Fairs News Market China

The expat effect: many early adopters of the Hong Kong fair were born elsewhere

Dubai’s art fair also harnesses the interest of the city’s cosmopolitan inhabitants

Expats are often among the most culturally curious in Hong Kong as in Dubai. Photo: Xaume Olleros; © Art Basel, 2014

Expat communities—whose members are generally higher-earning and have more disposable income than cities’ longer-term residents—have proved instrumental in helping cultural initiatives to get off the ground in Hong Kong and other cities around the world. “Expats were very important to the early days of ArtHK [now Art Basel in Hong Kong],” says its co-founder Tim Etchells, who is also the co-founder of the new satellite contemporary art fair Art Central (14-16 March).

This is despite the fact that only around 7% of Hong Kong’s population is recorded as “born elsewhere” (outside Hong Kong or mainland China), according to the most recent census. This percentage is growing, however, and expats seem more dominant among the culturally curious, not least because they tend to stick together socially. HSBC’s Expat Explorer Report 2014 found that 65% of surveyed expats in Hong Kong go out with each other more often than with local friends, compared with a global average of 44%. Etchells says that his team “littered” Hong Kong’s expat haunts with tickets to the launch of ArtHK in 2008, contributing to the 9,000 people who turned up to its vernissage. “They would go to the opening of an envelope,” he says, only half joking.

TyHoa Kobler is a financier who has lived in Hong Kong for ten years, as well as in New York and London, and describes herself as a “collector rather than a Collector”. She has followed the scene closely and says: “With the arrival of outposts of the major London- and New York-based galleries in recent years, and a number of expat curators, including Lars Nittve [the Swedish-born director of Hong Kong’s M+ museum], there is a strong international flavour to the art market.” However, “although Hong Kong has a vibrant expat community, it is a very Chinese city, so expat collectors based here are also a small minority”, she says.

Staying on

The question for cities with such an international vibe is: when does an “expat” term end and “non-national residency” begin? The in-and-out mentality of Hong Kong is less pronounced now that its relative financial prosperity seems not only to attract those from overseas, but to keep them in the city. “Visitors” can quickly get hooked on higher salaries, better job prospects and an improved standard of living, often with homes, childcare and schooling paid for—plus there is less tax to pay. “The quality of life is very good,” says the French art dealer Edouard Malingue (3C10), who moved to Hong Kong in 2010. He is now learning Cantonese and, at the time of this interview, was looking forward to the birth of his first child. “My long-term plan is to stay,” he says.

Such growing integration compares with other expat hangouts, such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There, more than 80% of the population is expats or non-national residents. Antonia Carver, the director of Art Dubai (18-21 March), says that it is not about where people are from, but “who has a commitment in terms of setting up their business and building their homes and relationships in the UAE”.

Of Dubai, Carver says: “It’s a city that is secure [politically], when all around is generally not experiencing the same environment, so it can attract important collectors from the Middle East and South Asia who really live here.” She cites Mohammed Afkhami and Ramin Salsali (both originally from Iran and on her fair’s board of patrons; Salsali founded a private museum in Dubai in 2011).

A more recent phenomenon, Carver says, is for artists from less stable countries—including Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon and Syria—to make the UAE their home, contributing to the development of “a more mature cultural environment”.

Who needs a home?

Increasingly, it is not just people who are making their homes in new countries who affect the cultural scene. Malingue says: “You don’t have to live somewhere 24/7 to be part of the community.” His biggest buyers are “[Chinese] mainlanders who have either an offshore account or part of their business in Hong Kong. They get on planes as often as we go on the subway and contribute significantly to Hong Kong’s economic and cultural life.”

Carver sees the same effect, albeit from more quarters, in Dubai. “Throughout the year, so many people now come through and stop for a day or two,” she says. This means that this year’s new timing for Art Basel in Hong Kong, which ends as her fair begins, is a “no-brainer” for many Western visitors, happy to stop off in Dubai on their way home.

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