A modestly sized, low-key art gallery has just opened in The Repulse Bay arcade, far from the popular art districts in urban Hong Kong and rather different in atmosphere, too. Brightly coloured, cartoonish animal sculptures fill the roughly 1,000-square-foot (93-square-metre) space, just steps away from Hong Kong’s most famous beach. The name of the gallery, Artspace K, doesn’t give away much, and the laid-back feel of the place does not suggest the arrival of a powerful new player in the city’s art scene. But looks can deceive. Chen Kok-choo may call herself an “art outsider” because this is her first art gallery, but she is a prominent figure in Taiwan’s cultural world. Artspace K marks her homecoming after living in Taiwan for 45 years, and she intends to shake up the city’s attitude towards the arts. Chen grew up in Happy Valley and attended the Diocesan Girls’ School. After studying law in London, where she was admitted to the bar, she worked in Singapore and the US until 1975. That was when Taiwan beckoned. “I married, and my husband was from Taiwan and so we moved to his home country and I continued to practise law,” she says. She climbed her way from a corporate lawyer who spoke little Mandarin to become senior vice-president and general counsel of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, one of Asia’s largest companies and one which operates in a highly litigious industry. She remains an independent director of the company today, but admits that she was happy to bid her high-flying legal career goodbye. “When I left the company in 2002 I was 54 years old and I decided it was finally time I poured myself into a lifelong passion: art and culture,” she says. A lot of people say that after they quit the rat race. But Chen did not choose the well-trodden path of joining the board of a performing arts group, or becoming an art collector. Instead, she spent a considerable personal fortune on revitalising three historic houses in Taipei and turning them into community heritage centres, the most famous being the Taipei Story House , which she ran from 2003 to 2015. “Old houses are not glamorous like the arts. Nobody cares about them. But whenever I came back to Hong Kong for visits, I would discover another part of my personal history wiped away,” she says. “So much of Hong Kong has been demolished. It is traumatic to see a city’s collective memory all gone. That’s why I wanted to do something in Taipei to stop the same thing from happening.” Life and art should not be separate. You don’t have to [be able to] afford to buy art to make it part of your life Chen Kok-choo The buildings often feature engaging exhibitions about local history that are led by enthusiastic guides recruited from nearby primary schools. “It is important to give young people a sense of ownership over their community. And if young people are interested in coming to these old houses, their parents will come too,” Chen says. Her creative vision for museums and her previous reputation as a skilled manager resulted in her appointment as a cultural advisor to the Taiwanese government under the eight-year presidency of Ma Ying-jeou – another Hong Kong-born, Western-educated lawyer – which ended in 2016. Another public role marked a more significant digression from her personal projects: being the first chairman of Taiwan’s National Performing Arts Centre (NPAC), from 2014 to 2017. The NPAC is not just one venue but the governing body of Taiwan’s top three regional cultural centres, as well as its National Symphony Orchestra. It was a role that demanded high-level political skills – skills that are surely wasted on a small gallery hidden away in Repulse Bay? The death of her husband two years ago means Chen is spending more time in the city of her birth. Her son and his child live here. And in Hong Kong today, she feels she can help address how remote contemporary art is from ordinary people’s lives. “Life and art should not be separate. You don’t have to [be able to] afford to buy art to make it part of your life. This gallery will show [some] art that is not for sale. I want people to come here and just enjoy themselves,” she says. “That’s why we are opening with Taiwanese artist Hung Yi’s sculptures. They are inspired by folk art and everyday life. They are vibrant and positive, too, which is what we all need after a year like this.” “Winter Joy – Hung Yi Solo Exhibition”, Artspace K, G105-106, The Repulse Bay, 109 Repulse Bay Road, Hong Kong, Tue-Sun 11am-7pm. Until February 21, 2021.