Alan Chan is not just a designer, artist and photographer – he is a collector. That much is obvious as soon as you step into his Wan Chai studio, which is filled with thousands of objects from masterful paintings to old soda bottles to flea market knick-knacks. “We don’t know how many things there are,” says Ava Chan, the studio’s project director. There are thousands of objects in the studio and another two warehouses full of stuff.
Chan points out some of the highlights. There are tai chi sculptures by acclaimed Taiwanese artist Ju Ming; a 1929 work by French-Chinese painter Sanyu; dozens of Chairman Mao and Buddhist figurines. “This is his dog,” Chan says, pointing to a mop-like agglomeration of rubber bands attached to a lead. Nearby, a tiny four-faced Buddhist sculpture sits in a glass case, symbolising interconnectivity – a key element in Chan’s work.By the time Alan Chan himself arrives, it is clear this collection is something more than a passion; it’s an obsession. It’s something he readily admits. “I’ve become addicted to collecting things,” he says, sipping from a mug of medicinal tea. (He worked late the night before and wants to avoid any ill effects.) “I’m collecting things every day.” He often ducks out to Hollywood Road antiques shops during his lunch hour.
But Chan isn’t exactly a hoarder. His staff marvel at how he seems to recall each and every object with precision. In a way, the vast and growing collection is what underpins his creative process. Self-taught and self-trained, Chan’s design work has been as eclectic as his interests, driven by fascination with how even the most unassuming object can be invested with centuries of history, culture and tradition. Each object is a portal into a different world, he says. “It’s like holding history in your hand.”
Chan has had the collecting bug for almost as long as he can remember. He may have inherited it from his father, a fruit hawker from Guangzhou who entertained customers at his Wan Chai stall by making carvings from his fruit; he furnished the family home with inventively designed pieces assembled from old fruit crates. In 1970, when he was 20, Chan found work with an advertising agency, and he noticed his expatriate bosses loved to spend their free time looking for collectibles. “They went to Sai Ying Pun and picked up plates and all kinds of stuff, things that locals thought were just cheap,” he recalls. “Chopsticks, birdcages, kites.”
He began to see Hong Kong through their eyes: not as a shabby place where everyone was hustling to make a living, but as a window into the mystical Far East, where even everyday objects are exotic. When Chan left Hong Kong for the first time, in 1975, he travelled to Japan, where he fell in love with the country’s distinct aesthetic. That’s when he began collecting things in earnest.
Chan switched on his tablet and swipes to a photo of himself frolicking in the snow. “I went crazy about it,” he says. “I walked and walked, carrying so much heavy stuff, I even forgot to eat lunch. It feels so spiritual, so fulfilling, you don’t even need to eat.” Chan is intrigued by China’s historical influence on Japan and how, in his view, Japanese craftsmen managed to make Chinese motifs from the Shang and Tang dynasties even more sophisticated. “I feel like our spirit still exists in Japan,” he says.
That’s particularly true in terms of the silverware Chan has been collecting for years. Produced in China, Hong Kong and Japan for buyers in Europe, they are decidedly Orientalist objects made for Western eyes, but Chan likes the way they bridge cultures. And he thinks the Japanese pieces are especially refined. “From a product design point of view, the lines and form are all in the right position,” he says. “I learned from this type of very intricate composition. When I look at modern typography, or logography, I see a similar kind of judgement. That knowledge, you cannot learn in school – that kind of judgement.”
Chan never went to university, never trained as a designer, and he retains the zeal and rigorousness of an autodidact. In the 1970s, he designed all of his own clothes, which he had made by a local tailor. “I was so sexy then,” he says, laughing as he swipes to a photo of himself posing assertively in a sheer patterned shirt tucked into brown bell bottoms. Chan keeps a perfectly organised collection of photo albums on his tablet, including one dedicated entirely to old photos of himself, always ready for an audience.
Chan’s design work bears the stamp of a seasoned collector. Things he collected over the years, like a set of antique French vases he found in a Paris market, inspire his work through their form, material and texture. When he was hired to design a leisure club for a wealthy client in Malaysia, he started the project by commissioning work from some of his favourite artists in Japan, China, Hong Kong and the UK, before designing a lavish Art Deco interior that tied each of the artworks together. “If you follow your heart, everything becomes much more genuine,” he says.
That could be said for Chan’s entire approach to business. He opened his design practice with his wife, Sandra, in 1980, and the two still work together today. Her own office is filled with hundreds of Japanese Kewpie dolls. “We are both quite obsessive with things,” says Chan. They travel together often and encourage each other to buy thing, one collector egging another on. These days, they acquire most of their objects abroad; Hong Kong is less fruitful ground for a collector. “There’s no more old stuff,” laments Chan.
Lately, Chan has started using his collection as a way to give back to Hong Kong’s creative scene. In 2015, he launched Space 27, a spacious exhibition and event venue in Quarry Bay, which earlier this year hosted Language of Tea, a teaware show organised in collaboration with Teakha. Located in Chan’s office, Gallery 27 also hosts exhibitions. (27 is Chan’s lucky number; it is both his and his wife’s birthday.)
His next step will be much more ambitious: a design museum. It will be a chance for Chan to finally share the breadth of his collection with the public. For now, it’s still a dream, but with a spate of new private museums opening in Hong Kong, it may be the right time for him to finally get the ball rolling. And it would be a chance for Chan to not only show off his many intriguing objects, but the spirit with which he collected them. “It’s not about the value of an object,” he says. “It’s about the joy of being able to discover the story behind it.”