Sea change

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 June, 2004, 12:00am

PRINCESS DIANA stares out from the wall, her yellow, orange, green, blue and purple eyes transfixing visitors, Mona Lisa style. 'She stayed here on her way to visit a drug rehabilitation centre on one of the islands,' says the proud owner of the Diana Room, a makeshift shrine to the late British royal. 'She probably used that toilet,' he says, pointing to an en suite bathroom.

On a big double bed there are a couple of books devoted to the princess, and postcards featuring her image are liberally scattered around the bedroom. The multi-coloured eyes belong to a number of Warhol-esque screen prints of digitally enhanced portraits, from a series titled Requiem for a Princess. The artist, known to some as Gainsborough, is 'one of the greatest living today' according to the publicity blurb that accompanies the images.

His real name is Andrew Kwong On-chiu, a 44-year-old Canadian Hong-konger who threw paint mixed with his blood over the Pillar of Shame, then in Victoria Park, on June 4, 1999. He followed up the stunt a few weeks later with an attempt to throw himself, dressed in a Mao suit, into Victoria Harbour during the dragon boat festival.

All of which casts some doubt on the authenticity of the Diana Room. Did she really stay there?

'Well, she stayed here,' says Kwong enigmatically. 'But we're not sure whether she actually stayed here. It's an urban legend. That's the thing about urban legends - you don't want to be too specific about them, do you?'

'Here' is the five-star, 200-unit resort called Sea Ranch built by the Hutchison group at Yi Lon Wan on southern Lantau Island in the late 1970s at a cost of $40 million. The apartment in question is the 1,000 or so square foot ground-floor apartment that Kwong has turned into an art gallery for his Hong Kong Art Exposition Group.

Kwong and his wife occupy one bedroom adjacent to the Diana Room, and a large seafront living area consisting of what would be a lounge and dining room is dedicated to the art gallery.

Kwong, whose family fled to Jordan when 'the Cultural Revolution spilled into Hong Kong', is one of a new generation of owners and tenants at Sea Ranch - once a playground for the rich but now a normal residential estate.

Sipping beer in a beautifully lush and spacious seafront garden with a magnificent view, Kwong recalls how, after returning to Hong Kong in 1994 to reinvent himself and doing jobs ranging from journalism to project management on the Chek Lap Kok airport construction, he became disillusioned.

'I was quite down on Hong Kong just after Sars,' he says. 'Nothing was happening. Pre-1997 this was a happening place, a party town, a place of opportunities where you could come and reinvent yourself. But over the past few years, with the Asian financial crisis and other things, it has just become depressing. Sea Ranch saved me. The beauty of the place and the relatively cheap rents were an attraction, but I could also see the potential for an art gallery. Although it takes 45 minutes to get here by ferry from Central [there's no road access], it has a sort of familiarity, a bourgeois decadence that I love.'

In a confluence of fortunes, Kwong discovered Sea Ranch at a time when it needed people like him. If he'd found it difficult toughing out Hong Kong's leaner years, the place had it a lot worse, nearly closing because of legal wrangling resulting from the declining economy. 'End of the road for Sea Ranch' ran one headline in 1998. 'Paradise Lost' said another.

The Yi Long Wan development was aimed at an upmarket clientele. Unveiled at the 1975 Hong Kong Ideal Homes Exhibition and completed in 1979, it was sold as a 'self-contained community with every luxury'. It would comprise swish seaview apartments with all the latest mod-cons, served by an exclusive club boasting top-notch restaurants and featuring a cocktail lounge, sports complex, sauna, nursery, library - and a man-made beach. Prices varied between $250,000 and $550,000 for one- to three-bedroom flats, with additional management fees to cover ferry services to Central and Cheung Chau, security and maintenance.

