The Art of Being Pearl Lam

Pearl Lam

B Beyond was a guest of Hong Kong-born art patron, gallery owner and socialite, Pearl Lam in Shanghai for the opening of her August 2009 Contrasts Gallery ink and calligraphy show.

The daughter of a property tycoon father and an old Shanghainese family mother, Pearl cuts an exotic and imperious presence on the international scene, but is at her most Gatsby-esque at her home in China. 41 Hengshan Road is the smartest address and the most opulent building in Shanghai’s French Concession area. Pearl holds court in the penthouse there and a salon in the truest and oldest Parisian tradition.

We are greeted by a small army of uniformed doormen, porters and housekeeping staff who escort us to a 9th floor flat overlooking a daunting city landscape of countless towering buildings and cycling tradesmen down below. The humidity saturated heat precludes any lounging on the balcony, but our rooms are impeccably serviced and air-conditioned making 41, as the building is affectionately referred to, an oasis in the days to come. We have been entertained by Pearl Lam at her Savile Row penthouse too, but nothing has prepared us for the opulence of her Shanghai home. The 22nd floor penthouse is a veritable work of art in itself, carefully produced and stage-managed by its eccentric owner. From the giant peacock chandeliers that are her trademark, to the elaborate plate-holding sculptures gracing the 80 seat dining table, to the most eclectic and amazing art adorning every corner, wall and whimsical partitions, this incredible Aladdin’s Cave of contemporary art has the hallmark of a consummate collector.

Furniture as high art is a relatively contemporary concept and is represented at its most bespoke and comfortable here. Our first night’s dinner is a cosy affair, with only half table occupancy, consisting for the most part of those of us who have been invited to make a trip to a Tibetan temple and visit the living Buddha. We have a day before we set off for Chengdu, a major city in the north-west of China, for the first leg of our Tibetan trip.

Exploring Shanghai in August is a steamy proposition, quite literally, as the heat, traffic and sheer distances to cover test a newly arrived European’s patience to the limit. As time progresses, one tends to adopt the philosophical attitude of both Chinese and expats, and accept traffic jams as a way of life rather than an inconvenience. The changing landscape of the city, from the leafy and elegant French Concession area where we are staying to the skyscraper lined flyovers to the heaving market and shopping emporiums, is something to behold. The centre of Shanghai, if there is such a thing, is People’s Square which bears an uncanny resemblance to New York City with Chinese writings on top of buildings and Chinese people on the streets.

Shanghai by night is altogether different, if not less steamy, and boasts a vast number of clubs all vying for expats and tourist trade, offering a variety of happy hours, ladies’ nights and even free beauty treatments to lure in the savvy crowds. Unless you are visiting art studios and galleries in Shanghai, of which there are plenty – this being the cultural centre of China – your main occupations are likely to be eating and shopping.

Our second night in the city is spent at an opulent Chinese restaurant, sampling an entire menu of dishes that no China Town in either NY or London has ever offered. These range from the less recognisable, such as ducks tongues, to the unusually but deliciously paired such as egg custard, foie gras and truffles. The following morning nine of us take a flight to Chengdu, the capital of “easy living” and panda bears. The group consists of our hostess; Russian installation artist Lisa Berezovska; French designer Andre Dubreuil; JD, a former Dutch ambassador to Beijing and Frederica, his wife; Linda Evans, a renowned NY astrologer; Lynn, an art publisher acting as Pearl’s PA on the trip; and two of us flying the BB flag.

After a 3 and a half hour flight on a packed aircraft, operated by the first private Chinese airline, Shanghai Air, we alight at what we’ve been told is the gateway to Tibet, only to discover that our cashmeres are obsolete – it is even hotter in Chengdu than in Shanghai. Mercifully, we are whisked off to the Chengdu Kempinsky, which will be our base for the following three days.

We have a printed out schedule, but this being a strong-minded group of individuals, the timetable changes by the hour. We first visit an old temple, San Xing Dui Museum, which is the first historic Chinese landmark we have seen thus far and as such, holding us spellbound in spite of the heat.

The hired tour guides are soon dismissed by Pearl who is a far superior narrator of Chinese history, knowing as she does how limited our extent of historical references is. The temple is set in the midst of extensive and beautiful Oriental style gardens and houses fearsome looking figures of heads of ancient Chinese dynasties. The most relevant piece of information, which comes to explain why they belong in a temple, is the fact that China went through a period of ancestor worship, as opposed to deity worship.

