Alice Mong Runs Her Museum Like a Business
The executive director of Hong Kong's Asia Society has also been the director of New York’s Museum of Chinese in America.
I’m a Chinese-American. I was born in Taiwan but at age of 10, our family immigrated to the U.S. I didn’t speak any English at all when I arrived. You have to start thinking differently, because the world you grew up in is totally different from the world you are now going to school in.
There were not many Asians or Chinese people where we grew up. We were the only Chinese family in the school. What it taught you at that young age was how to adapt and how to start again, learn all over again. We moved from Taiwan where we had a large extended family, and now we were in a place where your friends become your family, whether they were American or Chinese.
You learn to make friends, you learn to connect with people. You just have to be creative—it’s survival, but not in a bad way.
We spoke Chinese at home—my parents don’t speak English very well, so I always grew up with this bi-culturalness. It wasn’t my doing: I guess we just had it, so it was quite natural. That’s why when I moved to Hong Kong as an adult, it wasn’t such a stretch. I had an opportunity when I was in my late 20s to come work in Hong Kong. I was in Hong Kong for 11 years, from 1992 to 2002. In around 2003 I had the chance to join a non-profit in New York, so I moved back to the US, and came back to Hong Kong four years ago.
I missed the energy of Hong Kong after nine years in New York—I like New York, I love the fact that I worked there for almost a decade, but I wanted to come back.
When I was a kid, six or seven years old, my parents would take us to the Palace Museum in Taipei. As a young kid, I didn’t know there was treasure in there. To me, the Palace Museum was a fun place for the family. Everybody was happy, so I think my love for museums began with that. After growing up with that, I’ve never been afraid of museums. It conjures up wonderful memories.
“Museums tell you a lot about that country, its history and its art. In a very short time, you can absorb that country’s energy.”
When I travel, usually the first place I go is a museum, so that I can get the lay of the land. Museums tell you a lot about that country, its history and its art. In a very short time, you can absorb that country’s energy. If you’re not intimidated by it, you explore it. I’m really excited that Hong Kong is creating a new museum [the M+ visual culture museum]—I think it’s very important for all big cities.
Running Asia Society is like running a business. We have customers, we have a board, we have staff and programs. The difference is that we are non-profit: The money that comes in gets plowed right back into its upkeep. The customers are very important, and we grew from 40,000 to 120,000 visitors in four years. If you want people to come back, you need to have interesting exhibitions and programs. Some places you go once or twice, but how often do you go back? We have to keep our programming fresh, we have to keep our exhibitions interesting.
Our competition is not other museums: it’s time. Everybody’s so busy in Hong Kong, if you have an hour to spend, where would you go? Would you go shopping, eating, to a movie, or would you come here? We try to get people to come back and spend an hour—or half an hour—with us.
I’m a Hong Kong permanent resident, I have a Hong Kong ID card, I do consider myself a Hongkonger. I don’t know what “Hongkonger” means these days, but that’s the reason I came back to work in Hong Kong. There are things about Hong Kong that I really, really love and that hasn’t gone away at all.
I see Hong Kong as my home now. Even if I leave, I know I will always come back. I guess home is where you feel most comfortable, and I have to say I feel very comfortable in Hong Kong. No matter where I am, I’ll always know I have a home here.