Before the July 1997 handover, pundits predicted the end of Hong Kong’s freedoms. But today, the free press rages unabated, dissidents organise, and the common law judiciary asserts its independence amidst a stock market crash and record unemployment. While the economy struggles, the Special Administrative Region (SAR) enjoys more autonomy, however fragile, under Chinese sovereignty than it ever did under the British.
This roller-coaster ride has, of course, affected the art world. There were pre-handover hitters that the new authorities might change Hong Kong’ liberal export laws to conform with China’s restrictive ones, which bar the exit of any item older than the Qianlong reign (1736-96). “I closed my gallery four years ago in case they changed the laws”, says Susan Chen, who now works as a private dealer. “Chinese officials tried to reassure us, but they wouldn’t put anything in the Joint Declaration [the Sino-British treaty governing the handover]. Almost all the big collectors sent their things out.”
Many insiders, however, say that fears of a crackdown were exaggerated and often deliberate disinformation intended to stoke the market—it is worth remembering the record-breaking auctions held just before the change of sovereignty. As this climate of easy money peaked, greed spun out of control. During the handover, people were making so much money speculating in shares of property that they stopped paying attention to their business”, says Ms Chen.
Hong Kong was always a strange kind of art centre. Rather than a place of creation or of demand, it plays the same entrepot role as it does in the broader economy, in this case between an impoverished, corrupt China and an insatiable demand for its antiquities on the part of Westerners and overseas Chinese. Most trade happens on Hollywood Road, a charmingly meandering street halfway up Hong Kong Island’s mountain whose name is synonymous with “antiques”.
“When I opened up here in 1972”, says Lucille Vessa of Honeychurch Antiques, “there was nothing but some Indians and a car going by every fifteen minutes.” Hong Kong has always had an active antiques market—it originated with sailors selling things picked up during their travels—but the current China trade did not exist at that time. “Back then, only Chinese people could get in to China”, says Ms Vessa, “and even then you could only go to government buying shops.”
Then came the opening up of China in the 1980s. The border with Hong Kong opened as billions of dollars of investment flowed into the neighbouring Guangdong province. The resulting boom and the distance from Beijing—“the mountains are high; the emperor is far away’, the Cantonese like to say—created some spectacular corruption, as the South China coast, through topography and local triad power, became a smuggler’s paradise. So if it was impossible in 1989, despite a nationwide manhunt, to prevent Tianamen leaders from slipping over the border, who was going to stop some old pottery?
“China was always hypocritical about the antiquities trade”, says Susan Chen. “Before they opened up, their buying shops would pay farmers a few cents for digging up something.” No longer. In the new, quasi-capitalist China, looting of graves is a sizeable rural industry, with the goods routed to corrupt officials or private syndicates in Guangdong, who then smuggle them into Hong Kong. Since the import of unregistered relics is illegal in Hong Kong, and its officials clean and efficient, sensitive items go through the more corruptible Portuguese territory of Macau, whose Hong Kong-bound shipments attract less attention than those from the Mainland. Even so, with Hong Kong’s Mainland border reputedly the world’s busiest, it is impossible for Customs to check everything thoroughly. Buddhist sculptures have gone to Hong Kong by post, declared as “building stone.”
This gravy train continued for a long time. While some items such as neolithic pottery and Shang bronzes are genuinely rare, the Han and Tang dynasty pottery figurines spotlit like treasure in Western collections were mass-produced at the time and even today are relatively common.
According to one dealer, such a trade exists partially because it is accorded low priority by Beijing: “What you might think is important and what Chinese people think are two different things. Most of these things have been buried with rotting flesh and maggots for 2,000 years. Chinese people won’t go near the stuff. They’re more interested in important historical inscriptions or items with a dynastic connection.” Grave goods do go through Hong Kong, however, and even the Shanghai Museum, China’s most prestigious, is an active buyer on Hollywood Road.
While the much hyped blow from Beijing never arrived, other factors decimated Hong Kong’s art trade. The most unexpected was the shrinking supply. After two decades of unrestrained looting, smugglers have finally exhausted the number of graves which can be unobtrusively excavated. This has led to more forgeries, and a reduction in market confidence which was already dented by unethical business practices. “Many Hong Kong and Taiwanese dealers dumped rubbish on the Japanese, which scared collectors”, says Susan Chen. “Also, the sheer amount of material depressed prices.”
The collapse of the Japanese economy has hit the Greater China art market more than many realise. The Japanese made up as much of 50% of Hong Kong’s market, with another 10% or so going to Taiwan, mostly for resale to Japan. With the small local market moribund, Hollywood Road has to subsist on the 30% or so of its previous customers who live in Europe and North America. According to Ms Chen, “Even the European market for grave goods seems close to saturated.”
While most dealers agree that supply has slackened, it is unclear whether the situation will last. “You never know if people are hoarding things”, says a major dealer. “There are collectors in China, too.” Many very recent immigrants have opened slick new shops on the farther end of Hollywood Road. “These are the heads of smuggling rings”, says one dealer. “As soon as they can, they migrate to Hong Kong where they are much safer. Even though China is corrupt, if you are actually caught smuggling it is a death sentence.
Periodic crackdowns in China on the trade are followed by eruptions of corruption. Dealers say that Premier Zhu Rongji’s current crackdown on smuggling (The Art Newspaper, No.87, December 1998, p.21) has left them unaffected, none the least because Zhu is balling with smuggling into China. The navy’s coastal patrols are so corrupt (linked to piracy on the high seas, among other things) that Guangdong TV recently warned fishermen to avoid them. Hong Kong’s own marine border is patrolled by its Marine Police, whose units are very disciplined. Many worry about theft from poorly guarded museums, which occurs from time to time, but is not endemic.
Hollywood Road is poorly positioned to reinvent itself, as its business is so narrowly based. Its dealers have neither the habit nor the resources of thinking globally, leaving that to New York or London, where cosmopolitan locals such as Ming furniture dealer, Grace Wu Bruce, have relocated. Despite Hong Kong’s unique position as an enclave of political freedom, there is only one serious gallery for Chinese contemporary art, Hanart TZ (see p.51). Dealers in furniture and curios have best weathered the storm, some almost unscathed. Honeychurch, in particular, retains many expats as clients, even since they have returned home.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Hard times on Hollywood Road'