The visit concludes with a sampling of street food, for which Chinese market stalls are justly famous, and a peculiar therapeutic service commonly offered in the streets of Chengdu – an ear cleaning and neck massage combo. Frederica is the only one to brave the street offering outside of a coffee shop and we all watch mesmerised as the Chinese girl performs the exercise, involving a sound testing instrument and tiny feathers.

Pearl Lam

Pearl Lam’s dining room.

We visit a number of art galleries, Old Blue Roof and Longyuan Art, among others on the way back to the hotel, and one of the gallery owners offers to have us all for dinner. Three of us settle for a massage at the hotel spa instead because the food is beginning to tell on our waistlines.

The following day begins with a trip to a large panda park. Originally Lisa’s suggestion, the visit leaves her lukewarm as pandas live in enclosures, behind glass, often manned by uniformed guards who preclude the taking of photographs. Later, the tour guide for the day would exclaim that Chengdu residents are “as lazy as our pandas” in an attempt to articulate the easy going lifestyle of her fellow citizens.

Next on the agenda is a state of the art natural history museum, tracing the history of the ancient tribes inhabiting the Chengdu areas, their crafts, religion and mores. Many of the artefacts are made in either solid or paper thin gold and other precious stones and bear resemblance to ancient Egyptian culture.

We are left reflecting on the cultural similarities between ancient civilisations, whether in Asia, Africa or South America. Lunch at the museum’s restaurant is strained as everyone is hot, tired and exasperated with not being able to communicate their expectations to the local staff. Dishes are ordered and cancelled and a bevy of worried looking waitresses beat a path to our table.

The following day begins with a trip to Old town Wuhouci, followed by visits to several artists’ studios and even an entire established artists’ gated community. The old town consists of a long street of shops and temples, and is perhaps the most traditionally Chinese we have come to see on this trip.

We also visit an antique market where Pearl buys two beautifully mounted rocks to add to her existing her existing collection. Natural rock collecting is a very Chinese obsession and a European would have something of a struggle comprehending the rationale behind paying cash for something one might find on the bank of a river.

The last place to visit before heading for Tibet is an old poet’s cottage set in luxuriant Oriental gardens. The gruelling drive towards Sichuan Province begins very early the following morning. The landscape may be spectacular but the road works and inevitable traffic jams, coupled with rising altitude headaches, preclude the enjoyment of seeing scenery that few (if any) foreigners get to see.

The sturdy four wheel cars bounce like a rowing boat caught in a massive sea squall and we are almost grateful for the regular road bottlenecks that allow us to rest, take pictures and watch in wonder as labourers “live” the road works, sleeping in large tents by the roadside until they’ve completed the job. The absolute dedication to work has an entirely new meaning in China and makes it the global power that it is in terms of consumer goods production and exports.

We stop in a small restaurant where rice is served from a giant communal steaming pot, but each table setting is shrink-wrapped to demonstrate cleanliness – i.e. sealed from the factory. Our guides, a mixture of government officials, drivers and the living Buddha himself, order the now familiar array of dishes, some of which we can only look at, others we sample for the first and possibly last time in our lives.

The living Buddha doesn’t speak much English, but cuts a solicitous and smiling presence that exudes natural kindness. All the same, it is odd to see him sporting trainers and a mobile phone – a definitive concession to the modern world.

Our next stop, after a quarry-like road, is a peak 4500 m above sea level, marked by a monument-like construction adorned with flags. It is where one Beyond Black team member quits, overtaken by altitude sickness, and is sent back to Kangding, a town set amid spectacular mountain scenery. Kangding is an important staging post on the road to Lhasa where the end of the Han Chinese world and the beginning of the Tibetan is palpable.

We spend the night at the Love Song hotel, a massive building ran in the best state tradition, where we are welcomed by a small group consisting of a doctor, an English translator and other solicitous looking individuals.

