Dominique Perregaux gets behind the South Island Cultural District

Flamboyant gallerist Dominique Perregauxis spearheading a south-side art drive on Hong Kong Island

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2013, 5:34pm

One spring night in 2004, gallery owner Dominique Perregaux and an artist called Fabien Verschaere embarked on a tour of Mong Kok's sex clubs.

The excursion happened to coincide with the year's first amber rainstorm so Verschaere, who is French and has achondroplastic dwarfism, and Perregaux, who is Swiss and had been in Hong Kong for just eight weeks, spent much time splashing up and down dank stairwells in Shanghai Street and Temple Street.

People will come, it will be like 798 [art district] in Beijing
Dominique Perregaux

Verschaere was hoping to be artistically inspired by what he called "Hong Kong's hot places". The rain, however, was chilly, the thunder was deafening, and the girls were, wisely, rather thin on the ground.

I know because I was there, reporting on proceedings; and I can tell you that apart from the geographical foreplay, action was mostly confined to massaging joysticks in amusement arcades, one of which was so appalling - even by Mong Kok standards - that three alarmed policemen tried to discourage us from entering.

Since then, Perregaux, 41, has survived worse storms. In 2008, he had brain surgery in Hong Kong to remove a tumour. In 2009, he decided to close his Art Statements gallery, which was then in Sheung Wan. He moved to an industrial space in Tin Wan, on south side of Hong Kong Island, but his energies were focused on Tokyo, where he opened a gallery in November 2010.

"Luckily," he says, "or probably unluckily, in March 2011 there was the earthquake and the Fukushima [nuclear reactor leak]."

Luckily? Perregaux, now back full time in Hong Kong and since last June installed in his new Art Statements gallery in Wong Chuk Hang, looks slightly crestfallen (and for a man who went through a death-defying medical experience, not much older than when we met in 2004).

"Bad joke. I say luckily because maybe it saved me somehow. A dramatic event gives you perspective. I mainly represent Western artists and none of them wanted to go to Japan after Fukushima started to leak. At the same time, the big galleries - Gagosian, Perrotin - had moved to Hong Kong and there was the art fair, and the profile of the city was changing. So I decided to reverse - to reduce Tokyo and redynamise Hong Kong."

He still has a space in Tokyo and briskly refers to "consultancy" work and "some special exhibitions" over there, but such yo-yoing sounds a painfully expensive way to run a business.

Perregaux, who used to be a stockbroker, concedes the point, but adds: "On the one hand, I could say I lost a lot of money, but it's not a failure. It's rewarding in terms of life experience."

Fashioning good out of bad would appear to be a Perregaux characteristic. He has just written an autobiographical novel entitled A Taste for Intensity, to be released here next month. (It was published in the US earlier this spring.)

The cover blurb says it's a journey about resilience, although some readers may disagree. Suffice it to say that Perregaux believes in the power of personal and professional regeneration, and is now applying his energies to help revive a whole neighbourhood - the industrial wasteland of Hong Kong's south side.

As cultured Hongkongers can hardly fail to have seen, galleries are mushrooming along the southwest coast of Hong Kong Island at an astonishing rate. Insane rents have fuelled the exodus out of Central and SoHo, and the coming South Island MTR line has added lustre.

The proliferation of galleries and design studios in Ap Lei Chau, Tin Wan, Wong Chuk Hang and Aberdeen - and the inconvenience of their disparate openings to the public, especially during Art Basel Hong Kong - prompted a move for unity earlier in the year. This has resulted in the South Island Cultural District (SICD) initiative.

At the moment, it seems to be a fairly loose collective. The SICD mailing address is Perregaux's Wong Chuk Hang gallery. Although he wrote the introduction to the first guide, and signed it "For the SICD Committee", he says there isn't, actually, a committee. He doesn't have an official title but believes that doesn't matter.

"I'm not doing it for ego; for me it's not about being chairman," he states. "I am doing everything democratically. There are 16 galleries in SICD now and there'll be 20 at the end of the year. We really have one common goal - to bring awareness of the neighbourhood.

"The stakes are huge. In 2004, you could have a shoebox gallery in Hollywood Road and claim this artist is incredibly famous. Now you can't do that. Here, you can have proper space, and every gallery has a strong personality."

A more focused SICD campaign, therefore, is about to begin this autumn. From October, a monthly newsletter will be sent to people and organisations on the galleries' mailing lists. Booklets with details of galleries and maps showing suitable places to eat (also burgeoning in the area) will be distributed.

The plan is to co-ordinate openings, plus events with local dance and music studios, if possible; arrange transport, if necessary; and offer an easy and enlightening amble between culture and cafés.

"People will come, it will be like 798 [art district] in Beijing," he says enthusiastically. "It's still very preliminary but the goal is clear. The MTR will be here in 2014."

The MTR's website, in fact, gives 2015 as the expected completion date and, as Perregaux himself points out, people who buy high-end art may not travel by subway.

Still, you have to admire his determination, which is all the more laudable given that he's not overly enamoured with Hong Kong.

"It's not my dream city, basically. I chose it for pragmatic reasons. I don't love it, I don't hate it. What I feel is … mild."

As A Taste for Intensity's title suggests, mildness isn't an emotion much rated by Perregaux. Although he's not keen on describing it as an autobiography, and there's the usual work-of-fiction disclaimer at the front, the book is about a Swiss gallery-owner in Hong Kong called Hector who has a brain tumour and an unsatisfactory relationship with an American woman called Elizabeth Bennet. (The allusion to Pride and Prejudice is deliberate, if a little baffling.)

"It's partially based on actual events," he says.

How much is true?

Perregaux gives a percentage, but subsequently asks that this figure be left out, so let's just say it's on the high side.

Hector, like Perregaux, has a mother whose ancestors went to Tianjin in the 19th century to trade Swiss watches and stayed there until the 1950s; and Hector, like Perregaux, is related to the aristocrat who married Marie Duplessis (who Alexandre Dumas jnr immortalised in La Dame aux Camélias and Verdi in La Traviata).

The infatuated Hector makes frequent references to his wardrobe and to the couple's cosmology, even as the wincing reader observes Ms Bennet beat a rapid retreat.

There is no consummation. Ill-advised e-mails are sent. (One reads: "IT'S OKAY … these emotions and fears are actually a clear proof of the intense feelings we still have for each other.")

By the end, what you feel is that Perregaux needed a helpful Mong Kok policeman - or at least a good friend - to warn him not to embark on such a public journey through his thunderstruck psyche.

The woman who is Elizabeth still lives in Hong Kong. Perregaux sent her a copy. ("She didn't react.") He's honest enough to mention a paid-for Kirkus Review by a female critic which, to his US publisher's concern, was so hostile about Hector it was "like character assassination".

When I say I'm not entirely surprised, Perregaux replies: "Fine! I don't take it personally! I think it's a book for women. For a woman, it can almost be informative."

He's looking forward, he says, to a stormy debate although, naturally, he's also hoping for sunshine and later e-mails a link to positive feedback via the book's website

"This is a book I defend, and I love," he says. "For me, it is about resilience. You talk about the anger but I wanted to reproduce the emotion. I wanted to create a roller coaster with the reader."