Hong Kong developer senses 'art mall' future for China

April 14 - Shoppers in China are getting more sophisticated, says Adrian Cheng. They're yearning for something more than just another day of retail therapy. Could art be what they're looking for?


K11 Shopping Centre (photo by "Baycrest - Wikipedia user", under the "CC-BY-SA-2.5" license)

It could well be, says the youthful scion of a Hong Kong real estate dynasty who is planning to turn his vision of "art malls" into reality in Beijing, Shanghai and other big Chinese cities.

Cheng, 31, already has so-called K11 malls up and running in Hong Kong and the central Chinese city of Wuhan, showcasing local artists -- and, in the case of Wuhan, urban farming -- as consumers reach out for something different.

"We did extensive research in China," the effervescent Cheng, 32, told AFP during a recent visit to Paris to promote the K11 concept and introduce a selection of young Chinese artists and fashion designers.

"We realised that customers feel very bored by the existing malls in China, because it's a box and there are lot of brands -- that's it. You go there and buy and nothing else," he said.

"People want something more, but they don't know what... and because our art theme is so strong, we can attract a new customer base," he said, "a diverse new customer base that is not normally seen at shopping malls."

The grandson of Cheng Yu-tung, octogenarian founder of New World Development and one of Hong Kong's richest tycoons, Cheng joined the family business after studying humanities -- rather than business -- at Harvard University.

He oversees a lucrative cornerstone of the Cheng empire, jewellers Chow Tai Fook, but with K11 his grandfather and father, New World managing director Henry Cheng, are giving him a free rein to fuse art and real estate.

"I try to inject an art gallery, an art museum kind of experience into the whole retail experience," said Cheng, an amateur painter who favours D&G and Yves Saint Laurent over grey flannel suits.

In Hong Kong, K11 is anchored to a bigger New World venture, the 64-storey Masterpiece luxury hotel and apartment tower in the Tsim Sha Shui district where a one-bedroom flat once sold for $3.16 million (2.21 million euros).

Breaking from the city's architectural preference for function over form, it pulls in passers-by -- many of them tourists from mainland China -- with curving structural lines into a bright open piazza.

Its six floors are lit more like an art gallery, and between the trendy shops are large showcases for rotating exhibitions. On a lower floor, a towering tree-like sculpture takes pride of place.

Dominating one entrance is "the world's largest toast mosaic", a recreation of the Mona Lisa in slices of toasted sandwich bread, by New Zealand grocer turned artist Maurice Bennett.

But promoting local artists is central to the concept, said Cheng.

This year, for instance, K11 -- "there's no specific meaning," he says of the name -- has been championing the work of Florian Ma, a Hong Kong artist exploring the apparently conflicting notions of Genesis and evolution.

"If I build a K11 mall in Beijing, it would showcase only Beijing artists... It's very local taste, local connections."

Besides Beijing and Shanghai, Cheng envisions K11 malls in Guangzhou, Tianjin, Shenyang and Hainan Island, plus an expansion of the Wuhan location -- where the ability to rent gardening boxes to grow vegetables lends the development an eco-friendly touch.

"If the concept takes root in China, it has to be in Beijing and Shanghai, with the urban elite" in those two fast-changing cities, said David Ji, head of Greater China research at global real estate consultancy DTZ.

Upmarket shopping in China still revolves around big malls, Ji told AFP, but the K11 concept stands to benefit from a relative shortage of retail venues for rent -- and the ensuing higher rents that landlords can command.

"Five years should be a good measure for any new ideas to become popular," added Ji, a timeframe that dovetails with Cheng's own thinking.

"In the next five years, Chinese customers will still be very curious," said Cheng, yet more demanding in terms of design and quality "because they've seen more" and travelled more widely.

by Robert MacPherson

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