Pearl Lam

We spend most of the following day exploring the market street adjacent to the hotel. This is not a market street such as we know it. Here Khampas come down from the hills to sell slabs of yak butter, Tibetan monks in their distinctive robes walk in small groups, and forbidding looking Tibetan women in traditional dress shop for silk fabric. Kangding was historically the capital of the local Tibetan kingdom of Chakla and later, from 1939 to 1951, the capital of the short-lived province of Xikang. The town has been a trade center between the two cultures for centuries with the exchange of yak hides, wool, Tibetan herbs and bricks of tea wrapped in yak hide from Ya’an.

JD and Frederica join us for the 8 hour drive back to Chengdu from where we take a flight back to Shanghai. There we wait for the rest of our intrepid group of Tibet travellers to bring extraordinary pictures and tales of the most challenging trip of their lives – a trip marked by extreme discomfort, yet wonderment at the beauty and purity of a culture untouched by Western civilisation.

The Gallery Opening

The Contrasts Gallery was started by Pearl Lam in 1992 and exists in two locations: Shanghai and Beijing. The gallery’s principal goal is to promote contemporary Chinese art and artists who do not pay homage to Western art in their works, but dig deep into their own culture and heritage. The gallery maintains an artists’ residence, called The Plastic Factory, where artists can stay for a night or a year.

On the 23rd August, the gallery hosted an ink and calligraphy show, exhibiting the following artists: Yuichi Inoue, a Japanese artist who died in the 80s having refused to show any of his works in his lifetime, Lan Zhenghui, Wang Tiande, Zhang Hao, Lao Zhu, Wei Ligang, Shao Yan, Shang Yang.

In the lower ground floor of the gallery are the works of designer artist Danful Yang (XYZ design), WOKmedia, Shao Fan (exhibiting at V&A at the moment), Peter Ting, Maarten Baas and Jurgen Bey.

The gallery opening was followed by a reception at the 18th floor of the Hengshan Road building, where Pearl houses her private art collection, and a dinner at her penthouse. The dinner was attended by gallerists, such as the very first contemporary art gallery owner in Shanghai, Lorenz Helbling, Arthur Solway of the James Cohan Gallery, artists, academics, TV personalities and collectors. A Chinese minority singer and celebrity, Namu, celebrated her birthday on the night by singing a love song and giving one of the guests, a 17 year old boy, the longest, most memorable kiss on the lips as the other guests watched in disbelief.

Last Days

Our last few days in Shanghai are spent socialising and shopping. We meet Chinese cultural icon MianMian, whose book Panda Sex has been published in several languages but Chinese; business magazine owner Geoffrey de Freitas; French fashion entrepreneur, Jean-Francois Met; installation artist Qiu Anxiong; and of course our very own printers in the person of The Kangshi Printing Factory managing director, Jeff He.

We shop at the cultured pearls market and dine at Mint, a slick expat watering hole and Oriental food restaurant cum dancing club on the top floor of a modern building.

Below is our list of resources for anyone visiting Shanghai:

Dining: Frank (French), Pasta Fresca Da Salvatore (Italian), Shintori (Japanese), Guyi (Hunan – regional south Chinese cuisine).

Clubbing: Mao’s (sleek and exclusive, Mao’s is upmarket, late license and swarming with models and international jet-setters) Mint (thoroughly Westernised but extremely sophisticated club/bar/restaurant), Le Bar Rouge (debauched expat drinking hole with incredible views looking over the new town’s impressive skyline), Soho (chic disco that would not look out of place in any of the world’s major cosmopolitan centres), Bar 88 (authentic modern-day Chinese bar/club insofar as the pseudo elegance on offer is almost entirely bastardised from Western concepts), Muse, M2, Sin.

Shopping: Huai Huai Rd, Nanjing Rd, Qipu Rd (huge market selling cheap tat for the most part but with some bargains to be found – if you can put up with constant harassment from the salespeople).

Art and culture: Contrasts Gallery, James Cohan Gallery, Bund 18 (gallery spaces and cultural centre), Moganshan Rd (street art and a collection of both private and public galleries), Jade Buddha Temple (Buddhist temple and important archaeological site).

Getting there: Virgin have direct flights. We travelled via Moscow, by Aeroflot. If you are tempted to use the latter option, don’t. Our return flight was plagued by massive delays, failed air-conditioning and stroppy air hostesses. Drinks are served before and after a meal, never with a meal and if you want any alcoholic drinks, you have to buy them. White wine is not chilled and neither is beer. First class is not much better than economy.