PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 June, 2003, 12:00am

SHE SITS FRAMED by a gleaming wooden booth of the China Club, her jet-black bob swinging as she sips a spoonful of shark's fin soup. When she looks up, it's easy to see why so many artists have fallen under her spell. Draped in pearls and dazzling with charm, Shirley Hui could be any artist's muse.

Instead, she has been their guardian. Since 1993 Hui has played a significant role in opening up the Vietnamese art scene to Hong Kong and the West, and propelling artists' careers out of obscurity. During the early 1990s her Lan Kwai Fong-based gallery, Galerie La Vong, was the window of opportunity for a generation of Vietnamese painters who were barely surviving in a society that didn't allow commercial galleries. Hui slipped in, found the artists and introduced them to the rest of the world.

This week she is holding a 10th anniversary show at Exchange Square's The Rotunda. Considering the market these days, and the fact that interest in Vietnamese art has exploded in the past decade - with competing galleries opening in Hong Kong and in Vietnam - it is remarkable that she is still in business. Or is she?

Hui suggests that business has slowed considerably over the years, but she isn't one to complain. Hui runs her gallery for pleasure alone.

'I think that's why our gallery works,' she says. 'We don't have that pressure of supporting a family. We don't have to give in to commercial pressure, we've been very lucky.'

Hui's life story attracted the media when Galerie La Vong first opened. As the daughter of one of Hong Kong's taipans, oil tycoon Seung Kai-hong: 'I was born in a family of 10 children, I'm number nine. My father lived in an era of polygamy, so I am the daughter of the third wife.'

She also earned a doctorate in chemical physics at Harvard in the 1960s. A visit to Vietnam in 1991 with her husband sparked her love affair with art.

'The American trade embargo had just lifted and we went in and didn't know what to expect. Of course it was totally different from today. There were no tourists, no commercial galleries, the artists just painted for themselves.'

Accompanied by an art critic, they were led to an underground network of artists: Do Quang Em's studio being the first on their list. The master of portraiture and still life, who has since become one of the country's most acclaimed living painters, became Hui's first newly found 'friend'.

'I just loved their work, the simplicity, the directness attracted me,' Hui says. 'We kept going back in 1991 and 92 and I bought nearly 30 works from Em and other artists.'

Her husband suggested she opened a gallery to support the habit. On her return to Hong Kong she was met with looks of absolute horror, however. 'At that time in 1993 if you talked about Vietnam, they only knew about the boat people. My friends were shocked, a number of them, well-known businessmen, said, 'Shirley you'll be closed in six months'. One friend, an art lover who owned a gallery, said, 'Shirley, you know what, you'll be hurt. When all these artists are established, they'll go their own way and leave you'.'

She lays her arms down on the table and leans forward: 'I thought, 'Well! If that could happen, if I could be that successful, that powerful, then I would be happy for the artists!''

Prophetic words. Galerie La Vong was a hit as soon as it opened. Art lovers in Hong Kong were struck by the unique marriage of Eastern subject matter and Western techniques in the Vietnamese works: the French painting tradition instilled by the Ecole des Beaux Arts De L'Indochine in Hanoi in 1925, mixed with a distinctively Vietnamese subject matter.

''In those years we were able to acquire some fine paintings,' says Hui.

The gallery showcased such early masters as the late Bui Xuan Phai, one of the last graduates of the Ecole. He inspired an emerging generation of artists, as seen in the cityscapes of Pham Luan and Le Thanh Son.

Sourcing art from other early masters such as Trinh Cung, Tran Luu Hau and Duong Tuong, Hui gradually built up a portfolio of the country's finest artists. She hunted down Dang Xuan Hoa after seeing a portrait he had painted for a friend. 'I went to Hanoi and looked for his home, it was really difficult because he lived in the countryside and we had to trek through rice paddies to get to his home. I had the most warm welcome and immediately we became friends.'

The gallery published two books on contemporary Vietnamese art, with comprehensive essays about the country's art history, but by the late 1990s the tide was beginning to turn. Commercial galleries were sprouting on every Vietnamese street corner and Hui says she was 'their enemy'.

The Vietnamese galleries 'were very jealous of us, it put me in a very bad situation', she says.

The commercial ventures didn't have access to Hui's stable of leading painters, as most of the artists were afraid of their work being copied if they showed it in Vietnam. But as artists gave in to the commercial incentive to paint for local galleries, buyers began to bypass the middleman.

Hui evades questions about how well business is going. Competition with other galleries in Hong Kong, she says, is not an issue. 'I'm not worried because as long as we get the best work, that's all I care about.'

The anniversary show is a testament to her work. All of the major names in recent Vietnamese art history are being shown in more than 60 paintings spanning three generations. The eldest masters, including Phai, Nguyen Tu Nghiem and Van Duong Thanh, are represented. The middle generation of Em, the abstract landscapes and still lifes of Tran Luu Hau and the studies of ancient architecture by Nguyen Trung will be displayed. Then there are works by today's leading talents: the Hanoi street scenes of Pham Luan; Le Thanh Son's sun-dappled landscapes; and the ritualistic village life of Phan Cam Thuong.

Tenth Anniversary Exhibition. Opens on Thursday, 6.30pm. The Rotunda, Exchange Square