The house that grandpa built My grandfather, Lo Yuk-tong, came to Hong Kong in 1888 from a small village in southern China where he had been a farmer. Like many people, he came to seek his fortune. He was trading and must have done well because he built himself a huge house on Kennedy Road, with four levels of gardens that almost reached Queen’s Road East. Many of the big houses used to be on Kennedy Road. It was the highest level at which the Chinese were allowed to live in those days. Beyond that, only the English and other foreigners were permitted to live. I was born and lived in the house with our big family, which included my father, his number two son by his main wife, as well as a number one son he’d had with another lady; my grandmother admitted him into the house. There was the friction and politics you’d expect of a big family. Bad fortune Although I was born into a wealthy family, we lost most of our fortune during the 1967 riots , when the stock exchange collapsed. My family had a bad loan and needed the money, so we had to sell our properties in Wan Chai as well as the house on Kennedy Road. Gordon Wu (the founder of property firm Hopewell Holdings) bought the house as well as the one next door. Today, the Hopewell Centre stands on the site of our former house. I wasn’t in Hong Kong when this happened. In 1967, I was attending the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus, a boarding school in Sussex, in a small town called Mayfield, which had just one street. I was the school’s first Chinese student and never took part in sports or got involved in anything that wasn’t related to my studies. My history teacher, who was a nun, was really nice to me and ended up influencing my degree choice. I sat my O-Levels and A-Levels in just one year. I worked so hard that I weighed just 85 pounds (39kg) when I left school. Then I spent a year in Lausanne, Switzerland. Renaissance woman I read medieval English history at Girton College, Cambridge, for a year. I met so many people at Cambridge – Saudi Arabians became my best friends. I also met Indians and Persians. I made friends but I didn’t work that hard, regrettably. Because it was such an effort to get into university, I felt burned out. After a year, I transferred to King’s College London and graduated in English and European early modern history, specialising in the Renaissance period. The Renaissance opened my mind, it was a time of discoveries and the nature of society changed. My grandfather was proud of me. When I graduated, he rewarded me with a nice little house in Kensington. Wearing history I returned to Hong Kong in 1972 and worked for four months as a junior reporter at the South China Morning Post . Harold Lee, whose father was best friends with my grandfather, became chairman of the newly built Mandarin Hotel, which brought civilisation from abroad to Hong Kong. I got a job there as an assistant PR girl. I escorted VIPs like the writers Graham Greene and John le Carré and took them on shopping trips to Cat Street. I was especially interested in the Chinese artefacts that dribbled out of China in those days. I got the idea of wearing pieces of history and decided to assemble Chinese artefacts into something to wear, such as a necklace. The big break An executive at Time Inc in New York asked if I wanted a job and I jumped at the chance. I worked in the PR department. It wasn’t a well-paid position and although I was lucky enough to stay at a friend’s apartment, after tax I was earning only US$390 a month. I couldn’t live on it – I needed to do something else. I got my first real break at Cartier. In those days, you could take the jewellery you had created to the Cartier New York office and the general manager, Charles Dishman, would take a look at what you had. It was an amazing opportunity – that wouldn’t happen in Europe or Hong Kong today without an introduction. He looked at my collection and said, “Very interesting, but it needs some fixing to make it wearable.” I made the changes and when I took the work back, he bought 10 pieces. It was my first collection. I had become a jewellery designer. Mismatched shoes Walking up and down New York’s Fifth Avenue gave me inspiration. Jewellery in those days was either pearls and diamonds or glass and plastic fakes, there was nothing in between. I saw blocks of semi-precious stones from South America and Sri Lanka, and decided I could make use of them. At the time, Hong Kong was phasing out ivory and the skilled ivory carvers didn’t have work. I employed them to carve semi-precious stones. I travelled a lot for work. I had upper crust clients, like Estée Lauder (of the eponymous cosmetics company). I developed my design philosophy in the 1970s, the notion that balance is not about matching. I still wear mismatched shoes. It has become a trademark of mine. Cracking Japan Trying to get my jewellery into Japan in the 80s was a testing time, but I was ambitious. The Japanese were prejudiced against other Asians – France was considered No 1, then Italy, then America. I couldn’t have got into Japan without the help of friends. I had lived in New York on and off until 1990 and then returned permanently to Hong Kong. I opened stores in Hong Kong in the 90s, in The Peninsula and then Pacific Place. I tried to get into China, but they weren’t responding. They are responding now, however. Show time These days I enjoy doing shows. I exhibited my jewellery at the recent Fine Art Asia fair in Hong Kong and I always show at the Asia Society on Park Avenue, in New York. It’s much harder than it used to be to get antiquities for my jewellery pieces. I go to auctions and sales and check out places like the 798 (art district) in Beijing. Last year, the Central Saint Martins art school in London asked me to be a visiting professor. For someone who has never had a lesson in design that’s quite something. I serve on the board of (the non-profit) Hong Kong Design Centre – I believe design is the future of Hong Kong.