Cover Ysabelle Cheung and Willem Molesworth at PHD. By Kwannam Chu

Wife and husband duo Ysabelle Cheung and Willem Molesworth are shaking things up in the art world following their daring decision to open a gallery during the pandemic

The area around the Canal Road Flyover is known for its proximity to wet markets, bus interchanges, Happy Valley’s cemeteries for different faiths, and elderly women practising the art of da siu yan, or “villain-hitting”, aka Hong Kong’s version of voodoo. It’s not where you would expect to find a cutting-edge contemporary art gallery.

Ysabelle Cheung and Willem Molesworth found success in the city’s art scene as a well-respected writer and critic, and the director of de Sarthe Gallery respectively. Last summer, Molesworth quit his job to set up Property Holdings Development (PHD) with Cheung in a vast 3,000 sq ft top-floor space in a commercial building in Wan Chai. Once a private clubhouse, the space will now play host to artworks created by a roster of critically acclaimed emerging artists.

 

PHD is a tongue-in-cheek combination of the words most frequently used in the names of property development companies, a gentle ribbing of the city’s commercially obsessed real estate market, which extends to the art scene. “It’s challenging,” says Molesworth of the name. “It’s uncomfortable for a lot of people. But it’s memorable. It’s coming from a place that reflects Hong Kong being a city with a culture that is humorous, and critical with dark humour.”  

Ironically, Cheung’s grandfather, the late David Lau, was a property developer. He built the building which houses the gallery in the 1970s with two friends; they set up a private clubhouse on the top level where they could host friends for large dinners, karaoke and lavish parties, many of which expanded out onto the captivating wraparound balcony. 

As time passed, the space was used less frequently, and by the early 2000s it was mainly a storage facility, falling into disrepair. To restore the space, Cheung and Molesworth enlisted Beau Architects, who have updated and adapted it, rather than gutting it completely. Immediately striking are the concrete walls, stripped back to their core, yielding a raw yet refined aesthetic. 

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Retaining the character of the space, and Cheung’s grandfather’s spirit, was very important, and has seemingly been successful. “A friend came away with the [impression] that my grandfather was a man of many pleasures,” says Cheung. “He lived every day like it was his last. He was a chain-smoker, he ate all the bad foods, and he would collect and hoard. His personality is still in the space in many ways. Because he was a collector, he would have liked to see it become a gallery.”       

And what an eclectic collection he had, some of which is showcased in the gallery’s study. Ranging from paintings by renowned Chinese painters such as Zhang Daqian, Wu Guanzhong and Qi Baishi (which would later all prove to be counterfeit) and quirky animal sculptures to an extremely rare antique set of small erotica enamels on wooden plaques, his collection was vast. Perhaps most impressive was his enviable coin collection, consisting of pieces ranging from the Shang dynasty (1600-1040 BC) to a special 1997 handover selection. 

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“The study is really where we’re going with this idea of community engagement,” says Cheung. “We want people to come in and read or research.” Functioning as a lounge, the study will feature books recommended by the artists, and eventually be a space for hosting salon-like discussions. “We really want to be fostering this sense of community and collective,” says Cheung. “We’re looking at how to bridge different communities together.” 

It was this sentiment that motivated the couple to open a gallery, in an effort to address the gaps they saw in Hong Kong’s art scene. “We didn’t want to open a commercial gallery that has little to no impact on the local art scene here,” says Cheung. “There is definitely some division and separation between the different layers of the [art] ecosystem; somehow it’s not always connected.” 

 

The city is dominated by auction houses and big international galleries which have minimal engagement with Hong Kong artists and cultural practitioners, so the local art scene is often overlooked. To some extent, this has changed during the pandemic, as both galleries and collectors have been forced to stay in the city and find talent here, but as Molesworth notes, there is a long way to go. 

“The local galleries here are not contextualised in the same way that bigger international galleries are. I think we can change that. We can do that by creating a programme in a space like ours, which is incredibly grounded in what Hong Kong is.”

Rather than start a non-profit initiative or institution, both of which Hong Kong lacks, the couple decided to open a commercial gallery to retain some form of control. “The best way to contribute meaningfully while maintaining a degree of agency was to open a commercial gallery,” says Molesworth. “The most meaningful thing we can do now is contribute to the livelihood and support of artists who are creating artwork that’s speaking to our times.” 

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Another key theme is sustainability, both in a practical sense—much of the furniture and several pieces from the gallery’s clubhouse days remain, including a stunning crystal chandelier which used to hang over the former dining room—and in terms of their conceptual approach. “It’s about having a good impact,” says Cheung on considering what it means to be sustainable. “Plastic lasts a long time but it’s not good for the environment; on the other hand eco-friendly [material] disintegrates quickly, but it has a good carbon footprint.”  

“Understanding the impermanence of things is core to the idea of sustainability,” says Molesworth, separating it from longevity. “It’s not about creating a legacy; that’s why our names aren’t on the gallery.”

Their priority is to develop and sustain their artists’ careers, and they will evolve and adapt in doing so. “For us, it’s about being sustainable in the context that we are in right now,” says Cheung. “We’re open to working with galleries around the world if it helps our artists build their career and network; we want to support them for as long as we can. In the future, it might not make sense for the gallery to exist in the form it’s in.” 

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Cheung and Molesworth also hope to change established attitudes towards collecting. “We want to challenge collectors and the market [and show] that buying art isn’t always exclusively tailored towards generating profit through the larger art market,” Molesworth says. “There is something within the act of buying art that is deeply meaningful and altruistic.”

Their refreshing approach is luring artists to them. PHD’s Spring show will feature a solo exhibition by Virtue Village, a local artist collective consisting of Joseph Chen and Cas Wong; the name is a translation of the name of Chen’s grandmother’s housing estate which he used to visit frequently as a child and now lives in with Wong. “Willem and Ysabelle have proved to us their ambitions in shaping a sustainable and regenerative ecosystem for artists,” Chen and Wong tell Tatler by email. “From what we see, PHD Group is a place that can amplify our art and allow people to engage with our work conceptually.” 

 

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Virtue Village’s conceptually driven practice explores religion, spirituality and queer identity using popular subcultural imagery, particularly that which is common in Hong Kong. For PHD’s inaugural show, Rendering, the duo made an enormous, chrome, heart-shaped locket, Talismen for Radical Monogamy™️ (2022), which hangs on the gallery wall. Inside the locket is what they describe as a “Chinese anime” painting depicting both the artists, a style frequently seen in online games that are constantly advertised on the MTR. Reference is made to queer culture and BDSM,  as the artists are both wearing horse bits around their mouths, and also to their own romantic relationship, as one stabs the other in the chest. Their upcoming show builds on these themes and imagery.

Rendering also includes works by notable Hong Kong artists Wong Kit Yi, Zheng Mahler, Michele Chu, and Christopher K Ho—the director of Asia Art Archive and a Tatler’s Asia’s Most Influential honouree—as well as artists from elsewhere in Asia and around the world: Lee Eunsae, Yuko Mohri, Luo Jr-Shin, Xin Liu, Dylan DeRose and Sasaoaka Yuriko. “We’re trying to position the programme in the larger Asian context,” says Molesworth. “It’s very much representative of a certain region, of which Hong Kong is the centre, and we hope the gallery can reflect that.”    

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