It’s Friday morning and Sin Sin Man is busy, as usual. “There’s always something to do,” she says, sitting at a desk inside her bright Sheung Wan art space. She is clutching a large iPhone in one hand. “Hold on, I’m talking to someone from Indonesia.”
That someone is S. Teddy Darmawan, a painter, sculptor, performer and installation artist known for his good humour and energy. This week, Sin Sin is mounting an exhibition that includes his his work, but Darmawan is suffering from pancreatic cancer and she wanted to make sure he would be well enough to travel. “Are you feeling better?” asks Sin Sin, plugging her earbuds into the phone. “You cannot get a flu. Take care of yourself.”
She hangs up. “He has no fear,” she says. “I love it.”
You could say the same for Sin Sin, a 59-year-old force of nature who has spent the past 16 years building a unique cultural conglomerate. She has been called the “reigning queen of Indonesian art in Hong Kong,” and she represents a number of the country’s best artists, but Sin Sin is also an artist in her own right – not to mention a designer, curator, gallerist and entrepreneur. She presides over an art space in Sheung Wan, an atelier in Wong Chuk Hang and a villa in Bali. And she does all of this while spending four months of the year travelling outside Hong Kong.
“It comes naturally,” she says. “I don’t believe you can force things.”
Sin Sin looks the part of an art maven: elegant with just a touch of eccentricity. Her hair is cut short and she is wearing round sunglasses with clear plastic frames. The red twine of a pendant necklace hangs loosely around the top of a loose black top. When she speaks, she gets caught up in a stream of consciousness, interrupted only by visiting friends or the policeman who writes a parking ticket for her white convertible parked outside.
“I’ve had a long journey. It’s not easy to make it short,” she says. Born in Hong Kong, Sin Sin’s family was devoutly Catholic, but they lived in a Taoist temple in Diamond Hill. It’s easy to see where she acquired her taste for the eclectic. Her walk home took her past vegetable fields, a distillery making the pungent herbal liquor ng ka pei, malodorous pig farms and the main hall of the temple, which was always filled with incense smoke. “I saw and smelled a zillion things every day,” she says.
Sin Sin made her first trip overseas at the age of 20, when she visited the Philippines with a friend. She was hooked. “Once you start, you can’t stop,” she says. Her favourite places to travel in Southeast Asia, where she is fascinated by the layers of culture and what she describes as a kind of honesty that contrasts with the crass consumerism of Hong Kong. “People ask me why I always have to get out of Hong Kong, but I’m a creative person and these walls aren’t going to change,” she says.
By the late 1980s, Sin Sin had built a successful career as a product designer, crafting her own line of jewellery and fashion while working for big international brands (back-to-school products were a real windfall). She had a loft in Hung Hom. Within another decade she developed villa Sin Sin in Bali. Then came a life-changing moment. A friend called to tell her about a three-storey, 1930s-era shophouse that was available to rent on On Lan Street, in Central. She knew she wanted to do something with it. The rent was affordable—about HK$30,000 per month for the entire building—so she signed a lease and opened Sin Sin Atelier. It was a kind of playground, a space to sell her own fashion, jewellery and accessories, but also a place to exhibit works from the artists she encountered on her journeys.
“My starting point was very pure, very naïve, very simple,” she says. “I’m a very independent person. If I can afford to do it, I’ll do it.” It wasn’t until the atelier was up and running that she thought about the magnitude of what she had done. “After two or three years, I realised, ‘This is scary.’ I realised I had been so lucky.”
It was luck, but also hard work. Sin Sin seems to understand how fortunate she was to come of age at a time when Hong Kong was filled with entrepreneurial energy. She laments the fact that today’s city is gripped by malaise. “I feel sad for the next generation. I love Hong Kong but I see what my Hong Kong looked like and what it has become,” she says. At the same time, so much of her creativity flourished in creative friction with the city – a productive love/hate relationship that has propelled her to change the things she doesn’t like about her surroundings. “I’m a Hong Kong girl, but I’m not Hong Kong at all,” she says.
Sin Sin continues to chart her own course. In 2006, Sin Sin moved her atelier to Sai Street, in Sheung Wan – well before the neighbourhood exploded in a frenzy of gentrification. Her next project is spending more time in her new Wong Chuk Hang studio, where she can focus more on her own personal work. This year, she has already participated in a string of exhibitions: last month at the Saatchi Gallery in London, this week in her own space, where her work will be shown alongside that of S. Teddy Darmawan and Bob Yudhita Agung in a show called Survivors. She is also taking part in an exhibition for the Raiding Foundation in Austria, where she will exhibit a 16-metre-long ink painting installation alongside work by Ai Weiwei, Kengo Kuma and 30 other international artists.
In a way, it’s a bit like the days when Sin Sin discovered the On Lan shophouse. “It was like being in a cocoon – I didn’t know what I would become. It was my transformation time,” she says. “Part of being an artist is enjoying the process,” she says. “When you’re done, you can’t wait to jump into something new.”
Survivors meet the Survivors at Sin Sin Fine Art, 52 Sai Street, Central, Hong Kong, Oct 15 – Nov 21, 2015