Most people who need to do so eventually end up using the same word to describe Johnson Chang Tsong-zung: “pioneer”. Thirty years ago, in the cultural desert that was Hong Kong, he opened a gallery called Hanart TZ. The initials TZ – from his Chinese name – distinguished it from an earlier Hanart Gallery he’d set up with a friend, artist Harold Wong, in 1977. The original Hanart, which closed in 1990, showcased classical Chinese painting.

The new one, emphatically, did not.

From the beginning, Chang was determined to link Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan. He wanted to understand not only Chinese identity but how Chinese contemporary culture could be defined from a perspective that was simultaneously Asian but – Hong Kong being a British colony – outside Asia. The political anomaly of Hong Kong also meant he could bring China out of China and, in January 1989, he organised an exhibition called “The Stars: 10 Years”.

The Stars were a radical Beijing art group who, in 1979, having been denied official exhibition space, hung their work on park railings. One of them was a man called Ai Weiwei. Another was Wang Keping. During the Hong Kong show, a play written by Wang was performed in the gallery, then located in a basement at the bottom of a block of flats in Kowloon.

“At that time, I innocently thought we could actually also try to create a mass market for contemporary art by producing boxes with limitededition paper cuts and prints from the artists,” he told the Asia Cultural Co-operation Forum, ruefully, in 2006. “And I think I still own most of those boxes because the artists did not supply the artwork.”

Things have moved on since then. These days, Hanart TZ is in the Pedder Building, along with some of the major international hitters in the art world: Gagosian, Simon Lee, Ben Brown. The gallery’s gone through several locations since that Kowloon basement, including the old Bank of China Building and the Henley Building, on Queen’s Road. Chang, however, now 62, has barely changed. David Tang, of Shanghai Tang fame, and who is a friend, once described him as “a tiny, skinny figure wearing days-old, unwashed, Chinese farmer’s clothing and looking like a crude commoner – but under the tattered outfit there is a great mind and great heart, surviving only for art”. That summation, mostly, still applies.

On a recent morning at Hanart TZ, Chang is in the mildly anguished throes of organising both an exhibition and a symposium for mid- January, to mark the gallery’s 30th anniversary. A hundred of the most significant artworks he’s collected over the years will be displayed under the title “Hanart 100: Idiosyncrasies”. These are being gathered from various warehouses, and one of the gallery’s back rooms is currently filled with old catalogues and boxes, one of which is labelled “Post 89 Work Files & Historical Documentation”.

That’s a reference to “China’s New Art, Post 1989” – the first major exhibition of Chinese experimental art outside the mainland. It was organised by Hanart TZ (Chang has always maintained he’s more of a curator than a dealer) and shown at the Arts Centre as part of the 1993 Hong Kong Arts Festival. Then it went on tour to Australia and the United States for five years. By any standards, it had an extraordinary roll-call; artists in the show included Wang Guangyi, Gu Wenda, Fang Lijun and Zeng Fanzhi. To give this vulgar, but relevant, context: a couple of months ago, Zeng’s The Last Supper was sold at Sotheby’s here for US$23.3 million, a record for a contemporary Asian artwork.

Another one of the artists in that 1993 show was Feng Mengbo, and it so happens that one of his recent works, Long March: Restart (Arcade Version), is beeping away in the room where Chang is being photographed for this piece. As it’s a working video game, Chang begins fiddling with it, inadvertently manages to get to the next level, can’t reset the machine, goes in search of help, stops to chat to Liu Guosong, the 81-year-old ink artist and former Chinese University professor whose exhibition has just opened in the gallery, takes a phone call, then another, confirms a lunch engagement with two people he’s never met and eventually returns with a gizmo-savvy assistant.

This type of behaviour is familiar from a previous interview I did with him, for the South China Morning Post, 12 years ago, during which he kept wandering off until he became interested enough to stay put.

