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How Art Basel Transformed Hong Kong

ABHK, kicking off this week, is only the beginning of why this city is a cultural mecca

Sandra Nunnerley puts it this way: “Hong Kong is fast.” The New Zealand–born, Manhattan-based interior designer has worked on high-profile projects around the world, from ski chalets in Telluride to penthouses in the Mitte district of Berlin. “But whenever I’m in Hong Kong, I immediately feel the pace,” she says, “and how very quickly it’s changing.”

Which has made Asia’s most developed—and priciest—city a natural fit for the Basel brand. This spring, the lucrative fair returns for its sixth year in Hong Kong, bringing together nearly 250 galleries from 32 countries. Like its Miami Beach and original Switzerland iterations, Art Basel Hong Kong promises a wide range of historic and cutting-edge works by both established and emerging artists, many of them represented by Asia- and Asia-Pacific-based galleries who don’t often show beyond the region. “The very first thing you’ll notice about Art Basel Hong Kong is how very Asian it is,” says Emi Eu, the director of STPI, a Singapore–based contemporary art gallery and workshop, and a member of the ABHK Selection Committee. “From North Asia down to New Zealand, it’s an excellent spectrum of Asian art. So even if you’re not buying, it’s a great way to get a taste of Asian art—and some of the very best Asian art—even if you can’t travel to all these places.”

Celebrating the start of Art Basel along Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor waterfront. (Photo credit: Jessica Hromas for Art Basel)

But, of course, this is Hong Kong, and so while the fair offers plenty of eye candy in the form of experimental installations and museum-quality—and museum-size—works, it’s most definitely designed to satisfy the city’s other great love: shopping. That means the focus is on offering collectors something to take home. There are advisors on-site through the fair’s VIP relations team to help buyers navigate the fair efficiently and with purpose, and Eu suggests serious shoppers take them up on their services. That said, doing a bit of homework is advised. “Most definitely study the list of exhibitors and artists before you come,” she says. “Make some calls to your favorite local galleries before you go, and say, ‘You know my taste. What, and who, should I look out for?’ Familiarize yourself with Asian art so you don’t get culture shock—or sticker shock, for that matter.” And while Eu also says that ABHK has matured enough that it’s possible to find some very special pieces from non-Asian galleries, “If you’re coming from the west,” she says, “you should make that effort to really look at something new.”

This year’s fair will welcome 250 galleries from 32 countries (Photo credit: Jessica Hromas for Art Basel)

Local branches of international galleries make that easier than ever. Since Art Basel landed in Hong Kong in 2013, the art scene in the city has moved, true to form, particularly fast, welcoming local outposts of dealers like Gagosian, Sotheby’s, and Pace Gallery, as well as standouts like the Rem Koolhaus–designed Lehmann Maupin and the just-opened David Zwirner.

“Collectors here take their collecting very seriously,” says Nunnerley. “And the smaller galleries in particular help make Hong Kong a true destination city for sophisticated global collectors while also honoring the city’s cultural roots.” There’s also the boundary-pushing Pearl Lam Galleries, one of the city art scene’s original champions, whose newest Hong Kong location is credited with helping establish the Central neighborhood as one of the city’s most culturally exciting, and the M+ Pavilion, which serves as a temporary site for art, architecture and film exhibits while the highly anticipated Herzog & de Meuron–designed M+ museum is constructed. Eu also recommends visitors in town for Art Basel pay a visit to the satellite Art Central fair, which curates works, most of them contemporary or experimental, from 100 Asian and non-Asian galleries, and offers performances and art talks from local organizations like the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and the Asia Society.

Of course, anyone who’s been to any version of Basel knows that seeing art is only part of the fun; in terms of extracurriculars, Hong Kong certainly makes for a worthy destination. In addition to the fair’s fringe events that include pop-ups, gallery parties and a full slate of performances and installations put on by corporate partners like Christie’s and American Express—which also offers Platinum and Centurion cardholders access to advisory services and VIP events—Hong Kong offers design aficionados plenty to see, from I.M. Pei’s Bank of China to the just-opened Kennedy Town Swimming Pool, a curvilinear complex in the heart of the city designed by starchitect Terry Farrell.

Preparing for opening night at satellite fair Art Central (Photo credit: Jessica Hromas for Art Basel)

While the Mandarin Oriental is the official partner of ABHK, 2018 sees the opening of two hotels worth considering for their design chops: The Rosewood, the brand’s second location in Asia, along the bustling Victoria Harbour waterfront, set to permanently alter the iconic skyline, and The Murray, a reported $435 million Norman Foster redesign of the landmark 1960s-era Murray Building. Other highlights include The Upper House, in Central, designed by Hong Kong’s own Andre Fu to feel more like a friend’s hyper-minimalist, if undeniably fancy, apartment than a hotel. The Peninsula, meanwhile, never disappoints, both in location and luxury, and offers the city’s only rooftop helipad, with tours of the city available to both guests and non, as well as views of Hong Kong island from the Philippe Starck–designed Felix restaurant. Nunnerley also recommends Gaddi’s at the Peninsula, as “by far the most romantic, old-world dining experience in Hong Kong—a throwback to a generation of genteel dining.”

Eu insists that for anyone traveling to Hong Kong for the first time, however, authentic dim sum is a must, gentility optional. “Anywhere is good, but Tim Ho Wan is a safe bet,” she says. “It’s probably the world’s most inexpensive Michelin-starred restaurant.” There’s also yakitori hotspot Yardbird, which boasts one of the city’s most in-demand tables as well as museum-worthy design in the form of skateboard art and custom-designed sake bottles. And yet, for all its undeniable ostentatiousness, Hong Kong delights in the undiscovered, and some of the city’s most exciting spots are also its most discrete, from restaurant speakeasy Mrs. Pound, located in a storefront masquerading as a stamp shop, to Fu Lu Shou, a rooftop bar that requires a trip up a rickety elevator and a passcode to get in. Another unexpected find: amazing tacos at 11 Westside, which opened this year as the city’s first authentic Mexican restaurant, in a Jon Chan–designed space featuring midcentury furnishings and concrete walls.

Most of the city is connected through malls and walkways, and, for shoppers, choosing between them is more about location than preference. Skip the major brands—not so easy to do in a city that’s got eight outposts of Céline alone—and instead head to the iconic Joyce, one of the oldest and most prestigious retailers in a recently redesigned Paola Navone building, now covering 25,000 square feet in the Central district. On that note: Nunnerley recommends capping any visit to Hong Kong with an authentic Hong Kong foot massage (her personal go-to is Foot Reflexology & Acupressure on Queens Road in Central), perhaps followed by afternoon tea at the Peninsula, and maybe a nap. As Eu puts it, “Hong Kong is pretty vibrant. Do it right, and you might find that four days is enough. But also know that you can always come back.”

Main image: Light installations have become a hallmark of Art Basel Hong Kong. Photo credit: Jessica Hromas for Art Basel