Space crusader

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am

When Cissy Pao Watari returned from the US in 1992, she found her hometown wasn't a right environment for her to create freely. As one of the four daughters of the late tycoon Pao Yue-kong, she was not an unknown artist in Hong Kong as she used to be in New York.

It was then that she gave up making art and began to support the field as a patron. As honorary president of the Hong Kong Arts Centre and chairman emeritus of the Hong Kong Ballet, Pao has chaired both organisations' board of governors for six and 12 years respectively, during which time she was involved in their promotion and fundraising activities.

Pao's contribution to Hong Kong's visual and performing arts community earned her the distinguished achievement award of the Hong Kong Dance Awards in 2004, and the Bronze Bauhinia Star from the Hong Kong government in 2006. This month she will receive the Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award, which is also being given to 11 other people from different regions, including Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, US Grammy award-winning producer and composer Quincy Jones, and British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Each recipient will get Euro15,000 (approximately HK$145,500) out of the prestigious annual award to donate to an arts programme of their choice.

The award is 'symbolically fantastic', says Pao - even though Euro15,000 is not a huge sum, she admits with a candid smile, sitting in a modest conference room at the Art Centre. The clerical atmosphere is a contrast to her smart casual look of a black-and-beige striped jacket, and a ring with a glittering scorpion.

But, 'even just a couple of hundred thousand dollars, to any NGO, it means a lot', Pao says. She will donate her prize to a local NGO called Public Art Hong Kong (PAHK) - and match the amount from her own pocket.

The organisation commissions art projects for display in Hong Kong's public spaces. 'This is an area that I want to focus on and get more attention for,' Pao says. As she sees it, public art seems even more visible in third-tier cities on the mainland than in our so-called world city.

'I think it's important for Hong Kong to have public artworks, to show that we're not only a city that is thriving financially but also culturally, that we're a sophisticated city,' says Pao, who's also chair of PAHK's board of councillors.

The non-profit organisation is funded by the Y.K. Pao Foundation, named after Pao's father who, in 1955, founded the World-Wide Shipping Group.

Since its establishment in 2005, PAHK has presented sculptures, illustrations and mixed-media installations at the Art Centre, the Quarry Bay Park, Government Offices (in Tsuen Wan and Cheung Sha Wan) plus tram exteriors, created by local and overseas artists such as Leung Chi-wo, Man Fung-yi, Michael Lin and Sui Jianguo.

'We would like to do a lot more, but it's not been an easy journey because we deal with public space, which is basically government's space. I was a bit naive when I started [PAHK] because I didn't realise we would have to go through a lot of governmental procedures,' Pao says.

'The frustrating thing is there were projects that you almost thought you would get but then there was one little department that didn't agree to it and the whole - say, two years of work - just fell apart.'

Pao says it's a waste of financial resources and manpower. 'I want the government to be aware that NGOs really cannot spend all their time applying for things.'

Most of PAHK's projects are, therefore, housed by its executing organisation, the Art Centre, which Pao calls her 'own place'.

'I have a certain love and passion for the Art Centre.' She was among the first batch of artists presented by the organisation in the 1970s even before its building in Wan Chai was in use.

That building now contains the Pao Galleries, a major art exhibition venue named in honour of her philanthropist father and grandfather Pao Sui-loong. 'So I feel very strongly about this place.'

Pao is well versed in the visual arts - she studied art history at the University of Washington (where she met her husband, Shinichiro Watari, an architecture student at that time), and then painting and sculpture at the Cleveland Institute of Arts. She stayed in New York in the 1980s, making artworks that were subsequently collected by museums, corporations and private collectors, including the Hong Kong Museum of Art and HSBC.

Asked if she had always dreamed of being an artist Pao quickly says: 'No. Never. I didn't have a dream like that.' Her passion for the arts took some time to grow, evolving over time.

She chose the University of Washington for her studies simply because she was bored by her privileged upbringing (along with her three sisters) under ultra-protective parents, and wanted to go abroad. 'I chose art history only when I got there,' adds Pao, who had studied science subjects in school but became bored with them.

After her father's death in 1991 she felt the urge to venture into the commercial field where he had so excelled. Since then she's been involved in real estate investment and property development in Hong Kong.

An active participant in urban renewal projects in Shanghai, she chats excitedly about her trips to Shanghai and how to turn a slum into a beautiful villa by paying attention to details.

And being an art patron? 'I don't think of myself as an art patron. Frankly, what is an art patron? I'm just a human being who tries to live a full life. And I think art plus business together give me a full life because if all you do is strictly business, it's so boring, right?'