In 1993, when Pearl Lam, daughter of the late Lai Sun Group founder Lim Por-yen, opened a contemporary art and design gallery in Hong Kong called Contrasts, colonial Hong Kong wasn't ready for her. She organised pop-up exhibitions before the term itself was invented. The objects on display veered, like Lam herself, towards the fantastic end of the commercial spectrum. Back then, nobody took globalisation for granted. The year before Contrasts opened, a small start-up called Pacific Coffee had begun tentatively testing the much-stated belief that Chinese people wouldn't drink coffee. In the 1990s, contemporary art was an even harder sell than caffeine - and harder in Hong Kong than in Shanghai where Lam eventually relocated. Now, in time for the fifth Hong Kong International Art Fair (Art HK), she's back in her home city, where the coffee shops and the international galleries have burgeoned. Last week, Lam opened her new space in the Pedder Building in Central. It's on the sixth floor - that's one floor below the Gagosian Gallery (New York, opened in Hong Kong January 2011), and three floors above Ben Brown (London, opened in Hong Kong in 2010), which in turn is next to Simon Lee, London, which had its official gallery opening on the same day as Lam's. Also opening last week was Emmanuel Perrotin (Paris) on the 17th floor of 50 Connaught Road, the building where White Cube (London, opened March this year) has a grand entrance on one side of the lobby. Starbucks, of course, is on the other. Pearl Lam Galleries 'I'm back because of two things,' says Lam, rumpling her mauve-streaked cargo of hair and wriggling about in her tiny orange frock. 'First, my mother kept badgering me, 'Why aren't you doing shows in Hong Kong?' I said there's no audience there and she said, 'I read in the papers there is!' And then, all of a sudden, there's commercial interest here, the art fair, auctions. The museum usually is the voice - but Asia? It doesn't have that voice. That's why auctions are so powerful. So I have to change my strategy. If I want to promote contemporary art, the market is the way to do it.' Lam looks barely a day older than she did two decades ago, but despite her passionate profile in Shanghai - where she's worked with such diverse talents as Andree Putman and Zhang Huan - returning to her hometown has its particular stresses. These days, the stakes are much, much higher. 'In Hong Kong the attention is on me and I can't make a mistake,' she says, glancing with uncharacteristic apprehension round her sleek 3,660 square feet, a considerably less wacky space than previous incarnations. 'And you know the pressure of paying the rent here.' Indeed. So why choose the Pedder Building (famously too expensive for Shanghai Tang)? 'I believe contemporary art evolves from tradition so I have to have an old building, I have to be in here.' What about the neighbours? 'Gagosian are very nice, Ben Brown very kind - it's been a pleasure.' Her buyers are still, she admits, 'more international than Asian' but that vibe is changing. 'Chinese art is selling so high all over the world, and we Chinese have collectors' blood inside us,' she says. 'People always ask me which is The Next Best One but I say to them if you buy with speculation you won't do it. Only great collectors who take risks will enjoy the fruits of their artwork.' Lam's inaugural exhibition is 'Chinese Contemporary Abstract, 1980s Until Present: MINDMAP' and includes works by Zhu Jinshi, Yan Binghui and Qiu Zhenzhong. 'This first show is challenging the international art market,' she declares. 'Chinese contemporary abstract has been condemned as derivative but these artists work with the core of our culture - calligraphy, Confucianism, Taoism - and embrace Western influences to create their own distinctive language. 'I feel it's my responsibility to show there's not just one way to look at art, using a Western aesthetic. We were pouring ink 2,000 years ago, way before Jackson Pollock.' Simon Lee Despite the name, Simon Lee isn't Chinese: he's an Australian who based himself in Europe, became director of Anthony d'Offay Gallery in London in 1994, and set up his own gallery, in a London car showroom, in 2002. Eighteen months ago, Katherine Schaefer, who'd been working with him, moved to Hong Kong with her husband. 'So we evolved our idea of a Hong Kong gallery a little organically,' Lee says. 'It's Katherine who'd been driving it. Then the space popped up and it was almost serendipitous, moving the whole thing up a level.' Schaefer, who's South African and pleasantly enthusiastic about the unexpected road she's found herself navigating, is now the gallery's Asia director. 'It's not a full gallery, it's an extension of London - a boutique-space project,' she says, standing in her 700 square feet in Pedder Building. (As a size comparison, White Cube is 6,000 square feet.) To that end, she adds cheerfully, 'a fortune' was spent on the fit-out - the same architects were employed as Lee had used in London - to reinforce the brand from 10,000km away. 'The idea is to provide our artists with a platform in Asia, to do four presentations per year and beyond that, to have a rotation of works. It's a bit of a different model,' Schaefer says. 'We have 26 artists, and we don't want to rush aggressively into Asia but to be flexible.' Those artists include Donald Judd, Hans-Peter Feldmann (who won the 2010 Hugo Boss Prize), Christopher Wool (one of whose paintings was sold at Christie's in February for US$8 million), and Sherrie Levine, who was the subject of a Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective in New York this winter and whose work is the new gallery's first solo exhibition. 'A tough show,' says Schaefer, approvingly. (Levine likes to play with issues of 'appropriation', which less artistic viewers might be tempted to term creative theft.) 'We don't want to come easy. We're putting our best foot forward to engage with the region. Our programme is quite conceptual but we have young collectors who are interested.' 'It's not a quick fix because the Western economy's been difficult,' says Lee, down the phone from London. 'We're aware of the costs but it's exciting and the appetite in the region is large. No, I'm not nervous. It's empowering.' Galerie Perrotin When Emmanuel Perrotin was 21, he opened a gallery in his Paris apartment. The following year, 1990, he selected one D. Hirst to take part in a group show in that flat; the year after that, he gave Hirst his first one-man show in Europe, 'When Logics Die'. Three years later, his was the first gallery outside Japan to show Takashi Murakami, whom he'd met at a contemporary art fair in Yokohama. Perrotin has been closely associated with Maurizio Cattelan (the subject of a major Guggenheim show in New York last autumn) and Mariko Mori for many years; he co-organised an exhibition in Versailles for Jeff Koons in 2008 and for Murakami in 2010. Now he has 6,000 square feet in Central - although as Etsuko Nakajima, one of the gallery's directors, observes they were under the impression they had 8,000 square feet until they encountered the idiosyncrasies of Hong Kong's real-estate measurements. Still, the terrific view from the 17th-floor makes up for it. ('If it doesn't work as a gallery, it can be a spa,' Nakajima says, gamely.) 'We started thinking about this new venture three years ago,' says Perrotin, on the phone from New York. 'We were at the art fair and we saw the evolution that's happening and two years ago, we started to translate our website into Chinese.' The opening show is by KAWS, the Brooklyn artist who likes to play with cartoon imagery; his giant sculpture Companion (Passing Through) was shown at Harbour City in 2010. 'For Asia, he's obviously popular,' says Nakajima. 'He's really, really getting picked up. But we don't want to target only the collector, we want to be a hub - just like Hong Kong - for people to come and see and learn.' Which, after only five art fairs, is excellent news for this city. The West Kowloon Cultural District being mired in a separate time zone, it's the international galleries that are demonstrating how swiftly things can move when commercial instincts, combined with a near-messianic sense of purpose, are at stake. 'We're very cost-conscious,' says Nakajima. 'Honestly, to make money in the primary market, it's really, really difficult. Before this project, Emmanuel was hesitant. It's a big investment. 'But he has to do it! He has to do it now! If he doesn't - who'll do it?'