When Johnson Chang moved his art gallery into the Pedder Building, he wasn’t just moving into a new space – he was joining a community at the very heart of Hong Kong’s soaring art market.
Hanart TZ was a pioneer in Chinese contemporary art when Chang launched it in 1983. When he moved to the Pedder Building in 2011, he was part of the first wave of blue chip galleries that opened in the imposing structure that sits in the heart of Central. By the mid-2010s, the building’s tenants included international art market stars like Ben Brown, Gagosian, Simon Lee, Pearl Lam, Massimo di Carlo and Lehmann Maupin.
“It was absolutely wonderful,” says Chang. “When Art Basel week came up, the Pedder Building was the place for everybody to visit. It had a lot of galleries putting up big shows. People had to line up all the way along Pedder Street to Queen’s Road Central to get in on the preview night.”
No more. This year has seen an exodus of galleries from the building, which is part of a larger move away from high-rent Central. “Many of the several dozen galleries situated in or near the historic Pedder Building and new gallery tower H Queen’s in Central say that they are considering relocating in the coming months,” reported The Art Newspaper in May, adding that rents in Central are more than five times higher per square metre than in industrial districts like Wong Chuk Hang.
Hanart TZ said goodbye to the Pedder Building in June. “The art market for Chinese contemporary art has been going flat in the last few years,” says Chang. “And especially since last year, with the protests, then Covid-19, it just made no sense to pay that kind of rent.”
Today, the halls of the Pedder Building are quiet; many of its units are empty. But this isn’t the first time the building has gone through such a transformation. Completed in 1925, it has seen generations of tenants come and go, although you wouldn’t know it from its imposing stone exterior, which looks much as it did a century ago.
The building owes its existence to property developer So Shek-cheng, who leased the site from the government in 1921. It was a prestigious location, right in the heart of the Central financial district, and So hired Hong Kong’s most renowned architecture firm, Palmer and Turner, to come up with a design. They drew up plans for an Edwardian Baroque building—similar in style to the HKU Main Building—with a ground-floor sidewalk arcade ornamented with rusticated stonework and horizontal mouldings. A pediment supported by columns looks out over the street from the third floor. The building rises nine storeys, with three visual layers that evoke the base, shaft and capital of a classical column, according to conservationists Harold Kalman and Christin Doeinghaus, who researched the building in 2009.
It was an impressive addition to a street already known for elegant landmarks like the General Post Office. But its timing was inauspicious. After police in the British-controlled part of Shanghai killed a group of anti-imperialist demonstrators on May 30, 1925, workers in Guangzhou and Hong Kong launched a general strike in protest. People across the region boycotted British-made goods and Hong Kong’s economy nearly collapsed, saved only by a huge bailout from the British government.
So Shek-chung was hit hard by the crisis and he was forced to sell the Pedder Building just as it was being completed. He found a buyer in Ng Wah, a building contractor who had better weathered the economic storm. It was a lucrative investment; the Ng family ended up controlling the building for the next 40 years. At first, most of the tenants were overseas companies looking for a reputable address in Hong Kong, including shipping companies, an airline and a bus company, as well as trading giant Jebsen, maker of Blue Girl Beer among other products. During the Japanese occupation of World War II, these tenants were replaced by Japanese and Chinese companies.
The building’s mix of businesses continued to evolve after the war. A series of banks opened on the ground floor. Jebsen expanded its offices in the building, adding more space through an addition to the top floor, although it eventually moved out in 1965. In 1986, former Miss Hong Kong Loletta Chu opened the China Tee Club, a private lounge and restaurant, on the first floor. A decade later, the ground floor was occupied by the Shanghai Tang, the department store run by flamboyant socialite David Tang. In 2011, both of those homegrown businesses were replaced by the heavily perfumed flagship store of American fast fashion chain Abercrombie and Fitch.
In all this time, the building’s ownership changed just once. In 1962, the Ng family sold the property to a company controlled by Henry Fok Ying-tung, a patriotic tycoon who allegedly made his first fortune by smuggling guns into China during the Korean War, defying a United Nations embargo. Fok was a totem of the Hong Kong establishment as well as the city’s most influential figure in mainland Chinese politics; it was reportedly on his advice that Jiang Zemin chose Tung Chee-hwa as Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive after the handover in 1997.
After Fok died in 2006, his family began looking for new opportunities for the Pedder Building. The international art market was ascendant, with especially keen interest in Chinese contemporary art. With its lack of import duties on artworks and low tax burden, not to mention its proximity to mainland China, Hong Kong was a natural hub for the trade. That was especially true after Art HK—the fair that eventually became Art Basel Hong Kong—was launched in 2007. The Fok family began recruiting galleries to open spaces in the Pedder Building.
“I have known the Fok family for a long time,” says Chang. His gallery had been located in the Henley Building on Queen’s Road since 1997 but he was never quite satisfied with the space. By contrast, the Pedder Building offered high ceilings and the same venerable atmosphere that had attracted high-profile tenants for the better part of a century. “When international galleries started moving to Hong Kong around 2008 and 2009 I realised I needed to upgrade my gallery’s image,” he says.
If the art market hadn’t taken a turn for the worse, Chang says he wouldn’t have left the Pedder Building. But it’s hard to argue with the bottom line of a balance sheet. Hanart TZ is now located in an industrial building in Kwai Hing. Ben Brown, the first gallery to open in the Pedder Building, has left for a space in Wong Chuk Hang that is cheaper despite being four times larger. Lehmann Maupin has also left, and its space—which was designed by celebrated architecture firm OMA—has been gutted.
Until recently, the Pedder Building had a Grade II heritage status, which mandates only the selective preservation of some important elements of the building. In the past, the Fok family opposed a higher grading, arguing that it would make it difficult and more expensive to manage the building. But in a surprise move this September, the Antiquities and Monuments Office upgraded the building to Grade I, despite the Fok family’s objections. Although this does not protect the building from demolition, it creates significant pressure to preserve it as much as possible.
Nobody knows what the next chapter of the Pedder Building’s life will be – nobody but the Fok family, who keep their cards close to their chest. Their leasing agent declined to be interviewed for this article. “I have no idea what their plans are,” says Chang. “They don’t depend on it for survival so they have not been very actively soliciting – I don’t think. They have not cut the rent, even a few years ago when everybody was asking for a rebate because of the downturn.”
One thing is certain, though: whatever happens within its walls, the Pedder Building will continue to lord over Pedder Street, a reminder that stability is sometimes just a façade.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on September 11, 2020 to reflect the AMO’s decision to upgrade the heritage status of the Pedder Building.