It’s not that he doesn’t want to chat – he’s congenial company and obligingly suggests that the conversation continue throughout lunch and into the afternoon – but he has the itchiness of a man who has so many things to do he doesn’t know where to begin. There are 100 short texts to be written on the exhibition’s artworks, a weekend trip to Tokyo and a possible trip to Abu Dhabi to sort out, arrangements to be made for the scholars he’s bringing in for his symposium, the piece on the Indian artist Bharti Kher he’d promised someone two months ago and is rather wishing he hadn’t … (In this year’s Art Review international “Power 100” list, where he comes in at 65, he’s described as a “gallerist building bridges between China and India”.) It’s fitting, then, that he professes to take a tripartite approach to art.

The intellectual framework for “Hanart 100”, he says, is based on the three art worlds. These are: the global capital world of the art market (“the Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim, things that we assume are the art world”); the more localised, traditional art world (“in China, that’s the literati”); and the socialist art world (“in this case, I’m talking China but it’s a bigger issue of modernity as a whole”).

“The three art worlds are a microcosm of the three worlds we’re all split by,” he explains. “Capitalism, tradition, socialism. The world is actually quite simple. Only by taking all three on board can you have a view of Chinese contemporary art.”

No sooner has he announced this than a perfect collision of these three worlds occurs. A Western visitor has arrived, interested in Feng’s Long March. Chang, who’s been sipping oolong tea in literati fashion, smoothly glides into capitalist mode while explaining the socialist background of Feng’s work.

“It’s really a mythology about the communists,” he tells the would-be buyer, manoeuvring the Red Guard character frantically hopping about on the screen. “Oh look, now he’s come to New York with Batman.”

The visitor then shows interest in some of Feng’s lenticular prints (Chang: “They’re very good for narrow corridors – they’re easy to display, aren’t they?”), a deal is done (in US dollars), the visitor leaves and Chang resumes his scholarly overview of the exhibition.

The plan is to divide the past 100 years into three, roughly equal eras – pre-Mao, Mao, post-Mao – using items from his own collection. Nothing is for sale. People expecting only the wilder manifestations of Chinese contemporary art may be surprised; it will begin with calligraphy by Yu Youren (1879-1964).

“A great scholar,” says Chang, regretfully. “I hate to admit China died, which in a way is not far from the truth.”

This is the Chang conundrum. The man who brought Gu Wenda (favoured materials: used sanitary towels, hair, semen) to Hong Kong languishes for a Dream-of-the-Red-Chamber past. In our 2001 interview, Chang had said, “I’m obsessed with the same dream of cultural China I’ve had since I was a boy. I have a dream of a courtyard house with a garden and like-minded friends.” Since then, he’s undertaken two personal projects, both in the mainland.

One is in Jinze, on the outskirts of Shanghai, where he planned to build a traditional village using traditional methods.

“A village in China is a microcosm of Chinese culture,” he explains of his original thought process. “If you’re a great scholar, you don’t donate everything to a library – you bring it back to the village. You want your memorial in the village.”

So is his memorial in Jinze?

“Not really,” he says, vaguely. “My connection is not there.” A little later, he admits, “Jinze got carried away, it got very chaotic and my brother’s now sorting out the management. We’ve not really done enough with it, even though we’ve been doing it for 10 years.”

The other project is his ancestral hall in Suzhou, Jiangsu province.

“Although I’ve lived in Hong Kong all my life, a lot of my collaboration has been with friends in Taiwan and China,” he says.

When he was working with Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming, in the 1990s, he seriously thought of relocating to Taipei, but his family connections, both maternal and paternal, are in the Shanghai/Suzhou/Hangzhou/ Ningbo region, and he believes building the ancestral hall there is a good way to anchor himself.

“I put the family graves in Suzhou about 10 years ago,” he says. “They were quarrying the hills where my paternal grandfather was buried so I moved them.”

He inaugurated the hall at the end of October with a party for his mother’s 90th birthday. (His father died in 1999. When he told me this before, he added that some time afterwards he had become “violently ill” with shingles and was in bed for two months.) He shows me the photos he took on October 12, while construction work was still going on; and then others, taken two weeks later, of about 70 people watching Suzhou opera at the party. “That’s my mum in the middle.”

