Dominique Perregaux doesn’t hesitate to admit that he isn’t in love with Hong Kong. When he first moved here, “it was opportunism,” he says. The Swiss-born gallerist wanted to represent established artists in Asia and Hong Kong seemed like a convenient place to do that. He opened his gallery, Art Statements, in October 2003.
There’s a pervasive myth that people who make a difference are driven by passion and love, but sometimes a calculating sort of pragmatism is what’s really needed. That’s how Perregaux, a former stockbroker who describes his feeling towards Hong Kong as “mild,” has become the unlikely champion of the city’s most promising art district, Wong Chuk Hang.
Like most Hong Kong art galleries, Art Statements was originally located in Central, but it moved to its current South Island space in 2011. “The gallery in Central was big, but I wanted something bigger,” says Perregaux, sitting on an armchair in front of a painting by Takeru Amano, whose exhibition Icones features portraits of nude figures with disconcerting stick-figure faces.
“It takes time to find the right space here,” he continues. “This is the tricky thing about this neighbourhood – you have a lot of vacancies, but finding a space where you don’t have a printing company making noise or a processing plant next door, it’s difficult. It was a challenge, but an interesting challenge.”
He wasn’t alone in scouting for space in Wong Chuk Hang. “Psychologically, it’s behind the mountain, so nobody came here – but it’s only 15 minutes from Central,” says Perregaux. Within a year, more than 20 galleries had opened in the area. “It was spontaneous. Nobody was talking to each other.”
That’s when Perregaux saw an opportunity to build a community. In 2012, he founded the South Island Cultural District, an association of contemporary art galleries with spaces in Wong Chuk Hang and Aberdeen. “Someone had to do it,” he says, shrugging. “It was important to get together contemporary art galleries that have a certain quality level and vision. The interesting thing is that most of the galleries that opened here had that. If you see art as something to make quick money out of, you’ll open on Hollywood Road. Here, the galleries are cultural spaces.”
For Perregaux, that’s the defining characteristic of Wong Chuk Hang: galleries function as “mini-museums,” with a public mission as much as a commercial one. It’s something that is put in the spotlight every year during the South Island Art Day. The next edition takes place on September 24, when 18 galleries and artist studios open their doors to the public.
There will be exhibition openings, including Good Day Good Night by Hong Kong artist South Ho, at Blindspot Gallery, and Des hôtes: a foreigner, a human, an unexpected visitor, a group show at Spring Workshop. But it will be an opportunity to do more than just look at art. Eight artist talks will take place throughout the day, along with ten performances, including a dance piece by Sarah Xiao, at Greer Howland Smith Art Studio, and an experimental performance by Wilfred Wong at Pekin Fine Art.
It’s a preview of the cultural magnet that Perregaux hopes Wong Chuk Hang will become after the MTR’s new South Island Line opens, linking the area to Admiralty in just six minutes. “The MTR will change everything,” he says. “What’s very exciting about this neighbourhood is that it had no identity. Suddenly the MTR will revolutionise it. It will [allow us to] create something from scratch.”
There’s already signs of what the future has in store. “You can see some galleries, have a drink in a rooftop bar and continue with the galleries,” says Perregaux. Cosy coffee shops, craft breweries and vintage furniture stores give the area a more dynamic feel than other industrial areas that have drawn galleries.
One thing is missing, though: a master plan. Though Perregaux expects more and more galleries to flock to the area — “I don’t understand why people still stay in shoeboxes when this neighbourhood is booming,” he says — there hasn’t been much leadership from the government in paving the way for its cultural development.
In fact, there are signs the government may want to tamp down on cultural activities in old factory buildings. After a deadly fire in an illegal mini-storage facility in Ngau Tau Kok, the Lands Department has been cracking down on unauthorised uses of industrial space. It has already targeted seven buildings around the city, shutting down theatres, gyms, a Taoist temple and concert venues, including the well-loved Hidden Agenda in Kwun Tong, which is now trying to raise HK$500,000 to find a new home.
A spokesperson for the Development Bureau would not say whether art galleries constitute a breach of regulations: “It depends on the actual operation of the particular use and the relevant lease conditions of the lot,” she said. But she warned that in most industrial buildings, only “industrial and/or godown” uses are permitted. It’s almost certain that many of Wong Chuk Hang’s attractions, including some popular restaurants, operate in violation of their building’s land leases.
Perregaux says he isn’t concerned about a crackdown — so far, all of the targeted buildings have been in Kowloon and the New Territories — but he does think a reform of industrial zoning is needed in order to keep Wong Chuk Hang vibrant. “If you could live in your workshop, it would be great for the identity of the neighbourhood,” he says. And for all his mixed feelings about Hong Kong, it could give Perregaux a lasting legacy here.
The South Island Art Day takes place on Saturday, September 24, 2016 from 12:00-20:00. Visit sicd.com.hk for more information.