and culture as part of a Stanford University overseas studies programme. There, the fresh-faced grandson of property tycoon Cheng Yu-tung and heir to the New World Development and Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group empires had a profound 'artistic experience' that would change the way he looked at art forever - and it had nothing to do with a painting, or a performance, or a piece of music.
'Our school is right next to the famous Zen Buddhist temple and landscape garden Nanzenji and, every day, at certain moments, you would hear nothing around but the Nanzenji bell - boom, boom, boom - it was both a spiritual and artistic revelation,' the 32-year-old Cheng said.
'That moment was very special. You'd be inside a classroom studying, but when you heard the bell you started to lose your entire attention and, listening to that sound for 10 to 15 minutes, you get lost in that world. Every day, when I finished school, I walked around Nanzenji and enjoyed the architecture, serenity, tranquility and the landscape.
'This artistic experience is not so much about looking at, and liking, an art piece; it's being surrounded by art, enwrapped by this art world created, or curated, by the Japanese.'
After another thoughtful pause, he adds that art for him is like a mystical experience in which he loses control and is pulled into another world created by an artist. 'Everything around me disappears and I totally lose myself in the work. For me, that's very powerful.'
His K11 Art Mall in Tsim Sha Tsui is not exactly Nanzenji, but the Harvard University graduate is trying to create that same kind of engaging experience for his customers with art.
'Maybe that is what I'd always envisioned a commercial space should be, but in a different manifestation,' Cheng says.
To a large extent, K11, a seven-level shopping mall that Cheng opened in 2009 'to blend art, culture and commerce together', is a hybrid projection of Cheng's ideals. Having graduated from Harvard with a humanities degree, he worked for investment banks Goldman Sachs and UBS before joining the family business. But as he has said before, art has always been something at the core of his being; which might explain why he can switch so seamlessly between business and artspeak. One minute he would be musing about K11 being an incubator for up-and-coming local artists, another he would talk about the commercialisation of art and consumer databases. Sometimes it's hard to figure out whether he is a businessman who speaks like an artist or vice versa.
A quick check of the statistics shows that the mall part of K11 is doing well, receiving more than one million visitors a month and with total sales between January and March this year at double the level for the same period in 2010. His art mall concept also seems to be catching on in the mainland, with a K11 opening in Wuhan in 2010. Another is scheduled to launch in Shanghai in September, and Chen plans 12 more similar projects across the mainland in the next five years.
What about the art? Entering K11, the extent of the art on display isn't immediately apparent because some of the pieces have shoppers sitting on them - Man Fung-yi's metal lattice installations Wisdom of Nature among them. But that's the idea Cheng is trying to promote; that art is not something people can't touch, it is about living.
Visitors will have to search for other pieces, by Kum Chi-keung, Olafur Eliasson, Teppei Kaneuji, Lam Tung-pang, Chu Hing-wah and Jaffa Lam Laam, among the shops. And though Cheng has a Damien Hirst (Wretched War) in his collection, local visitors won't be seeing that soon 'because we don't have space. As you can tell, we are actually quite packed'. The piece will go on display in Shanghai when it opens.
Cheng says he adopts different strategies to get people interested in the arts through his design store, gallery space and programmes such as the international short-film festival. He also encourages people, including his own staff, to read more. At the moment, he is reading The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda. 'The world is getting chaotic and humans are getting more forgetful. We forget that happiness is directly correlated to simplicity. We should go back to our roots.'
To sceptics who say K11 is nothing more than a commercial gimmick, Cheng says: 'We really wholeheartedly want to support local artists. Whether we do it successfully or not, it depends on that person's perspective. But when you have a heart, it's not purely commercial.'
Cheng says he is building an audience for the arts through K11. 'We are a shopping mall that has high traffic levels, so we can convert these people, help them to appreciate art and design. We have been effective in our role as an educator. We have nearly 60,000 Facebook fans and these are people who definitely like our concept. So slowly we are creating a culture for them. I'm happy I'm helping in art development in Hong Kong.
'Having a 340,000 sq ft mall, we are happy that we are making a small impact, not a big one, but a small impact.'
Adrian Cheng Chi-kong
Currently: Executive director and joint general manager of New World Development, executive director of Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group, New World China Land and New World Department Store
Previously: Goldman Sachs and UBS
Education: Bachelor of Arts, Harvard University
Personal life: Married. Wife is Jennifer Yu, an education entrepreneur