Beyond the moon gate, the pond and the carvings in the photos, you glimpse the inexorable press of 21st-century buildings, and I am reminded of another family member – Chang’s uncle, whom I briefly met at our previous interview in the Henley Building gallery. He’d been staring at a photograph of pre-revolutionary, begowned Shanghainese clerks and trying to identify their sepia faces. What had given the moment its poignancy was that the artist, Jin Feng, had superimposed a female nude on those sober ranks; written on her torso were Chinese characters meaning “We Can’t Play Together” and Chang’s uncle was trying, gallantly, to peer past her nakedness and into the past.

How can Chang reconcile these apparently opposing realities?

Where does exhibiting Gu, for instance, fit in?

“That’s what I’m good at,” he says, simply. “Because I let him move me. If you don’t let art touch you, you can’t get into it.” A few minutes later, though, he’s still musing on Suzhou. “All these projects in China … even 10 years ago, talking about a clan hall wasn’t quite right. In the 1980s, I’d have been considered counter-revolutionary, a feudal revivalist.”

Lunch with the unknown couple is at The China Club. On the corner of Pedder Street and Queen’s Road, planning activist Paul Zimmerman is standing with a microphone, trying to persuade the lunchtime crowds to sign a petition protecting Tai Long Sai Wan from further destruction. He recognises Chang and beckons him over, and several photographers suddenly press forward to take pictures of the gallery owner with (unscholarly) biro in hand. Afterwards, Chang says about his recognition-factor, “I don’t think people give a damn but you have to create a small niche.”

The two visitors, a French woman and an Italian man, are friends of Christopher Giercke, who runs the Genghis Khan Polo and Riding Club, seven hours’ drive outside Ulan Bator, in Mongolia. Chang went for a week in early summer; as it happens, I’ve also stayed there and I can’t quite imagine him volunteering to spend time in such a wild landscape, with its emphasis on the physical rather than the intellectual. He says he only went because the younger of his two sons, Yuen-hao, 17, was spending the summer with Giercke’s boys and he needed to drop him off but ended up enjoying it.

Chang orders food (“I read in the Chinese papers today that Chiang Kai-shek recommended tofu to prevent senility”) and the conversation turns to Confucius. Last year, Chang and two friends organised a Confucian rites conference at Tsinghua University, in Beijing, the first since 1949.

“But I’m an activist more than a scholar,” he says. “For the Confucian world, the aesthetic dimension is very important because it’s the ethical way of life. All your sensibilities have to be in their proper place.”

“Is this like Plato – that beauty is for the good?” asks the French woman.

“Different cultures have different emphases,” Chang explains. “There’s a book compiled at Confucius’ time recording the exact movements during rituals – moving half a step, the angle at 30 degrees, all of these things. The 92nd direct grandson of Confucius died in Taiwan in the 1960s; he’d tried to make a film of these rites. Since last year, I’ve been trying to remake it with Jeffrey Shaw, from City University.”

In their joint quest to straddle the centuries, Shaw and Chang sound like a perfect mind-meld. Shaw made the inflatable pig that soared so memorably over London’s Battersea Power Station on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 Animals album, but now specialises in historical virtual worlds. He calls it “cultural heritage visualisation”, which he has used to recreate one of the decorated caves in Dunhuang, in Gansu province, as well as the temple complex in Hampi, southern India.

Chang produces his laptop at the table and plays a short film – a collaboration with Shaw – of a young man in a robe, methodically changing his hat. Another film shows the procedure being re-enacted without the robe but with arrows pointing out how it should be done, as in a diagram.

“Makes it look more scientific,” he says.

“More authoritative. Nowadays, people don’t know how to kneel, how to kow-tow.

This is the coming-of-age ceremony. I think it happens at 20, when you’re married.”

What happens if you’re not married at 20?

