It’s not quite “Party like it’s 2018” yet, but the opening of Art Basel in Hong Kong on Wednesday was still a major calendar event for many in a city just beginning to come out of Covid-19 restrictions, at least by pandemic standards. Once confidently Asia’s largest contemporary art fair, the Swiss-owned event is just over half the size it was in 2019, when 242 galleries exhibited in spite of the opening coinciding with the first mass protest against the government’s proposed extradition bill. There are 130 booths, a notable increase from 104 in 2021, and 11 overseas exhibitors with no gallery in Hong Kong – such as Take Ninagawa, Jason Haam, Mayoral, Mizuma and Nanzuka – are present in person instead of opting for a “satellite booth” staffed by local temporary hires. Jason Haam, a first-time exhibitor, is represented at the fair by gallery partner Yuna Es Kim. As a young gallery, established in 2018, she said that it was important to have an in-person presence at the event, and that she was happy to go through the seven-day hotel quarantine required of all incoming travellers. The gallery is showing works by Cheikh Ndiaye, who is from Senegal. “I think it’s a very good opportunity for both the artist and the gallery because Hong Kong Art Basel is one of the most important international fairs, especially in Asia,” Kim said. Hong Kong’s proximity to mainland China has always been the main reason for its prominence as an art trading hub. According to the latest Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report, written by Clare McAndrew, Greater China has passed Britain to become the second largest art market in the world, with sales up 35 per cent to US$13.4 billion in 2021. But prominent mainland collectors were largely absent at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, where satellite fair Art Central opened on the same day, because of quarantine requirements when returning to the mainland. Some did make the trip, said Amy Lo Choi-wan of UBS Hong Kong, the event’s primary sponsor, although she did not specify the number of incoming visitors. “Welcoming [private wealth] clients who have come to town to attend Art Basel – it’s exciting to have this kind of activity again,” she said. Many mainland Chinese clients and overseas collectors who did not travel are relying on representatives to show them the artworks via video, said Lihsin Tsai, senior director at the Hauser & Wirth gallery. Some mainland clients who have Hong Kong residency did return, while others have come in with business visas, she added. There are 76 local satellite booths this year compared with 56 in 2021, according to Art Basel. Anecdotally, the number of international visitors remained significantly reduced. Non-Asian faces were few and far between on the floor, perhaps reflecting the fact that many Western expatriates have left the city during the pandemic. Catch these must-see exhibitions at H Queen’s during Art Month Henrietta Tsui-Leung, founder of the Ora-Ora gallery in Hong Kong, said the only notable non-Chinese visitor she had seen was Uli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to China who donated much of his contemporary Chinese art collection to the M+ Museum. Galleries reported that local buyers dominated and that sales were strong, which is in line with recent results from the auctions market. (Sotheby’s 2022 spring sales reached HK$3.9 billion – or US$497 million – this month, the second-highest total in Asia for the company.) Hauser & Wirth sold 11 artworks, mostly to private collections across Asia. These included George Condo’s Pink and White Profile with Green Eye (2021), which sold for US$2.65 million to a private museum in South Korea. White Cube sold seven pieces for a total of US$1.3 million. “As restrictions continue to ease and Hong Kong and the rest of the region emerge from the most challenging periods of the pandemic, we are pleased to stage a diverse presentation at this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong featuring some 40 works from White Cube’s roster of artists,” said Wendy Xu, general manager, Asia. “As anticipated, results have been very much optimistic, with majority of sales to collectors based locally.” Among the seven were Liu Wei’s The East 2022 No. 1 (2022), for US$320,000, and Antony Gormley’s FEEL (2016), for £450,000 (US$564,000). Ora-Ora saw sales of around HK$5 million on the first day, including for works by Juri Markkula, Mai Miyake, Stephen Thorpe, Xiao Xu and Peng Jian. David Zwirner sold works by Lisa Yuskavage, Oscar Murillo, Katherine Bernhardt, Wolfgang Tillmans, Marcel Dzama and Raymond Pettibon, among others. Among the six large installations inside Art Basel are a massive crochet hanging by Movana Chen, represented by Flowers Gallery, and a 40-channel speaker system installation by GayBird, presented by Hanart TZ Gallery. An Instagram favourite is a painting by Oscar Chan Yik-long at the Gallery Exit booth. It features all 12 members of Mirror, Hong Kong’s most popular boy band. Tap Chan, who use everyday objects to create sculptures representing the virtual and the real intertwined, has a solo exhibition with first-time exhibitor Mine Project, a three-year old gallery based in Wan Chai. Outside, Art Basel co-commissioned a moving image artwork by Ellen Pau that is on display every evening for a fortnight on the M+ Facade, and a number of local trams have been covered in artwork created by Cherie Cheuk Ka-wai, Stephen Wong Chun-hei and Shum Kwan-yi. Because of restrictions on the size of gatherings, there will be no large parties. There are also no international celebrities as in the past. So Art Basel Hong Kong is back, but not quite to its former glory. Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Central are held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, 1 Harbour Road, Wan Chai. For Art Basel, private view continues on May 26 12pm-8pm, May 27, 12pm-2pm, May 28 12pm-2pm, May 29, 11am-12pm, Vernissage, May 27, 2pm-8pm, public view, May 28, 2pm-8pm, May 29, 12pm-6pm. Tickets for public view are sold out. Art Central, May 26, 2pm-8pm, May 27, 11am-7pm, May 28, 11am-7pm, May 29, 11am-6pm.