Pawn Baron

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Describing Alan Lo as one of Hong Kong’s few Renaissance men does not quite do him justice. Perhaps best known as co-founder of the Press Room Group, the company behind a number of the city’s favourite eateries – Classified, The Principal and The Pawn – he is also the driving force behind Duddell’s, the Central-based Cantonese restaurant-cum-art gallery he co-founded with his wife, Yenn Wong. Arguably one of Hong Kong’s preeminent restaurateurs, he has a Midas-like reputation for delivering gastronomic gold at all of his outlets.

Click here to see Alan Lo on video

Where most men would have enough on their hands simply overseeing many of the city’s most popular restaurants, Lo is also the co-founder of Blake’s, a Hong Kong based development and investment business specialising in boutique residential and retail spaces. On top of this, he is the chairman of the Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design, as well as an active member on the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.

“Growing up in the 80s and 90s was a very interesting time. I was born some 17 years before the handover, growing up in colonial HK and then experiencing the transition to the Chinese regime. It was absolutely fascinating. My generation lived through historic times. We saw the city change a lot, becoming the far more developed place it is today.

“I grew up in a family of four – mum, dad and a sister who was eight years older than me, a typical Hong Kong family I guess. My dad works in the world of manufacturing. He’s an industrial designer by training, while collecting a little bit of art on the side. I guess, in a way, I sort of grew up in an environment where I was around a lot of things culture and art related. My parents travelled extensively, so I would get to go to a lot of different cities. I was exposed to a lot of different influences at a very young age.

“Nowadays, Hong Kong is becoming ever more international. It is becoming less British, but it is becoming more globally diverse. Over the last few decades, expats in Hong Kong have mainly tended to be bankers, lawyers and other kinds of professionals. Now, though, we are starting to see increasing numbers of museum curators, fashion stylists, bloggers and photographers. The range of people coming to Hong Kong looking for opportunities and wanting to interact with local people is a lot more varied than before.


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“Today, there is no consideration as to how Hong Kong can establish a dialogue with the wider world”

“As part of that we have lost our Britishness, which is only natural. This is a different era with a new generation to the fore. Are we, though, also becoming less international? In terms of the way the government runs the city, maybe yes. Organically, though, things are happening. Certain events are attracting international attention. Hong Kong is still a very exciting place, especially in the terms of its art and culture.

“The current administration, though, chooses to focus a lot more on being part of China, as opposed to seeing Hong Kong as a truly international city. There is no consideration as to how Hong Kong can establish a dialogue with the rest of the world.

“I hope that the government has a vision that could take us to the next level and that it has a long-term view of the city’s development over the next 20 or 30 years. It seems, though, the current political landscape only permits a view on short-term objectives.

“At the same time, though, there is also a feeling that the government should actually do less. HK has always been known for its laissez-faire regime and as a place where things just happen. As a platform, it’s naturally attractive and people inevitably gravitate towards it.

“In light of increased competition from Shanghai and Singapore, though, I think it now needs a greater push to ensure things happen. For me, the last 10 to 15 years have been a bit discouraging in that regard. Many of us, though, are doing what we can at the individual level. Things can be accomplished at this smaller level and much has been achieved. Ultimately, quality is a lot more important than quantity in this particular area.

“In terms of gastronomy, I first discovered my love for it when I lived on the East Coast during my university days. At the time, I was based in Princeton, New Jersey, just an hour and a half away from New
York by train. I used to go there every other weekend just to visit friends.

“That was my real introduction to gastronomy and it turned out to be a real eye opener. Today, New York is still regarded as one of the finest cities in the world when it comes to high quality food and showcasing all the latest food trends. It has always been five years ahead of everywhere else, so it was hugely interesting for me.

“I got to know a number of other people who were also really into food and we would go to different restaurants every weekend. When I returned to Hong Kong in 2005, while I was still employed by another company, I had already begun to talk to people about what would be an interesting project to introduce to the city.

“The restaurant scene in Hong Kong has come a long way since then. Back then, you still had hotel restaurants and places in Soho – little hole-in-the-wall places – that had little idea when it came to quality or consistency. That was 10 or more years ago now though.

“Today, it is a completely different scene and a lot of international concepts have come to town. Many celebrity chefs have outlets here, while a lot of young chefs from all over the world are involved in opening new projects. It is a very different scene, with a lot more competition.

“To me, that has made everything a lot more interesting. The community is growing and the dialogue between us and our peers has been taken to a whole new level by the arrival of the Michelin Guide and the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants initiative. This has certainly drawn attention to the city, as well as to other cities in Asia. Now we are not just out on our own. We are part of a regional and global system, with access to chefs and restaurants from all over the world. It is very exciting.

“Of course, the world of food and beverages is still very cutthroat. I cannot begin to explain how tough this sector is. Becoming part of it seems like both the best and the worst decision I have ever made. It is, however, something I genuinely enjoy and it doesn’t really feel like a job.

“Obviously there are tough moments and challenging times, but overall it has been an amazing experience. I have been doing this for 10 years now and I still feel as though I learn something every day. The whole scene is evolving. It is changing so rapidly that you are forced to run to catch up. It isn’t something where you just shut your doors and carry on on your own. You have to have a dialogue with your peers, both in Hong Kong and across the world.

“In a way, though, we are a bit anti-trend. Our point of differentiation with other players in the market is that we have a genuine interest in creating something truly timeless. For us, it’s not about being part of something that is fashionable for six months or a year. We want to create something that is great the first time you encounter it. At the same time, though, we want it to grow on you, becoming even better over time.

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“Cities where art is important have a completely different aura to places where it is seen as less significant”

“After we started to expand, it became apparent that we were pioneers in certain neighbourhoods, although that had never been our intention. At the time, we were looking at peripheral areas of busy districts simply because the rents were cheaper and there was a more relaxed ambience, together with a greater sense of a community.

“Often we opted for places where it wasn’t super busy, places where you could enjoy walking around. We felt that that was what a city should be all about – picking up a loaf of bread, browsing a local bookstore and saying ‘hi’ to a neighbour. As with many cities that have evolved incredibly rapidly, we have lost some of that human touch. When we look at expanding, that’s always a concern at the back of our minds.

“When it came to fusing art and gastronomy, I felt – at the time – that there was a lack of appropriate platforms for local artists. This was despite the fact that the city had developed considerably in terms of its number of international galleries and the arrival of several of the major art fairs.

“In the case of The Pawn, back in 2014, we closed for a complete makeover as we had decided to create a new platform solely for native Hong Kong artists. We brought in a local artist, the man who had designed its original look back in 2008, and he helped us curate the space.

“We then loaned from the artist and from a Opposite number of private collections around Hong Kong to create a semi-permanent display. Here you can now view works from some of the most well-known artists on the Hong Kong scene, as well as some big name creative talents from across the world.

“In a way, it is all in line with my personal interests, but we also felt that – as restaurants generally have a lot of people passing through their doors – with the right curatorship we could make use of the space to give back to the art community, if only in a relatively modest fashion.

“Art is increasingly important for a city as it becomes ever more financially prosperous and everyone starts to live a reasonably comfortable life. There is some aspect of every city that differentiates it from every other city, whether that be through culture, art or music. It’s what gives its real identity and it’s an expression of the inner dialogue of its residents.

“The cities where art is important have a completely different aura to those places where it is viewed as less significant. I know this may sound like a rather abstract concept, but I hope that – over time – people will come to have a greater understanding of just why this is important. Only when they appreciate this will they gain a real insight as to why such initiatives as the West Kowloon Cultural District are so important for the wellbeing of any city.

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