A look inside the Liang Yi Museum

A private museum showcasing tycoon Peter Fung's personal collection of Chinese and European antiques accumulated over four decades opens its doors next week. Enid Tsui gets a sneak preview

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 10:19am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 11:38am

Compared with the billionaire collectors on the mainland today, oil baron and collector extraordinaire J. Paul Getty was a study in understatement. Witness the building frenzy propelled by a generation's desire to assert its cultural heritage and economic might. The result is hundreds of astonishing landmarks that are temples for personal collections of antiques and paintings.

Here in Hong Kong, such private museums are virtually unheard of, despite the city's rich tradition in contemporary connoisseurship. So the emergence of the Liang Yi Museum, which opens on Hollywood Road next week, is all the more remarkable.

The admission fee comes with a personalised guided tour which we hope our visitors will value
Lynn Fung, Liang Yi museum 

"There just isn't enough space here. In the mainland, you can open a museum as a hobby," says Lynn Fung, its managing director.

When the museum opens on February 28, the public will be treated to a spectacle of rare Ming and Qing dynasty furniture and exquisite vanity cases - antique minaudières and other portable repositories of cosmetics made by Europe's top houses in the early 20th century.

The owner of this eccentric coupling of East and West is Lynn Fung's father, Peter Fung Yiu-fai, whose reputation as a ruthless corporate raider is matched by the respect for his legendary hoard accumulated over four decades.

This is a highly anticipated debut. Fung's vanity cases made international headlines in 2011 when a selection was burgled while on loan at Beijing's Palace Museum. Although a couple of pieces are still missing, he has hundreds left. It's the biggest collection of its kind, and it grew from a lavish gift picked up at auction for his wife.

But the furniture collection, which consists of around 400 finely crafted pieces in rare hardwoods like zitan and huanghuali, is his first love. This, too, is widely acclaimed for its quality and comprehensive portrayal of style variations over the centuries.

The museum provides a rare glimpse of the cornucopia of treasures in the hands of local collectors who have largely kept their spoils out of the public gaze. Only one other private collection of antiques has been unveiled in a similar fashion - Paul Kan Man-lok's Imperial Museum on Garden Road, which opened last spring.

For years, the Liang Yi collection - named after the owner's two daughters - was either kept at home or loaned out to overseas exhibitions. But the idea of a permanent gallery came up around 10 years ago. "My mother looked at all the furniture sitting at home and decided enough was enough," says Lynn Fung.

As the then co-head of publicly-traded firm Yu Ming Investment, Peter Fung was armed with a formidable fortune that allowed him to gradually buy out the owners of four floors of retail and warehousing space in the heart of Hong Kong's antique trading hub.

Most of the ground floor continues to be let to antique shops, while the remaining three floors, measuring an extravagant 20,000 sq ft, have been transformed into a minimalistic sanctuary in a strictly black-and-white scheme.

There will be no squinting at small captions. Lynn Fung has done away with traditional descriptions in favour of having guides who will lead small groups through the exhibits in Cantonese, English or Putonghua. Visitors are also free to touch, sit down and even smell the furniture in what she promises will be a satisfying tactile experience.

The youthful thirty-something has enough self-possession not to betray any of the nervousness that must accompany the opening of one's first museum.

She studied postcolonial literature and the culinary arts at US universities, and this led to a career as a lifestyle journalist back in Hong Kong. She admits that when she was asked to take charge of Liang Yi last year, running a museum didn't exactly match her skill set.

What she does bring, she says, are the "modern day skills" that her father lacks, such as a knowledge of social media, and ideas to make something as fusty as old furniture appeal to the younger generation. This educational mission is the raison d'être for the museum.

She also hopes to host world-class exhibitions from overseas with a focus on craftsmanship. "We are in preliminary talks with the Victoria and Albert museum in the UK. We would like them to them to exhibit their collection in this space. I'd love to bring the museum to that level," she says.

The Hollywood Road location can be seen as a tribute to the generations of traders with a rich, unsurpassed knowledge of Chinese antiques.

But the museum, with its discreet entrance tucked away among purveyors of some very expensive merchandise, does not exude a reassuring welcome to the uninitiated. Ordinary plebeians may be daunted by its air of exclusivity - and the HK$200 per head admission fee.

Those normally intimidated by antique shops should feel at ease here, since there is no pressure to buy, Fung says.

"The admission fee, waived for full-time students, comes with a personalised guided tour which we hope our visitors will value. Any walk-ins will be entertained when possible, but we want to keep our tours intimate, and we recommend making appointments ahead of time," she adds.

She will train guides to provide an experience much like being taken around a great country house in Europe by the descendant of the family, she says: "There will be lots of anecdotes."

Guests hoping to be taken round by the owner himself will be disappointed. Now in his sixties, Peter Fung runs his own property development business with elder daughter Kay, and is unlikely to devote much time for chatting with visitors.

The elusive tycoon has been hovering industriously in the background, leaving his daughter, the public face of the venture, to entertain an irksome reporter. But he finally steps forward to shine light on one of the most imposing pieces in the Qing furniture collection that resembles a day bed.

Covered in Buddhist swastikas, it turns out to be a praying platform used by emperors, featuring ivory inlays and legs resembling elephant feet. When he was a young investment banker in the 1980s Peter Fung used to spend countless Saturdays roaming about Hollywood Road .

With no experience in collecting, local experts such as Charles Wong of Ever Arts Classic Furniture and the Lau family at Hon Ming Antique Furniture are known to have helped him along the way.

But the two things that make a successful collector are "fate and ready cash", he declares.

The early decision to invest in antique furniture rather than the more mainstream categories such as ceramics was, in hindsight, a stroke of genius befitting an astute financier. Mainland collectors have now realised their historic value, and prices have escalated.

Peter Fung is adamant that Hong Kong antique collections are still "miles ahead of" private mainland ones, because of more specialisation and an early-mover advantage.

His artistic legacy will be left intact for daughters, he says. "I have only ever given away pieces that I suspect to be fakes."

Traders such as Daniel Chan, the third-generation owner of furniture trader Chan Shing Kee, are pleased to see the museum set up in their midst. He says that Peter Fung's assembly ranks among the best in town, alongside those belonging to dermatologist Dr Yip Shing Yiu, and the divorced couple Mimi Wong and Raymond Hung, of Applied Development Holdings.

Fung's clout has helped recruit international experts to the venture. For instance, British jewellery expert Meredith Etherington-Smith is putting together the opening display of vanity cases. The museum advisory board also includes Ma Weido, who opened the first private museum in the mainland.

But ultimately, it is a father and daughter team that is trying to pull off one of the most intriguing cultural debuts in Hong Kong this year. In doing so, the baton of heritage preservation is being passed to the next generation.

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Liang Yi Museum, 181-199 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan; Tel: 2806-8280; Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 6pm.