“Oh, you’re not a proper gentleman if you’re not married by then,” replies Chang, dryly. (He was in his early 40s when he married. His wife tends to stay in the background in his public life and likes, he says, “to be with relatives”.) How much actual ritual is there in his daily life? “Tea,” he replies, promptly. “For me, I have to make tea every day. And this year, I started to go back to rudimentary martial arts training, which I did as a child. I feel engaged when I practise, more than I did.”

The coming-of-age film, he says, will be the last of the 100 pieces in his January exhibition.

After lunch, and the ritual reading of the fortune cookies (Chang’s states: “You will spend old age in comfort and material wealth”), he escorts his visitors from the table. For someone under pressure, he’s extremely courteous, behaving like a gentleman of apparent leisure, full of patient recommendations. (Complimented on this later, he responds: “I’m not always like that – I’ve a funny up and down temper.”) The China Club, of course, feels like an extension of Hanart because its art collection was curated by Chang in the early 1990s. He says he always notices when something has been moved. “They keep selling the important works!” By the lift, there’s a lovely black-and-white photograph of a vase with blossom by Lang Jingshan, who died in 1995 at the age of 103 and is considered the master of Chinese photography. “So Republican-era,” says Chang, softly, as we’re waiting. When I remark on how well it’s been positioned, Chang says, “That’s David Tang – he has a genius for that sort of thing.”

It’s not until we’re back in the gallery, however, that Chang mentions having bought another Lang work the previous day. Pavilion in Fairyland will also feature in the show.

“I’m really not an enthusiastic collector. But I need to make a story and fill in the blanks.”

So do I, and I still can’t make the connection between the diverse parts of his life. Can he? He thinks about this for a minute.

“I was always very interested in drawing and paintings but that didn’t seem to be what I wanted to do. I realised I’m more interested in ideas, in making sense of the world, in different ways.”

At school, he learned about Impressionism; at Williams College, Massachusetts, in the United States, where he studied maths and philosophy, a bookstore owner introduced him to surrealism; in recent years, teaching at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, he became interested in socialist art as a radical movement.

There’s always been one consistent thread, however, since he was a little boy who wanted to wear his Lunar New Year robes all year round.

“When I was doing this thing about the Confucian rites, everyone thought I was following some old childhood dream,” he says. “But it’s a seed that’s alive. We’re dealing with broken memories. Some have burnt out but some are still a glowing cinder. How to make a flame, a coherent sense of it, is a challenge but that’s what the contemporary art platform offers. I think Chinese contemporary art should take art in a different direction from Western traditions – and maybe that can be taken up by the West.”

Maybe. No wonder he, along with Claire Hsu, set up Asia Art Archive in 2000. “Without Claire, it wouldn’t have worked,” he says. “It’s a kind of alchemy with someone you instinctively trust, who’s organised and upright.

It’s an unsexy thing to do but she plans everything so well.”

“My first job was as an intern at Hanart TZ Gallery in 1997 so it was during those historically significant, rainy days that I first met Johnson,” says Hsu. “In many ways, he’s been a mentor to me. It’s hard to sum him up because of the incredible energy and life force that keeps him going from one project and inquiry to the next. His life mission is really the revival of Chinese culture and civilisation, be it through dress, art, rites, architecture, social thought or philosophy.”

Asia Art Archive documents the history of contemporary art in Asia; but you only have to look at Zeng’s stratospheric auction-house success to realise how quickly new chapters are writing themselves.

Zeng, contacted in Beijing, remembers meeting Chang with his cocurator, art critic Li Xianting, in Wuhan, in 1992.

“I had just finished my Hospital Triptych series when he came to my small studio,” he says. “Johnson told me he liked my artworks and invited me to join the exhibition. I was a student at the time, with little experience of Hongkongers or gallerists, but I felt happy because someone liked my work.

“I think he’s an idealist with a sense of mission. I don’t suppose he imagined the way Chinese contemporary art would turn out to be.”


The “Hanart 100: Idiosyncrasies” exhibition will be held at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, from January 18 to February 3. Documentaries and narratives about the “three art worlds” concept will be showing at the Hanart TZ Gallery from January 17 to February 15.