Cover In the second instalment of a content series in a collaboration with UBS, Woon Tien Yuan, director of Killiney Kopitiam, shares more about his love for art and his thoughts on collecting artworks

While art works can be viewed as a form of investment, the process of collecting artistic creations that sit well together as a collection is more important, says Woon Tien Yuan, director of Killiney Kopitiam

Ordering drinks at a local coffee joint is an art what with the plethora of choices and options available. And brewing all of them with the correct formulation and concentration—and most importantly, to appeal to local palates—is taking things up a whole new level. Woon Tien Yuan, director of Killiney Kopitiam, openly admits to this writer that despite growing up in a family whose business revolves around the fine art of brewing kopi and teh, he doesn’t know how to make a nice cuppa.  

“My parents didn’t allow me to be near the boiling water when I was young,” says the 34-year-old with a guffaw, when teased on why he did not start from the basics. “All parents are protective that way, aren’t they?” That said, Woon, whose family founded Killiney in 1992, knows the operations of the Hainanese coffee shop business inside out. “While I didn’t learn to brew the drinks, I helped out at the coffee shop during my school holidays and waited on tables, serving kaya toast and eggs to customers,” he says. And that is why it is a logical progression for him to join the family business although it was never etched in his personal plans. 

Instead, it was the world of art that he felt a natural affinity to, having been exposed to it from a young age. “My uncle had a world-class art collection at his home museum then, and I would visit him every weekend with my siblings. Besides being busy with managing Killiney, my father was interested in art too. So at home, I was surrounded by many beautiful artworks and artefacts,” he recalls. In fact, his uncle’s museum, known as Nei Xue Tang, housed interesting and unique Buddhist art and was the first of its kind—approved and operated under a special house museum scheme set up by the local authorities. 

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It was during his early 20s when Woon embarked on his own art collecting journey, experimenting with different genres as he felt his way around. “I used to follow trends but over time, with experience and knowledge, I only acquire artworks that I personally like,” he says, adding that he has learnt the true definition of the word “collection”. 

“Each artwork we consider acquiring has to relate—in one way or another—to existing artworks in a collection.”

Although he is now in his mid-30s, he still gets puzzling looks from people when he divulges the nature of his passion. 

“When I mention that I collect art, most would look at me with strange eyes,” he says. “They probably wonder, ‘How did this young person get interested in art?’”

At Present

Following in the artistic “footsteps” of his family, Woon is very much focused on amassing devotional and religious art.

“To me, religious art represents humans’ depiction of God and as such, they tend to be made with love, devotion and finesse. Hence, the appeal because of this added touch of emotion.”

While he has amassed a sizeable collection of religious artefacts which he exhibits at his own art space, Ajaya Gallery, at Boat Quay, he is venturing into other forms of devotional art. 

“Recently, I have also begun to explore acquiring contemporary artworks with a religious touch as well as pieces that blend elements of different religions and cultures,” he explains, pointing to edgier pieces such as The Virgin Barney painting by Dutch artist Iskander Walen. 

Being involved in the family business, Woon knows the importance of the return on investment and understands how trendy it is today for artworks to be viewed as alternative investment. But being the art enthusiast that he is, he stresses that “good financial returns should only be a bonus after the effort spent on amassing a formidable collection”.

“The real joy should come from forming a physical collection that can be touched, felt, displayed and even passed down to the next generation,” he notes. “The even more joyous part lies in the intangible—as a family of collectors, we interact and discuss art on a daily basis and the inter-generation conversations that revolve around our collection is priceless.”

Besides art being the familial coagulant and kinship lubricant in his family, art collecting, to him, has also taught him important life lessons. With the process of collecting being time-consuming and research-heavy, it strengthens one’s resilience and determination. 

“Art collecting has taught me to appreciate the key to having a long-term vision and also the importance of commitment. Forming a collection is after all an endeavour,” he says. 

And these traits will come in handy in the long run with managing Killiney Kopitiam as the challenges of running a food and beverage business evolve with digitalisation and innovation. 

“The beauty of such lessons is that they can be applied to all businesses—to constantly remind myself to stay grounded, patient and committed for the long-term good of our family business.”

UBS and Art

The UBS Collectors Circle was established specifically to cater to increasing interest and passion displayed by collectors and cultural philanthropists in passing on their knowledge, discussing best practices and sharing their passion with peers and next-generation enthusiasts, as well as learning from professional subject matter experts across collecting categories.

Jan Boes, Head Client Strategy, Global Family Office APAC, UBS Wealth Management says: “The UBS Collectors Circle facilitates dialogues on cultural philanthropy and patronage by connecting passionate individuals of the art world. Whether their goals are of personal interest or global impact, we are there to make it happen as their partners. As we share the same passion towards art as our clients, we feel that the best collection is driven by a curiosity towards discovery of new ideas and the desire to pass it on to the next generation. It is the pursuit of passion which pays off emotional dividends, enriching our lives.”

As the ever-evolving global art sector continues to bring collectors new encounters, opportunities and challenges, the UBS Collectors Circle is committed to navigating these complexities on a continual journey of inspiration, discovery and enrichment.

This is the second instalment of a content series in collaboration with UBS