Unfortunately, it all went horribly wrong. By 1983, Hutchison was $7 million in debt over the project and threatening to suspend services. It had to write off the sum, selling the holding company, Holiday Resorts, to apartment owners for $1. After breaking even in 1991, the new company had to write off debts of $786,790 and $506,908 between 1994 and 1996. Some of the residents - under the name Incorporated Owners (IO) - split from the Holiday Resorts management committee in 1996 after disagreements and litigation. Wrangling continued until IO won control by marshalling 61 per cent of the voting shares in 1998.

Holiday Resorts, which refuses to recognise the legality of the owners' management company, was left with 15 flats, responsibility for upkeep of the pier and control of the club, now closed. IO entrusted day-to-day running to Central-based management agents A.G. Wilkinson for a current monthly bill of about $500,000, which includes the ferry services - free to 'permanent' residents, as they call themselves - security and small-scale maintenance.

It was a bitter period that left Sea Ranch a derelict shadow of its original brochure vision. Long-term residents had won the battle for control, but at a price. A combination of litigation and the Asian economic collapse meant that many apartments were sold for letting, kept empty or abandoned. There are now about 60 owners, with 40 per cent of the apartments occupied.

'It has cost me $3 million to get where we are today with the court cases and all that, but I don't care about the money,' says IO chairman George Chong La-fu, 72. 'I think the place is worth it.'

IO vice-chairman Reidar Jenssen, 72, agrees and says it's thanks to Chong's dedication that Sea Ranch is now recovering and management coffers are about $200,000 in the black. 'George has been our saviour, but has paid deeply for it,' he says.

Chong, who owns 18 flats - nearly 10 per cent of the estate - says that, despite its fall from grace, the place has changed for the better. At the height of 'the troubles, [owners] more interested in investments than homes' were letting their apartments to weekend revellers. Late-night parties, mahjong, drunken antics and petty disagreements led to rows and contributed to the litigation. Chong says he's happy to see new owners and tenants such as Kwong reviving Sea Ranch. 'It's like a family here now. It makes me feel good when I see people nodding and smiling to each other on the ferry in the morning.'

Jenssen agrees - up to a point. 'I see with pleasure that there are younger couples coming here and that they're even having babies. I'm happy to see new people as long as they behave, but if you get a colony of beatniks making trouble and holding noisy parties, then no. We have house rules here.'

Kwong says the rules are 'a bit waspy [white anglo-saxon protestant]. But, like the Catholic Church, there are certain rituals you have to obey even though they don't really mean anything. If you took them literally you wouldn't move here.'

Architect Alex Lush, who bought an apartment about eight years ago, says he agrees with the rules - such as no drying of clothes outside. 'The estate is a monument to the eccentricity of the Hong Kong public,' he says. 'The rents are cheaper than Shenzhen and yet they ignore it. It's a sublime location.'

Kwong's view is that Sea Ranch's eccentricity, dodgy reputation stemming from its litigious past, and relatively lengthy ferry journey to Central is a small price to pay for 'a great space at a cheap rate'.

'This place costs me $15,000 a month. If it was in Mid-Levels it would be more than $100,000. Most art galleries in Hong Kong are fishbowls. Just look at this,' he says, a sweeping gesture taking in everything from Cheung Chau to the island of Ling Ding in the distance. 'In a sense, this is very alternative. But the ferry is free and that makes it very accessible.'

In addition to the Diana Room and seasonal exhibitions (Kwong has just launched the Summer Salon, featuring works by Hong Kong artists Jeffrey Aranita, Diane Huntoon, Linda Liao, Kelzly Lee, Andy Leung, Martha Sugars, and Peder Johnson) Kwong holds an event called Art Talk. The informal monthly gathering and dinner for artists, art fans and art professionals such as curators, critics and collectors, hopes to attract more visitors.

'We had 20 for the opening of the art gallery and attract about 15 or so for the opening of our exhibitions and Art Talk.

'As far as the gallery is concerned, this is what I love to do. It's a dream come true.'

For details and dates of the next Art Talk, contact Andrew Kwong on 2989 1231.