Pearl Lam

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 October, 2010, 12:00am

CRY FREEDOM I had no freedom when I was growing up and that was a problem. My upbringing was straight and strict. My mother was a very strong character. [My] parents were very determined people. I've inherited that. When I was at St Paul's primary school, in Causeway Bay, I used to go to church and pray that I would be sent abroad; that I would be set free. I still can't stay in one place for very long. In Hong Kong, family obligations are really important but ... that sense of belonging, I've always rejected it. Also, I think Hong Kong people who study overseas have a hard time adjusting when they return, I know I did. I felt as though I had lost my identity. I studied accountancy because my parents wanted me to, not because I did. The first time my parents accepted my chosen career [in art] was when I opened an exhibition in a Shanghai museum in 2004. My mother came and cut the ribbon and all these museum directors thanked me and it was big face for her because a lot of her friends were there. After that, they told my parents they should let me do what I want.

HOME IS WHERE THE ART IS At school I did art A-level because I was lazy and would rather paint than study. Also, I was hyperactive, so my parents arranged extra-curricular activities. I would do calligraphy every day; Chinese painting, ballet - you name it, I did it. I used to have to go to art school every Saturday and Sunday and I resented it. I wanted to play with the other kids. Later, I rebelled by not turning up for some of the art lessons when I was at Queen's College, London. It got close to exam time and the teacher told me not to waste her time or mine because I was going to flunk. I decided to prove her wrong and spent some time researching watercolours: Chinese brush painting. It was difficult but I did my first painting - three flowers - and my headmistress complimented me and my art teacher started to talk to me again. But it wasn't until I was an adult and started to renovate my flat, that I thought, 'Wow, I'm pretty good at this.'

SPACESHIPS NOT SHOPS After completing my education, I wanted to stay in England because I loved visiting the art galleries. I negotiated with [her father, tycoon Lim Por-yen] and told him I would only leave if I could open a gallery. He said, 'I didn't send you away for 10 years to be educated just so you could return and be a shopkeeper.' So, I went to Shanghai to work for the family company in property development, even though I had no idea how to do that. Fortunately for me, the project dragged on so long [it was supposed to take two to three years but it took eight] I started to learn. In the end I even found out how sewage-treatment plants work. But I didn't speak Mandarin - even though I grew up understanding it - so I was constantly afraid I was being cheated. Also, China was so different then, it was like building a spaceship in a jungle.

LIVING WITH CONTRAST In Shanghai, my mother showed me warehouses full of opium beds, which had been confiscated during the Cultural Revolution. They were supposed to have been destroyed but somebody saved them. I couldn't resist them, so I started buying them and lots of other things, too. I employed a craftsman to renovate them and I watched and learnt how he did it. My Shanghai apartment is very famous because it is weird; I like things that are different. The front of the house has no walls. I had them knocked down. I always like contradiction. It's a showcase for everything I do. I have an opium bed covered in psychedelic fabric next to a 1960s bubble chair and a 19th-century Japonaiserie cabinet next to a Mark Brazier-Jones Indian embroidery. Everything is a contrast, as though they are competing with each other for attention. I have a quarter of a pavilion sticking out of my balcony; even the garden is designed with contrast in mind. My aesthetic is different to other people's, even when I dress. I don't like the head-to- toe designer look. It's not interesting enough. I'm a shopaholic in that I need to own things. I shop very quickly, just grabbing things without even trying them on.

KEEPING WITH TRADITION I did eventually open a gallery in Hong Kong and it was very successful from the first exhibition - the French consul general came and invited me to put on an exhibition in France. Now my mission is to build a bridge between the West and China through my art foundation. I started it because I was completely disillusioned about what I read about Chinese art and artists in Western publications. Chinese contemporary art is about evolution from tradition. It's different from Western contemporary art because that cuts out tradition. I'm always looking to place the work of the artists I represent. I go to art fairs all year round and I meet curators and museum directors. I'm always learning: reading, talking to people. The more I learn about Chinese history, the more proud I am to be Chinese.

NO MAN'S LAND Life has to be spicy for me. I want it to be happy, upbeat and exciting. If I ever feel unhappy I give myself a quota: a period of time when I allow myself to dwell on something. Then I say, 'Enough'. Any man would have to adapt to my way of life, he would have to make me laugh and not stick like glue. My friends laugh at me and tell me that a man is not a puppy but I don't want to wake up in the mornings and see a face that might be a long one sometimes. I want someone who is positive and strong.