Influential restauranteur and collector Alan Lo has brought great food – and great art – to his home city of Hong Kong.
When Alan Lo laughs, it is a delightful thing. Sometimes he laughs in response to something someone has just said; often, it punctuates his own words. His laugh is his unapologetically celebratory, infectious signature, widely recognisable and known to reverberate throughout many Hong Kong social gatherings.
Since co-founding his first restaurant in Hong Kong just over a decade ago, Lo has become one of the territory’s most sought-after dinner guests. His flagship Classified Group was recently listed on the Hong Kong stock market. The businessman, who has worked hard to help redefine the city’s contemporary culinary scene, also serves on several non-profit boards and is known for his personal support of artists and arts organisations.
ALAN LO, WITH ANIWAR MAMAT’S GREEN, 2015. PHOTOGRAPH © BERTON CHANG.
“The cultural landscape has changed a lot in the region,” Lo says, reflecting on the past few years. He notes the rise of art fairs and auctions, which have established Hong Kong as a major centre of the global art market. He also points to the growing number of private museums and collector-driven initiatives, and to the public’s increasing interest in contemporary art, demonstrated by the queues to buy tickets at Art Basel Hong Kong and the throngs who descend on weekend auction previews. Lo, who is in his 30s, spent his childhood in Hong Kong before attending boarding school in the US and earning an architecture degree from Princeton University. Of his unusual career trajectory he says, with his trademark laugh, that although he still loves design, he thought he “would never be a great architect” and decided to try something else that he enjoyed. “I like eating, so I thought maybe I should be in hospitality.”
After graduating from Princeton, Lo returned to Hong Kong and spent a few years working for hotels in roles that exposed him to everything from waiting tables to project management. In 2006, he and his friends Paulo Pong and Arnold Wong launched their first restaurant, Classified. From that grew the Classified franchise and other ventures. Aside from their high-quality food, the establishments have become known for their inventive displays of art and design.
IN LO’S COLLECTION: PAUL CHAN’S CHRISTIANITY THE FIRST THREE THOUSAND YEARS BY DIARMAID MACCULLOCH, 2012–13. COURTESY PAUL CHAN AND GREENE NAFTALI, NEW YORK. PHOTOGRAPH BY JASON MANDELLA.
At The Pawn, set inside a former pawn shop, a menu created by British star chef Tom Aikens is served against a backdrop of contemporary paintings, installations and videos curated with the help of Stanley Wong, the artist known as anothermountainman who represented Hong Kong in the 2015 Venice Biennale. At Duddell’s in Hong Kong, which has a Michelin star for its Chinese cuisine, the art programme has been a key part of the restaurant’s identity since it opened in 2013. In the main hall, designed by Ilse Crawford, hang museum-quality works from the Lo family’s M K Lau Collection of 20th-century Chinese ink paintings. The upstairs bar area features displays of contemporary art organised in collaboration with independent curators and established institutions such as the Biennale of Sydney.
"No one here had done anything like this before, and we didn’t just want pretty things on the wall – we wanted something worthy of discussion"
“We wanted to respond to the growing art scene in the region,” says Lo of these initiatives. “We wanted to create a platform where people can eat, drink and socialise, with an interesting, serious and professionally managed arts programme of exhibitions, film screenings and conversations. No one here had done anything like this before, and we didn’t just want pretty things on the wall – we wanted something worthy of discussion. We felt that Hong Kong was ready for it. It’s been an interesting and rewarding journey.”
Duddell’s has since done a pop-up at the 2015 Venice Biennale and recently opened its first branch in London. To help launch that location, even before it began operating as a restaurant, Lo and his team presented an installation by Hong Kong artist Nadim Abbas. Eventually, Duddell’s London will have its own art programme. “We want to connect to the London art community and do something relevant to the city,” Lo says.
COLLECTOR ALAN LO, WITH ANIWAR MAMAT’S TRACES OF BREATH FROM ROME (1), 2015, INSIDE DUDDELL’S IN HONG KONG. PHOTOGRAPH © BERTON CHANG.
He fondly remembers attending exhibitions and auctions as a boy with his father, Victor Lo, a Hong Kong industrialist and himself a major art patron who established the M K Lau Collection. The younger Lo now serves on the board of the collection, named after his late mother, but says: “Credit for building it all goes to my father who, with a lot of discipline and vision, put together this collection.”
Lo says that when he returned to Hong Kong from the US, he resisted contemporary art trends, having been steeped in the modern Chinese ink painting his father preferred. “It took a while to understand, but I wanted to challenge myself and go deeper,” he explains. Lo then embarked on his own collecting journey, which he describes as “very fluid, the opposite of the M K Lau Collection.” He started buying contemporary Chinese works and in 2011 took the plunge with international art, acquiring a mixed-media piece by the Hong Kong-born, New York-based artist Paul Chan. Today he owns work by Aniwar Mamat, Sterling Ruby, Liu Wei, Danh Vo, Alex Prager and many others. “I’m still at a relatively early stage of collecting,” he says of his holdings.
SUN XUN’S THE TIME VIVARIUM - 108, 2015. © SUN XUN. COURTESY SEAN KELLY, NEW YORK.
Alongside his art-infused enterprises and his personal collecting, Lo, who is married to restaurant and hospitality entrepreneur Yenn Wong, also devotes time to non-profit organisations. Lo co-founded Design Trust, which funds projects in the Pearl River Delta, an area that includes Hong Kong and neighbouring Macau and Guangdong Province, with a combined population of more than 120 million. He is also an active board member at Para Site, one of Hong Kong’s oldest independent arts organisations with publishing and exhibition programmes.
“For the landscape, it’s important to have non-profits,” Lo says. “At Design Trust, for instance, we look at how Hong Kong can play an important role in the creative community of the Pearl River Delta, so we can think of not just the seven million in our city, but the larger area. There is so much going on, and it’s exciting.”
Alexandra Seno is based in Hong Kong and writes about art, architecture, design and film.